Playwright Anders Lustgarten: ‘Our general attitude to China drives me mental’

A scene from The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie Writer
. Picture: Nobby Clark

A scene from The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie Writer . Picture: Nobby Clark - Credit: ©Nobby Clark Photographer

Anders Lustgarten explores media representation of the People’s Republic and telling the truth with his new play at the Arcola.

A scene from The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie Writer
. Picture: Nobby Clark

A scene from The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie Writer . Picture: Nobby Clark - Credit: ©Nobby Clark Photographer

“China is the mirror in which the West looks for reassurance she is beautiful” – Lawyer Liang.

Sugar Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie: this one means a lot to me.

I studied Chinese for the better part of a decade, first as an undergraduate at Oxford and then for an MA and PhD at Berkeley, and spent nearly two years on and off in China itself.

There’s probably not a culture and people I have more respect for, even if in many ways I don’t actually like it.

Anders Lustgarten

Anders Lustgarten - Credit: Archant

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That’s what knowledge does – it allows you to get beyond superficial preferences of ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’. You get to know something on its own terms. And that’s why our general attitude to China drives me mental.

The West has always wreathed China in stereotypes of inscrutability, ‘exoticism’, unknowable mystery.

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Maybe it’s the impermeable language, the antiquity of the culture, the vast size of the population—or maybe we just want a lazy shorthand for ‘the opposite of us’.

Chinese economic demand was the only thing that bailed out our hapless failed elites after the 2008 banking crisis, our universities are flooded with Chinese students, our cities with Chinese investors – and yet China remains the country we stubbornly refuse to understand. The first series of Sherlock featured a Chinese storyline with a mysterious exotic woman in a silk dress, and a ninja.

In the 21st century. Perhaps the best-known play ‘about’ China, Chimerica, in which China actually serves mainly as a backdrop for a white man’s voyage of self-discovery (a hugely indulgent bourgeois trope of “let’s make the story about us,” which dominates white plays about Africa too) was marketed on the basis that the writer had never been to China, as if it was somehow advantageous not to know the people you’re writing about.

The fault lies not with the writer, but the culture of how we represent China. When we’re not doing the mysterious East, we’re doing the oppressive East.

There’s been a flood of books in recent years about the disasters of the Mao years, some like Frank Dikötter’s in response to new documents released from the archives, others like Jung Chang’s poorly written and clumsy propaganda.

But they all serve a certain purpose: to call attention to the evils of Maoism.

Why, when the world is not exactly drowning in Maoists, are they doing this?

As a writer, you know full well what the powers that be want to see, what you’ll get paid and lauded for, and what will challenge orthodoxy and you’ll find hard to get accepted.

That’s the basic test of any writer’s integrity – do you go with or against the grain? It’s impossible for me to respect any writer who goes with convention, who serves power, no matter how well crafted their work might be.

And what the powers that be in both China and the West (who thanks to the unbelievable stupidity of Gideon Osborne are increasingly one and the same) want to hear is that Mao was a murderous dictator, the Chinese revolution was top down totalitarianism, and any grassroots revolution inevitably ends up in mass bloodshed.

Global elites want to hear this because they are terrified of the possibilities of mass action, and even more terrified of ordinary people believing in those possibilities, and they will do anything from mass surveillance to state violence to the rewriting of history to make people believe grassroots collective action is doomed to end in disaster. (They should be terrified, incidentally. They absolutely should.)

I don’t care about Mao or his reputation.

The lesson of the 20th century is that concentrated power, whether in the hands of communists, fascists or bankers, is lethal. The 21st century will be about the decentralising of power, not its concentration.

What I am interested in is telling the truth and restoring agency to real people.

The Chinese revolution is probably the greatest grassroots, bottom-up revolution in modern history.

Mao did not make it; it made Mao and the other Communist Party leaders, who struggled to harness its momentum and codify it into orthodox party structures.

It was an extraordinary efflorescence of popular agency, as scepticism turned to hope turned to fervour and belief and action. It transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

It also led to enormous tragedy.

The famine that followed the Great Leap Forward didn’t come about because of some heartless autocrat in an ivory tower; it came about because people had seen their lives transformed by 10 years of their own actions and wanted to push those actions further, to change the world again and again.

And they pushed too far, driven and harassed by authority. And they, not authority, were the ones who paid for it.

Modern China, with its rampant individualism, consumption and cruelty, might seem to have little in common with that idealism, but it does. For one thing, it’s the culmination of the Communist Party’s betrayal of the movement that created it – already apparent in the ‘50s but at its apogee now, with rampant corruption and a creeping totalitarianism under Xi Jinping.

But at a deeper level, the impulse behind Chinese capitalism and communism is the same – to overcome the great violations of the Opium Wars, the humiliation of China’s transition from the centre of the world (what Zhongguo, China, fundamentally means) to a bit player, to be back in the driving seat.

There was a violence in that process both under Mao and now, a sacrificing of people, but also an energy and a dynamism and a hope.

As Yu Hua, one of China’s best modern novelists, puts it: “In our economic miracle since 1978, revolution never disappeared but simply donned a different costume.”

The question now, as the global economy reels from China’s shrinking demand and China’s rich ship their money overseas as fast as possible, is what happens when that dynamism and hope dies for capitalism, the way it did for Maoism?

Sugar Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie runs at the Arcola Theatre until April 30. It runs at High Tide Festival in September.

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