Thoughts after watching The Arrest of Ai Weiwei play.

Destroy_the_old_world_Cultural_Revolution_poster

Chinese poster saying: 打碎旧世界创立新世界 “Destroy the old world; build a new world.” Classic example of the Red art from the early Cultural Revolution. A Red Guard crushes the crucifix, Buddha and classical Chinese books with his hammer; c. 1967. From Wikipedia.

I have written a review of the play in a previous post. This post is about my concern for Ai Weiwei’s opinion on the future of China and art.

Throughout the play Ai Weiwei explained that classical art had died, and that it didn’t relate to people’s lives today. However if the play was all about free speech then surely we must respect that any artist who really enjoys doing classical art. Everyone is free to express their individuality with whatever art form one decides to pursue. If someone painted flowers that enchant me then I still think he or she is still an artist to admire and respect. I don’t think anyone is in the position to restrict the thinking of what art is or what kind of art we should practice.

At the end of the show, Ai Weiwei smashed a 4000 year old Chinese vase which symbolised harmony: to have something new is to break something old. It symbolises China’s society today, and calls for a abrupt change in Chinese government. It is a worrying view, as I strongly believe reform not revolution will serve China better.

As a person who loves China and want the best future for China,  I don’t believe that the way forward is to destroy anything just because it is old. The Cultural Revolution had the logo “Destroy the old world. Forge the new world.’ It didn’t work out well for China. Is this an overly simplistic view of China’s problems?

China just went ended over 100 years of war less than 63 years ago. Then it was the Cultural Revolution, famine and the Great Leap Forward. Most people have just started to live a better life after all the sufferings. A new war will just plunge people back into chaos and misery. I honestly don’t think Chinese people have the energy to start another revolution right now, since most Chinese want to focus their energy on improving their economical living conditions.

It takes decades to rebuild a broken country after war. Even looking at the comparatively successful example of the French Revolution, during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) more than 40,000 people died in less than 2 years.  With the population and scale of China, how many more would die through such revolution is unimaginable. In comparison, Britain chose a series of reforms to strip mornachy of its power with much less human and economical sacrifice through the Regency era then the Reform Act 1832.

I understand how much emotional and physical torment Ai Weiwei must have gone through, but we must cool our heads and restrain from using ‘violence against violence’.  We must instead look beyond personal sufferings to think what is really the best for Chinese people.

The Official Theatre website

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The theatre was packed, and even though the majority were just white middle class people, I was still thrilled to sense everyone’s excitement and anticipation, and grateful for the fascination China has for people living in the West.

After the play, some of the audience stood up and applauded. People were clearly delighted with what they had just seen. Overall the play was interesting and engaging – with a good mixture of serious analysis and humour.

The play had a brilliant opportunity to do something original with this intriguing story, yet I was disappointed to see almost everything happened in a confined interrogation space. It is a cliché of so many other films and plays on similar topics – with people tied up in a chair. I believe it is the time to challenge this formula and break old boundaries.

The play bravely gives every character a personality. Whether it is the prisoner, the prison guards, interrogators or the politicians. By looking at these peoples’ emotions and stories, the play displayed a more direct and sensitive outlook on daily lives in China.

The play also tried to explain Chinese inner government power struggles between different political groups. I don’t know whether the Western audience was familiar with this topic but it certainly tried to demonstrate the well-known fact in China: 一个共产党,许多政治党派 (one Central Committee, many political groups). Within the Communist Party of China, there are many groups of politicians who have very different views on how to govern China. For example: Some hold the view that China should be ruled with an iron fist and anti-Western values like that of Mao Zedong; some believe in military power over economic power; and others believe in a softer approach and certain levels of social freedom, like that of Deng Xiaoping. These political groups within the committee constantly battle over the control of China.

There are some ideologies from the play which raised bigger concerns for me. I’ve covered them more in my next blog post.

The Official Theatre website

Migrant Workers Gangnam Style

Of the thousands of people around the world who have tried to copy the popular Gangnam style dance, I have to say that this version by Chinese workers has the most profound political and social impact – they did not do it for fun but, did it to generate publicity in order to get their wages paid.

Recently Chinese migrant workers have staged thousands of protests relating to their pay, work conditions and their treatment across China’s booming cities. With the fast and broad spread of information and social media in China today, more and more Chinese migrant workers are aware of how to mobilize different channels to promote and highlight their causes. They are very conscious of the power of media in promoting the their own personal stories.

I feel very encouraged by these changes. These people no longer feel neglected and powerless because of their social status; they are the new breed of Chinese people who understand their value and who would push the urgently needed reform in China. This change of attitude and ideas give me the strength to help them have their voice heard.

I couldn’t wait to work with them in April on my new art project to discover more about these individuals. I am sure they will produce something unique and special to them rather than just copying the ubiquitous Gangnam Style.

