Wen Hui: „I always say: my daily life is my technique“

Wen Hui, Mousonturm, Frankfurt (Foto: Michael Schick)


The Chinese choreographer Wen Hui combines dance and documentary film in her works. In 1994 she founded together with her back then partner Wu Wenguang the first independent dance theater group in China, Living Dance Studio, which soon became well known worldwide. With pieces like “Report on Giving Birth“ and „New Report on Giving Birth“ Wen Hui reflects about the ongoing struggles connected to female bodies, society and power.

Am 6. und 7. März zeigt das HAU Hebbel am Ufer „New Report on Giving Birth“ von Wen Hui. Im April findet während des “Love is a Verb”-Festivals zudem ein Workshop mit Wen Hui statt.

Thomas Venker in conversation with Wen Hui.

Where do I find you?

Wen Hui: I’m in Frankfurt.

You were born in Yunnan (in the Southwestern part of China), a region as big as Germany – and still unknown territory to me and I guess also most of the Kaput readers. How should I picture the region?

China has the form of a chicken – and Yunnan is in the South of China, at the border with Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and some part is connected with India.
We have a lot of minorities there, like 26 minorities.

Do you have the feeling that being raised in that specific region of China – with all the borders to other countries and by that cultural influences from abroad – had an impact on you early on?

Yeah, I think so. I respect the influence that geography has on a people. It predicts our future – we call it the body memory: you’re in this land – and this land gives you food, gives you energy, gives you salt, when you grow up you sort of synch the body memory and your body.
Yunnan is known as the dance and song province. As we have a lot of minorities (with different dances), our dance and music tradition is quite different from the Northern or Eastern part of China.

„New Report on Giving Birth“

You are a dancer and choreographer – when did you start to realise that this is where your talents lay?

I have been always listening to my body memory. As I was growing up, my body was leading me. Of course, I learned a lot when I was young: I learned ballet, I learned classical Chinese dance, I learned folk dance, and later in New York I studied modern dance.
I always say my daily life is my technique. Even what I eat has an influence. But of course, I take classes, open my body – but most of all I respect everyday life and the people around me.

Your parents did send you a child to so-called loyalty dances in front of Mao’s portraits. Has there been a special moment, like an initial spark?

My parents sent me and my brother to an art school in the early 1970s. That was the later cultural revolution time. In that period we had no choice. Back then children who graduated from middle school had to become farmers. If you learned sport or you went to the army. And if you learned about art…. My parents sent me and my brother to the art school. That was my parents’ choice, not my choice. But of course, later on, in the 1980s, I chose to be choreographer.

Interesting. What was not a free choice became a thing you love.

Yeah. It became like my whole life.
There was a time in my life, when I was depressed. „Oh my God, I don’t know anything.“ I wanted to learn another job. I want to do other job. But it seemed like I couldn’t.

What other jobs tempted you?

You know how it is, when one gets older, there are those black holes, like when you are 40. I wanted to leave art – I didn’t want to be an artist anymore, I didn’t want to be a choreographer. I wanted to just have a normal life in the office or working. But it’s impossible. I don’t know how to do that.

Well, I’m also not sure if it’s a promising life in the office, the normal life. But I know what you mean, we all long for changes sometimes. Life on the other side seems so easy – but then again is it ever that easy?

What did your parents do for a living?

My father is a history teacher. My mother is a kindergarten teacher.
Both have this one job for their whole life, like me.

„New Report on Giving Birth“

Do you really feel like you just had one job in your life? I say that because I feel like looking back on your career and all those different projects that you constantly learned new things and kinda worked on many different fields.

Of course, I experienced in my life change different periods, different times. My life is following the route of the whole country of China. When the political system changed, when the society changed – my life changed too.
When I was young, dancing felt like a cultural revolution. We called the dance “YanBanXI“ („样板戏”“), a model theatre (operas and ballets produced during the Cultural Revolution) – those were pieces where we had to learn exactly the same things.
After 1980, when the country started to open, we had many Western culture influences, like modern dance and so on. It was a period of change.
So, yes: I do one thing – but I keep changing.
In the 1990s the economy in China was booming, was getting bigger and bigger – and the art was follow the economic system, meaning that the theatre and the art scene became more commercial.

