Margareta Sörenson*

Abstract: Sweden was late in launching an East Indian Company. The trends from the royal courts in Europe were already profoundly influential in Sweden, when the eighteenth century opened for a blossom in Chinese art and craft. Chinese styles and Chinese inspired aesthetics became a sign of taste and wealth, obvious in architecture, interior decoration, in materials such as silk, porcelain and lacquer, and in the arts and the stage. However, the first delight in and respect of Chinese tradition gradually developed into a colonial cliché, dance being a telling example.

Keywords: stereotypes, dance, kineseri, exoticism

Sweden’s Versailles, the royal palace Drottningholm, is beautifully situated west of Stockholm, on one of the many large islands in the lake Mälaren. Once a summer palace of the royal family, the estate is today a residence of the king and queen. A smaller part of the park is a perfect example of a baroque garden, the vaster parts in so called English park style, well arranged to look ”natural” with ponds, lawns and huge oak and elm trees—perfect for picnics for the many visitors. The palace together with its lanes, surrounding buildings and gardens are since 1991 a UNESCO World Heritage.

There are several treasures among the buildings, such as the theatre from the mid-eighteenth century, still used in summertime for operas, theatre and dance. The performances are not too many, as the wooden building, with trompe-l’oeil painted walls pretending to be luxurious marble, must be protected and spared also for generations to come. But strolling in the park might also lead to the somewhat remote Chinese Pavillon, built between 1753 and 1769, in Chinese inspired rococo style. Bright pink with green copper roof, yellow decorations and Chinese dragons finalizing the roof’s elegant curves à la chinois, it looks like a toy and a jewellery box. Recently restored, it is a true pleasure to visit—modest in measurements, agreeably open to the garden—and every inch of it “fake” Chinese. The aesthetical influence from China in far North Sweden during the eighteenth century is a fascinating story with footprints in arts and design, as well as in the theatre for a very long time, in fact until our days.

Mrs Dulondel with her ”treasure” in Drottningholm; the French dancer Marie Dulondel, most likely taking a walk with the ballet master Gallodier. Earlier, the French ballerina ”imported” to the Swedish court theatre, had as a gift from the king four pair of shoes in Chinese silk—a true luxury.
Poor but Rich

The kingdom of Sweden closed its martial history in the beginning of the eighteenth century with the death of Charles XII. The nation was poor, and the finances were problematic; new military plans were out of reach. A new interest in mercantilism was growing, the era of illumination was well received with many steps forward in science, but trade was still depending on the privileges from the king to be able to operate. In 1731, however, an East Indian Company was finally founded, co-financed by the king, and based in Gothemburg at the Swedish west coast, from where its fleet sailed to China and India. The first ship to leave in 1732 sailed to China and arrived in Guangzhou, well noted in the official chronicle of the Quing dynasty (Qing Shi Gao 清史稿, chapter 159), and the first direct contact between Sweden and China was established.

The Swedish aristocrats, the royal families and the court had for decades organized the life of the court according to the great model of elegance, courtesy and finesse: the French Royal court. The language spoken in the Swedish court was French, the foreign theatre companies were French or Italian-speaking French, the French language was established for theatre as well as ballet, for architecture, plastic arts, design and fashion.

Chinese porcelain was imported to Sweden by the Swedish East Indian Company founded in 1737. Time for delivery was two to three years. This cup is a replica from the Museum of Gothenburg. Photo: Ulf Sörenson

For generations, the Swedish royal family had married their princes with German princesses, and the entry into Sweden of queen Lovisa Ulrika, sister to Friedrich the Great of Preussen, in the first decades of the eighteenth century, meant an entirely French orientation of the court. Lovisa Ulrika, a personal friend of Voltaire, found the Swedish standard of culture poor and provincial. She complained to her mother in Germany, and asked for contacts, cultural news and suggestions for the Swedish court. Within some years, she could enjoy a vivid French style culture around her, with theatre, balls, masquerades and excursions where everyone was dressed up as shepherds or as Vikings in an exclusive playfulness performed in real life.

