The World of Extreme Happiness: the real jilted generation
A new play eschews Western prejudice to tell a revealing story about China’s thwarted, but fiercely ambitious, youth.
Whether it’s whinging graduates declaring themselves the ‘jilted generation’ due to difficult economic circumstances or high-profile documentaries on what social media and internet porn are doing to young people’s malleable brains, there’s no shortage of analysis of Western youth and how they look at the world. Yet what of China’s young? How the generation who grew up under the expectation of rapid economic growth respond to the coming decades is a major question for the Chinese state, and one of considerable importance to those who take a healthy interest in humanity.
Fortunately we’ve been treated to some fascinating work on the subject recently, with Lucy Kirkwood’s lauded Chimerica playing in the West End to rave reviews and Hao Wu’s excellent film The Road To Fame (coming to BBC4 in December). To that list, we can add another new play, The World of Extreme Happiness.
American playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig begins the play in familiar territory, with two poor peasants in 1992 disposing of an unwanted female baby, before her father has a sudden change of heart. The baby grows up to be Sunny, an ambitious teen (played by Harry Potter’s Katie Leung) who is desperate to make her mark as a ‘city person’ in Beijing, but is stuck in a no-hope cleaning job and on the brink of a marriage of convenience which would keep her in rural drudgery forever. This all changes when she meets a motivational guru, trained in the ‘inspirational sciences’ and offering dodgy Harvard degrees for those willing to ‘rewire your brain for success’. Sunny decides to set out on a path to realise her ‘destiny to make lots of money’ – with tragic consequences.
With the staging making use of garish, Las Vegas-style lighting and decorated with boxes of toy dolls (bearing the slogan ‘Made In China’) you are braced for a predictable attack on China’s material development, with plenty of pointed references to the suicides at the Foxconn factory and digs at vulgar US-style consumerism. Yet while it certainly does tick those boxes, The World of Extreme Happiness has a touch of the insider’s bite, making it altogether more challenging and unnerving than an easy trot around China’s familiar charge sheet.
Cowhig certainly doesn’t seem to feel much ambivalence about China’s economic rise, pulling no punches over the grim realities of rural poverty and the crushing banality of agricultural labour. Meanwhile, Sarah Lam’s and Daniel York’s factory owners are hard-bitten pragmatic survivors of a darker political and economic period, rather than cynical money-grubbing suits.
Instead, the indignation is reserved for the Chinese state’s own ambivalence over modern consumerism, hoping to reap the benefits of growth without relinquishing control over the population. The legacy of Tiananmen and the failure of the Democracy Movement looms heavily here, just as the Spanish Civil War or Hungarian revolution haunted earlier generations of British and American writers. Cowhig’s mocking of Mr Destiny’s motivational studies isn’t fuelled by the familiar liberal grumble about Americanisation, but by genuine indignation about how such therapeutic gobbledegook has become a nation’s outlet for asserting agency in a society shorn of meaningful political activity or expression. As a state apparatchik warns us at one point, ‘mental institutions are asylums for the politically insane’.
In a bleak, Brechtian finale, Sunny’s veteran janitor boss lacerates her generation’s ambition: ‘you don’t know what it is to eat bitterness…to swallow pain’, he spits. Is this a fair and accurate portrayal of life in China’s economic miracle? Possibly not, but it does pose searing, probing questions about an idealistic youth who want the world, and an older generation scarred by memories of recent deprivation and defeat, and how long the state can seek to exert authority in the face of material expectation.
An ambitious play from a young writer, The World of Extreme Happiness at times struggles under the weight of its own subject matter. For all its quiet anger, it sometimes lapses into cliché (it wouldn’t be a gritty social drama without some birds getting horribly killed now, would it?) and overwrought coup de theatre. Yet it marks the emergence of a writer of considerable promise who, in these punchy two hours, seeks to explore what contemporary Chinese struggles means to the Chinese, not what they say about the West. Hopefully it sets a benchmark for the shape of writing on the subject to come.
David Bowden is a columnist for spiked. He is chairing the Battle Satellite Sick children or sick society? at London’s Institute of Psychiatry on Tuesday 15 October.
The World of Extreme Happiness is playing until 26 October 2013 at The Shed at the National Theatre. To book visit the National Theatre’s website or call 0207 452 3000.