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“World Factory,” like the costume lectures developed in Anyuan in the 1920s, aimed to make visible the real-life conditions of the working class, and present to the audience an alternative social imaginary. However, the major difference between “World Factory” and the costume lectures in early-twentieth century lies in how causes of workers’ sufferings were characterized and how audiences’ emotions were aroused.
The costume lectures in Anyuan always featured characters from two opposing social classes in confrontation workers against capitalists, peasants against landlords and included explicit scenes of exploitation and physical abuse. In contrast, “World Factory” lacked any character that could be described as inherently evil. There has been a shift from condemning capitalism and capitalists to condemning capitalism only. It is the system that enslaves us; it is not cool to name names.
The fundamental impetus for the Anyuan workers’ movement in the early 1920s was a claim to human dignity. The slogan of the 1922 general strike, “Once beasts of burden, now we will be men!” continued to serve as the central theme of subsequent cultural activism. The desire for dignity was translated into indignation and outpourings of collective anger. In the costume lecture performed by Xiao Jinguang, to rouse the workers was as important as to educate them. Xiao first tricked the workers into believing that they were watching a real situation where a worker was beaten by a warlord. Witnessing a physical attack is far more likely to activate immediate physiological and emotional responses than listening to a verbal description of an attack.
Next, Xiao appealed to reason through speech. He then gave the audience another opportunity to express their anger collectively, by calling for a ritualized performance of shouting slogans. Anger served “as an instrument of truth, pointing out injustices, betrayals, and false state of affairs, and seeking to even scores” and “promised to undermine false structures of power and reveal the true nature of humanity.”
In “World Factory,” frustration, despair, and sadness instead of anger comprised the dominant mood. For the finale, all the actors came onto the stage. As countless blue paper-cut dolls rained down, they danced and sang. “Suddenly you realize that Your anger has nowhere to hide Done with being a grain of dirt Done with floating nowhere Done with looking up to them Done with their bull Done with powerless desperation Done with careless existence Done with drawing cakes to stave off hunger Done with life as a dream Quit! Quit! Quit!” They sang to us, the audience, who sat there clapping. Despite the word “anger” in the lyric, no one seemed to be enraged. No collective shouting. No roaring.
In “The Vehement Passions,” Philip Fisher notes that “in anger an outward- streaming energy, active, fully engaging the will and demonstrating the most explosive self-centered claims on the world and on others, makes clear the relation of the passion to spiritedness or to high-spiritedness, to motion, to confidence, and to self-expression in the world.” Revolution would not be possible without sufficient rage. Tang Xiaobing notes that the pedagogical and affective form central to “costume lectures” in Anyuan in the 1920s was also crucial to the street theater movement in the 1930s. As he describes vividly, often the audience “shouted in unison” and “burst out singing,” joining the performers to “perform a national allegiance publicly.” Collective, defiant anger literally functioned as a powerful weapon.
But the mood after revolution may completely change. After the Communist Revolution succeeded in 1949, Mao and the Party elite repeatedly manipulated people’s revolutionary zeal, sometimes for a utopian agenda, sometimes for power struggles. Over two-and-a-half decades of unfulfilled passion, anger gradually lost its association with justice-seeking, and became synonymous with unjustifiable violence. When Deng Xiaoping gained power after the Cultural Revolution, he dramatically revamped not only the party’s economic and political policy but also its emotional pitch. Calm, calculative managers replaced passionate, fearless soldiers as heroes in both official propaganda and popular media. The state has become vigilant against any collective emotional expression.
It would be too risky for Grass Stage to invite the audience to a session of slogan shouting, like what Xiao Jinguang did in Anyuan a century ago.
The lack of anger is not unique to contemporary Chinese culture. American critic Brian Holmes recently remarked that “there has been a real decline in the capacity of artists to arouse outrage at both alienation and exploitation. The ideological force of neoliberal culture has been amazingly effective.”
By comparing “World Factory” with the 1920s costume lectures, I’m not trying to fault Grass Stage for failing to arouse the audience. Zhao Chuan and his colleagues already took considerable risks in staging the play and exposing the underbelly of global capitalism.
My intention is two-fold: by revisiting the 1920s, I want to point out that socially engaged art is not completely new. We might gain a better understanding of contemporary practice by placing it in the history of cultural activism and revolutionary art. Secondly, I want us to think about whether collective affect-making is important, and if so, how can we revive it in socially engaged art today.

What are the similarities and differences between the 2014 play “World Factory” and 1920s workers’ theatre in Anyuan?

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Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

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