02/11 – China Unbans Shakespeare

A crowd gathers in Manchuria, near North Korea, in 1978. They are fascinated to see Michael Arth, a white American photographer, in their village. During the Cultural Revolution, anything Western – from books to people – was hard to come by in the PRC. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1978, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) lifted a ban on notable Western literature including the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Aristotle. The ban had been in place since the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution in the mid 1960s. To PRC chairman Mao Zedong – who apparently identified the most “offensive” books by name – the greats of Western writing posed a distinct threat to Chinese cultural cohesion; even worse, many of them presented un-communist ideas that would undermine Chinese society.

The Nixons on their visit to China. Although it’s important to remember the wide array of internal factors that brought about the end of China’s self-imposed isolation, Nixon’s visit to the PRC certainly helped bring an end to the Cultural Revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

Like the economic restructuring of the Great Leap Forward, the 1966 Cultural Revolution was an effort to isolate China from Western influence and develop a stronger sense of communist nationalist identity. In reality, however, the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution failed, and, millions of deaths later, the Politburo (Chinese leadership) recognized the necessity of reform. After US president Richard Nixon visited China in 1973, the PRC began to “thaw out” a little, and concessions were made to the West (at the expense of relations with the Soviet Union). It’s hard to gauge exactly the political effect of the unbanning of Shakespeare’s work in the PRC, but it certainly heralded a new era in Chinese society. The banning and unbanning of various forms of media in China serve as indicators for the strength (or weakness) of China’s relations with the West. Below is a short list of notable Western media that is or was banned in the PRC:

  • Peppa Pig – for promoting “gangster attitudes”, and being the champion of “unruly slackers”.
  • Winnie the Pooh – for his apparent likeness to PRC president Xi Jinping.
  • Green Eggs and Ham – for its portrayal of early Marxism.
  • Alice in Wonderland – for depicting anthropomorphic animals. Censors worried that mature, talking animals would convince children to disrespect their parents and form friendships with forest creatures… or something.
  • Top Gun 3D – for depicting a cool and competent US military. It’s possible that the overtly homoerotic themes of the film bothered Chinese censors as well.
  • 1984 – for depicting an authoritarian surveillance state. The book – and all film adaptations – will likely never be unbanned, for obvious reasons.
  • Back to the Future – for depictions of time travel.
  • Babe: Pig in the City – for the talking pig. Noticing a trend?
  • Brokeback Mountain – for its depictions of homosexual romance, a “sensitive topic” to Chinese censors. Notably, the PRC congratulated director Ang Lee for the film’s critical success – but they censored his Oscar acceptance speech.
  • Seven Years in Tibet – for its portrayal of the Dalai Lama in a positive light, and for depicting the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The PRC permanently soured on Brad Pitt after the film’s release.
  • World War Z – for featuring Brad Pitt.
  • Christopher Robin – for featuring Xi Jinping. Er, Winnie the Pooh.

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