As April 23, the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, draws nearer, cultural and political organizations in China, along with enthusiastic individuals, are jumping on the chance to shed light on a Chinese contemporary of Shakespeare, Tang Xianzu.
The Bard never met Tang, a playwright from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) who published four works after retiring from his post as a government official, nor did they ever read each other’s works.
Yet such practicalities have done little to deter those eager to portray the two as kindred spirits. It is a mission that has drawn momentum from the fact that the two died in the same year, 1616 — a commonality that has gripped the imagination of Chinese observers for some time. Topping a list of five similarities between the two playwrights drawn up in 1946 by prominent drama scholar Zhao Jingshen was “Their years of birth and death are almost the same.”
“It’s a pity that these two playwrights, equally distinguished, never had the chance to meet each other,” the vice president of the Chinese Academy of Drama, Ye Changhai, told Sixth Tone. “If the world of 400 years ago had the communication and transportation of today, they would have not only read each other’s works, but also become the best of friends, with mutual admiration.”
The fantasy camaraderie is fueling a “bundle sale” approach to the presentation of the two artists’ works up and down China: In Beijing, the National Centre for the Performing Arts has plans for a festival entitled “Drama Legends and an East-West Dialogue: When Shakespeare Meets Tang Xianzu”; in Shanghai, the city’s Drama Art Center is embarking on a series of performances of the two playwrights’ works entitled “Tang and Shakespeare: A 400-Year Dream of Plays”; while in Guangzhou, 2016 has been dubbed the “Cultural Year of Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare.”
Even Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has called for a celebration of the unwitting couple as a means to further cultural understanding between China and the United Kingdom. Back in October 2015, Xi told guests at a dinner hosted by the mayor of London: “Tang was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and both died in 1616.  will be the 400th anniversary of their passing. China and the U.K. can join in celebrating the legacies of these two literary giants, to promote interpersonal dialogue and deepen mutual understanding.”
Beyond politics, the “partnership” is providing new fodder for creative minds; already, a number of projects have surfaced that blend elements of the two playwrights’ works to form new works entirely. The Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center has asked British theatrical company Gecko to create a new work called “The Dreamer,” which the play's scriptwriter Yu Rongjun has told Sixth Tone will fuse Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with elements from all four of Tang’s works, known collectively as the “Four Dreams.”
Along the same lines is an upcoming play entitled “Coriolanus and Du Liniang” — Du Liniang is the heroine of Tang’s most famous work, “The Peony Pavilion.” In a sign that Chinese directors have high hopes for the blending of the two playwrights, Director Guo Xiaonan revealed to Sixth Tone — ahead of a formal announcement set for April 23 — that he intends to take the production to the U.K. in July of this year. According to Guo, the play will feature famed stage actress Mao Weitao — known in traditional opera circles for performing male parts — in the role of Coriolanus.
Mao Weitao (right) performs at the Hangzhou Theater, Zhejiang province, May 24, 2015. IC
Zhang Jing, a Chinese traditional drama screenwriter, is one of the people who is not convinced by the comparability of the two playwrights. Speaking to Sixth Tone, she pointed out that, unlike Shakespeare, a prolific and professional playwright, Tang only wrote four pieces of work following retirement from his civil servant position. While Shakespeare made his living by writing plays, organizing troupes, and sometimes even acting on stage himself, Tang — a typical scholar-bureaucrat type — holed himself away to work on scripts as more of a personal endeavor.
Zhang believes that the most appropriate candidate for the honor of Shakespeare’s Chinese counterpart is Guan Hanqing (1241-1320), ancient China’s most prolific dramatist. Guan’s 65 plays were mostly written in the vernacular of the time, and thus highly accessible to audiences. However, the Yuanqu operatic form, in which Guan’s works were exclusively presented, has long since died out. In comparison, the operatic form Kunqu, through which Tang’s pieces can be performed, lives on.
The suggestion that there may be a better candidate for “China’s Shakespeare” would not go over well with the local government in Tang’s hometown of Fuzhou, in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi. For some time, officials there have been preparing a series of commemorative events in honor of the two playwrights. Part of the plan is to turn the city into a “holy land of marriage proposals,” presumably in a nod to the frequency with which romantic themes appear in the two playwrights’ works.
Plans to honor the union of Shakespeare and Tang have extended far beyond Fuzhou’s city walls, however. In a press conference on March 22, 2016, Chen Gaozan, deputy head of the city’s culture, radio, TV, and news department, said that plans were underway to create two identical statues depicting Tang and Shakespeare standing side by side.
One of two commemorative statues depicting Tang and Shakespeare standing side by side, Hangzhou, April 14, 2016. Courtesy of Publicity Department of the Fuzhou Municipal Government
According to Chen, one of the sculptures will be put in the garden of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the other will stay in Fuzhou. “This is the best way to commemorate these two cultural giants,” Chen said. “The statues will be preserved permanently, and will be looked upon by our descendants with respect.”
Work on the sculpture is now complete, according to Fan Qiang, section chief of Fuzhou municipal government’s online publication department. Speaking to Sixth Tone, Fan said that the sculpture was designed by famed sculptor Yang Qirui, and left Fuzhou bound for the U.K. on April 18.
At the time of writing, the PR and public affairs executive of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was unable to confirm that a statue of Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu would be housed in the gardens of The Bard's former residence.
With additional reporting from Li You.
This article has been updated to correct the role of Yu Rongjun in the production of “The Dreamer.” He is the play’s scriptwriter, not the vice president of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center.
(Header image: An actress performs as Du Liniang in a youth version of the Kunqu opera ‘The Peony Pavilion,’ at Soochow University, Jiangsu province, June 12, 2004. Wang Yi/VCG)