How Ibsen came to influence the revolutionary movements of China

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen has been hugely influential in the history of theatre and his plays are among the most performed ones in the world. Not only did Ibsen infuse the world of theatre with a more realistic and character-driven style but his plays are also very political – which is indeed the case with his perhaps most famous work, A Doll’s House (1879). The political significance of Ibsen’s plays travelled across Eurasia to Japan and China in the early twentieth century and ended up influencing not only new radical movements such as anarchism and feminism, but its significance also garnered significant critique from far-right movements in China, showing that Ibsen’s writings had a meaningful role in the tumultuous political climate of China in the first half of the twentieth century.


Edward Krebs’ book Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism, shows how the anarchist faction within the New Culture Movement embraced Ibsen’s A Doll’s House not only as a feminist critique of the institution of marriage and a call for women’s liberation, but also as a call for the emancipation of love in Chinese society.1 For anyone familiar with A Doll’s House, the most obvious interpretation of the play is the perhaps more practical side of female emancipation from the structural limitations of life as a woman. That is, the limitations of marriage and family life where the woman has little room for freedom and expression, which, in the play, leads the protagonist, Nora, to reject all of this by the end of it. Interestingly, it seems that the New Culture and May Fourth movements in China not only embraced this but also used the, now perhaps taken for granted, search for love as a concept of both female emancipation and rebellion against the old way of life by a new focus on individuality, as is pointed out by Haiyan Lee. Indeed, Lee claims that ‘[n]o other translated text electrified the May Fourth generation more than Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House’.2 Lee goes on to write that it was not before anarchist takes on the play emerged that the inherent critique of bourgeoise domestic life in particular of A Doll’s House was used politically. Naturally, the combined implications of female emancipation and rejection of bourgeoisie life was then used as a rebellion against the Confucian family ideals. Moreover, the anarchist interpretation developed into a rejection of love as an ‘ideological camouflage’ for the lies of the Confucian family ‘covering up the unnatural and unjustified private ownership of sex’.3


Curiously, the apparent rejection by Nora of bourgeoisie life touted by the anarchists was used against them by the far right and the New Life Movement (NLM). As the illustration titled ‘Nora after Leaving Home’ from the magazine New Life Women’s Monthly implies, Nora’s rejection of family ideals leads to immorality, and in opposition to the leftist interpretation, she continues to embrace the capitalist bourgeoisie or perhaps a sleazier underground life.4 Obviously, the NLM, promoting a fascist and highly conservative ideology, was staunchly against the ideals of the New Culture and May Fourth movements and their rejection of the Confucian family ideal. As Clinton points out, the NLM critique highlights the futility of Nora leaving the traditional family structures given the lack of opportunity for independent women in Chinese society, which would lead her to a life of degeneracy.5 Thus, A Doll’s House did not only act as a critique of the Confucian family in China, but the open ending also allowed for some rather easy refutation of the leftist interpretation.


A Doll’s House was not the only Ibsen play that proved to be influential among leftist revolutionaries in China in this period. In The Birth of Chinese Feminism, Liu, Karl and Ko highlights how The Lady from the Sea, which was first translated into Japanese then into Chinese in 1920, fits perfectly into the anarcho-feminism of a significant figure in anarchism and feminism in China as He-Yin Zhen. The passage they focus on is one where Ibsen is very critical of the whole institution of marriage, which he describes as an arrangement similar to prostitution.6 This passage in itself is perhaps a more direct and radical critique of traditional family structures than most of what is said in A Doll’s House. By being so direct in the description of marriage as a form of prostitution, The Lady From the Sea might even have put off some not so radical leftists at the time, which might explain why A Doll’s House was more popular, and thus more influential.


The curious case of Ibsen’s influence on revolutionary movements in China is another proof of Ibsen’s skill as a playwright and it shows the relevance of his writings across cultures and time, which is furthermore exemplified by his continuous significance today. Ibsen, who may or may not have been an actual feminist himself, did write plays – such as those mentioned above and Hedda Gabler – which presents rebellion against society in the form of female rebellion. This made him a favourite among anarchists and feminists, and also an ‘easy’ target for more conservative voices. However, plays such as A Doll’s House obviously did not only inspire the most extreme leftists at the time since the message can be easily applied to wider society as a whole. It is for that reason Ibsen’s story of Nora’s rebellion became the most ‘electrifying’ foreign piece of writing in the eyes of the May Fourth generation.

  1. Krebs, Edward S., Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism (Lanham, Md, 1998), p. 162. []
  2. Lee, Haiyan, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 109. []
  3. Ibid., pp. 182-183. []
  4. Clinton, Maggie, Revolutionary Nativism: Fascism and Culture in China, 1925-1937 (Durham, 2017), p. 154. []
  5. Ibid., pp. 152-155. []
  6. Karl, Rebecca, Ko, Dorothy and Liu, Lydia, The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Text in Transnational Theory (New York, 2013), p. 93. []