Fan Shen’s article ”Shakespeare in China: The Merchant of Venice” examines Chinese social and political climate through an interesting lens: the performances and criticisms of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in China. Shen chooses this play because of its immense popularity in China, as well as the interesting way in which Chinese Marxism has influenced criticisms of the work.
Shen begins by examining the three major phases Shakespeare’s works have gone through in China. The first one lasted from 1903 to 1918. Shakespeare had just been introduced in China at this time, and his plays were adapted to Chinese theatrical convention almost beyond recognition. Costumes, names, and even the plays titles were all changed, and it was only the basic stories being performed, not verbatim translations. This phase did not offer much in the form of criticism, especially not any that would be telling of the social and political climate. In the next period, from 1918 to 1949, we finally find serious, direct translations of Shakespeare being performed in China. This phase was plagued by awkward translations and still used many Chinese theater conventions. Fan Shen found that there was still not much worthwhile criticism in this period.
Finally in the last period, from 1949 to the present, there is a large amount of criticism with valuable insight into Chinese social and political life. Shen even feels that these criticisms should be broken down into three more temporal phases. The first of these lasted from 1949 until the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. During this period, the most important theme of scholarly criticism in China emerges: Marxism. Virtually every criticism of The Merchant of Venice during this period revolves around dissecting the play and analyzing it with Marxist ideology. The struggle between Antonio and Shylock is seen as purely commercial rivalry instead of a multifaceted conflict heavily influenced by bigotry. It was seen merely as a struggle between feudalism and capitalism. The influence of Marxism in this society should be very clear by now, and with it comes the downplaying of other aspects considered to be Western minutiae such as the societal position of Jewish moneylenders. In fact, Shen states that many instances of the word “Jew” were simply replaced with “moneylender”, sometimes phasing out Shylock’s religion altogether.
The second period of criticism was during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, from 1966-1976. The criticism from this period gives us absolutely no insight, because there was absolutely no criticism. Work not produced by Chinese proletariat was forbidden during this period.
After the Cultural Revolution and up until the time of Shen’s writing (1988), there was a new era of Shakespearean criticism. The Marxist pressure put on the Chinese people was waning ever so slightly at this time, as evidenced by Shen with the fall of the educative theater aesthetic. This was essentially the omission of minor characters and subplots and emphasis on major characters and themes in order to make the lessons of the play more apparent. It also included a lack of ambiguity, where the good and bad characters are clearly presented. Shylock for example was simply seen as a bloodthirsty moneylender, while later criticisms would give him some sympathy because of his oppressed status as a Jew in Christian society. Shen closes by noting that at the time of writing Chinese Shakespearean criticism had largely caught up with that of the Western world.
Shen, Fan. “Shakespeare in China: The Merchant of Venice.” Asian Theatre Journal 5.1 (1988): 23-37. Http://www.jstor.org/stable/1124020. University of Hawai’i Press. Web. 15 July 2015.