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The Childbirth Chronicle: A Theatrical Expression of Chinese Migrant Women in Beijing

By Anzi Dong

(trans). life just like flowers, and women’s reproduction is a trial. This is a collective production by migrant women, a tribute to their life. This is a story about migrant women’s suffering, love, and persistence in livable life. Their pain, experiences of childbirth, and the journey of growing up are now being heard and seen.

On May 9, 2019, the day before Mother’s Day, a group of migrant women delivered a stage performance, Childbirth Chronicle at the Star Theatre in Beijing’s Xicheng District. The play was organized by the Mulan Community Service Center, a grassroots organization led by female migrant workers in Beijing. The Center is located in Dongshage Village, a suburb of South Beijing, where thousands of rural migrants reside. Qi Li-Xia,  co-founder of the organization and a migrant worker, came up with the idea of writing a play based on migrant women’s reproductive experiences after listening to stories from fellow migrant workers about childbirth and abortion. Qi and her co-workers then interviewed and recorded stories from more than twenty women about reproductive experiences. They then scripted a collective narrative based on these oral histories, which gave birth to the female protagonist Xiaoyu – a migrant woman who has had two childbirths and three abortions in her 30-year life course. Childbirth Chronicle is a repertoire that consists of a repeating cycle of pregnancy and abortion throughout many rural women’s migrant life. By bringing an intimate portrayal of frequently invisible and silenced experiences into the public, this group of migrant women fleshes out traumatic personal memories and reinserts them into a seemingly ceaseless progression of neoliberal time.

In Childbirth Chronicle, Xiaoyu gave her first birth to a son, at the age of 17 and in a small village in 1990’s Sichuan. At that time, her husband worked at a nearby city. During a hot summer,  Xiaoyu birthed a second child, another son, and suffered from a severe perineal tearing due to the large sized infant. Only taking a few days of rest after childbirth, Xiaoyu began assisting her parents-in-law with farm and house work. The One-Child policy in the countryside then required women to use an IUD after giving birth a second time, preventing future pregnancies. For the next several years and having the IUD in place, Xiaoyu, following her husband, moved to a Beijing’s suburb and worked at a factory. Due to the labor intensive work on the assembly line, not to mention child care, the IUD slipped out of place and Xiaoyu ended up with three unexpected pregnancies. Given the family’s lack of material resources, abortion was the only reasonable “choice,” avoiding the unaffordable cost of raising a large family. Here, Xiaoyu’s life struggles and bodily pain are staged to tell a more than common story of a migrant woman whose life was governed by reproductive traumas and caregiving, while performing the essential labor to sustain her family’s translocal migrant journey.

Pain, defined as the experience associated with physical and emotional traumas, is graphically enacted throughout the play. The stage is specifically designed to spotlight Xiaoyu’s suffering during the process of childbirth and abortion. In one scene, a red sheet was hung up in front of the operating table to block the audiences’ sight from the excruciating spectacle of Xiaoyu’s abortion. With the stage light on, the audience saw the shadow of the scene through the sheet, behind which Xiaoyu lay on the table, shuddering at the doctor, who was using various devices to scrape the inside of her uterus and to remove the contents of the fetus. In front of the stage, the other three performers crawled on the floor, twisting and moaning, with their face contorted in pain. The stage thus becomes an assemblage of visceral pains, loss and grief as a collective experience among generations of migrant women.

Zhao Qian, actor of the middle-aged Xiaoyu, is in a small room alone for rehearsal, from the documentary “Childbirth Chronicle” by Xing Haidong.

The role of Xiaoyu is collectively portrayed by five migrant women showing each of Xiaoyu’s reproductive events. These women associated themselves with Xiaoyu’s reproductive traumas in different yet related ways, and developed profound connections with each other by these shared experiences. During months of rehearsal and public performance, the casts relived their own reproductive traumas again and again; every line and movement brought their traumatic memories into the present. They hugged and paddled each other on and behind the stage, comforting each other for the shared pain and loss, thus creating a space for collective mourning. Drawing from the discarded and suppressed bodily experiences, these women not only used a rarely-spoken language to articulate their grief, but also voiced hope, love, intimacy, and interdependence – the essential elements for their world-building and meaning-making. Their performance can be read as a process of mutual healing and caring, in which the fragmented and disavowed past returns, making it possible for the present life to yearn for and envision a livable future.

Since 2017, the Beijing municipal government launched a series of demolition campaigns to remove migrant workers from the suburbs, where suburban reconstruction and the real estate market have been taking place. These removal campaigns resulted in massive eviction and displacement of migrant communities. In the language of suburban developmentalism, these migrant workers are now seen as “low-end population”. Because of the evictions, some of the interviewees and potential casts were unable to complete their stories and could not participate in The Childbirth Chronicle. Confronted with the reality of ongoing dispossession of home and home-life being violently disrupted by Neo-liberal development, Mulan Center members nevertheless insisted on their commitment to collective endeavor by creatively organizing people, places, and resources. In these moments where livable time and space of rural migrant population are left vulnerable to the extraction and colonization of speculative capitalism, collective endeavors such as the Childbirth Chronicle should be understood as an on-going oral history project that rewrites capitalism’s single story.

The cast answers curtain calls at the end of the play, from the documentary “Childbirth Chronicle” by Xing Haidong.

The migrant women who took part in this creative project worked in different sectors of service and manufacturing industries in Beijing, ranging from domestic works and restaurants, to retail work at supermarkets and assembly lines workers. In the process of creating the performance, they commuted from different districts of the suburb so that they may come together every weekend in a rented house near Dongshage. Some women brought along their children because their working husbands were unavailable. The rehearsal location now became a space for collective reproductive care. Their devotion to the project and each other is evident by their willingness to show up after a demanding work week. With scarce resources and a tight budget, they handmade all the stage props. The women also cooked and shared food with one another, every time they met for rehearsal. Their persistence and combined effort at mutual care and community-building reproduce and show us a different way of relating to time – a non-capitalist time, and a different way of relating to one another – an alternative mode of living amidst the ongoing neoliberal crisis and precarity.

Anzi Dong is a second-year PhD student in Gender Studies at Arizona State University. She investigates the dynamics between globalization, biopolitics, and the dispossession of migrant workers in the post-socialist China. Her current research centers on the social reproduction and collective activism of Chinese migrant women.

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