One of the great things about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the platform given to international theatre companies, allowing them the chance to tell their unique and often unheard stories. One of these gems that will undoubtedly have a lasting impression is Chinese Women’s Whispers. An enriching piece of theatre, this small company of four combine dance, story-telling, traditional folk-songs, and pure imagination to reveal an unfamiliar perspective of women within Chinese society.
The existence of Nushu, described on the posters as “an ancient Chinese way of writing only known to women”, is an incredibly beautiful example of how women found a way to survive, despite being refused proper education and opportunities in rural towns due to their sex. These unique characters, inspired by flowers and leaves and conceived by a young girl wanting more than what was offered to her, is truly fascinating. The story told about the “9lb baby” opens up a much bigger discussion of women in society, and how this female-exclusive language has come to be a symbol of a woman’s education, gratuity and the importance of friendship among women.
At the heart of this performance is a profound appreciation and adoration for Chinese women, of all ages and backgrounds. Each performer shares with the audience a story about their family history: particularly about their grandmothers. Each story is different: they are all from different parts of China, although mainly rural backgrounds in small villages or on farms. Each tale is short and sweet, whilst also very amusing: again, the performers’ confidence on stage and their ease with the audience makes these anecdotes really come to life. Their stories take them back to their childhoods and moments that have had an unexpected effect on them in later life. Each memory of their grandmothers shows how impressionable their elders were during their upbringing, and a strong sense of respect for the women born into a less woman-accepting era. What the cast also do is encourage the audience to think about their grandmothers. Their improvised ‘gifts’ to the audience as they enact select traits is a touching and nostalgia-provoking gesture, also showing how masterfully creative they all are as performers.
The energy and charisma these individuals have is infectious, and it is impossible to not be pulled in by their amusing, and sometimes heart-wrenching stories. There are no language or cultural boundaries here. The infusion of the Chinese language amongst the stories told in English is again a nod of respect to tradition: it also demonstrates how far they have come to be here, and what an amazing opportunity this production is. Another wonderful moment is when the audience, eyes closed, find themselves hearing (and experiencing) the birth of one performer’s mother in a pig-sty. The ingenious use of sound adds a universal quality to the production, breaking the language barrier and proving the power of imagination.
A final recognition of this Hua Dan – Hand Made in China’s production achievement is the way it excels in disproving a number of preconceptions of Chinese culture within the Western world. One account which stands out belongs to 董芬 (Dong Fen), who recalls how her father spent days travelling with her in order to allow her the rare opportunity to go to Beijing at eighteen, after having left school at fifteen due to financial troubles. The trust and respect her father has for her, allowing her to be independent rather than settle early into marriage, is a revelation, showing a human side to the patriarchal figure that has overshadowed China’s image for so long. The emotional intensity of the stories told onstage left one audience member in tears: and to be honest, I wasn’t far off either. The final piece, “A letter to my future daughter”, epitomises the show’s message that women are in no way the inferior race, and its touching and positive message reveals how important they are within Chinese society.
Chinese Women’s Whispers is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre, combining old traditions with a new light shining on Chinese women, often overshadowed by China’s patriarchal history. It is a gift to be treasured.
Spotlites, 27-28th August, 4.05pm
Tickets available at: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/chinese-women-s-whispers
Photo credit: Peter O’Brien