Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu meet at Stratford-upon-Avon

By Sun Wei in London Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-24 18:43:01

A scene from The Peony Pavilion Photos: Sun Wei/GT

Bronze statue Tang and Shakespeare Meet is on display at Shakespeare's Birthplace in the UK.

The year 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of two very distinguished playwrights, William Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived and worked in England during the Tudor era at roughly the same time that Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) was active half a world away in Jiangxi Province during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They were contemporaries whose works have remained popular and are still performed today.

Shared values

On Friday, a symposium was held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu at the Bard's hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.

At the event, representatives from both countries signed an agreement establishing a sister city relationship between Tang's hometown of Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, and the Stratford-on-Avon District.

Fuzhou representatives also sent a bronze statue titled Tang and Shakespeare Meet to Shakespeare's Birthplace as a symbol of China-UK cultural exchange. A duplicate statue has been placed at the Tang Xianzu Memorial in Fuzhou.

Chris Saint, head of the Stratford-on-Avon District Council, said the event is "particularly pertinent as the written work of these two literary giants has survived for over 400 years and is both loved and popular."

The event was hosted by the Stratford-on-Avon District Council, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust,
 The Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Jiangxi Provincial People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and The Fuzhou government, with support from The Chinese Embassy in the UK. 

Tang Xianzu has been called the "Shakespeare of the East." He wrote more than 2,200 pieces of poetry and prose, while his most famous plays, collectively called the "Four Dreams of Linchuan," represent the peak of Chinese classical opera.

The "Four Dreams of Linchuan" includes The Peony Pavilion, which is generally considered Tang's greatest masterpiece.

 "Like Shakespeare, Tang was able to write about human ambition, endeavor and above all emotion," Chris Saint said.

Professor Huang Zhenlin, an expert on Tang Xianzu at the East China Institute of Technology, said that Tang holds equal status with Shakespeare in terms of literary and artistic achievement.

Often referred as the oriental Romeo and Juliet, The Peony Pavilion tells the story of a love that spans both dreams and death.

Zhang Hongxing, the mayor of Fuzhou, said, "Though any similarity between the work of Tang and Shakespeare is coincidental as England had very little contact with China in the early 1600s, we can still see how they had shared values and similar artistic creations."

"The characters they created demonstrate these writers' pursuit of freedom, love, well-being and justice," Zhang said, adding that the two giants left behind a unlimited imaginative space for spiritual dialogue between the East and West.

Historic milestone

Professor Li Ruru, a drama expert from the University of Leeds, told the Global Times that the event is "historically significant."

"The Fuzhou delegation not only brings Tang Xianzu to Stratford-upon-Avon and to Britain, but also to the hearts of all Chinese. How we treat Tang actually tells us a lot about how we Chinese evaluate our own culture, tradition and 5,000 years of civilization."

While the name of William Shakespeare is recognized internationally, Tang Xianzu is still relatively unknown outside of China even though The Peony Pavilion is cited as one of the world's most important plays. 

Even in China, Tang goes underappreciated. Li said she was shocked while conducting research for an international project on Shakespeare and Tang at Chinese National Library online catalogue. When she searched the Chinese language database for "Shakespeare," there were around 23,000 results, whereas there were only around 3,000 hits for "Tang Xianzu."

Steve Ansell, artistic director and theater manager of the Stage@leeds Company, told the Global Times, "When I read Tang Xianzu's script, it becomes apparent that the language at that time was quite similar in the way that Shakespeare used body voices and formal voices, poetry and prose."

Though their differing living environments led to Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu writing very different plays and characters, Ansell has found that the way they structured their work was quite similar, and clearly audiences in both countries were expecting to be entertained.

Ansell said that he feels that holds a really significant place in China's theater history. 

"China is rediscovering and admiring its own culture, and is excited by its own heritage again. At the same time, by doing that, China is showing the world what an incredibly diverse, rich and deep culture it has as opposed to the stereotypical image of China," Ansell said.

Ansell is also the director of Leeds University's latest adaptation of Tang's play Dreaming under the Southern Bough. Alongside a new adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Dreaming under the Southern Bough will be performed at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Ansell hopes projects like these will mark the start of Chinese theater and its legacy being recognized in the West as being just as important and significant as the history of European theater practice.

This year is set to witness many cultural exchange activities commemorating Shakespeare and Tang in both countries. "Fuzhou Culture Week" performances began on Friday at Shakespeare's Birthplace, and include The Peony Pavilion along with local Fuzhou folk opera. Exhibits on Tang's life and his hometown are also on display at libraries in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Meanwhile in Fuzhou - home to numerous memorial halls, museums and theaters dedicated to Tang - more than 20 programs and events are scheduled to be held throughout the year.

Newspaper headline: All the world’s a stage

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