How ‘Hamilton’ Got Chinese Thinking About Who Tells Their History
When the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” made its earlier-than-anticipated Disney+ debut July 3, theater- and filmgoers around the world were ecstatic. With most stages and cinemas still closed, the lovingly filmed stage performance featuring the show’s original cast seemed a ray of light in the darkness.
Even musical fans and professionals in China, where Disney+ is not available, got caught up in the sensation. On the popular — and notoriously picky — review site Douban, “Hamilton” currently has an average score of 9.5 from 30,000 ratings, far more than “Les Miserables,” “Cats,” or “Phantom of the Opera.”
But a closer look at the Douban ratings reveals some of the different ways Chinese and American fans consumed and interpreted “Hamilton.” After the show’s initial premiere in New York City in 2015, much of the early critical attention centered on composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s decision to cast actors of color as the United States’ founding fathers, a choice that allowed him to emphasize the founders’ status as immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, building a society in a new land.
Unsurprisingly, this emphasis on minority perspectives and the immigrant experience was not a primary talking point in a country like China, where popular culture and art rarely address racial issues, let alone with much tact. Yet this insensitivity toward race may have actually helped many Chinese viewers accept the unorthodox character portrayals seen in “Hamilton.” The sight of an actor of Puerto Rican descent like Miranda portraying Alexander Hamilton or a Black man such as Daveed Diggs in the role of Thomas Jefferson might seem strange — but only fleetingly.
Even without engaging with the show on this level, Chinese viewers were still able to enjoy the deconstruction and irony rife in “Hamilton.” Rather than concentrate on how Miranda played with and challenged American racial stereotypes and norms, many instead focused on an issue closer to home: how “Hamilton” remixed America’s founding mythology.
Historical narratives have long been a mainstay of Chinese drama and cinema. So-called main melody offerings, meant to echo and reinforce official values and themes, are carefully staged. Producers pay great attention to reconstructing historical figures as accurately as possible, so much so that there’s a cottage industry of “typecast actors” who’ve made a career playing their historical doppelgangers. Events, too, must be recreated with care. Above everything looms the Ministry of Culture, which strictly prohibits loose interpretations of history.
The result is often something like 2009’s “The Founding of a Republic,” a lavish film produced to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The irony is, younger audiences rarely buy into such acts. To compensate, producers leaned on star power: The film features a cast of prominent actors in secondary and even tertiary roles.
Unlike main melody films, which start with a message and work backward, “Hamilton” had its genesis in chance — when Miranda happened to pick up a biography of Alexander Hamilton while on vacation. In past interviews, he has stressed the importance of story over ideas.
Yet many Chinese fans, grasping for a reference point when recommending the show to their friends, cheekily describe “Hamilton” as “The Founding of a Republic” — if it was produced by an American. They’ve embraced the appeal of Miranda’s blend of history and hip-hop, with its rap-battling founding fathers, rowdy revolutionaries, and exaggerated, comical portrayal of King George III. Alexander Hamilton may be the show’s hero, but the show doesn’t elide his struggles either, including an illicit affair and the subsequent fallout from it. The result is fascinating to an audience accustomed to serious — and sanitized — history.
It’s hard to imagine what Chinese regulators’ reactions to a play like “Hamilton” would be, and not just because it changes the founding fathers’ skin color. In 2003, when state broadcaster CCTV aired “Towards the Republic,” a dramatization of the 1912 collapse of the Qing dynasty and subsequent birth of the Republic of China, it was widely praised by audiences for its nuanced takes on figures typically portrayed in black and white. But some criticized the show for that very same reason, especially its not-particularly-heroic depiction of the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen. It’s never been aired since.
Even if the so-called American “The Founding of a Republic” may be a hit in China, a “Chinese ‘Hamilton’” likely isn’t on the horizon. To produce an equivalent, the country’s creative industry would need to reexamine its entire process and rethink its approach to historical storytelling.
Yet there’s still reason to be inspired by the success of “Hamilton” in China. History doesn’t have to be serious or preachy; it can be satirical or even ambiguous. And an unorthodox interpretation doesn’t hinder the popularity of a work, nor does it keep viewers from learning more about the past.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A promotional image of Chinese fans singing the song “Non-Stop” from“Hamilton,” May 30, 2020. From @cwZachary on Bilbili)