Shakespeare, Torchbearer for the Chinese Way of Doing Things

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Odds bodkins, zounds and strike me pinke. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has just been to Stratford-upon-Avon and paid this little old country of ours the most terrific compliment.

Our economic growth may be only a tenth of Chinese growth rates; our tax rates may now – absurdly – be higher. We may have spent the past three years scratching our heads about how to replace the third runway at Heathrow while the Chinese have built literally 45 airports over the same period. The Chinese may be set fair to be the economic and political powerhouse of the 21st century, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they again mop up more gold medals than anyone else at the Olympic Games; and yet Mr Wen has been to watch Hamlet and declared that we can still claim to be the birthplace of "the greatest writer who ever lived".

Isn’t that grand? It is, of course, a huge tribute to Mr Wen that he can follow Hamlet as Shakespeare wrote it, picking it all up off the bat in a way that most GCSE English students would struggle to imitate. It is worth asking how many UK politicians could go to China and say anything remotely convincing about, say, Ming poetry. The only one I can think of is the great George Walden, father of this page’s Celia, and until George is recalled to the front bench I am afraid Parliament will always look pathetically ignorant.

Among my resolutions is to follow the younger generation and learn Mandarin. But if Mr Wen gets full marks for cultural diplomacy, the real tribute is, of course, to William Shakespeare. Never mind that he died almost 400 years ago. He is our greatest cultural export. He is our answer to Beethoven and Michelangelo, and a pretty effective retort he is, too.

He went global while he was still alive, carried overseas by Elizabethan merchant adventurers. The play Mr Wen has just watched was first performed in Indonesia, would you believe it, in 1609. In the decade after he died Shakespeare was performed in Germany, in German, by a group of travelling players. He has been big in China for at least 120 years, being known first as Shashibiya and then just as Sha Weng – "Old Man Sha".

His popularity survived the revolution to the point where it is acceptable for a communist leader to hail Shakespeare, not as a bourgeois reactionary, not as an imperialist capitalist running dog, but as the greatest writer who ever lived. When you stop to think about Shakespeare’s prevailing ideology, it is easy to see why.

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