Rebecca Catching

Costume Lectures in a Post-Socialist China
—The Social Practice of Grass Stage

*This article won an award in the reviews category from the International Association of Theatre Critics (China chapter) in 2019 after being published in Flash Art in 2016.

My first experience with the Grass Stage experimental theater troupe was the production of “Lu Xun 2008” at the Downstream Garage. Even through the fog of my then rudimentary Chinese, I had an exhilarating feeling that amongst the dreary Stalinist housing blocks, there was something truly interesting happening—a small glimmer of  civil society. “Lu Xun 2008” was a re-envisioning of Lu Xun’s “Madman’s Diary,” where his trope of social-cannibalism was translated into physical theatre through a kind of human barbeque—the actors rolling their way across the floor like lamb skewers on a grill. This kind of “zhong kouwei” 重口味 or strong flavor is typical of an average Grass Stage production—date-night theatre, this is not.

"World Factory" by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai
“World Factory” by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai

At the post-performance discussion of “Lu Xun 2008,” the audience was asking both naïve and incredibly critical questions to the actors—it was a charged atmosphere unlikely to be found in other more commercial venues—but more than that, it was a rare space for public dialogue. The mission of Grass Stage is the creation of a “new social theatre movement” and they are known for their well-researched, complex productions—the creation of which also serves as a form of education for the members of the collective. They are assigned homework, readings of relevant texts selected by the members themselves which evolve into discussions that become fodder for the contents of the plays, many of which ask deep existential questions about how to survive the ruthless conditions of advanced capitalism.

"World Factory" by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai
“World Factory” by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai

A Theatre of Provocation

Unlike most Chinese theatre productions, they aim to stage their productions for vastly different audiences, both well-heeled white collars or “bailing” 白领and the “wenqing”文青 or cultured youth of the first-tier cities and also the marginally-educated workers living on various industrial campuses in China’s manufacturing heartlands.

Their work taps into an underground and frequently-unspoken zeitgeist of China’s working class and the soul-pulverizing pressure found on the factory floor, the office cubicle and in the home. “The life of society is the major concern of theater,” writes group founder Zhao Chuan, “But theater does not focus on society through reflection, rather it focuses on penetration and more substantial interventions, like questioning, in-depth questioning. It’s like my friend says, ‘like a towel, you must wring it and wring it until the truth seeps out.[i]’ … This kind of theater is harsh and strict; it is not a show; rather it pushes theater to happen.”

The theatre of the grass stage, is, in fact, not always that easy to watch. There are no seductive narratives to pull the viewer along, rather their plays are more of a collage of scenes which take the form of songs played on acoustic guitar, documentary footage, physical theatre, soliloquies or dialogues between individuals. In this way, their plays cross over into the realm of performance art and in fact, the collective frequently performs in museums and other contemporary art venues.

"World Factory" by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai
“World Factory” by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai

Dialoguing With Historical Theatrical Modalities

Their rebellious stance and fragmented methods put them at odds with Shanghai’s contemporary commercial theatre ecology, and the commercial elements of “haipai” or the Shanghai school, known for its embrace of capitalism and commercial forms. At the same time, they embody certain haipai elements—the openness, flexibility, and resourcefulness—which have led to their success. The group adopts “poor theater” aesthetics (largely out of necessity), and is composed of exclusively non-professional actors. They do not sell tickets and have a policy of only accepting donations, one which stems from the necessity of circumventing the official theatre system.

But beyond haipai, the group also responds to Shanghai as a strategic locus of the Communist party and its deification of the worker. Speaking on the specificity of Shanghai, Zhao Chuan explains, “There was lots of worker culture. According to the CCP, Shanghai was an important industrial site; as Marx put the workers in the highest regard, Shanghai was made important.” The group’s work also reflects Shanghai’s history of social theater and the theatrical productions of the May Fourth Movement, plays which put forth anti-feudal, and anti-imperialist ideologies, often focusing on one central theme, such as, for example, the oppression of women.

Like the socialist itinerant theatre troupes of the 1930s and 40s, Grass Stage makes visiting second and third-tier cities a core element of their practice. They perform in

non-conventional spaces and search out non-theater audiences—i.e. those who would not typically spend money on theatre tickets. These “field maneuvers,” as Zhao Chuan, calls them, are a way to expand both the space for theatre and social dialogue—but also act to expand the creative imagination of the troupe, by putting them into contact with different kinds of people. “To people like us who live in Shanghai—a highly-commercial environment with extremely limited living space—the field maneuvers are like the [Red Army’s] Long March (1934-35). Through the maneuver, we intend to break the confines and to construct in a larger space.” [ii]

Scholar Bo Zheng has drawn comparisons between their work and the Anyuan Workers Club’s costume lectures, which staged heated scenes of class conflict in order to stoke the emotions of the workers:

World Factory (2014), like the costume lectures developed in Anyuan in the 1920s, aimed to make visible the real-life conditions of the working class, and present to the audience an alternative social imaginary. However, one major difference between “World Factory” and the costume lectures lies in how the causes of workers’ sufferings were characterized and how audiences’ emotions were summoned.

