Funding Scheme

RGC Faculty Development Scheme

Project Title

Revisioning Ibsen: The Aesthetics and Politics of Staging the Self in China and Hong Kong

Project Team (HSMC Staff) 

Prof TAM Kwok Kan, School of Humanities and Social Science (PI)

Other Collaborating Parties


Project Period

1-1-2016 to 31-12-2019 (on-going)

Funding Amount (HKD)



This is a critical study of Chinese Ibsenism as contested ideologies in social framing and self-fashioning, as well as politics in the Chinese (including Hong Kong) theatre and social culture. It will explore the ideological implications in recent Chinese stage productions of Ibsen, particularly with reference to the reinvention of the postsocialist self and gender in China and the postmodern experimentations in Hong Kong, in order to arrive at an understanding of the interplay between aesthetics and politics. The study will shed light on the key issues in the Chinese models of selfhood hinging on concepts of the Ibsenian self.

Ibsenism has been playing a key role in the Chinese quest for a new definition of the self since the 1910s. It was first considered a new philosophy of individualism and a new identity of the self to replace the Confucian collectivist identity. Stage productions of Ibsen in the early 20th century focused mainly on the concept of individualist self-identity and non-Confucian self-autonomy.

With the rise of socialist ideas in China in the 1930s, Ibsenism was redefined according to class ideology when class conflicts surfaced as matters of life and death in Chinese politics. Different interpretations of Ibsenism emerged as debates between individualism and collectivism in Chinese newspapers and journals. Numerous versions of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House were staged for a new experimentation with the concept of class in the redefinition of an individual. This strand of Ibsenism was extended into the 1960s with the individual characterized as a product of class consciousness. Ibsen’s Nora and other characters were then seen in the new light of socialist characterization.

Since the opening up of China in the 1980s, Ibsenism, however, has been subjected to new interpretations. Experimentations with Western concepts of gender and feminism can be found in the latest stage productions of A Doll’s House, The Lady from the Sea and Hedda Gabler shown in China and Hong Kong. Ibsen’s other plays that deal with the concept of self and self-identity, such as Peer Gynt, Ghosts and The Master Builder, were added to the theatre repertoire in China as well as in Hong Kong, and became new sites of contestation in representing complexities of the self with psychical depths.

Chinese Ibsenism has inherited from Bernard Shaw’s “Ibsenism” in its emphasis on the social ideas in Ibsen’s drama, but also deviated from it in that Chinese Ibsenists (including Hong Kong Ibsenists) have tended to re-brand Ibsenism as a Chinese moral authority for debates over sociopolitical dimensions of life. As part of the Chinese theatre, Hong Kong Cantonese theatre, particularly that before the 1980s, has also seen a great impact of Ibsenism in both form and matter. Since the last decade, Hong Kong theatre directors, however, has begun to reinterpret Ibsen from the perspective of psychological complexity in his drama.

Developing from my previous work and also different from the work of other scholars, I propose in this project to study the Ibsenian self and its manifestations in China/Hong Kong as both artistic and ideological constructs. The purpose of this study, hence, is to reexamine Chinese Ibsenism in its re-emergence as contested ideologies involving complex relations between the self, gender, class, state, culture and stage representations. The project seeks to address the following issues:

(1)  In what ways has Ibsenism been redefined in China’s postsocialist era and how does this

redefinition bear on the theatrical experimentations in China and Hong Kong?

(2) What visions of the self and gender have been experimented with in such productions?

(3) What discourse lies behind the new stage experimentations?

(4) What ideological implications are hidden in the new aesthetics of stage productions?