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  • Art and Ideology in China's Postsocialist Stage Productions of A Doll's House*
  • Kwok-kan Tam

Socialism in China involved a series of social and political experiments in which attempts were made to reinvent class structures, replace traditional cultures, and reengineer human relations. The methodology for these experiments was to test certain models, and if they worked, they would be used as prototypes for wider applications. Such a methodology was used in almost all fields of building a socialist society, including literature and art.

Looking back at the history of China's socialist construction, historians and art critics have noted that the "eight model plays" created during the Cultural Revolution in 1967-76 were not the first attempts at such a construction. They were endorsed as "revolutionary models" that aimed to negate previous attempts, even those made in the 1950s, and extend others that were used to promote proletarian values and cultivate a new heroism according to Mao's idea of socialism. As early as the mid-1950s, there were already attempts to theorize China's socialist literature and art. These attempts were ingenious in reconceptualizing literary and cultural creative works as reexaminations of class struggles (Tam, "From Social Problem Play" 387–93). For example, the heroic figures of the theatre were limited to workers, peasants, and soldiers because only these classes deserved to be called revolutionary heroes. In such socialist works, external descriptions were preferred to interior descriptions that demonstrated psychological complexities. The heroes were externalizations of revolutionary concepts at the expense of their inner struggles. Such approaches to the portrayal of the hero were based on the concept of materialism, in which the hero's feelings were viewed as reflections of the class to which they belonged.

Because of the nature of these sociocultural experiments, China's socialist construction in literature and art necessarily fell into a pattern of reproduction by replication. In this way, cultural production was dictated by formulaic models and [End Page 222] politics. Ensuring the success of this mechanical cultural (re)production required a powerful administrative structure with the ideological power to control artistic practices. In the field of drama, the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing and the Shanghai Theatre Academy have served since the 1950s as training grounds for theatre professionals, while theatres in other Chinese cities have served as stages for experimental performances.

Performing Femininity in A Doll's House

In modern Chinese drama, Ibsen's social plays, such as A Doll's House and An Enemy of the People, have functioned as models for plays on the themes of women's independence and the quest for the iconoclastic self. In the May Fourth era, when individualism was championed as a remedy for Confucian collectivism, A Doll's House was regarded as promoting individualist self-identity (Tam, "Ibsen and Modern Chinese Dramatists" 45–53). However, in the 1930s, when proletarian collectivism was needed to promote a working-class consciousness, A Doll's House was cited in many novels that called for women to leave home and join the working class as a way to seek personal independence and freedom. Productions of the play were also meant to advocate for women's emancipation.

Among Western writers, Ibsen's immense popularity in China in both the Republican and socialist eras has been exceptional (Tam, "Decoding Literary History" 263–73). He was the only Western author whose works survived the political turmoil in China, and his work has been well received, both despite and because of conflicting ideologies and interpretations. What makes A Doll's House so popular for stage adaptation and why is it so appealing to Chinese audiences? The play has been performed in various historical periods with emphases on different elements of the construction of the female character. The three most significant representations of womanhood in A Doll's House occur in the following scenes:

  1. 1. In the opening scene, Helmer calls Nora a songbird, but criticizes her as a spendthrift. It is in this scene that the relation between Helmer and Nora is shown to be based on pretensions, as well as on the assumption that Nora is Helmer's pet. Nora knows how to...