From Shakespeare to Cultural Exchanges
Toast at the Luncheon of Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations
Straford-upon-Avon, 24 April 2009
Sir Donald Sinden[ Renowned British drama, film and TV actor
My Lords,Madam Mayor,My Diplomatic Colleagues,Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am sure you have deep sympathy for me. It is daunting to 1. Renowned British drama, speak after Donald and after all those jokes.
Many years ago, when I was savouring the masterpieces of Shakespeare as a university student, I would never have dreamed of one day standing here in Stratford speaking on behalf of many distinguished guests to a gathering of Shakespeare lovers. So I want to thank you very much for giving me this honour.
First of all, let me express, on behalf of all the visitors and guests, our sincere appreciation to the organisers of this event, as well as all those who work in the background, for making it possible for us, here and now, to pay tribute to Shakespeare, whose timeless influence goes beyond the boundaries of age, race and border.
I also want to thank Donald for his excellent chairmanship.
Shakespeare was first introduced to China in the mid19th century and in 1904, a Chinese writer named Lin Shu translated the Tales from Shakespeare adapted by Charles and Mary Lamb into Chinese. There’s more to it than that. Mr. Lin did not know a word of English. So he had an assistant read and explain the stories to him, and he then rewrote them in his own words.
You can imagine how impossible it was to keep close to the original work, but it was an important step that paved the way for the initial spread and popularity of Shakespeare’s works in China, eventually leading to the first Chinese translation of Hamlet in 1921.
Many more translations followed, including during the difficult war years, as Chinese readers were attracted to Shakespeare and his works for his humanism and idealism. Along with the parallels they saw their own lives, as it was a turbulent period in China’s history. The country was in a semi-colonial and semi-feudal state and Chinese intellectuals were on one hand embracing the new ideas coming from the West and on the other resisting subjugation by foreign powers.
Shakespeare, along with Western Enlightenment ideals, nurtured the political and cultural awakening of the Chinese youth in the early 20th century and influenced the intellectual modernisation of China.
The theatrical appeal of Shakespearean plays is still going strong in China after all these years since their first debut, fulfilling the careers of generations of Chinese actors and actresses. Many of the heroes and heroines in his plays are now household names in my country, and many of his lines have almost become authentic Chinese expressions.
Some years ago I was often involved in diplomatic negotiations. When we were locked in a stalemate and going nowhere, I often liked to quote from Hamlet, with a small adaptation though. Instead of “To be, or not to be, that is the question,” I would say, “To move on or to fall back, that is the question.” (Laughter)
I found this expression works extremely well. It is known to all and therefore goes well with all. I can drive home the need to reach compromise or agreement without sounding too pushy
With the success of economic progress in recent years and with the growing public demand for cultural entertainment, adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays are growing in popularity. His plays are being adapted into different art forms, including theatrical plays, movies and even local operas.
In the play The Banquet, the Chinese version of Hamlet, performed during the celebrations here, you could find Hamlet not only having a Chinese face, but also a Chinese name and living in an ancient Chinese imperial court.
I want to mention here that, in the time of Shakespeare, there was also a great Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu and both men actually passed away in the same year.
Tang Xianzu wrote The Peony Pavilion, which has long been an inspiration to generations of Chinese playwrights and novelists, and is highly regarded as a world-class play. Nevertheless, I wonder how many in this country have heard of him, or of his work. (Many in the audience shaking their heads)
The Peony Pavilion tells much the same story as Romeo and Juliet. It combines drama and fairy tale and presents a sweet and sorrow legend of love that defies the limits of heaven and earth. It is very long, spanning ten nights in ten episodes. A shortened three-night version was staged by the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre at Sadler’s Wells last summer and was extremely well received by the British audience who filled the theatre each and every time.
However, it is disappointing to note that Tang’s name and his play are little known in the UK, a country which loves history and has a taste for good plays. Is it all right if we conclude that it is time the West made efforts to learn more about China? (Standing Ovation)
The Western culture is widely taught and learnt in China. But I think it is now time that China and its culture became better known to the Western world.
I have had an enjoyable two years working and living in Britain, but I have also had some difficult times. I often find that many of the problems in our relations are caused or made worse by a lack of knowledge and understanding of each other, making it very hard to communicate as we should have.
Last August I was in Beijing. One day, as I was walking in the street it started to rain and I popped into a bookshop. You know why. I was quite amazed at the rows after rows of bookshelves full of original books in English. But here in Britain, it is very hard to find any book on China today written by a Chinese author. Even in university libraries you won’t find a good supply of books as such.
This may partly explain why there is such an imbalance of information between China and the West. However, the good news is that there is now a growing interest on both sides to know more about each other.
The Olympics has brought the world closer to China and China closer to the world and I am sure cultural programmes such as what we have here today will help to build bridges of friendship and understanding between our two great nations, little by little. And every little helps.
Today, on behalf of all my diplomatic colleagues in the UK whom I represent, I give you our word that we will continue to support your programme and support cultural exchanges between the UK and the countries we represent.
In conclusion, it gives me great pleasure to propose a toast to William Shakespeare, our man of the world.
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