Whereas the costume lectures in Anyuan always featured characters from two opposing social classes in confrontation—workers against capitalists, peasants against landlords—and performed explicit scenes of exploitation and physical abuse, “World Factory” lacked any character that could be described as inherently evil.”[iii]

Grass Stage uses these similarities to socialist theatre modalities to productive effect, to reintroduce these Marxist struggles which have in China and in the West largely disappeared from public discourse, only to occasionally reappear in the form of some failed attempts to unionize one sector of the gig economy.

Like the costume lectures, they seek to draw attention to the persistent issues of class conflict, but their treatment is completely different, reflecting the fragmented, digital reality of contemporary Shanghai and also the plurality of sources and influences—which are a core characteristic of traditional haipai theatre. Drawing from history, philosophy, current events, pop culture and red culture, “World Factory,” uses a selection of documentary and fictional vignettes delivered in both straight and ironic modes to provide a nuanced critique, where good and bad, black and white are replaced by a shade of smoggy, indeterminate grey—where each and every one of us is a victim, yet simultaneously responsible for the crime.

Pop Culture References Create Transtemporal Links

Yet, Grass Stage is more playful than preachy, engaging in a game of temporal hopscotch—bouncing back and forth between countries and eras in terms of content and theatrical form. In their productions, songs such as the “Military Anthem of the People’s Liberation Army” and the 1905 polish labour song “Warszawianka,” appear alongside contemporary footage such as that of Steve Jobs at the launch of the iPhone. He stands at the pulpit with an Apple logo glowing behind him, and like a demagogue, he repeats the words “an iPod, a phone and Internet communicator”—soon a cult of devotees froth at his feet, surrounding him on the convention room floor like participants at a political rally. By contrasting these old red tunes with contemporary scenes, the collective has created ideological foils which serve to highlight the dogma of advanced capitalism and the preaching the virtues of science and progress.

The actors then move into a marching formation chanting: “I use Apple; I use banana [the name for the LG Flex phone]. Very Humane! Very Humane! I Use ZTE; I use Samsung. Very Humane! Very Humane!”

"World Factory" by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai
“World Factory” by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai

In fact, music and parody play an enormous role in their work, not only to illustrate particular concepts but also to maintain a swift pace, which keeps their young audiences—those raised on the Internet—in rapt attention.

For instance, they employ or rather distort the song, “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster, (the kind of song which one might hear in a Chinese shopping mall), supplying it with new lyrics with a caustic twist.

 “Everyone wants a garden of freedom, but the garden always needs someone to do the hard labor. Oh, we didn’t build the tower of Babylon, we only built Disneyland.” Returning to Foster’s original song, a close analysis of its lyrics, reveals a portrait of someone who is not living within this world, or perhaps deceased—a detail which foreshadows the theme of death that develops later on within the play.

The actors then layer parody on parody with the troupe’s own version of a song by the post-punk rocker Dou Wei, called “Higher Being.” Dou Wei’s original song is in fact, a parody of the official song “Where is Happiness?” The original “red” version of the song posits that happiness is “crystal clear, and sweat,” and the product of “meticulous plowing and weeding.” Speaking in morose tones, Dou Wei lists a series of words: “contradiction, hypocrisy, greed, deception, finally asking ‘where is happiness?’” Grass Stage offers a mordant migrant worker variation on the original official song using Dou Wei’s melody, singing the words “wonderful, dreams, happiness, pride, striving, hard work, effort, struggle, the future, the future.”

Productive References to the Industrial Revolution

In contradiction to modernist notions of linear time—ones which portray history as an emergence from chaos into order—from a technologically-backward past, into a bright and sparkling future—“World Factory” seeks to remind us of the pitfalls of such totalizing utopic notions about “the future,” by looping back in time to the Industrial Revolution. Using footage taken during their research at Chetham’s Library in Manchester, the collective tracks the genealogy of the current economy, featuring footage of Chetham’s librarian, Michael Powell, who discusses how Engels’ father sentenced him to work in a textile mill, in order to “purge him of radical ideas.” Of course, we can see the echoes of this method with the practice of re-education through labor with the “sent-down” movement. The play features footage of the Quarry Bank Mill in Manchester where a voiceover proclaims that “180 years ago workers worked shifts as long as 13 hours,” meanwhile in Chinese factories, an excess of 100 hours of overtime a month is still the norm. But though the outsourcing of labor exploitation to other countries and counties, occasionally produces a fire or accident big enough to make global headlines, most consumers, including those in the West, prefer to remain willfully ignorant as e-commerce has become the new opiate of the masses.

