Sunday, February 03, 2013

Rehearsing China - and the French Revolution

Zhou Enlai
When Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked for his assessment of the French Revolution, he famously replied that it was too early to say.  A scholarly figure, like the Platonic philosopher king Mao, Zhou watched history with the same sharp eye he brought to bear on the present.  It informed and directed his view of future policy.

The same, it would seem, is true of his successors in what, elsewhere in the world, has become an altogether less studious age: one which tends to ignore history, or at best to prostitute it to patriotic indoctrination in the style of Michael Gove.  In China, however, John Gray reports in this weekend's Guardian that the new leadership around Xie Jinping have been making an avid study of Alexis de Tocqueville's book on the origins of the French Revolution: L'Ancien RĂ©gime.  Well they might.  Tocqueville pointed out that the French Revolution exemplified an important pattern in world history: namely that revolutions tend to occur not in times of despair, but when things are actually "getting better" in terms of economic growth, and particularly when they are getting better for one section of society more rapidly than for others.  Judged by these criteria, contemporary China, with its meteoric growth and ever-widening inequalities, would seem to be ripe for a revolution emerging from the peasantry.  This insecurity in the leadership, coupled with their enormous power, makes sense of much they are doing in terms of policy.

I have argued before in this blog that the globalisation of economics does not imply any inevitable liberalisation or westernisation of Chinese society.  Indeed, the financial crisis of 2008 may have pushed things in precisely the opposite direction.   Following the collapse of the Western banks, China no longer felt that the West was the model with which it had to catch up.  Rather, China could go it alone, creating a new model of state-sponsored capitalism.  This, to my mind, serves to underline the increasing emphasis on the distinct nature of Chinese culture which the regime is keen to promulgate both to its own people and overseas.

And Chinese culture is indeed distinct.  During this first week of rehearsals for Consumed, I have been reminded time and again that the Chinese colleagues we are so lucky as to have with us do not think about this art of theatre in quite the way we do.  In terms of making exciting intercultural performance, that is, of course, a huge advantage.  It would be very dull if cross-cultural work simply blanded everybody out, a cultural equivalent of global mass-production.  This week has seen us moving the Chinese and Western elements in our play further away from one another, looking deliberately for the differences, and so for the drama.  The fact that it's all expressed through the web, Skype, video and the other accoutrements of a global economy makes it all the more potent.  These forms which seem to bring us closer are in fact the media that most clearly expose our fundamental difference.

Week 2 starts tomorrow.  I can hardly wait.

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