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One of the great things about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the platform given to international theatre companies, allowing them the chance to tell their unique and often unheard stories. One of these gems that will undoubtedly have a lasting impression is Chinese Women’s Whispers. An enriching piece of theatre, this small company of four combine dance, story-telling, traditional folk-songs, and pure imagination to reveal an unfamiliar perspective of women within Chinese society.

The existence of Nushu, described on the posters as “an ancient Chinese way of writing only known to women”, is an incredibly beautiful example of how women found a way to survive, despite being refused proper education and opportunities in rural towns due to their sex. These unique characters, inspired by flowers and leaves and conceived by a young girl wanting more than what was offered to her, is truly fascinating. The story told about the “9lb baby” opens up a much bigger discussion of women in society, and how this female-exclusive language has come to be a symbol of a woman’s education, gratuity and the importance of friendship among women.

At the heart of this performance is a profound appreciation and adoration for Chinese women, of all ages and backgrounds. Each performer shares with the audience a story about their family history: particularly about their grandmothers. Each story is different: they are all from different parts of China, although mainly rural backgrounds in small villages or on farms. Each tale is short and sweet, whilst also very amusing: again, the performers’ confidence on stage and their ease with the audience makes these anecdotes really come to life. Their stories take them back to their childhoods and moments that have had an unexpected effect on them in later life. Each memory of their grandmothers shows how impressionable their elders were during their upbringing, and a strong sense of respect for the women born into a less woman-accepting era. What the cast also do is encourage the audience to think about their grandmothers. Their improvised ‘gifts’ to the audience as they enact select traits is a touching and nostalgia-provoking gesture, also showing how masterfully creative they all are as performers.

The energy and charisma these individuals have is infectious, and it is impossible to not be pulled in by their amusing, and sometimes heart-wrenching stories. There are no language or cultural boundaries here. The infusion of the Chinese language amongst the stories told in English is again a nod of respect to tradition: it also demonstrates how far they have come to be here, and what an amazing opportunity this production is. Another wonderful moment is when the audience, eyes closed, find themselves hearing (and experiencing) the birth of one performer’s mother in a pig-sty. The ingenious use of sound adds a universal quality to the production, breaking the language barrier and proving the power of imagination.

A final recognition of this Hua Dan – Hand Made in China’s production achievement is the way it excels in disproving a number of preconceptions of Chinese culture within the Western world. One account which stands out belongs to 董芬 (Dong Fen), who recalls how her father spent days travelling with her in order to allow her the rare opportunity to go to Beijing at eighteen, after having left school at fifteen due to financial troubles. The trust and respect her father has for her, allowing her to be independent rather than settle early into marriage, is a revelation, showing a human side to the patriarchal figure that has overshadowed China’s image for so long. The emotional intensity of the stories told onstage left one audience member in tears: and to be honest, I wasn’t far off either. The final piece, “A letter to my future daughter”, epitomises the show’s message that women are in no way the inferior race, and its touching and positive message reveals how important they are within Chinese society.

Chinese Women’s Whispers is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre, combining old traditions with a new light shining on Chinese women, often overshadowed by China’s patriarchal history. It is a gift to be treasured.

Reviewed: 26th August 2016


Many of the stories shared offer a wonderful insight into Chinese culture. Learning of the Nüshu script - a form of Chinese writing used exclusively by women - is fascinating, alongside the discovery of the different expectations put upon young Chinese women. One female actor shares the news of her father's sadness at the fact she hadn’t married by the age of eighteen. Similarly, a song performed by the sole male actor speaks of a Chinese girl growing into adulthood: "At sixteen, the matchmaker comes," he croons, "at eighteen, her parents arrange the dowry."

A real strength of the show is how thoroughly likeable the four actors are. They remain positive, respectful and sincere throughout. There’s never any hint of wryness or cynicism, qualities British performers are prone to falling back on. In the moments where they interact with the audience, their wonderful sincerity shines and it’s impossible not to warm to them.

Additionally, I appreciated the pared back nature of the production. This was the least technically impressive show I've seen at the Fringe so far but it was no worse for it. In one especially memorable point, the actors asked us to close our eyes. They then went about creating a soundscape, seeking to conjure up the image of a baby born in a pig sty (incidentally this happened to the mother of one of the cast members). It was surprisingly effective and reminded me how one needn’t rely on fancy technology in order to create powerful theatrical moments.

The show might have been even more impressive had it been more polished though. For instance, the male actor sang beautifully but twice forgot the lyrics to his song. This shouldn't really occur by the fourth performance of a run. This criticism aside, however, I'd encourage anyone to attend. If you’re on the lookout for an interesting, tranquil and unique experience - you’re in for a treat.

Reviewer: Alan Stewart
Reviewed: 19th August 2016


Chinese Women’s Whispers is a collection of stories about women’s lives over the last century or so. The stories are deeply personal to the cast: they concern themselves, their mothers and their grandmothers. The production also explores the origins of “nushu”, a private and semi-secret language created by and for women.

The four performers use song, dance, narrative and physical theatre to present the stories of women from different generations. The older female performer, who appears to speak mostly nushu in the show, provides most of the singing; she also weaves and practices nushu calligraphy for the audience.

Special mention must be given to the second story, which you are asked to experience with your eyes closed. You hear a woman giving birth to a baby; the husband makes a comment, and takes the newborn outside to a pig sty. The next morning the father goes out to the sty, and is amazed to find the baby still alive. This story is told only in the sounds made by the actors, and the few words spoken are not translated – yet the narrative is crystal clear, and you know precisely what is going on and why. It is later revealed that this is the story of the mother of one of the actresses.

Another of the stories is spoken in a Chinese language, and translated by one of the actresses. While it’s a sensitive point to raise, this heavily-accented translation was difficult to tune into, and some of the people around me were visibly unable to follow what was going on. Especially in an international festival, where many of the audience may not have English as their first language, surtitles might have been a more considerate choice.

All of the tales told are very different, but they are connected by common themes of wisdom and strength. The memories explored by the cast show a great love and respect for their mothers and grandmothers, and you cannot but help being moved. It might even cause you to look at your own relatives in a different, perhaps more respectful, light.

Reviewer: Caroline Cawley
Reviewed: 26th August 2016

Hua Dan-Hand Made in China

Chinese Women’s Whispers

Chinese Women’s Whispers @spotlites @edfringe

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Sun 14th - Sun 28th August 2016
(not Weds 17th, nor Weds 24th)
4:05pm (50 mins)

From China

Presenting contemporary reflections on the role of women in today’s society.

The story of three generations of Chinese women combines with the story of Nüshu – Chinese women’s secret writing – to offer contemporary perspectives on a woman’s role in society.

The Hua-Dan women consider their roles as wives, daughters, mothers and modern women in China today, while stories, poems, songs and dance from the Hunan Jiangyong Centre for Nüshu further explore the eternality of women’s experiences across the generations.

From Hua-Dan: Fringe First winners 2014 and Hunan Jiangyong Centre for Nüshu.

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