Arriving in Beijing in February of 2003, armed with little more than a passion for China and a degree in Theatre Studies, I set about exploring the unmet social needs emerging in China’s transition to a market economy. Born and brought up in Hong Kong, and thus a self-proclaimed ‘city girl’, I was most interested in exploring the challenges of urban poverty and it was the internal migration issue that first drew my attention. Millions of rural dwellers were, and still are, migrating to the eastern seaboard cities of China, in search of jobs on construction sites, factories, hotels and restaurants. Work opportunities abound and exploitation is high. Wages are minimal by urban standards but provide opportunities to supplement rural incomes with remittances that support children’s education and higher living standards than have previously been possible. But the challenges are many: workers rarely receive contracts for their work, often working 7 days a week, with 12 – 16 hour days; they have little or no social security benefits; wages are paid late and often not at all; and there are few opportunities for education for their children or meaningful ways for them to escape this cycle of poverty and demeaning work. Female migration is on the rise which poses both opportunities and challenges: escape from the restrictions of rural life with its expectations of early marriage and childbirth present the chance for young women to experience adventure and economic independence, but this can also be coupled with the risk of harassment and prostitution, loneliness, and a growing uncertainty surrounding a woman’s future role.
My interest in China’s women’s issues had been piqued by the harrowing account of women’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, as documented in Xinran’s book, The Good Women of China. The book provided a context in which to explore what it meant to be a woman in contemporary China. After a year of taking tentative steps in learning Mandarin, and exploring what ‘civil society’ meant in Beijing, I started to run weekly workshops at a downtown shelter for migrant women, The Migrant Women’s Club, part of the Rural Women Knowing All group, one of the first NGOs for women in China. My initial explanation of participatory theatre as a tool for empowerment and the building of self-esteem was met with much consternation and curiosity but, after convincing them to let me run a weekly workshop at the centre, I quickly developed a loyal following of participants, eager to explore women’s issues through the medium of participatory theatre. Workshops covered the topics of marriage and family life, the pressures of migration, expectations of women’s lives, the privileges afforded younger brothers as women’s educational opportunities were constrained, sexual harassment, conflict amongst friends, the difficulties of asserting one’s rights in the face of a hostile or non-compliant boss and the growing search for meaning for young women in China today. I discovered that the workshops provided a much-needed opportunity for women to come together with others, in learning experiences that enabled them to share their stories and speak out in a way not often afforded them previously. The hunger for self-development that accompanied so much of a young migrant woman’s expectation of her life in the city found refuge in this weekly exploration amongst fast-growing friends.
My most profound memory of this period is working with Dong Li, a woman in her thirties, older than most of the other women, who was frequently arguing with her husband over his desire for her to return to the village, as she wrestled with increased opportunity in the city and the need to provide for her family. We set up a role-play for her to demonstrate this conflict with her husband. Half way through the phone conversation being depicted on stage, I asked Dong Li to swap roles with the actor playing her husband, so that she might have the opportunity to play the scene from his perspective. The effect was transformational. This empathy exercise had provided her a context to explore how he might feel in this situation, how her protestations and opinions might seem to him. Whilst refraining from judging the potential rights and wrongs of this situation, the experience enabled both Dong Li and the rest of the participants to take a step back and understand something from another’s perspective. Whilst simple, it was profound and Dong Li left the workshop visibly moved by her enhanced compassionate understanding of someone she had previously been in conflict with. I believe this succeeded in encouraging a more open and harmonious communication with her husband thereafter. If one woman could experience such transformation from such a simple experience, what are the implications of this way of working for the world?
Since that time, the vision of Hua Dan has blossomed to encompass a range of programmes that serve both adult and children migrants, as well as victims of the Sichuan earthquake. We believe in employing members of our target groups within the organization, further emphasizing the link between individual empowerment and social change. We also have a for-profit side to our work that generates income for our non-profit programmes, through the provision of corporate training programmes for companies in China. Our vision and social model has evolved to one where we see our role as using the power of arts-based approaches to empowerment to underpin a larger vision of encouraging a generation of young people to be committed to personal transformation. We believe in the need for a radical shift in consciousness in individuals from a fear-based poverty of thinking towards a commitment to behavior that places love at the heart of all our actions. We believe that such transformation within the individual will effect the necessary changes in our communities that inspire a better world and we have seen countless evidences of this in our day to day work. We feel that it is impossible for deep, sustainable social change to occur without a higher level of personal commitment that manifests itself in both personal leadership and leadership of communities with an exceptional value system. We need ways of working that grab people by the hearts and minds to effect change at a deeper level, taking an integrated approach to social change.
We believe that arts-based approaches are the most powerful tool for achieving this level of change. No other secular human experience is able to offer such a transformative ability to explore the nuances of human behavior, emotion and feeling. The arts enable us to ‘to hold…..the mirror up to nature ‘ and, furthermore, participation in the arts unlocks the individual’s potential in quite transformative ways. They present us with opportunities to tell our stories, create meaning in communion with others, reflect and try out alternative solutions to enable us to take possession of our lives and contribute to the lives of those around us. As a drama student, I was inspired most by Augusto Boal’s seminal work, The Theatre of the Oppressed, who argued that it is critically important that the individual is empowered to become ‘spect-actors’ in their own life, no longer to be passive observers of events unfolding before them, over which they have little control. Through his pioneering work in the favelas of Brazil, insisting that people participate in theatre, rather than simply watch it, as a tool for looking at the problems they encounter in life, he fostered the beginning of a creative revolution of theatre as a metaphor for life, a rehearsal for change. His work inspired me with an understanding of the potential of arts as a development tool and sowed the seeds of my vision for Hua Dan.
The Real Transformation
They say that teachers come to this world to teach others what they most need to learn themselves. As I have spent the last 7 years pioneering this way of working in China, the real transformation has occurred at a much deeper level, most significantly within myself. When I started out, I had no idea how my vision would take shape, much less of the huge growth I would need to go through to carry through the achievement of that vision. It seems that nothing will test the human spirit so much as the pursuit of one’s own dreams – external forces have nothing in comparison to the relentlessness of the drive that comes from within! And I have been most challenged by my own commitment, all those years ago, to over-extend myself in love by any means possible as it is all too easy to revert of formulaic and limited ways of thinking about mankind. The commitment to that higher standard of love is one that I continue to make daily and one that I see to be what my life’s work is really all about.
As the idea has progressed, I have also been inspired to take a holistic view of what social change means and to see that Hua Dan has a role in empowering all of those who come into contact with it, whether it is our direct beneficiaries, the staff who work in the organization, our funders and supporters – or someone who reads about us in a magazine and is inspired to embark on their own journey of social change. For all the accusations flung at China as an oppressive, totalitarian regime with few respect for human rights, I have come to learn that the greatest obstacles to human progress ultimately lie within ourselves, in the ‘cops in the head’, that Boal used to describe the internal blocks and barriers that we put up ourselves, that prevent us from rising to our full potential. In the case of my own work with Hua Dan, I have seen how seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome when we claim our innate right to express our highest vision for humanity. We are daily presented with choices. Choices that demand of us to either express a vision of fear – or a vision of love. To quote one of the greatest social revolutionaries, Gandhi, the imperative for us to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ is a daily requirement.
Often, I feel impoverished by my inability to express the depth of the experiences that myself, and my team in China, have encountered along the way in the formation of our idea. It seems that we have gone through so much and transformed our own understanding of what is possible, that I can only paraphrase the words of one of our participants: ‘The best thing about Hua Dan is something you can’t really touch…..it’s kind of like magic. I guess it’s about love, really’.
It is a journey that, for me, is just beginning.