The world of extreme Happiness: The Curse of Gender and Empty Promise of Urbanization in Modern-day China
The patriarchal subordination of women in rural China is well documented. Indeed, images of the downtrodden, abused Chinese woman are abundant in American media and literary culture. Francis Cowhig continues this exploration in her ironically titled play, The World of Extreme Happiness.
It opens with Xiao Li (Maile Wong), a peasant woman in the throes of labor, cursing her unborn child, while Li Han (Van Lang Pham), her indifferent husband, sits nearby. After four failures, that is, baby girls, Xiao Li clings to the hope that she will finally give birth to a boy. When another girl is born, she, like her sisters before her, is left in a slop bucket to die. When this child unexpectedly survives, her father decides that they will keep her. “Plump her up,” he tells his wife, “and we’ll sell her when she’s sexually mature.”
This merciless treatment of rural life is the first of a number of themes Cowhig addresses on the inequities of contemporary China, all of which she uniformly criticizes and none too subtly. Fair enough. However, the way she treats these themes is unoriginal. That boys are favored over girls, particularly in the villages, is well known, and in Happiness, Cowhig offers nothing new. By painting a world where girls go directly from the womb to the slop bucket, with the decision to save Sunny’s life as a pragmatic rather than an affectionate one, Cowhig portrays a bleak and one-dimensional portrait of rural China—an approach that is at once banal and heavy handed.
Yet Cowhig is not satisfied that her audience truly understands the harsh realities of life in the Chinese countryside, particularly for girls. She continues her unapologetic approach as Sunny’s father makes a show of treating the pigeons he raises with more tenderness and affection than the daughter he decided to save. Further, rather than evoking sympathy for the difficult lives of these impoverished peasants, Cowhig’s peasants are a crude and heartless lot—a people whose circumstances have beaten every vestige of humanity out of them. When we later learn that Sunny’s mother died giving birth to her younger brother, Pete (Kevin Lin), the theme of female sacrifice just feels belabored.
But the peasant women and girls in China are martyrs for … what exactly? The next scene finds Sunny (Mika Swanson), now a teenager, cleaning bathrooms in a factory so she can send money home to pay for Pete’s education. Only he winds up dropping out—swept up, like so many before him, in one of the Chinese government’s rapid urbanization programs that have been dominating the country since the latter part of the 20th century. Pete, like so many before him, is lured by the promise of factory work as a one-way ticket to join the country’s growing consumer class. In the end, this promise fails to deliver as it turns out that modernization is in its own way a form of totalitarianism.
If village life is associated with stasis, poverty, and the treatment of girls as chattel, Cowhig’s urban landscape is oppressive for different reasons. Factory workers, and in particular those who have relocated from rural areas, are treated with contempt by urban dwellers. Life at the factory is brutal, and a rash of suicides, 11 in the past four months, attests to this. Sunny has little chance for advancement and is told keep her “aspirations low and her expectations lower.” She learns of past worker uprisings that were violently quashed by the state, while at the same time she is shown a leaflet on workers’ rights that is being surreptitiously circulated within the factory. When news of the suicides leak out, the top brass scrambles to create a public relations campaign to improve its image. This includes finding a simple factory girl to promote to an office position. In Sunny, they find the perfect candidate. At a PR event, Sunny begins a speech with the public relations propaganda she was fed, but this perplexingly evolves into a declaration of workers’ rights. She continues this fist-raising as her mic is cut off and is dragged away to a state-run institution where “she can get the proper mental therapy she needs.”
Sunny’s plight evokes our sympathy to be sure, but in the end, Cowhig’s message is unclear: Is it a disapprobation of China’s treatment of its girls, peasants, and factory workers? Is it a statement on the desperate and impoverished circumstances that permit these populations to be treated this way? Is it a comment on the rapid rise of urbanization and the promise of the wealth that it brings, pitting individualism and the willingness to do anything to get ahead against the institution of family? Or finally, is it a condemnation of a totalitarian system that quashes anything that appears to threaten it? By giving each of these themes equal weight, yet by failing to explore any one of them in depth, Cowhig’s message is diluted, and her treatment of the subject matter lacks the nuance and insight to give any of these themes real weight.
The production did succeed in certain aspects, for example, its one-on-one scenes. The conversations between Sunny and Pete or Ming-Ming, her coworker, felt intimate and real. However, it did not succeed in others. Without a set design—which could have been as much an artistic choice as that of budget—the actors had the opportunity to use the space to evoke its intention as they moved from village to train to factory. However, the distinction between rural and urban spaces was not evident in either the actors’ movements or their mannerisms. Neither was it in the sound design. Each scene appeared to exist in a void, and the play unfolded as a patchwork of vignettes, some related, some not, rather than as a cohesive whole.
One reason for this disjointed quality can be attributed to director Desdemona Chiang’s interpretation of the play. In the talkback, the cast discussed the possibility that Cowhig was making a statement on capitalism in the US and the isolation and loss of family structure that accompanies urbanization; they suggested that Cowhig’s setting the play in China makes it easier for a US audience to digest this message. This would not, however, account for the portrayal of the rough life of the peasants or the particularly cruel treatment of girls in rural China. A very different but valid question arose that the play and production might be trying to imply, or assume, that sexism is foreign to the US society that watches the play, and the audience is invited to congratulate itself while demonizing “barbaric others”. The play more easily lends itself to this possibility.
Ultimately, Cowhig is unsure of what story she wants to tell and why she is telling it, and Chiang’s uneven direction and puzzling interpretation did not effectively weave together its various themes. This resulted in a play that, like Sunny’s life, remained like so much unrealized potential.
Produced by: Seattle Public Theater & SIS Productions
Written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
Directed by Desdemona Chiang
October 13th- November 5th, 2017 performed at Seattle Public Theater
Review Lead: Kate Forster / Review Team: Laura Chrisman, Steph Hankinson