The Chinese Fashion and Sign of Wealth

The Chinese style and Oriental inspiration was part of the French trend. Blue and white Chinese porcelain was ordered by wealthy Swedes from China with monograms—the time for delivery was normally two or three years. Silk was the highest fashion in men’s and women’s cloths, hats, gloves, in stockings and in shoes—extremely expensive. Silk, woven or with painted patterns for walls was a luxury possibility for the richest. In parallel with the blue-and-white porcelain, the style in Europe called ”Famille rose” (known in Chinese as Fencai (粉彩) or Ruancai) was equally popular since the 1720s, with its delicate pink and green flowers and leaves lingering in asymmetric, organic patterns. In contrast to older Swedish folklore tradition, the Chinese style is airy, light, rich in pastel colors and brightness, inventive in its anti-symmetric thinking, poetic in its elegant way of catching a moment in a quick sketch.

Taste and money: two Chinese figurines in the window of Stora Nyckelviken. Photo: Ulf Sörenson

Curiously enough, no Chinese person was even close to the pavilion. The little palace was conceived by a Swedish architect, Carl-Fredrik Adelcrantz, exquisite and sensitive to styles in trends; carpenters and others involved were Swedish, topped by French and Italian artists for more advanced decorations. The whole Chinese style fascination was based on imported pictures and artifacts and the “big brother” in culture setting the score: the French royal court.


In political terms, the great thirst for foreign products was not seen as healthy by the national powers and different restrictions and interdictions were introduced from the 1730s on: the so called “luxury legislation,” a protectionist law that tried to make the country independent of other nations and powers. Thus, coffee, chocolate, punch and other colonial products were forbidden and reserved only for the royal court and the aristocracy. Consequently, a network of underground coffee shops started to grow in Stockholm. A long row of experiments to cultivate mulberry trees and silk masks failed repeatedly, and, finally, the Swedish climate put an end to the dream of domestic silk production. To import raw silk and at least weave it in Sweden was a solution, as well as to encourage the new material, cotton.

At the court theatre, the French actress Marie Marguerite Morel-Dulondel, a member of a French theatre group, had as a personal gift from king Adolf Fredrik, whose mistress she was for a couple of years: four pairs of silk shoes for the performances. A member of the audience notes the excellence of Mme Dulondel when she played in Les chinois, a French comedy by Regnard, where some of the acts were commedia dell’arte lazzis, imitating a “Chinese doctor”: I have to confess that this little lady has many qualities, she dances well, she acts well and she sings well.”

The ”volailler” of the Chinese pavilion in Drottningholm; a cage for exotic birds. Photo: Ulf Sörenson

In dance, ethnic styles—danse de caractère—is a much appreciated and entertaining variation. A Chinese style in dance is often profiled of quick, running steps, angled feet and fingertips in the air, in contrast to other folklore based dance styles, such as the Italian tarantella or the Hungarian czardas. More than 150 years later, Petipa-Ivanov still felt tempted to use several different cultural styles in The Nutcracker, to take one well-known example, where the short Chinese dance is a sequence with choreographed “Chinese” stereotypes, as well as others like the Arabian dance.

Video 1

Nutcracker (Chinese dance), 2015. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal
Art for the Bourgeoisie

The Swedish society was not struck by any revolution, but, gradually, the political power of the royal family diminished and basic liberal ideas were established, leading to parliamentarianism in the middle of the nineteenth century. Performing arts were no longer a special interest of the members of the royal family, but, gradually, the old court theatre turned into the institution that today is called ”national.” A larger audience of the growing middle class could enjoy a range of ticket prices allowing them to spend an evening at the theatre, where a program of dramatic theatre, dance and opera was mixed.