Did that make things easier or more difficult for you? Because on one side it opened up possibilities, but then it also changed the narratives of your works, I imagine?

Well, I think you cannot say easy or not easy. But I started to think differently, of course. I was always trying to connect my body with the society – I was asking myself what questions do I have for the society? How can my body connect with society?

„New Report on Giving Birth“

You just mentioned your education. You first studied dance between 1985 and 1989 at the Department of Choreography of the Beijing Dance Academy – after that you were appointed as the choreographer in the Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble of China (Dongfang gewutuan).
From there you went to New York to study modern dance and later on to Germany (where you attended Folkwang-Hochschule Essen for „Dance School“; and also took the chance to go to Wuppertal to watch Pina Bausch‘s rehearsals. Was it easy to leave China back then? Was it your desire? Have you been also a bit afraid of what’s going to wait on the other side of the world? 

That’s good question.

Now, I’m stuck, actually I’m not stuck, I’ve been in Frankfurt for two years, but not because I planned to and applied for it, I am living in Germany because of the pandemic.
In the beginning of the pandemic I was stuck in Munch. I was not able to fly back to China. So I follow the events. It was not my choice.

But you chose to go to New York or was that also something you were kind of pushed towards?

That was in the early 1990s. The country was starting to open. The younger generation was excited and wanted to see what’s waiting outside.
For me, as a dancer, I thought, I should be going to learn modern dance. It was the high time of modern dance.

„New Report on Giving Birth“

Was this an easy decision. I mean, you had a good position in Dongfang Gewutuan.

You know, that moment was special. Not only the country was changing back then, also the dance company was changing. I’m choreographer, I’m not dancer, I can choose my time. So I told my boss that I want to learn modern dance. There were not strong rules against it any more, so they allow it to me to learn something new.

That’s so interesting, because when I was younger, and we were looking at countries like China or Russia and systems so far away from our western systems, we always thought that it’s not so easy to leave these countries.
But when I came the first time myself in the late 1980s to New York, I realised that there’s a big Chinatown (like there was also a big Chinatown in San Francisco and Amsterdam). And suddenly you realise as a younger person: „Oh, that’s not true, Chinese people are also allowed to travel to see the world.“

Actually, China is very big. You have to say: which kind of people? Which kind of place? You know what I mean? The villages and places very far away in the mountains are not quite open, but for the cities after the 1980s were open.
Last Christmas I was in New York and I was shocked, the whole University of New York area was full with Chinese students. I walked in the streets and heard many Chinese dialects. The young people are curious and wanna explore the world.

But let me come back on my situation: Even though I am not a young person anymore, I am still curious – I am curious what is going on in Germany. Actually, I don’t know the German language, which makes it
difficult for me to read everything in the subway, in the streets or also in the supermarkets, but still it is for me a good experience and exciting. I feel like I became a little kindergarten child again. I started learning small things, how to buy this, how to do this.

„New Report on Giving Birth“

Why did you move to Frankfurt of all German cities? It’s not exactly the most beautiful place, right?

As said, I was stuck in Munich because my last performance was in there in 2021. When I wanted to leave Germany I need to test for getting the green code to go back to China. But I got a red code, because they were thinking that I traveled too much through Europe as I performed in Paris, Prague and Weimar. First I was stuck there for three months. So I was staying in a hotel in Munich for three months. After three months I was excited to go back, but my flight was cancelled – and the next possible flight would have been three months later. Luckily Mousonturm contacted me and offered me a residency. Honestly, if I was stuck for another three months in a hotel, I cannot imagine…

Did you miss China a lot?

Yeah, of course I miss China. I miss my family.

