‘Shawshank’ in China, as You’ve Never Seen It Before

When a stage production of “The Shawshank Redemption” opened recently in China, it was cast entirely with Western actors speaking fluent Mandarin Chinese. But that may have been the least surprising part of the show.

That the show — an adaptation of the Stephen King novella that became one of the most beloved movies of all time — was staged at all seemingly flew in the face of several trends in China’s cultural sphere.

Chinese audiences’ interest in Hollywood films is fading, with moviegoers turning to homegrown productions. China’s authoritarian government has stoked nationalism and cast Western influence as a political pollutant. Censorship of the arts has tightened.

Yet the production reflects how some artists are trying to navigate the changing landscape of both what is permissible and what is marketable in China. And its success shows the appetite that many Chinese still have for cultural exchange.

A scene from the play.Credit…Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

“The Shawshank Redemption” — the story of a man wrongfully convicted of murder who defies prison officials’ tyranny and eventually pulls off a daring escape — has been a target for Chinese censors before. Mentions of it were briefly censored online in 2012, after a prominent Chinese dissident escaped house arrest and fled to the American Embassy. In general, the Chinese authorities have shown little tolerance for calls, artistic or otherwise, for freedom and resistance to injustice.

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