5 Things: The Home of Sheng Nv's Play Delves Into Freedom and Feminism

By Bryan Grogan, December 3, 2019

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5 Things is a That's series where we ask a Shanghai-based somebody or group to tell us about their life.

After taking home the Ibsen Awards Festival Scholarship this year, an all-female group of theater practitioners by the name of The Home of Sheng Nv (Sheng Nv or 剩女 is a term used for leftover women, or women who haven’t married before the age of 27) are bringing their play, The Greatest Event in a Doll’s Life, to Ming Contemporary Art Museum this weekend for two evenings. Taking inspiration from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and the lesser-known Chinese play The Greatest Event in Life by Hu Shi, The Greatest Event in a Doll’s Life discusses themes of marriage, love and choice in today’s world. We linked up with the group behind the play to ask a little bit more. 

1. The pressure of living up to the Ibsen Award

When we mentioned the “pressure of living up to the Ibsen Award,” I think we were referring to a rhetoric that we do not necessarily agree with; the extreme feminist, the revolutionary, the manifesto. We do not think this piece is trying to write a manifesto that preaches to all women our age, nor are we raising a middle finger to older generations. 

We are four individuals coming together, diving into our personal and shared histories, trying to understand what was imposed on us and what we want now, and finding different pathways into the future. Yes, we agree with many feminist values, but we also think the political correctness of feminist is in many ways limiting women, and powerful tag-lines are often unhelpful in everyday situations. 

When my mother chases me to get married, am I going to tell her I’m a feminist and marriage is oppressing women. Or am I going to tell her, you are part of the patriarchal system, fuck you. No, I love my mom, and I want to understand the gap between us and at least try to find a way of communication. 

And that might speak of the real pressure we face as we are getting closer and closer to the performance date: are we presenting a piece that our moms, aunties and sisters can come to see, so they can shut up about marriage and leftovers, so we can have a real conversation?

Image courtesy of The Home of Sheng Nv

2. Inspiration from West and East

We all know the status of Norwegian play A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen in the modern women's rights movement in the West, but it was quite shocking and refreshing to learn about the historical context for Hu Shi's The Greatest Event in Life in China. In early 20th century China, there was a big movement amongst the youth and the intellectuals to revolutionize the society, called the May Fourth movement. It follows the thread of the western Enlightenment ideals and advocates individual freedom by breaking traditional ways of thinking. 

At that time, as painted in The Greatest Event in Life, following one's own romantic love and marrying someone that one likes (as opposed to arranged marriage in traditional Chinese society) was the image of freedom. Today, when marrying out of romantic love is the norm (which we are questioning in our own performance), it is thought-provoking to see how marriage affects or reflects the changes in society and how marriage had always been a battlefield for an individual's freedom.

Image courtesy of The Home of Sheng Nv

3. What to expect from The Greatest Event in a Doll’s Life

You don’t need to know anything about the two plays of Ibsen or Hu Shi to watch our show! While we took a lot of thematic inspiration from them, our focus was on exploring how the themes of marriage and feminism played out in our own daily lives, not on reproducing the two plays. But we highly suggest reading A Doll’s House for your own general enjoyment. It was a play that changed the world, and has special significance in Chinese history. Well... it might be useful to know that the main characters in the two plays aren’t named Nora and Yamei. Beyond that, I think you are fine.

4. Feminism and marriage, shared ideas and disagreements

The word ‘feminism’ creates a lot of controversy because its definition is often miscontrued. Actually, some of us came into this production ardently refusing to call themselves feminists, because they did not want to be associated with all the baggage of being man haters and being outrageously political. It took a long discussion for the ‘openly feminist’ members of our group to convince the others that a feminist is just someone who believes that men and women should have equal rights. Feminists do not hate men; in fact, all of us in this group quite like men. Men can (and should be) feminists as well. So we all definitely agree on the feminist point now.

Regarding marriage, the one thing that we all agree on is that everyone should have the right to choose how they want to engage or not engage with this practice. Some of us might want to get married, some of us might not, some of us might be ambivalent, but it should be a personal choice. Choosing to stay single can be just as dignified as choosing to get married. 

But regardless of what points we agree or disagree on, I think the beauty of our group is that we respect that we all have different opinions due to our different backgrounds and experiences. And that's okay. We do not need to agree on everything. The importance is knowing that someone who has a different opinion can be just as right as you are.

Image courtesy of The Home of Sheng Nv

5. The future of The Home of Sheng Nv

We are actually working on an album now, including some songs from the show and some inspired by our creative process. We are discovering our musical side together. It’s been fun working with music, with our musician Aming (Mirrors), with the help from the group’s talented Lelia, and with enthusiasm from Yangyang, Selena and Cuixi.  

But of course, we hope to take this show on tour in the future, in China and abroad. I think the reality in China and Shanghai that we observe and try to tackle is very relevant in a broader context too.

Also, we have done creative crafts workshops on ‘leftover women’ in Beijing and Shanghai, where we invited single women to create their unique dishes. We had some very interesting and inspiring feedback in these workshops, and would like to carry on doing them if possible.

Image courtesy of The Home of Sheng Nv

Dec 7-8, 7.30pm (Dec 7), 5pm (Dec 8); RMB50 student ticket, RMB80 presale, RMB100 door. Ming Contemporary Art Museum. See event listing. Tickets.

Read more '5 Things’.

[Cover image by Max Emanuelson]

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