Let’s jump back into dance. But all of these other things are part of our paths, they lead to what we are, in your case: an artist. I’m always very interested in the socio-political and socio-economic situation for the artists I talk to.

Me too. I like this idea of free talking.

„New Report on Giving Birth“

In 1994 you founded together with the filmmaker Wu Wenguang the first independent Dance theatre group of China: Living Dance Studios.
Can you describe the intention behind this quite significant name for me? A name no Western studio would have chosen at that time.

By choosing Living Dance Studios as the name, we make that we want to reflect what is happening now. What is situation in this moment? In this period? Our philosophy was: 100% life 0% art. Not like big philosophical topics or classical stories – it was about the lives we were living in that moment.

That’s the big mark against like classic music and opera music where artists are performing what happened 100, 200 years ago. And it’s always the same repertoire. I understand: you wanted to write the history of now rather than repeating the old stories.

With Living Dance Studio you focused on works telling the stories of individuals (and not the – typical for China – collective narrative), like friends, family members, workers, villagers and so on. Because if you go to the opera, if you go to Mozart or classical music, it’s more a recreating of a special environment. But you choose explicitly the normal people and their environments.
How did these people, whose voices were not really heard before, react?

Back then, in 94, we did the first performance in Beijing called “100 Verbs”. I was in a film academy studio, a dance studio, a big room.
We put the lamp from a friend on the floor. I was taking a shower, washing my clothes, hanging all the wet laundry up…
I invited my dance colleague at that time, Beijing Dance Academy colleagues, also students – and they were all shocked. They said, “What are you doing here? This is not dance. What you do?”
I was exploring what a day in the life of a woman is like. From beginning to the end, one day in the life – all the structure on stage was like in house, there was a TV and a bench, a chair.
So, in beginning it was hard, but I think after 10 years, the students who saw my piece become to be my dancer themselves. They said, “when I was young, I saw as a student what you created.“ So they were very good dancer to join us.

„New Report on Giving Birth“

So these were your colleagues and students, I am also interested how the normal people from villages or workers reacted to your interest in them? Did they understand your interest in their lives?

That’s a good question. Actually, nobody ever asked me this question. I think this is a good point.
For example, I made one dance film called “Dancing with my Third Grandmother.“ My third grandmother was living in the mountains. Our family almost forgot her. Nobody remembered her. She was a really strong, wonderful woman, talented. She remembers all the history of her era. I met her like ten years ago, back then she was already 83, and interviewed her for ten days. During that time I stayed with her living in her village. She shared her personal story with my camera. She herself thought this is really interesting.
In the beginning, she asked me what this set up was about – I explained to her that this is the actual interview, that we record with the camera. She never heard those words before, she learned them in the moment. And the next day, when she woke up early she asked me: “When do we interview this tree?“ or „Can you interview this mountain?“
At the end, after the ten days she told me how great this all feels to her – „because now you have images from all the history I shared with you. You have my face. People can believe what happened.“
Now she’s passed away. 
She said, “when you talk about this history, nobody believes you –
but if you have this image, the people understand.“ I was just shocked how she changed, how fast she understood what was going on.
When I worked on dances with farmers, in the beginning, they didn’t understand. On the first day of rehearsal they asked me to pay them every day. I tried to explain to them, that it is difficult to pay them every day, because when we rehearse eight days and some people just left and don’t come back, how could we build the piece? We promised to pay them everything right after the last rehearsal. But they said, “no, we are working every day, so please pay us every day.“ So we had to explain over and over again that this was not the same as building a house. It took two days until they understood. The moment they got it was when we did some body exercise together: the dancers and the farmer were on their knees, they were in constant eye contact and had to ask each other questions, showing their interest in each other. This kind of exercise helped building trust. After two days exercise, they’ became really comfortable. In the end they were asking right after a performance when the next performance will happen.

