12 Angry (Chinese) Men


As a result of a rather whimsical decision made by my wife, I found myself at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre for the first time last Saturday, attending a Chinese language version of the classic play Twelve Angry Men. I enjoyed it way more than I expected to.

To begin with, I was surprised by how “Chinese” the story seemed. The part about there being no air conditioning and the fan not working, and one of the guys wanting to be done with jury duty in time for a ball game (it was baseball originally, I believe), and the murder weapon being a knife rather than a gun–all just seemed to work well in the setting of Chinese society. It wasn’t until towards the end, when one of the characters started talking about how the jury’s deliberation was their duty as part of a “democratic society” and that “democracy made their country great” that the illusion sort of fell apart.

This isn’t to say that I think that modern day China is equivalent to the 1954 America in which the original story was set, but it’s interesting to me that it worked so well in this case.

I should also mention that the legal system of mainland China doesn’t make use of juries, so the “illusion” that it could be a mainland Chinese story was never very convincing to begin with. It did make for a good show, though.

I brushed up a little on my legal vocab before the play (ChinesePod has a fair amount), but it turned out that I didn’t need a whole lot. Some of the more difficult key vocabulary from the play:

贫民窟: slum
陪审团: jury
陪审员: juror
证词: testimony
合理的怀疑: reasonable doubt

Finally, a note on the title. This version of the play was simply titled 12个人 (12 People), but the previous movie version was called 十二怒汉 (12 Enraged Men). The classic version of that film is on Tudou under that title.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I’ve never seen the original movie (nor play for that matter) but did watch the 1997 remake by Friedkin, which also features a stellar cast. I didn’t think I’d like a movie that didn’t “move around”, but I ended up loving it.

    I’d really be interested to know what the average Chinese person’s take on it was. Though I’m sure the demographic audience of a a dramatic arts centre could hardly be considered average anywhere outside of Shanghai, did you hear any opinions about the content (over, say, the acting or dialog)?

    A jury of your peers and “reasonable doubt” are excellent elements of the US legal system, but to me it is trumped by the presumption of innocence. I don’t know a thing about the Chinese legal system (and hope to keep it that way) but in any court case references I’ve seen on Chinese news, it has always appeared much the opposite here.

  2. The original 十二怒汉 has a very good ranking on Douban (9.3/10): http://movie.douban.com/subject/1293182/

    It is 19th on the top 250 : http://movie.douban.com/top250 (which is very similar to the top250 imdb, there is a fascinating blog post to make by analyzing the differences between the two)

  3. In an Advanced Social Psychology class, I once did a research paper on a piece of the dialogue from the English movie version of “12 Angry Men”. The objective was to rate the sentences and body language used by individual characters in terms of various criteria (ie: was the behavior eliciting an aggressive response, a command, a passive action etc.).

    It would be quite interesting to rate the same section of this Chinese play to determine if the scores would be similar. I would hypothesize that I would get a totally different result, due to different cultural nuances and tones embedded in language.

  4. Recently saw the play at a local playhouse here in Southern California. Had never seen the movie, but the play was well done indeed. Seeing this is a Chinese context must have been fascinating.

  5. China is a big country with huge population. There are various people with different background. Now, the rich Chinese are sending their kids to U.S high schools, while poor Chinese kids are still living in a home around by mountains and they have never seen a train yet.

    To some extent, I do think that some parts of modern day China are equivalent to the 1954 America.

  6. […] long ago, my wife and I went to see a Chinese version of the classic play 12 Angry Men. Over the October holiday we decided to go see another play (comedy this time), and what better […]

  7. How can I obtain a copy of Xu Ang’s remake of 12 angry men?

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