Foxconn Suicides

As part of their research, Grass Stage conducted workshops at sites such as the notorious Foxconn electronics factory in Longhua, Shenzhen, which became famous for a rash of worker suicides in 2010. This research first enters the play, through the voices of two masked clowns who gossip like two neighbors at the wet market, totally devoid of compassion, eating up the drama as if devouring were a scallion pancake “congyou bing” 葱油饼:

Oh, you know they say, this is a good problem, if you ask the right people. Ha ha ha ha. In psychology, there is a word called an “ability to counter-frustrations.” That means how to find the positive in the setbacks we face in life. In the factory, there are young people; they are pitiful and unloved; their health is bad; they are emotionally vulnerable. These kids bump up against some problem and they can’t handle it, and they jump off a building, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah.

As the clowns are acting out this scene, we see a scarecrow-like version of a corpse filled with tissue-paper figures. The clowns gather around the corpse, un-stuffing it, taking out each little paper person and examining it for defects. This acts as a clever “match on action” of assembly line workers tasked with quality control, whilst underlining that Xu Lizhi, the worker poet from Foxconn, who tragically ended his life is not a sole case. As the play draws to a conclusion, the players present an actual poem from Xu, thus crossing that membrane from the diegetic space of the play to reality. The poem, “I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron,” expresses his utter shame at his inability to cope, his feelings of complete and total failure.

"World Factory" by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai
“World Factory” by Grass Stage, director Zhao Chuan, 2016, Shanghai

I swallowed a moon made of iron.

They refer to it as a screw.

I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents.

Youth stooped at machines die before their time.

I swallowed the hustle and the destitution.

Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust.

I can’t swallow any more.

All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat.

Unfurling on the land of my ancestors.

Into a disgraceful poem.

This poem and the plight of the country’s migrant workers have echoed throughout different artistic spheres in China. Within the visual arts, artists such as Li Xiaofei and Chen Hangfeng have produced numerous video works documenting both factories in China and the constantly mutating forms of globalization as they span out across the globe. Meanwhile, contemporary artist Li Liao, staged a performance entitled “Consumption,” where he worked at an Apple OEM manufacturer just long enough to purchase an iPhone, documenting the whole process.

Within the movement of slow cinema, we see a number of film directors turning their eyes to China’s grey-belts of Dongguan and Shenzhen. For instance, Jia Zhangke’s recent film “A Touch of Sin,” addresses these same issues at Foxconn—where a worker who has his salary unfairly garnished, flees to find work at a karaoke establishment. Another film by Li Ruijun, “Past the Future,” depicts how a change in global demand puts factory workers on the street, willing to participate in unscrupulous medical trials because they have over-committed themselves and become “mortgage slaves.”

For many audience members, “World Factory” left them with a visceral knot in the stomach, but the collective did their best to triage the situation. The players proceeded to exit their characters, introducing themselves by their real names and posing questions such as how to become a conscious consumer. One audience member was moved to tears, thinking of the long hours his mother had put in at the factory in order to provide him with a better life. In my experience of Grass Stage, these post-performance discussions acted as a kind of confessional—and as such they attract a devoted following willing to venture outdoors on a January night when the temperature dropped to a record -13 degrees, freezing pipes in many of the city’s houses. But unlike the Downstream Garage, which had little in the way of heat or air conditioning, this performance of “World Factory” was staged in the Micro Theater of 1933—a converted colonial-era abattoir-turned retail-entertainment complex in Hongkou District, Shanghai. The theatre looks down on a warren of concrete staircases, evocative of an M.C. Escher painting, where in 1933, cows, disoriented, would be led down the spiral ramps to their death. Today, it is a hipster paradise with wedding photography studios and coffee shops filled with giant stuffed animals.

"World Factory" post-talk 2016, Shanghai
“World Factory” post-talk 2016, Shanghai

The architectural mechanisms of this killing factory, designed to conquer through confusion, combined with its transformation into a playground for young Shanghai white-collar consumers (those who are largely unaware of the working conditions in China’s second and third-tier cities), lends an ironic site-specificity to this profoundly important work.

[i] From an interview conducted by the author with Zhao Chuan in 2015.

[ii] Li Ruru (ed.), Staging China: New Theaters in the 21st Century, Palgrave Macmillan; New York, 2016.

[iii] Bo Zheng, “An Angry Committed Alliance,” in Grass Stage: World Factory Papers, OCAT, Shenzhen, 2015.