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Hong Kong Sees the Globe: Lindzay Chan on Master Nan Huai-chin and the Existentialism of Shakespeare’s King Lear


Most of us have a favorite Shakespeare play, and that speaks volumes about the universal appeal and wisdom of this Elizabethan-era English playwright. Mine are Macbeth and Henry V. Shakespeare aficionados often observe that every performance reveals a new side of not just the Bard of Avon, but also a different aspect of our human nature. Therefore, a new rendition of King Lear by Hong Kong theater director and actor Tang Shu-wing promises to bring Shakespeare’s insight into human nature and the power of the human story through a nonverbal, all-female stage version. It features a joint, collaborative cast between actors from Hong Kong and counterparts from the National Theatre Marin Sorescu in Craiova, Romania.

This rendition is one of five productions in two weeks of Shakespeare nourishment at the Hong Kong International Shakespeare Festival from 5–16 June 2024, in Hong Kong’s new cultural hub of West Kowloon. Leading King Lear is Hong Kong actress and dancer Lindzay Chan, who traveled the world as a principle dancer and served on the board of the Hong Kong Ballet Board of Directors. In 1992, she won the Golden Horse Award, Taiwan’s most prestigious film recognition, and Portugal’s Bronze Camellia Award for best actress. She has explored many aspects of well-being and spirituality, including becoming an authority in yoga and a well-being coaching.

When we began our discussion, her first striking idea was how the power of Shakespeare could be amplified without words: that is, lifted out of the English language, of its culture, of its temporal context, and truly universalized through “no-dialogue”—she shared this thought earlier with an audience at the press event. She also noted that King Lear expressed a very Buddhist moral: that famous teaching of birth, aging, illness, and death (生老病死).

Lindzay Chan. From

“In the play, King Lear shows that between these great landmarks of life, we have so many feelings about these milestones that we have to express. When you’re young, you’re full of pride and ego,” she observed. “And before you die, you lament your shortcomings and failures, or how you wish you might have been nicer or kinder to someone. Regrets. When you get sick, you’re full of fear—Lear laments that he’s losing his mind.”

In the play, Lear, who has given away his kingdom too quickly, leaves himself at the mercy of predatory heirs, and in the face of waning status and authority and the loss of familial closeness, exhibits signs of madness, bipolarity, and psychosis. The king’s death, which is triggered by overwhelming grief at loss upon loss—including his daughter—is far less violent or spectacular than many other Shakespearean protagonists: think Romeo and Juliet, or Macbeth, whose own macabre end is a sobering meditation on the pursuit and maintenance of power unfairly gained and wielded. Yet Lear’s final end is perhaps all the more moving and relatable.

“You have different things that come with all these big anchors—the emotions of living, the emotions of learning,” said Lindzay. “If you think about it, life itself is a teaching method and tool. By the end of his life, Lear was able to reflect on everything he had done and experienced and was able to gain just a bit of wisdom.” Lindzay related a proverb that celebrates the fortune of reaching old age: “If you’re able to practice, and reflect,” she qualified, noting: “If you reach your twilight years without practicing and self-reflection, then that is a wasted old age. King Lear did not waste his old age. Sad as it was, he was able to reflect on it.”

Tang Shu-wing. Image courtesy of Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio

Lindzay has lived with injuries for years, which have been ameliorated by her practice of yoga and healthy living but still can affect her. “When I dislocate my shoulder, I practice, trying to observe the pain. But it becomes so overwhelming there is no more observation. And when we’re talking about dying, with the exception of practiced masters, there are very few people able to observe their own death.” She is particularly struck by how the character of Lear, despite his burgeoning mental condition, remained lucid and self-aware—and therefore able to reflect on his misfortunes. For Lindzay, a healthy body is key to functioning in the aspects of life that matter. “I would not be able to do what Shu-wing wanted if I was weak. These dancers could not do what the director wanted if their health and bodies weren’t robust. That is the most basic of requirements for so many people to enjoy life and to make a living.”

Her emphasis on physicality and reflections on the state of the body in the context of her own health and her yoga practice are indirectly related to her bond with Master Nan Huai-chin (1918–2012), a seminal cultural polymath who was remarkable for his versatility in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, including Vajrayana as well as the tangmi (Chinese esoteric Buddhism) practice of bodhisattva Cundi’s dharanis and rituals.

“There are ‘eight limbs’ in yoga, and one of them is asana, or physical practice,” she said. “And I just happened to practice asana with Master Nan’s daughter-in-law. We always practiced hard together in class. And then she told me she was taking some students to see her father-in-law, and that’s how I met him 15 years ago. And he was kind and generous.”


When the group arrived at Master Nan’s Taihu Great Learning Centre in Suzhou, all his students told Lindzay and her group that they were remarkably lucky to enjoy a personal meeting with him. Reflecting on all that he taught, she said that she felt completely blind: “I still am: only now do I reflect on what he said with fresh eyes and a different perspective. Every day he gave us a hard schedule: we had to meditate the whole day, and if you have a weak mind you can’t do it. But if you have a weak body, you also can’t do it, even if you have a strong mind.”

Lindzay related how she had to write a report each day about what she felt in her meditative experience. “I wrote page upon page of observations, very basic stuff—my mind was wandering, my body hurt . . . and then at the end of it all, all he wrote was, kai kai xin xin guo re zi (开开心心过日子).” This translates to roughly: “Live out your days happily.” At first, Lindzay was surprised and not a little disappointed. “I remember my reaction: really? I had written all these pages and that was all you had to say?” she recalled, laughing.

“Of course, I was reading it with a judging and limited mind. But since then, as I’ve lived up to now, I look at his words completely differently and I realize how hard it is. But it’s what I endeavor to live up to. It’s so easy to become unhappy in everyday life, to get thrown off by a rude remark or a nasty encounter. And as we get older, we and those we care about experience sickness and death. We experience these realities that Shakespeare revealed so eloquently and vividly. But Master Nan’s line has stuck with me and that is my daily practice. How can you get up with a smile on your face? How can you meet misfortune and failure and not regret it? Kai kai xin xin guo re zi: that is at once the easiest and the hardest thing.”

It is remarkable how resonant Lindzay’s idea of Shakespeare is with the universalist message of Buddhism. It is also interwoven with her reflections about physicality and health, and even her bond with Master Nan. As an amateur history enjoyer, it was initially difficult for me to understand how Shakespeare’s plays can be separated from his historical context. It did not take much for Lindzay to correct my preconception, and even as I scrambled to book my place for Tang’s King Lear, I already know that every one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces pass the test for a no-dialogue rendition in the hands of a good director. And the universal messages of the human experience in Shakespeare, from ruminations on grief and impermanence to explorations of fate and agency, are marvelous education for any spiritually minded person.

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