Romeo and Juliet in China

Shakespeare’s drama Romeo and Juliet is often taught to ninth graders in US high schools. Other Shakespeare plays are studied at other grade levels and in college.

However, you may be surprised to discover Shakespeare is probably more popular in China since his work is taught in most Chinese universities, both in English and in Chinese and Shakespearean texts are easily available in China in both languages.

When Mao ruled China (1949 to 1976), Shakespeare was banned as was Aristotle and other Western philosophers.  Mao died in 1976. That ban was lifted in 1978.

In fact, according to Zhaoxiang Cheng, the author of  Teaching Shakespeare in China, “It is no exaggeration to say that every educated Chinese knows something about Shakespeare.”

However, when produced in China on stage, the plot may not stay true to the original Shakespeare.

Writing for the The People’s Republic of Shakespeare, Adventures in Chinese Research, Meammi says, “My interest in this topic started when I noticed that many of the Romeo and Juliets performed in China are either parodies or rewrites where one of the lovers survives in the end.

“China has their own pair of star-crossed lovers (The Peony Pavilion – 1598 AD), who tragically die for love and their plight is described in a much more mournful tone than Shakespeare’s version.

“Some Chinese theatre companies state in interviews that their audiences have too much sadness in their lives so Romeo just can’t die in the end of their performance.”

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

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4 Responses to Romeo and Juliet in China

  1. Y Chan says:

    Note that both Romeo and Juliet and Butterfly Lovers are legendary and are not real history.

    The interesting thing is that both main story plots are strikingly similar, ie, the girl (Juliet in Shakespeare and Zhu Yingtai in China) was forced by her parents to get married to someone else.

    However, on learning about their forced marriages, while Juliet merely PRETENDS to have committed suicide, Zhu Yingtai actually kills herself for real.

    It is agreed that Shakespeare got the idea from the Roman myth, Pyramus and Thisbe, which in turn originated from ancient Babylon.

    Butterfly Lovers popped up in the Jin Dynasty, about the time Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christainity.

    So, who copy who? I can’t really say.

    You may like to listen to the Butterfly Lover Violin Converto, available at i-tune, composed for a Western Symphony Orchestra. I recommend the one by Vanessa Mae with the London Symphony Orchestra.

  2. Y Chan says:


    The Butterfly Lovers (the tragic love story of the legendary lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai) is usually considered to be the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet.

    It inspires so many Chinese opera, movies, songs and music in the past that its influence is no less important than Shakespears’ Romeo and Juliet on Western culture.

    The most famous Chinese love music I think is the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concert, played by many artists and orchestras in Asia (but not by Western musicians yet).

    The other tragic Chinese love story is “the Story of Lady White Snake”.

    You probably cannot be regarded as knowing Chinese culture if you do not know these two love stories.

    • Thank you. I do not claim to know everything of China. The Banner at the top of the iLook China Blog says, “Looking at China from an outsider’s point of view.”

      The more I learn, the more I realize I will never know all there is to know.

      Those who are very ignorant usually believe they know everything. Most that are highly educated and well read, realize they know very little.

      There are exceptions of course. There are highly educated people that are ignorant due to biases and prejudices. I know a few and I struggle not to get into debates with those old friends because it is an exercise in futility since they are always right and everyone else that does not agree is wrong.

      To know a culture, one must be born into it and many born into a culture take life for granted without knowing why it is that way and believe their culture is the best while all others are barbaric in some way.

      You said, “You probably cannot be regarded as knowing Chinese culture if you do not know these two love stories.”

      As a foreigner, I realize that I will never know every facet of Chinese culture and China’s history, but I know more than most and I’m still learning. Most of the time, when I learn something new, I write a post about it. As an example, writing of the two love stories you mention will make a perfect post. I plan to work on that post later today and schedule it to appear later in March. For that, I thank you.

      I do not claim to know everything about China. In fact, I don’t know everything there is to know of America and I am well read and was born here. Since there are more than seven million books that have been published in the English language, it would be impossible to know everything. Just to read the English classics would take years.

      I imagine that may be the same with China since paper and the printing press were invented in China centuries before the West and China has a much longer literary tradition. There must be many books most Chinese will never read.

      I have one friend that read an entire set of a multi-volume English encyclopedia while he was attending college just so he would learn more. It took him years. By the time he finished, there was so much new knowledge being added to newer versions of that same encyclopedia that he was already out of date. Sad to say, I never attempted such a feat.

      I do not believe there is enough time in an average life span to learn all there is to learn.

    • Y. Chan,

      I could check, but I’ll ask. Which one came first? Romeo and Juliet or The Butterfly Lovers. If The Butterfly Lovers came first, it is possible that plot was stolen from China. After all, there has been trade between the East and West for two thouand years since the Han Dyansty.

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