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Review of the stage play 关系/Consumed

Border Crossings in association with Shanghai Dramatic Arts CentrePoster for Consumed

Tuesday 19th March 2013 at the Djanogly Theatre, The Lakeside, Nottingham.

A poignant little gem of a play, it tells the story of the 1980s generation of educated Chinese.

When Tong Zheng returns to Shanghai to do business after years living in the United States, he is full of himself.  But lost in the neon and high rise, he does not recognise the China he left behind, except in the alleys and back streets.

Involved in the usual murky Chinese consumer shopping mall deal, he hooks up with John Bartholomew, a British businessman who has been living in China for ten years. A shadowy Neil Heywood type figure, Bartholomew speaks no Mandarin, but promises connections with the Mayor.  A bilingual love and business triangle develops and Tong Zheng is confronted with his past.

The deracinated characters float about a white and black minimalist set, anchored only by their mobile phones, and laptops, the Apple logo on their devices shines silver out of the darkness.  The characters rarely talk face to face but interact through technology, constructing a false reality out of a computer

The play runs bilingually throughout in Mandarin and English with translations appearing on chat line screens or deliberately getting lost.  It worked brilliantly for me, illustrating the lack of communication between the characters and the relationship between the West and China, both of which are alluded to as being autistic like John Bartholemew’s son, in the sense that Bartholemew never can really understand the boy.  I wondered, however, how much someone who only spoke one of the languages would make of the story. But that, perhaps, is the point of the play, for even elements of the title itself are lost in translation.

Despite the clever use of language and technology to illustrate the pace of change in China, the real power of this play lies in the message of the 1980s generation, and the songs of Deng Lijun are used to great effect to convey the mood of the time.  Growing up during the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution and clawing back a lost education, many were at high school or university during the heady days of the mid nineteen eighties, part of a great hope and drive to build something better after years of Maoism.  Yet these people were also the children of 1989 and with it the heirs of May the 4th 1919, and those that could, fled to the West in fear in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.  There is a hint of this when Bartholomew first meets Tong Zheng, asking him if he left because of politics, a question Zheng is quick to gloss over.8507669694_0f45566c51_m

As someone who studied Chinese in the West and in China in the 1980s and had friends and contemporaries who were at Tiananmen Square and other protests in China at this time, the gut wrenching moment in the drama came when Tong Zheng is forced to refer to full form characters that were used before the Communist revolution to express his feelings.

Guanxi/关系” he says, “this word we use so much to describe our precious business relations and other relationships; in the full form 關係 the character shows that it means bound together, bonded, tied, but I want 自由 / freedom.”

He goes on to refer to the character 爱 for love.

“In the simplified form it has lost its heart, but in the full form, 愛, it still has its heart.  I want to put the heart back into love.” he says.

This play is above all a cry from the heart of the 1980s generation of educated Chinese who, hoped and worked for so much, but know that they have been sold a dud.

“为什么, 为什么,为什么”? “Why, why, why?” a character asks at the end of the play.  I was haunted by it for days.

Photographer Richard Davenport

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of a China historical novel, The Woman The Woman Who Lost China CoverWho Lost China. Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspectives and an interest in cultural and historical fault lines.




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So What Made You Want to Study Chinese?

An article written for the 6oth anniversary of Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds, UK.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

“You were before your time,” a barrister friend commented to me at a College reunion last year. “None of us could see the point in China is those days.”  How times have changed!  The opening of the new Chinese Studies Building at the University of Nottingham this week, and the celebration of sixty years of Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds in October 2013, has made me reflect on how Chinese Studies has changed in the UK over the last quarter of a century.

Going up to Oxford in the autumn of 1985 to read Chinese, I was one of the colossal new intake of ten students!  Numbers up by over 300 percent, the rooms in the Oriental Faculty struggled to cope!  No longer could two students be taught in a tutorial setting over a coffee in a professor’s study. Seminar rooms were required; an early sign, perhaps, of things to come.  But Chinese Studies was still, at the very best, a marginal subject.  Our common room companions were the other “Orientalists.”  There was a very elderly Indian scholar, who reminded me of my grandfather, and would always offer me the other biscuit from his packet of two, a rather wild looking gang of Arabist undergraduates, clearly influenced by Peter O Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, and a saffron robed Buddhist monk, who wore no coat or socks in the snow, until I gave him some.

Sun Moon Lake Taiwan 87

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang as a student in Taiwan, 1987.