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Photographer Michael Wolf captures portraits of toy workers in China holding up different toy parts. He tries to reveal the “countless Chinese factory workers slaving away in stuffy environments to construct piles of plastic toys”.

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This kind of images portraying Chinese migrant workers have filled the media and art world in recent years. On one hand, I give full appreciation to these photographers who are passionate about showing the lives of Chinese workers; on the other hand, I feel frustrated that these intelligent people are always shown in such disconnected and impersonal way – they are not the toys they make, yet, they look as uncharacteristic as the toys they make.

The conditions of Chinese factories need to improve, and the workers deserve better treatments. But it is not all doom and gloom, factories are never sexy and there are millions of people around the world who are doing uninspiring job everyday, not because they want to, but because they have to. Isn’t it time we move on to a more personal understanding of these people?

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When western photographers take a photo of Chinese people, there is very little or no communication between the photographer and their subjects. There is a general Western view on Chinese workers which is not the same as Chinese culture. Anyone has been to China know Chinese people are very open to conversation and making friends with Chinese is easy. Chinese people are curious  and always interested in other people and cultures. But  Western photographers tend to strip all the cultural context when photographing them. The results are often a serious of dull looking people looking guarded on camera. Of the 800 Chinese migrant workers I have interviewed for my project, everyone has exceptional vivid personality when I start to know them better, and these personalities shine through even in the hardest living or working conditions. They are often left disheartened by how the West often fails to capture the richness of their personalities.

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Perhaps it is a time we find out more about their integrity as person rather than merely pointing camera at them. Instead of feeling sorry for the lives they are living lets try to understand their admirable strength and how they risk everything to challenge and to change the fate of their future through factory work in China.

People in China holding Chinese flags while protest against government corruption – it’s ok to denounce the government, but not ok to denounce the unity of the country.

Like me, most Chinese people are brought up on images of China’s suffering in the hands of the Western and Japanese invasions. It always serves as a warning of what China might be again, if people don’t unite. The humiliation of these invasions still affects people’s lives in China today.

The more the West gets involved in Tibet, the more people fear the same history will repeat. With negative reports from Chinese central media, Chinese people believe that the West is trying to invade China again through the issue of Tibet.

Every middle class Chinese person I meet wants to go to Tibet. However, most of them are not interested in the Tibetan culture as much as the amazing scenery. China is always willing to learn from other cultures, but historically it looks down on cultures which are not as advanced as ours. This ignorance is a second barrier to understanding Tibetans and appreciating their way of living.

That’s why it is very hard for any Chinese to speak out for Tibet without being labeled a separatist. To be a separatist is to deny your own culture and people, which is seen as a traitor to your country. Once people in China see you as such, you won’t only be denounced by the government, but more crucially, you will lose creditability with the entire Chinese people. As an intellectual, it is much worse of a punishment to lose your audience.

Therefore, reform in Tibet will come at a much slower pace. As the Chinese slowly open to other cultures and influences, I sincerely believe Chinese people will reflect on their own lives and understand the actions of Tibetans with restored mutual respect.

Four young men in China went into hiding, after posting videos on Weibo showing them tearing up photos of Chairman Mao. It mirrored Sinead O’Connor tearing up a picture of the pope. All of them looked at the huge influence that both figures have on the modern world, and saw it as their right to emphatically disagree with it. Sinead was on the receiving end of death threats, boycotts of her music, and public outrage. Similarly, the young men faced a public fury that saw the online account of one of their girlfriends shut down in an attempt to limit the damage.

For millions of people figures like Chairman Mao or the Pope represent something indelible, a sort of fundamental foundation, so while the West champions freedom of speech and political expression, it seems there’s an unspoken limit – Sinead’s career never did recover from the backlash of that incident. I can imagine it being a Western act of challenging free speech. What surprised me was the fact Chinese youngsters are learning from their western counterparts to express their own opinions in a way that’s almost forbidden in Chinese society.

The Orphan of Zhao (2010 Chinese Film)

The Orphan of Zhao (2010 Chinese Film)

The recent controversy over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of the play Orphan of Zhao has sparked an online debate about the complexities of casting minority actors.

Although the anger of the Chinese and other East Asian actors is understandable, the issue carries more shades of grey underneath the black and white.

The fact that the RSC is doing Orphan of Zhao is a triumph. It shows a great interests in Asian culture and history. In the context of a non-racially biased society, the race and ethnicity of the cast members is by definition irrelevant, and it’s the opportunity for pure cultural exchange and understanding that matters. For this, I believe both the West and the East will benefit.

We can’t assume that a production of Romeo and Juliet in China is not true to Shakespeare, simply because it has no Western actors in it.

However, there is a total lack of East Asian actors in Western TV, film and plays. Most Asian actors who do appear are British, yet they are hardly ever casted as anything but a sterotypical Asian person.

We need to make a protest, but it must be for the right purpose and from a right angle. It’s important to note that making misleading protests when others are stepping out of their comfort zone makes them less likely to do so again.