Our Literary Manager Pippa Hill spoke to Literary Assistant Bonnie Chan about the Chinese Classics Translation Project.

You organised a research trip to China for the creative team on Snow in Midsummer. Where did you go and why?

It was an amazing week! We went to Beijing, Shanghai and Huai’an. Huai’an is a small city in Jiangsu Province where the original story of Snow in Midsummer was set. Visiting these three places helped with our background research for the characters in the play, and also gave us information about the judiciary system, industrial development and traditional beliefs in China.

The production is a contemporary take on an ancient tale. How has the writer, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, updated the story?

The original story is a famous tale about the injustice suffered by a young widow, Dou Yi, who has been falsely accused and executed for murder. Frances grabs the central plot of the injustice and how the ghost of Dou Yi brings the townspeople who have condemned her to account. She has also woven in contemporary social issues like industrialisation, pollution and capital punishment to make the story more related to current Chinese society.

What were the research team most keen to see in China?

Because the play is set in the same place as it was in the original classic, we were very curious to discover how the place and the people are now. Huai’an, which was known as Chuzhou in ancient times, is nothing like big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. We simply had no idea what it would be like before we stepped on the soil. It was useful to see the industrialisation in a small city like this in China.

Two men in white suits stand in front of a neon-lit set with Chinese-language signs
A scene from Snow in Midsummer, featuring the set inspired by the research trip to China.
Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC Browse and license our images

Who did you meet when you were there?

Oh, we definitely met some great people there! In Shanghai we met our translator for the original script and in Huai’an we were hosted by the Huai’an Culture, Broadcasting and Publishing Bureau. They helped a lot by showing us around and telling us about its historical and cultural background.

What was the most challenging aspect of the trip?

Given that most of us haven’t been to China before and I was the only person in our group who speaks and reads Chinese, it was hard work interpreting for everyone. Huai’an was simply an extraordinary experience: we didn’t have any expectation at all before going, because we knew so little about the place beforehand. It was challenging, but really amazing. It turned out to be a really fruitful trip.

Best moments?

Waking up at four in the morning and running with the crowd to get the best spot to see the flag ceremony in Tiananmen Square was phenomenal. The exceptionally warm hospitality in Huai’an was also truly unforgettable: we were treated like VIPs and were well fed with amazing food. They were incredibly helpful in showing us to all the places and things we wanted to see as well: ancient courthouse, factory, local bars, hospital, temple, Chinese opera museum and a lot more. We couldn’t believe how much we saw in just two days; it seems like we’ve spent a week there.

Out of the material you gathered, what was the most interesting to you?

Everything was interesting and useful! As mentioned earlier on, we’ve been to the ancient courthouse in Huai’an, which was where the original story of Dou Yi happened. It was very interesting for us to have an idea of what the original setting of the story is like. Seeing the modern Huai’an and the daily life of its people was so useful as well. We also had a good chat with a professor in Shanghai, who is an expert in both ancient and modern criminal law in China. He explained to us how the judicial system works in China and its ideology from the old days to now. This is something we can’t easily find other reference materials for.  

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