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‘To Be or Not to Be’: Chinese Media Credit Hamlet’s Suicide Monologue for Driving Xi Jinping to Become a Despot

circa 1910: Matheson Lang (1879 - 1948) as Hamlet inaugurates the Shakespeare seasons at the Old Vic in London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hulton Archive/Getty
FRANCES MARTEL

An enthusiastically positive profile of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping in the Chinese state news service Xinhua claims that reading the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet – a monologue about contemplating suicide – inspired Xi to spread his totalitarian ideology through politics.

The Xinhua piece, called “Xi Jinping – Champion of Dialogue of Civilizations,” intends to present Xi as a lover of Western culture in the face of a prolonged economic dispute with the United States and a campaign to erase non-Han Chinese cultures within the Chinese state. Xinhua littered the article with cultural references, claiming Xi was a fan of everything from the ruins of Chichen Itza to Russian novels to British beer.

“Xi has long been a believer in, advocate of, model for and contributor to communications across civilizations,” the article claims. “Whether during living in a cave house in a remote countryside village decades ago, or now standing at the helm of the world’s most populous country, he maintains that exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations have empowered human progress as well as world peace and development.”

“Over 40 years ago a teenager fascinated by Faust, a masterpiece in Western literature written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, walked over a dozen kilometers of bumpy and dusty country road only to borrow the book from his fellow student … The teenager was Xi Jinping,” the article declares dramatically.

As a youth, the piece claims Xi “read whatever books he managed to find,” but it was Hamlet that made him choose politics as a career, where he has imposed his iron will and drive to replace Mao Zedong as China’s most influential communist leader on his people.

“‘To be or not to be,’ Xi pondered the question on the barren loess plateau, and eventually made up his mind to dedicate himself to serving his country and the people,” the article claims, adding that Xi would often “emulate his favorite protagonist in the books.”

The titular protagonist of Hamlet delivers the “to be or not to be” soliloquy in the depths of despair, engaging in a conversation with himself on whether or not he should end his life. “To die—to sleep,/No more; and by a sleep to say we end/The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks,” Hamlet considers, expressing fear of “what dreams may come … in that sleep of death.” He ultimately decides against suicide and reinserts himself in the main political intrigue of the plot.

In this context, the Xinhua piece appears to imply that Xi Jinping contemplated suicide, but chose politics instead.

Xinhua shares even more outlandish legends about Xi, claiming he slept on a bed of bricks after being inspired by Russian novelist Nikolai Chernyshevsky and that he supports “diversity, equality and inclusiveness among civilizations.”

Not listed among the cultures Xi respects are those of western China: the Uighur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz cultures that his government has built concentration camps to erase. The latest estimates suggest that Xi has imprisoned up to 3 million people in the camps, where they are forced to learn Mandarin, give up their Muslim faith, memorize songs praising Xi Jinping, and perform slave labor.

Xinhua instead elevates Xi as a multicultural savant in light of his promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s plan to build and take over the world’s major roads, ports, and railways. Traveling the world to promote expensive BRI projects – many of which the host countries likely cannot afford – is Xi’s way of attempting to foster cultural exchanges, Xinhua claims.

The piece’s effusive praise for Xi has become common in Chinese state media. Xinhua has published even more favorable pieces abut Xi in the past. In 2017, the outlet posted an eight-page profile that claimed Xi was “a man who makes things happen” with an affinity for the poor and a passion for communism. The profile preceded a story in a People’s Daily satellite publication that declared Xi “a leader like Mao” for a new era.

Mao Zedong is responsible for at least 45 million deaths during the Great Leap Forward, not counting those killed in his takeover of China, the Cultural Revolution, or otherwise during his rule.

Xi has made propaganda a priority during his tenure. His Party nationalized all filmmaking to produce Han Chinese nationalist films and forced developers to create multiple telephone applications to promote Communist Party indoctrination. The Party punishes those who do not download and use at least one of these apps, titled “Study to Make China Strong.”

Xi has also worked to ensure his face appeared everywhere in China. Police pressure Christians in the countryside to replace crosses and images of Jesus with giant photos of Xi. At least one city plastered Xi’s face all over the local train system – calling the vehicle “Xi Jinping’s Train of Thought” – last year to promote his personality cult. “Big Daddy Xi’s” speeches also featured in government-produced rap music videos.

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