For Chinese Studies in Oxford, Cambridge and Durham had developed out of the missionary tradition of translation of The Bible, Chinese classics, and dictionary writing. My teachers, in general, had come to Chinese from Greats; the study of the ancient Greek and Roman world.  Day one, lesson one, was a translation Mencius’s Analects.   Of course, we learnt modern Chinese as well and it was in the study of modern Chinese that I found my niche.  I realised about half way through the first term, that all the grammar and rules I had learnt whilst studying European languages were irrelevant, that China and the Chinese language were a new world, and a clean slate was required;  a break through moment which I still remember with a feeling of exhilaration.

Thinking back, I admit, I was often frustrated by the old Oxford focus on the study of the classics, philosophy and early Chinese history.   As a young woman, perhaps, I had a sense of the changes that were to come, and was more interested in travelling round China and meeting and talking to Chinese people in their own language.

Yet writing now, over a quarter of a century later, I am grateful for the strong grounding given to me by my professors in all things pre- Communist.  For indeed many of these distinguished if eccentric old men had gone through the war and lived in China before the 1949 revolution.  I can see now that they imparted to me a rich sense of the Chinese civilization as a whole, not defined by any one political party or economic imperative and I am grateful for this.

Of course, the world has moved on, and it is right that it should have.  But asking the same question now, to many of today’s bright young things, “So, what made you want to study Chinese?” too often I get the answer, “I want to go into business,” or “I want to make money.”  I cannot help but feel just a little sad.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of the china historical novel The Woman Who The Woman Who Lost China CoverLost China.  She read Chinese at Oxford and has an LLB in Legal Practice. Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspective and an interest in cultural and historical fault lines.

Written in Dust, Theatre Review


Review of Written in Dust, (Hui Chen) directed by Gareth Rees

A silent tragedy of modern times: Friends. Love. Money. Lies. Death. Hope.

Djanogly Theatre, The Lakeside, Nottingham, Thursday 23rd January 2014

Hats off to indie film maker Gareth Rees for his vignette silent film about migrant workers in contemporary Beijing!

My head full of a dichotomy of images and sounds after the performance, I could not wait to get home and write this review.

It takes some vision and guts for a “lao wai” film maker with no Chinese and zero budget to make a film in China, but this is just what Rees has done and pulled it off.

Written in Dust is a silent film performed with a live music interpretation from classically trained Ling Peng on the erhu and qin, and electronic sounds from DJ Kamal Joory.  It tells the age old tragic tale of young rural migrants seeking a new life in the big city.

In the age of block buster films and standardized video and music streaming, Director Gareth Rees wants to create a unique film performance that people have to come out to experience.  He refuses to direct his musicians, giving them the silent film a few weeks before the performance and letting them come up with their musical interpretation.  The show is very much a live concert with Ling Peng and Kamal Joory quite literally breathing life into the film.

Joory’s raucous electronic themes illustrate Ree’s shots of the deracinated young migrants lost among the futuristic glass facades, buildings, cars and lights of new Beijing. The characters aspire to the shopping mall, bar, coffee shop and high rise apartment dream of modernity, but live in the hutongs amongst the rubble of old buildings demolished in the run up to the Olympics.

By contrast Ling Peng’s er hu and qin portray the inner voice of the characters.  The moment she started singing Deng Li Chu’s famous song “The Moon tells my heart/Yueliang Daibiao wo de Xin” to express the hopes and dreams of the female migrant working in a bar, was heart breaking.

Rees has a keen eye, creating beautiful and poignant visual landscapes for his characters to inhabit.  He juxtaposes the modern and the traditional.  Scenes in glitzy post modern public squares with fountains, neon lights and malls run into snap shot visions that hark back to classical Chinese paintings. At one point the three characters sit on top of a big rock in a park eating ice creams, in another shot the girl sits fishing by the canal, her rod angled as a counterpoint to the huge cranes in the background.

I applaud Rees for his attention to detail; smiling as two workers set off for work on a Flying Pigeon bicycle, the passenger apparently effortlessly balancing himself on the back of the bike while carrying a spade, holding my breath with the characters as they squat or sit on bricks counting wodges of cash.  There is joy too, in the freshness of the faces of the actors and the people around them in parks and streets, for none of them are polished big names with long legs, stunning hair and perfect teeth.

If there is criticism it would be that perhaps the characters have too much personal space, the poverty is sanitized and the air too clean.  There were a couple of moments where I briefly fell out of the story, but I suspect this is a problem with character development in a zero budget 80 minute film.

At a time when so much China related art is bleak and negative, I enjoyed the ending which promised hope in common humanity despite the Chinese style “wild west frontier” style capitalism and unforgiving frenetic pace of change.

The show has Arts Council funding and will be going on tour. Go watch and listen!

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of a China historical novel The Woman The Woman Who Lost China CoverWho Lost China. Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspectives and an focus on cultural and historical fault lines.