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Li Li: The Encounter of Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu Transcending Time and Space

In the quaint town of Stratford-upon-Avon, situated on the banks of the River Avon in England, stands a statue that depicts the eminent English literary figure, William Shakespeare, alongside the renowned Chinese playwright and author from the Ming Dynasty, Tang Xianzu. Both Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare were literary giants of their time, having passed away in 1616. Their enduring masterpieces have had a profound impact on both Eastern and Western literature. "East Meets West" recently interviewed Li Li, the President of British-English Society of Literature, who provided insights into the enlightening encounter that transcended time and space between Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu, and the implications it holds for cultural exchange between the East and the West.

Li Li is a columnist and freelance writer based in the United Kingdom and specializes in research areas such as the translation of British literary works, cross-regional cultural communication, and the development of overseas Chinese literature. Li Li has published nearly a hundred articles in renowned newspapers and magazines both domestically and internationally, including People's Daily, Meishu (Fine Arts), and European Times. Her translated works have received awards in the "Translation Competition of British Literary Works" held at the British Library and Shanghai Library. She has been invited to contribute a series of columns titled "40 Years of China-UK Relations" for the European Times. Li Li has also played a significant role in organizing and planning major cultural events, including the Annual Conference of the Royal Academy of Arts in the United Kingdom.

Why, after hundreds of years, do the works of Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare remain enduring and timeless, despite both playwrights independently using drama as a medium to reflect upon reality and becoming thinkers and dreamers of their respective eras?

For any great piece of theatre, the fact that it has lasted centuries is a sign that its social and artistic functions are highly relevant to the time being. The two men, who emerged at the same time in the East and the West, miles apart, now meet in the world of theatre, and their works have shone through the centuries.

Shakespeare found himself in the midst of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, where he showcased the spirit of human liberation through his sweeping and panoramic perspectives. Tang Xianzu, on the other hand, championed the banner of "emotion over reason," igniting a spirit of personal liberation that broke through the confines of feudalism and flourished on the Eastern theatrical stage.

In the form of the theatre itself, Tang and Shakespeare have achieved an extraordinary level of excellence. In terms of material, both of them collected the essence of legendary stories with historical thickness and audience breadth, and refined and sublimated them with genius, so as to give these stories and characters permanent dramatic vitality. Both of them made a great deal of achievements in the principles of theatre writing, plot, style, characters, language, opera forms, theories, poetic rhythms, and many other aspects. Shakespeare, for instance, broke the conventions of the Greek "three unities" in drama, reconciled tragedy and comedy, and employed soliloquies as a creative technique for expressing inner thoughts. Tang Xianzu's dramatic perspective placed primary emphasis on emotions, employing the principle of "interest, mood, and spirit," intertwining reality and dreams, and blending prose and verse in his language style. 

It is precisely these unprecedented acts of genius and originality that elevated both playwrights to the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the East and West. As a result, their works have become widely renowned and admired, capturing the awe, appreciation, and love of people worldwide. As thinkers and dreamers, their works stand as artistic monuments to their creativity and imagination. Their profound reflections on societal realities and unwavering pursuit of humanistic ideals have transcended time, becoming a spiritual value that is timeless and everlasting. In different contexts, their works continue to radiate new life and vitality.

As thinkers and dreamers, these works have become artistic monuments to the creativity and imagination of both Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare. Their profound reflections on societal realities and unwavering pursuit of humanistic ideals have transcended time, embodying a spirit of value that surpasses the limitations of any era and remains eternal. These works continue to rejuvenate and shine with new life in various contemporary contexts.

Bronze statues of Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu standing side by side in Shakespeare's former residence. Credit: Kaiyu Ouyang​

In the history of human civilisation, different races and national cultures have collided and merged with each other, so why are Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare able to come together now, hundreds of years later?

As outstanding representatives of the theatrical domain in both the East and the West, the convergence of Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare, despite the coincidental nature of the timing and circumstances that brought them together, can be seen as a natural outcome of the contemporary globalized world and the inevitable development of civilizations and cultures. 

While it is fundamentally inappropriate and impossible to compare and rank different forms of art solely based on their beauty, the accolade of the "Shakespeare of the East" serves as a means for many individuals unfamiliar with Tang Xianzu to instantly grasp his esteemed position in the history of Eastern theater. This recognition plays a positive role in promoting the global dissemination of Tang Xianzu's art. The commemorative events held jointly by China and the UK to mark the 400th anniversary of the passing of Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare have further elevated the depth, breadth, and enthusiasm of cross-cultural research on both figures to new heights at an opportune time.

