We're working with writers, translators, academics and theatre organisations in the UK and China as part of a cultural exchange to share classical Chinese stories written in English with today's audiences.

Why Chinese Classics?

We are interested in stories written or performed before and during Shakespeare’s lifetime. These stories are famous in China, but are not as well known in Western theatre. The aim of the project is to increase the knowledge and availability of these works for theatre-makers and today's audiences, celebrating the wealth of stories told in China over the centuries, which may well have influenced Shakespeare or his contemporaries. 

Katie Leung laying down with arm being pulled
Rehearsals for Snow in Midsummer
Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC Browse and license our images

What is the Translation Project?

We're exploring and translating classical Chinese plays that were written or performed before and during the 16th and 17th centuries. These might be:

  • Plays written during Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616)
  • Plays written during the Ming dynasty, even if after Shakespeare’s life
  • Plays written before Shakespeare’s lifetime - perhaps in the Yuan, Song or Tang Dynasty, but still available, performed or adapted in Shakespeare’s lifetime
  • Plays written later which show a strong connection to Shakespearean plots, or his era

We have researched more than 45 classical Chinese titles nominated by academics, theatremakers, playwrights and translators across the world.

Working with translators and academics, we are creating detailed reports summarising the plot and context of a number of these titles, alongside up to ten full-length new translations in English. We look at a range of styles and translation practices for the stage and work closely with translators of the original classical texts.

Some translations will be ‘literal’ – translating the original material and offering footnotes with detailed research. Other translations may invite contemporary writers to respond and create a new play based on the original material. Further translations will be somewhere in between, or draw on existing English translations. Every translation will demand collaboration, rigorous discussion and cultural exchange, as we investigate both the possibilities of these classical texts for our times, and of a range of translation and playwriting practices. 

The Chinese Classics Translation Project runs until 2023, when we will create a digital archive of information about these stories. We hope to publish a collection of translations and make some translations available for development by other theatre companies.

“It has been almost inexpressibly meaningful to work with the RSC and to feel acknowledged, accepted, and perhaps, even belonging, alongside writers and words which you have grown up revering from another side of history, one traditionally thought of as outside and peripheral to the English language.”

Amber Hsu, Commissioned Playwright, Chinese Classics Translation Project

The future of the translation project

We expect the legacy of this translation project to be:

  • Up to four RSC productions of Chinese classics
  • UK theatre-makers and audiences to have more awareness of Chinese classic works 
  • Identifying and working with classical Chinese theatre translators
  • Up to 10 newly-commissioned translations
  • Collaborations with other theatre companies
  • Future productions of these translations by other companies
  • Commissioned playwrights of Chinese heritage from the UK and around the world
  • Meaningful relationships between the RSC and UK-based theatre-makers of East Asian heritage
  • New audiences for RSC work
A small girl stands in front of a young woman. A large neon sign in Chinese symbols is behind them.
Snow in Midsummer in the Swan Theatre in 2017
Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC Browse and license our images

Snow in Midsummer

We performed this first play in the Chinese classics translation project from February to March 2017 in the Swan Theatre. Snow in Midsummer by the award-winning playwright, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig  is a contemporary re-imagining of Guan Hanqing’s Chinese classic drama, The Injustice to Dou E Touches Heaven and Moves Earth. It's the story of a young widow who is executed for a murder she did not commit and returns to her town as an angry ghost.

This ancient story of social injustice, originally from 13th century Yuan dynasty China, has been translated into a literal translation by Gigi Chang and turned into a contemporary play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. More about Snow in Midsummer.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Production - 2018

Following the successful world premiere of this play in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2017, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s version of Snow in Midsummer will have a further life in a new production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, directed by the original Director, Justin Audibert.

Further resources

Find out more about cultural exchanges with China and the UK:

To contact us about the Chinese classics translation project, email chineseclassics@rsc.org.uk.