The rococo-Chinese style was inspired by the fashion of the French royal court and made after pictures and handicraft objects from China. Photo: Ulf Sörenson

Also, the already established sign of wealth in being an owner of Chinese porcelain, silk, furniture and architectural accents filtered down to the classes of wealthy families of trading and commerce, of banking and of the many new state and city officials working in different kind of administrative institutions. To have a “Kineseri,” Chinese-looking accent in furniture and interior decorations became trendy in private but wealthy homes. Even in countryside manors, a drawing room with a Chinese cabinet in black lacquer with golden decorations was a sign of cultivation, taste—and money.

Video 2

Mariisnky, The Nutcracker, Tea (Chinese Dance), Ovation [Another version of the Nutcracker Chinese dance scene by Mariinsky Ballet, 2012]
Decoration and Entertainment

When does the most respectfully treated and trendsetting Chinese style develop into a more general exoticism and orientalism? Obviously, the first meeting with the Chinese art and handicraft during the eighteenth century made a deep impact on the most privileged classes, as a sign of status and taste. By the time of a more spread out colonial structure, it becomes part of everyday life to consume goods from the Far East. Respectfulness was part of the first discovery of other cultures, but, during the era of slavery and the competition between colonial powers to conquer the continents outside Europe, the attitudes changed to the oriental civilization as a trend in the arts. At the theatre a “foreign flavor” is added to make the productions attractive, like the classical ballet The Bayadère or the opera L’africaine which made a sensational show of exoticism.

The rococo style in architecture was topped with Chinese style decoration elements. Summer palace of Svindersvik, built during the 1740s, today part of the Nordic Museum. Photo: Ulf Sörenson

The Swedish leading house choreographer at the Royal Opera in the middle of the nineteenth century, Anders Selinder, was a ballet master and made numerous works of choreography for the needs of the house. He also had a most popular Children’s ballet, a group of dancing children, performing also outside Stockholm, admired for their “freshness” and natural spontaneity, much in tone with the view of romanticism of a child as pure, original and “true.” Among the many pieces he created for the children’s ballet was The Calif in Bagdad and Mungo-Bungo-Gonggong the Great, a ”kineseri,” that is, a Chinese style entertaining dance show. Now, “Chinese” must be in quotation marks and understood as a dress-and-style-performance inspired by drawings and porcelain decoration.

Video 3

Fredrik Benke Rydman’s Nötknäpparen, trailer [Swedish street dance version of the Chinese dance of Nutcracker by Fredrik Benke Rydman (2016)]

Circus had, during the early nineteenth century, developed into the art form we know as traditional circus, a rich show of a variation of “numbers,” in different circus disciplines, where the ones based on acrobat tricks still often has a Chinese origin. ”Chinese Pole” is even today the most frequent name for a classic Chinese discipline, where acrobats work on a vertical pole, tilted or straight.

Fireworks as well as shadow theatre, “ombres chinoises,” are other examples of the major trend to “import” refined Chinese cultural techniques. They all travelled West, and reached Sweden as well as other European countries during the eighteenth century, in bigger scale, for a wider audience.

Video 4

The Chinese Pavillion, Kina Slott (Sweden) Vacation Travel Video Guide
Ingmar Bergman and Aunt Lotten’s Treasure

In his biographically inspired novel, Laterna Magica, Ingmar Bergman writes about his aunt Lotten, who sometimes comes for Sunday dinner with the Bergman family. Little Ingmar finds the lady disgusting, smelly and with a hairy nose—but she “owns a treasure. After dinner and coffee, she unpacks from a wooden yellow box a Chinese shadow play theatre. A sheet is stretched and nailed to the door frame between the living-room and the dining-room, the lights are switched off and aunt Lotten performs.” Needless to say, how close the art of shadow play is to cinema, and still, in the 1920s, puppet and toy theatres were a common entertainment in upper- or middle-class families.

The blue salon in the Chinese pavilion in Drottningholm: a lacquer cabinet to the left, figurines, urges and wall paintings on silk. Drawing by Swedish architect Ferdinand Boberg. Nordic Museum.