„New Report on Giving Birth“

I can imagine. In the beginning for people who are not used to it, alone looking into the eyes of other people, keeping that contact going is such a big step because society often does not want us to do that. They want people to work and just stay in their lane. The moment you commit, you maybe come up with other ideas of society because you’re committing to each other and you build up relationships.

Which brings me to my next question: I am interested in the complex relationship between obvious topics and meanings in your works and coded topics and meanings.
That’s also an interesting topic when we talk about censorship or how states control topics in films, in theatres, in art. They often don’t understand the real meaning of a piece’s storyline.
How difficult is it for you to construct these narratives of your works?

I always tell the producers and the dancers that I work very slow. I need almost like two years for each piece. First of I start with a long research process, like interviewing many people. That’s why some people said to me, that my work is like social studies. I want to see what is specific in the lives of people.
After that I meet with my team. At that stage I have a lot of material. At the rehearsals my dancers are often stressed cause we have so much material. So later we have to like squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, to make it shorter and shorter and end up with like an hour.
One important thing to say: I never do auditions for my works, I
interview people who I want to work with, I try to spend time with them, living with them, talking, drinking… I take time to get to know them. And then we talk about work.

„New Report on Giving Birth“

Are you sometimes revisiting this edits and re-edit the works?

Exactly. That’s true. We always say after a premiere that the piece is not finished. The premiere is just one step in the process. We meet the audience and from there on we keep changing. We have new thoughts. It’s always very important is to reflect who we are in this moment. We were not just giving a performance in a room, we have been there.

So, the works are in constant dialogue with both the lives of you and your team as well with the society at large. Especially as all your topics are very much connected to larger social structures and processes. And as things are not really developing linear but rather in ebb and flow rhythms this means you have to constantly rethink them.

Yeah, exactly. I think this is the right image.

I guess you are familiar with the life and work of the US-American writer, historian, actor, and broadcaster Studs Terkel, who is well known for this oral histories, allowing his interviewees to speak at length and providing insights into the world of workers, the Great Depression, the realities of racial segregation, the abysses of the American Dream and so many other revealing scenarios.
I bring this up as in works with titles such as “Report on Body” and “Report on Giving Birth“ you also addressed China’s socio-political conditions with almost journalistic zeal.

No, I never heard from him.

„New Report on Giving Birth“

Well, your work “New Report on Giving Birth”, which you will perform at HAU Hebbel am Ufer, reminds me of Terkel’s legacy.
The work, originally designed and debuted in 1999, was based on interviews with factory workers, doctors, journalists, midwives and your own mother about experiences of pregnancy and birth.
I have two questions coming from this, the first would be: do you remember the genesis of it? And, what inspired you to do start working on this?

You mean “Report on Giving Birth” or „New Report on Giving Birth“? 
In 1999 we produced the first „Report on Giving Birth“ – back then I was interviewing woman aged from 27 to 92. I talked to women who I bumped into, people and friends, even taxi drivers, And I found out when women talk about giving birth freedom is a big topic. Even the woman who was 92 remembered every moment, all the details. Each story was so different. I myself was excited about this report – it gave these woman the chance to explore themselves.
And this new piece we were going to performance, „New Report on Giving Birth“ is originally from 2020. I was stuck in Munich and listened to the internet. In a video they talked about one woman in China that giving birth to eight children. She was locked with chains around her neck in the backyard. Four million people watched this internet video. I was so angry. This motivated me want to create the new report.
These days you see all the happenings from around the world. Like new US-American abortion law, or the happenings in Iran. All this had an impact on „New Report on Giving Birth“.

Now in 2024 years you stage “New Report on Giving Birth” with four dancers, who dare to view contemporary perspectives on female bodies. They meet each other as mothers, non-mothers and women with migration stories from China, Thailand, Iran, Italy and Germany. By choosing specific regions and people, the narrative is always like shifting a little bit, right?

