The Reading Room

The Chinese Ban of Shakespeare

The year the Chinese government lifted the ban on Shakespeare..

shThis month sees the anniversary of the lifting of a ban on the works of William Shakespeare by the then Chinese government in 1977. It was seen as yet further evidence of the end of the disastrous ‘Cultural Revolution’ which ended a year earlier with the death of its creator, Mao Tse-Tung.

The so-called revolution which began in 1966 was an attempt by Mao to show both the Chinese people and those in the West and especially the Soviet Union that the Chinese brand of communism was alive and in robust health. The reality however was somewhat different and more sinister.

Any persons considered by Mao and his cronies to have failed in their devotion to the regime and the communist cause were arrested, imprisoned and often executed. Few were above escaping the clampdown, government officials were especially targeted in a project designed to stamp Mao’s version of culture on its citizens with tens of thousands paying the ultimate price.

As the people grew poorer and hungrier Mao’s wife, Chiang Ching acting as unofficial secretary of the revolution systematically banned any form of music, literature or film which did not include the prerequisite ideological words of Mao wisdom. By the early 1970s the country was firmly in the grip of an economic and cultural stranglehold. Ever fearful of a Soviet attack, the Chinese looked to the Nixon led US government for trade deals and the easing of sanctions resulting in increased pressure to re-evaluate their human rights stance and with it the eventual collapse of the Cultural Revolution.

What the Chinese scholars of that period must have felt is beyond understanding. Culturally it must have felt like a slow strangulation coupled with the indignity of being lectured on ridiculous Communist doctrine by party members of far inferior intellect. It would be easy to ridicule the ban on Shakespeare and what real effect his writings could possibly have had but it shows how paranoid the Mao government was of Western influence in any form and the horrific price of being born in the wrong country at the wrong time.

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