Every civilisation is a mirror of another civilisation, reflecting on the other as well as on itself. Tang and Shakespeare's meeting across time and space is not only due to the coincidence of their deaths in the same year, but also the need for exchange and mutual understanding between the Eastern and Western theatre in the process of development. It opens up a new platform for cross-cultural research using the theatre art of the two as a carrier. This is not only a stage-to-stage connection, audience-to-audience communication, and scholar-to-scholar exchange between the East and the West, but also a broad platform that can radiate many fields such as history, philosophy, society, literature, poetry, music, translation, and so on.

The deeper and broader social and humanistic significance of the two masters of theatre lies in the exchanges and complementarities between the two civilisations and cultures they represent.

Portraits of Tang Xianzu (first from left) and Shakespeare (first from right) in China Peony Pavilion Cultural Park in Jiangxi province. Credit: Haixia Ren

China and the UK are both great cultural powers with long historical traditions and deep cultural heritage. A few years ago, a joint event to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the deaths of Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare attracted a wide range of Chinese and British audiences and created a "Chinese theatre craze", so why is it that the meeting of Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare can make the cultural exchanges between China and the UK even more enthusiastic?

The reason for the appeal of their commemoration among Chinese and British audiences is the cultural affinity between the populations of the two countries. For British audiences, Shakespeare, though long gone global, is ultimately still their own, a cultural symbol with top global symbolism and an irreplaceable classical core of British culture. Therefore, when they heard that a dramatist of equal historical weight had appeared in a distant eastern country, it naturally aroused a strong desire for curiosity. For the Chinese, the fact that there is such a great man in history who can be compared with Shakespeare will also inspire a strong sense of pride and high enthusiasm.

Another factor is that the UK people have the love of theatre. When you see the hundreds of theatres in London, the West End Theatre, which is one of the two major theatre centres in the world along with Broadway in New York, the popular plays such as Phantom of the Opera, Cats and The Lion King, and the theatre societies all over the country, you will be able to understand why the encounter between them has made the cultural exchanges between China and the United Kingdom even more enthusiastic.

In addition, cultural exchanges with heat and breadth need an entry point, and the celebrity centenary event is a once-in-a-century entry point. The attraction of "Chinese theatre craze" to Chinese and British audiences is "1 plus 1 is greater than 2", for the connotative outreach of this event connects, interacts and stretches to enrich both Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu, and to stimulate more interest, inspiration and conversation about the theatre arts of both sides among Chinese and British audiences.

In 2016, "Dialogue Across Time and Space" - a thematic exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the deaths of literary giants Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare - opened at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Brussels, Belgium. Credit: Chen Shen

Dialogue Across Time and Space" - an exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the deaths of Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare opens at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Sydney, Australia, in 2016. Credit:  Changqing Xia.

Cross-cultural exchange between the East and the West is a process of mutual learning and deepening understanding. How can cultural heritage benefit the present and the future?​

The interaction between Eastern and Western cultures is the idea and method of cultural exchange, while cultural heritage is the carrier and platform of the dialogue. Past history is full of examples of cultural heritage benefiting the development of cultural exchanges. Since the 1950s, the Great Wall has seen hundreds of world leaders and foreign heads of government, and more than 30 years ago, Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom left behind her words of praise: "The Great Wall of China is the most beautiful of all", which has become a testament to the benefits of cultural heritage for the friendship between China and the United Kingdom.

Speaking of cultural exchanges nowadays, I remember that a few years ago, the Terracotta Warriors, which was praised by The Times as a "cultural storm", were displayed with people queuing up early in the morning for tickets. There are many other examples that highlight the enormous power of cultural heritage in cultural exchanges.

On 16 December 2016, the contemporary kunqu I, Hamlet was performed at London's Southbank Arts Centre. This cross-cultural fusion was created to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu. Credit: Zhaojun Zhou.

China is a country of great cultural heritage. On various occasions when the two cultures meet in exchange in the UK or in civil society in the West, it is common to see those world-class or national-level items such as Peking Opera, Tea Ceremony, Taijiquan, Dragon Boat, Kunqu Opera, Guqin, non-heritage cuisine, dragon and lion dances, Chinese painting, calligraphy, etc., making a wonderful debut. This unique inventory of China's cultural heritage has always been a positive force that carries the spirit of peace, happiness, rationality, embracing and health, and continues to act as a bond that enhances the affinity between Chinese and foreign cultures by means of subtle influences.


China NewsKailun Sui

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