At the turn of the century 1800-1900 and the first decades of the twentieth century, orientalism and exoticism were frequent in the arts of modernism. Chinese and Japanese aesthetics together were sources of inspiration for the impressionists, as well as for the modern dance of Ballets Russes and Ballets Suédois in Paris. The mix and eclectic use of traditions, and that they were without deeper respect for their origins, is striking. African art was embraced as “negritude,” and jazz music and dance made a profound impact in the arts for the whole century.

Serious studies, however, like Bertolt Brecht’s in Chinese theatre were upcoming already before the World War II. Brecht approached the Chinese theatre tradition respectfully and fascinated by the non-realistic realization on stage. The star actor Mei Lanfang toured Europe and the U.S.A. and impressed an avant-garde audience with his skillfulness, which Brecht translated into his ideas of an alienation effect. After World War II and the beginning of the era of liberation of the colonized world, India, in 1947, and China, in 1949, were among the pioneers.

Canton harbor in China; in the background, the “foreign factories” and the Swedish national blue-yellow flag—third flag from the right. Photo: SMS, the National Maritime Museums
The Miaowing Cat and the Critics

An original Chinese Jinju performance on a European tour visited Sweden for the first time in 1955. Thanks to a certain popularity of Brecht, the Swedish audience felt familiar with his ideas, and the play The Good Soul from Szechuan was staged in 1953, in Sweden. The Jinju theatre company performed in Paris and then left for Stockholm. Several Swedish critics went to Paris to see the show and had more time to write about it before the opening in Stockholm.

Opinions were split; and it is interesting to note that a famous and respected music critic was not even embarrassed to describe the singing like “a long cat’s miauuuuu in falsetto, sometimes getting close to a baby’s cry.” Another critic behaves better and seems to remind herself of the eighteenth century tradition: “To describe classical Chinese theatre is like touching the finest Chinese porcelain, even our words are too clumsy to fit in . . .  this synthesis of acrobatics, dance, song, speech, music and mime—in a way that might express the universe in a finger’s movement.”

In an essay, Swedish researcher Christina Nygren, specialist in Asian classic theatre traditions, discusses the reviews and the European viewpoint that Jinju is not “real” opera, taking the European opera as the norm. The 1950s were a time of a new interculturalism (in Sweden a lively engagement in the United Nations to take one example), but still, writes Nygren, “the starting point is the euro-american perspective which underlines differences . . . an exoticism rather than an opening up for exchange, which has been critiqued from Asian countries experiencing ‘cultural tourism’ from Europe and the US robbing their own culture.”

The regional Värmland’s Musuem in Karlstad, Sweden, was built 1929 by Swedish architect Cyrillus Johansson, inspired by Chinese architecture, symbols and style. The new annex building by Carl Nyrén (1998) continues the Chinese inspired aesthetics.

Two hundred years had passed since the delicate silk and the fragile porcelain was handled with gracious care by the aristocrats of Sweden. According to the United Nations or the Swedish foreign policy of the 1950s, all nations and all cultures should be seen and met with the same respect, an internationalist dream. However, the admiration, status and inspiration of a long time ago had changed to a Eurocentric look at the world and the other. The decades closer to the twenty-first century and globalization changed the pattern gradually, but not entirely. A visit to the Chinese pavilion in Drottningholm invites the visitor to go back in time and experience a piece of China like a sleeping beauty in the far north royal garden.

*Margareta Sörenson is a theatre and dance critic, writer and journalist, researcher and lecturer. As a critic, she works for the daily national Expressen in Sweden, as well as Danstidningen, the dance journal covering Scandinavia. She has written books on theatre, performing arts for young audiences, puppetry and dance. Her most recent book is on Mats Ek. Ms. Sörenson has contributed to numerous anthologies and international journals, such as Alternatives Théâtrales and the World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Art, published by UNIMA. She teaches dance history and choreography at LTU, a Swedish university, in its program for dance teachers. Margareta has been the president of IATC since 2014.

Copyright © 2018 Margareta Sörenson
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Chinese Shadows on Swedish Stages