China’s Romeo and Juliet, “The Peony Pavilion”, was a play written by Tang Xianzu and was first performed in 1598, forty-six years before the end of the Ming Dynasty.
Someone might assume that Xianzu borrowed from Shakespeare’s play, but that would be a wrong assumption because in the 16th century there was no internet, no television, no radio, no telephones, no TV, and it took months to sail from England to China. Communication and the sharing of ideas happened at a snail’s pace.
It was clearly a coincidence that Tang Xianzu came up with the idea of China’s Romeo and Juliet a few months after Shakespeare wrote his first version.
In fact, the Encyclopedia Britannica reports that “Romeo and Juliet” had a bumpy start. “Romeo and Juliet, the play by William Shakespeare, was written about 1594–96 and first published in an unauthorized quarto in 1597. An authorized quarto appeared in 1599.” Two years after “The Peony Pavilion” (first) appeared on stage in China.
In addition, the star-crossed lovers that appear in the “The Peony Pavilion” also tragically die for love, but their plight is described in a much more mournful tone than Shakespeare’s version.
You might also be surprised to learn that Shakespeare is popular in China since his work is taught in most Chinese universities both in English and in Chinese.
Enid Tsui writes, “It’s had its ups and downs but, 400 years after William Shakespeare’s death, China’s affinity with The Bard is as strong as ever.”
However, The People’s Republic of Shakespeare, Adventures in Chinese Research says that many of the Romeo and Juliets performed in China are either parodies or rewrites where one of the lovers survives in the end because too many Chinese have experienced too much sadness in their lives thanks to Japan’s brutal invasion of China during World War II and China’s long bloody Civil War followed by the suffering caused by Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.
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