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Case study: “World Factory”

Case study: World Factory.
Why hasn’t the performance started? Where’s the World Factory?
Why haven’t I seen it? Before the show formally starts, how about I entertain you with a skit?
My skit is called “Fuyoukang Eight Consecutive Jumps.” My best wishes to all of you for a wealthy, healthy, and successful life!
This is part of the opening scene of “World Factory,” a 2014 play created by Shanghai-based theater collective Grass Stage. The clown was referring to the series of suicides committed by workers at Foxconn’s Shenzhen factories in 2010. Foxconn’s Chinese name is “Fushikang.” According to an article published by South China Morning Post, 14 Foxconn workers, aged between 18 and 25, jumped off buildings and died in that year.
The clown invited a Mr. Lü, a mental health counselor, to help her cut the paper dolls from the string to which they were attached. Mr. Lü happily obliged. As he severed the paper dolls representing workers, he gave various explanations on why these workers were psychologically weak. As each paper doll fell weightlessly on the floor, the clown and Mr. Lü expressed both pity and excitement. They shrieked and laughed at the same time, their hysteria reverberating in the hall.
The working class in China today consists mainly of “Nong Min Gong” (peasant labor). According to the “National Peasant Labor Monitoring Survey” published by the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2013 there were 269 million peasant laborers. 166 million were migrant laborers, meaning that they have left their home to work in a different town or city. Of these 166 million, 35 million brought their families with them, and the rest,131 million, left their families behind. 35% of them, 58 million, worked in manufacturing and 24%, 39 million, in construction. Their average monthly income, excluding accommodation and meals provided by some employers, was 2,609 yuan per month, about US$420. 85% of them worked over 44 hours per week, the limit set by China’s Labor Law.
18% had health insurance. Despite the massive scale of the migrant labor phenomenon, there have been very few artworks about them in China.
“World Factory,” structured into eight scenes, was a combination of lectures and physical theater. A role described as “New Industrialist” appeared in the third scene. She told us that a few years ago she went to Manchester to visit historical factories.
As machine noise started to rumble in the background, she talked about Quarry Bank Mill, built in 1784, now a museum. At that time, a shift at Quarry Bank Mill would last at least thirteen hours,
from 5:30 in the morning
until 8:00 in the evening, plus overtime if needed. Interestingly, information in the museum claimed that “the working condition then was far different from the modern standard.” But I used to work up to fourteen hours a day in a factory. Where is the “modern standard”? There are so many factories and construction sites in China that require over ten hours of work every day, not even counting overtime.
She went on to describe the physical punishment workers suffered at Quarry Bank Mill. A chorus sang “The Warsaw Song,” a popular tune in the international workers’ movements. To battle bloody, Holy and righteous March, forward march, Workers, all! To battle bloody, Holy and righteous March, forward march, Workers, all!
Two actors dressed in workers’ uniforms marched on stage. With keywords like “Strike,” “Union,” and “NGO” written on pieces of cardboard, they recounted the forms of proletarian struggles throughout different stages of capitalism. Then “New Industrialist” came back
and concluded this history lesson: Having been to Manchester, I now know that it was the earliest World Factory. Afterwards, financial capital expanded around the globe, and factories kept moving to places with even cheaper labor. Finally, they arrived in China.
The next scene was titled “Hands in the Assembly Line.” Extract a binding wire. Tightly wind the stator connected to the inlaid wire starting at the unwired end, and tie securely. Cut off the excess wire. Make the shape even in order to facilitate further assembly.
Our… Our hands repeat the same thing for ten hours. Press the red button. Clatter. Clatter. Clatter… Our hands repeat the same thing for ten hours. Put a transparent connector on the wire. Put on one and step on it once, boom. For ten hours, every movement of our hands is measured by a stopwatch. No smile, no sigh, no break, no breath. Da, Da, Da…
This play was created by theater collective Grass Stage. Founded in 2005 by writer Zhao Chuan, Grass Stage is open to anyone interested in what Zhao Chuan calls “social theater.” Grass Stage organizes itself as an amateur group, and is committed to creating plays that reflect on important social issues. Most members have full-time jobs. Yu Lingna and Lü Lü, who played the clown and Counselor Mr. Lü in “World Factory,” both work as mental health counselors in real life. Ding Bo, who played various roles, works at a contemporary art space in Shanghai. Much of the research for “World Factory” was conducted by Zhao Chuan, but the final script and performance was developed collectively by the group.
I saw this play at OCAT, a contemporary art center in Shenzhen. Sitting in the audience that evening were art enthusiasts, the usual visitors to the art space, intellectuals, including Wang Hui, a renowned New Left scholar from Beijing, and migrant workers invited by a number of labor NGOs. After the performance, Zhao Chuan led a discussion with the audience. For Zhao Chuan, post-play discussion is a core component of Grass Stage’s social practice. Among those who spoke that evening, many were workers and labor activists. They were eager to confirm the play’s truth value, testifying to workers’ the suffering with personal stories.
One worker from Foxconn proposed that international laws should be written, to ensure that workers around the world are paid the same salary, so that factories cannot keep moving to places with cheaper labor. In contrast, a few art enthusiasts questioned the play’s theoretical position, it only focused on factory workers, and did not consider other forms of labor. They also questioned the play’s artistic power, its failure to connect with the audience emotionally. The workers and non-workers focused on different aspects of the play, and the discussion lasted for more than an hour.

“World Factory,” a 2014 play about Chinese workers and global capitalism, was created by Shanghai-based theater collective Grass Stage.

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