Contemporary Imaginations of China

Last week, folk I know such as Anna Chen, Daniel York and Dr Anne Witchard were on this BRILLIANT program by Philip Dodd on BBC Radio 4 called ‘Overwhelming China’. Listen here.

Finally, a program that was balanced in terms of recognising the fear of the Yellow Peril, the contemporary manifestations of this fear as well as its historical legacies. It was a relief to have a nuanced discourse and proper debate, to just have Sinophobia discussed. As this programme highlighted, if you amazon search for books on contemporary China the titles are pretty horrific. Our cultural sphere is permeated with uncritical imagery about ‘the Chinese’ in ways that suggest swarms, threat and fear, and interestingly, in theatre, the left seems plagued by a superficial engagement or understanding of China itself. To my mind, this says a lot more about Britain’s postcolonial malaise than it does about contemporary China. More worryingly, the threat of China seems to increasingly come from within as British Chinese get bound up in Chinese yellow peril imaginations. Manifestations of yellow peril imagery are, surprisingly, the most persistent of any racial-ethnic group, the most unacknowledged socially, and thus the most powerful.

During a recent event linked to The Fu Manchu Complex on contemporary representations of East Asians in the arts and media, a range of academics and researchers discussed the imagery of Fu Manchu with Sir Christopher Frayling arguing (in his forthcoming book on the Yellow Peril) that Fu Manchu is rooted in Vaudeville music halls. What was so striking, and what we discussed extensively was that very little has changed in the representation of Chinese and East Asian groups over the course of a century. You could trace Dr Fu Manchu from that Victorian tradition and he would still appear (in a slightly different guise) on the stage of 21st Century Britain.

I’ve been contemplating this because I was interested recently to do a little experiment. I wondered how Frances Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre would be received compared to Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica. They are, of course, very different plays, the former about China’s rapid industrialisation, rural-urban migration, the desperate consequences of ‘the system’ of capitalism on society and individuals, and the difficulty of always looking and moving forward without addressing the past. The latter similarly seeks the truth about a particular historical, landmark moment, about trying to address the past, but is also about the West’s geopolitical imagination of China. When I first read both plays, the former was the more powerful. The performance shifted the ending to address the human cost of capitalism, rather than conveying the idea that Chinese capitalism will consume everything and everyone in an ever-repeating cycle. However, the bleakness of life depicted and the contradictions around this rapidly shifting society were more complexly portrayed. This was contemporary China and it was ruthless – and depressing. As I suspected, critics and the general public seem to have preferred Chimerica – maybe its (comparatively) lighter tone makes it more digestible. But it was also a China that we in the West are familiar with, an event and an image, that we already know, rather than something more challenging. By having the white American journalist as the protagonist, the ills and evils of Chinese society could be left behind rather than confronted head on. Chimerica has its hit home points, but as I have discussed before, it relied upon hackneyed images: China is evil, oppressive, controlling bad, but also conveyed these in a way that I, personally found unsubtle, even a form of ‘bashing’. And so, this play, for me (and I know many many people will disagree) seemed to reinforce our sense of self in a classic Orientalist fashion, it seemed to reflect Britain, rather than China. The World of Extreme Happiness is by no means positive, it is critical of contemporary China, but it was more nuanced, more ambiguous, raised more questions about what would I do in that situation, about the plight of migrant workers in China and their entrapment in an economic and political system of oppression.

I met Frances whilst she was in London and she asked me if I objected to negative portrayals of China. I don’t, but it is the type and mode of representation that is important. Unfavourable, yes, critical, yes, complex yes, but not what I expect, not the constant recycling of hackneyed tropes where Sinophobia is implicitly, almost carefully constructed: so hidden that it is almost invisible. On the one hand, contemporary discourses of the Yellow Peril overshadow some of the real human rights abuses and problems in China (e.g. whole towns being decimated by AIDS owing to how the government implemented blood transfusion programs) and on the other, that China is constantly demonised when it is the biggest investor and innovator in certain fields. It’s a fascinating set of dynamics that speaks to how ‘the West’ is trying to grapple with a 21st Century superpower.