Academic journal article Comparative Drama

(Mis)reading Ibsen: Chinese Noras on and off the Stage and Nora in Her Chinese Husband's Ancestral Land of the 1930s as Reimagined for the Globalized World Today

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

(Mis)reading Ibsen: Chinese Noras on and off the Stage and Nora in Her Chinese Husband's Ancestral Land of the 1930s as Reimagined for the Globalized World Today

Article excerpt

The curtain rises to reveal a stage in semi-darkness--with spotlight on a young female Chinese musician upstage, dressed in red and playing jingerhu, a two-stringed traditional Chinese music instrument, and another young Chinese actress in full dan (female role) costume singing a traditional Peking opera song.

As this short overture transits into the opening scene of the play, we see a Chinese home of a yesteryear decor, simply furnished, and two men in their forties, one dressed in a long-sleeved Chinese jacket and one in suit and tie. The man in traditional Chinese attire, Han Ermao, writes on a scroll of red paper with ink and brush while the man dressed in Western clothing, Ruan Ke, comments on Han's calligraphy. Apparently it is the eve of chunjie (spring festival), the Chinese New Year.

Enters a woman in her thirties, a European woman in silky traditional Chinese dress, returning from holiday shopping, who greets the two men in Chinese with noticeable foreign accent: "Nimen hao" (How're you guys). Han, also speaking Chinese, asks Nora to come and take a look at the red scrolls he and Ruan Ke have written and adjudicate whose calligraphy is better. She praises both and hugs and kisses Han who admonishes her, half-jokingly: "We the Chinese are not used to this [public display of affection], a habit of yours you can't rid of even after this many years [in China]."

Thus begins the 1998 production (reproduced in 2001 and 2006) of Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House mounted by China's Central Experimental Theater (zhongyan shiyan huaju yuan) in Beijing, in which Nora follows her Chinese husband Han Ermao (Chinese transliteration of Helmer) to his ancestral land of the 1930s, further complicating the theme of individualism and gender equality with interlingual, intercultural, and transnational twists and tensions. (1)

The reception history of Ibsen in China has been well documented by scholars both in and outside China, especially the reception history up to the early 1990s. (2) One of the recurrent themes in such studies is that for a long while, especially in the early decades of the twentieth century, Ibsen's influence in China had been more in the realm of social reform than in the imaginary world of the theatre. In the last decade or so, there has been a backlash in China, not against Ibsen himself, but against members of the May Fourth (New Culture Movement) generation such as Hu Shi (1891-1962). Hu Shi and kindred spirits had introduced Ibsen to China, appropriating the Western playwright as a champion of sorts, and making Nora, the heroine of A Doll's House, a rallying cry for the cause of women's liberation--a gross misreading (wudu), as some scholars have charged recently, that reduced the "real" and "true" (zhenshi, zhenzheng) self of one of the greatest modern playwrights into disjointed fragments and misused him most egregiously. (3)

It would be tempting to offer a deconstructionist truism that "all reading is misreading" (4) by way of apologizing for Hu Shi and his May Fourth generation kindred spirits, which according to Edward Said would amount to "an abrogation of a critic's responsibility" because it is "perfectly possible to judge misreadings (as they occur) as part of a historical transfer of ideas and theories from one setting to another." (5) If, for the purpose of this discussion, we think of Ibsen--his life, career, and entire oeuvre, dramatic and otherwise--as a "strong" text, to borrow from Harold Bloom, it would prove only inevitable that he would invite and engender many strong misreadings instead of being easily reduced to simple or simplistic readings. In the case of Hu Shi and other Ibsen enthusiasts of the May Fourth generation, their "strong" misreadings of Ibsen were not motivated by "anxiety of influence," to rebel against their literary peres and stake out their own place in literary history with their creative supremacy, but by an acute anxiety for the existential crisis China was facing then and by an acute sense of urgency for the renewal of its people and culture. …

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