She brings Western theater culture to Chinese prisons
Published: Dec 30, 2020 04:08 PM

Prisoners from the Tibet Autonomous Region Prison attend an art performance in 2018. Photo: Courtesy of the Tibet Autonomous Region Prison

A Chinese academic stepped into prisons, mysterious places to ordinary people, with her recent applied theater project, trying to get closer to prisoners and bring something different to them.

Zhang Xiaoye, a criminologist at East China University of Political Science and Law, has carried out her applied theater project twice in two seperate Chinese prisons. She addressed and shared her experience on

Zhang Xiaoye Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Xiaoye

Although neither has lasted successfully, she still acquired deeper understandings of the system of Chinese prisons and those who committed crimes, and her project did have an impact on some prisoners.

"When I applied with the prison for the first time, I told the administrators that I want to carry out a project about applied theater, but they did not understand exactly what it is and considered it as a kind of psychotherapy," Zhang told the Global Times. "At the beginning, I tried to correct them that it is not a simple psychotherapy, but prisoners were also confused, so I compromised."

Zhang said after stepping inside, she found that prison life is different from what she thought. Chinese prisons have had regular theater performances since the 1960s, though it is not like Western theaters, and besides dramas, prisoners also have other literary and artistic activities.

The first time Zhang was allowed to carry out her project in a Chinese prison in 2014, when she was still a graduate student, she benefited from the help of a university sculpting major, who had gone to the prison to give painting therapy lessons.

Two trials in two prisons

Fifteen prisoners were sitting and waiting for Zhang. Their sentences and charges varied, but what they wore, their hairstyle and gestures looked almost the same.

"I was not afraid of them, but at the moment when I went into the room, I could not identify who was who," Zhang recalled.

In the beginning, these prisoners seemed absent-minded and did not understand what they should do.

Each of them had just less than three months until they return to society. They asked Zhang what people outside will think of them and were worried about social judgement and comments towards them.

Zhang divided these 15 prisoners into three groups and carried out the five-day project - Forum Theater. Every day they needed to spend five hours on the activity.

To let them become familiar with others quickly, Zhang organized some interactive games to break the ice. Next, they shared their experiences in groups to choose a theme for their scripts. The most dramatic story would be selected and adapted as a short play.

Zhang instructed prisoners to finish their scripts themed on how to adapt to the normal life after being released from prison, but saw troubles when it came to performing. Prisoners refused to perform for others in the prison as they thought they would be mocked.

"There is little trust among these prisoners," Zhang noted.

In the end, she was out of ideas and agreed to let the prisoners perform in their own small groups; but since it lacked the final important step, the first trial failed.

The second time Zhang went to another prison as a consultant instead of an organizer and assisted a Chinese actor in running a drama club, but as the plan was not clear and they could not reach an agreement with the authorities regarding some of their views, they failed again.

What theater brought to prisoners 

Although neither was successful, Zhang discovered that the projects did have an impact on these prisoners.

"They gradually became themselves and released themselves in the process of creating their plays," Zhang said.

Those who originally love speaking and showing began to join in the creation of theater actively and their souls had a chance to "escape" from prison for a while. Some prisoners were quite talented in theater-making.

"There was only one prisoner who applied to quit the drama club as the administrators did not approve his script. He even wrote a resignation letter to me, saying that he did not want to be sorry for art." 

One prisoner left an impressive sentence to Zhang, saying that he had stayed in prison for eight years and cannot think by himself anymore, so he cannot finish his own script.

The theater project is not just to let prisoners cry and confess their crimes with tears, Zhang noted. 

The project even influenced the further life of these prisoners.

Another prisoner, who committed economic crimes and has an undergraduate degree, was inspired by Zhang's project and grasped an opportunity in the cultural industry.

He opened a cultural workshop in his hometown after being released, where he regularly organizes cultural events in cafes, such as salons.

Further endeavors

Zhang has not given up on the project and connection with prisons or prisoners.

She told the Global Times that she was invited by the art troupe of a Shanghai prison to evaluate their projects.

Zhang thought that this role is better suited for her to observe and do research. 

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