If questions bring you luck, then stories are the source of good fortune

By Robin Berkelmans – Last Sunday, on the 22nd of January, four storytellers revealed their secret stories on China at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. It was a quiet, Sunday afternoon when the second edition of Story–Line’s Storytellers on Stage was opened with a bang on a gong. A symbolic wake-up call for the awakening about to follow.

After a warm welcome by founder of Story–Line Petra Quaedvlieg and a short introduction by Garrie van Pinxteren, artist Leana Bekker introduced the audience to the red envelopes they were given at the entrance. Originating from the Chinese tradition in which the red envelope or hong bao holds a monetary gift to bring you luck, the public was asked to use the envelopes to keep their valuable questions regarding the following stories.

If questions bring you luck, then stories are the source of good fortune. The first storyteller was author and journalist Lijia Zhang. She recently published her book ‘Lotus’, a fiction novel about prostitution in China. Truly a forbidden and often hidden subject in Chinese society. Despite this taboo, the sex industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Zhang explains: “Once you are clothed and fed you start thinking about sex”.

Zhang wrote her book in English, a language she has practised for years to free herself from certain restrictions. According to Zhang, the English language provides her an unexpected freedom to tell the truth while living and working in China. It is remarkable how Zhang managed to write this book in a country so shielded. Zhang mentions that China is more free than ever before, but publications are still a way to control Chinese society. Still, by learning to write in English, Zhang freed herself from censorship and created her own opportunity to become an honest writer.

Next up is journalist Hans Moleman who talks about Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke. He declares Zhang-ke as the most interesting filmmaker in China and underlines the cunning tactics Zhang-ke uses to cope with suppression. Moleman tells how Zhang-ke started as a young, underground filmmaker and how he is now dealing with international acclaim and censorship. One of his most controversial films is the movie ‘A Touch of Sin’, showing the dangers of corruption. At first the film was approved by Chinese authorities, but when ‘A Touch of Sin’ gained international fame, the movie was banned from the country.

Jia Zhang-ke is another example of how working the system may result in new opportunities. After ‘A Touch of Sin’, Zhang-ke managed to make himself roughly independent by collaborating closely with local authorities and the Shanghai Film Group. For instance, he now works with the Shanghai-Vancouver Film School in a so-called international zone, sending censorship to the background of his career.

The third speaker of today’s event is Sigrid Deters, who made the documentary ‘Lost Son’. Accompanied by the Dutch adopted young man named Gouming, she travels to China to see if they will find Gouming’s biological parents and to talk with other Chinese parents who lost their child due to child trafficking. The film shows not only Gouming’s struggle with a lost part of his identity, but also the ambiguous feeling of bringing hope to these Chinese parents who lost their child. A fundamental story that left a drastic impression on all of us.

Finally, the film ‘Reconstructing Reality’ by information design graduate Alice Wong is shown. In this film, Alice reconstructs reality by using prominent fragments of pop culture to reassemble the death of her father. She stresses how all memories are told by others and how our mind constantly reconstructs reality. During the interview she mentions the cultural differences on how to deal with her father’s death and how her traditional, Chinese family tends to keep all negativity hidden for the outside world to maintain their image and, in a way, reconstruct their own, personal reality.

In conclusion, Story-Line provided its audience a valuable afternoon of new insights, undisclosed stories by grounded storytellers and perhaps one or two confirmed prejudices on China. Reasons are plenty to look forward to a third edition of Storytellers On Stage to further broaden our minds and our view on the outside world.

Robin Berkelmans (23) is responsible for the communication of Young Office, the youth department of Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht. In 2016 she graduated at the Maastricht Art Academy as a graphic designer. “Funnily enough I rediscovered art after graduating at the Art school. Before I could write or read I preferred museums over playgrounds. Art, to me, is an experience and, essentially, not much more than that. Everyone can experience art, something that is often forgotten. Of course, context and knowledge can change this experience, but these cannot determine the way art makes you feel, which is a beautiful and important phenomenon.”