Yeah, actually, for the new report, we opened the narrative internationally. not only Chinese story. The stories are international the same: Who is in control of our bodies? I don´t choose a region, I choose the person. I met, for example, an Iranian artist in Essen. She was a resident artist there. We bump into each other in the kitchen. We talked. I felt immediately, „Wow, this artist is very interesting.“ I know I would like to work with her. My intuition told me so. So I went to see her performance and invited her to Frankfurt to stay in my studio for three days, so we could get to know each other better.
I met the artist from Thailand in Frankfurt and we became like friends. Again: we shared lunches, we talked. The same with the Italian artist. I have not too much knowledge about Italian political situation. But when I meet Alexandra, she told me things, so I learn more about the Italian political situation, what’s going on in their society.

Wen Hui, Mousonturm, Frankfurt (Foto: Michael Schick)

The relationship between politics and society often feels like three steps forward, four steps back. You know what I mean? Do you sometimes wonder what is here to stay from the emancipation movement you co-initiated? Or let me ask differently: do you consider yourself an optimistic artist?

I don’t know. I don’t know. (laughs)

How do you look at the world right now? Would you say it’s in a good state or is it in a bad state?

Well, of course right now it’s terrible. I must say after the pandemic it was hard for everybody, actually, for all of the world. After the pandemic it’s really not easy. What do you think?

Of course I am very troubled about the state of the world. But as someone working in the cultural field, I am also very, very concerned about this new tendency to build walls between us instead of talking to each other, to me culture is always about the dialogue and not about cancelling each other and boycotting each other.

After all you just described working with artists from Italy and Iran and so on. Do you feel that your audience is getting this than rather still see you mostly as an artist reflecting about China?

Actually with his new piece, the audience is more connecting the story with their own personal story. I met many audience members who were able to connect the stories of the dancers with their own stories. I just met, two days ago, a woman at Mousonturm who told me that she was fascinated listening to my dancers’ talks, as she is pregnant right now.
I met one young Chinese woman in Paris who told me that she totally understood the piece – „it means in this world some people have choice, but others have no choice.“
The people connect their own background to the piece.

How does your own perspective and relationship with your works change over time?

Actually, before our conversation I was reflecting on my work. My body is in constant connection with society. So, changes in society changes my body and my work. It’s very difficult. I am still discovering new things, of course, by getting older I have a different perspective on society, but also the way my body reacts is not the same as years ago. There is level after level after level. I still have final words. I am still confused. I am still like a child.

You explore – together with your dancers –  how structural violence and control become entrenched in bodies. In that process dancing is direct communication with the intention to show empathy for the ones around you as well as a sometimes clearly visible, sometimes more hidden resistance.
What do you feel is the greatest achievement of your work? I know, not an easy question? Do you think in categories like that?

I always say: I’m an integration person. I don’t follow a big plan. I’m just working. I know what I need, what I’m looking for. But I don’t know how to say this. I don’t know how to explain this in words. Some directors / choreographers are very articulate people, they can speak with great clarity in words and concepts; for me it’s difficult to speak about my concept, I just follow my intuition.

Let me turn the question around: which of your works is the most important one for you?

Well, again, I would say I follow my life. Where I am – I’m there. What I’m doing, I just do. When I was on a three-week lock-in at a hotel with just a small window for fresh air – I danced there every day for three weeks. I had no real concept, but I felt that if I am not dancing, I will not survive. I am sure it is the same with you and writing.


It’s the same. It is all about daily life.

What you are saying: there is not and never will be a most important work. This does not exist as it all is about keep doing what you are doing.


With “I Am 60” you researched your own history and the one by female family members. Why did you chose this particular moment in your own life and in the working process for this?

It’s again very closely connected to my own personal life. When I turned 60, I felt like I want to give myself a gift. Why? You have to know, between 50 and 60 I had a big hole in my life. It was a very dark time. My ex-partner and me, we separated – my life was just destroyed. But at the same time, I meet my third grandmother, the one I was talking about earlier. So many things happened. So I decided to work on this specific piece: „I am 60“.
Also by the age of 60 you finish one life circle in China. Then you start a new life – it is the beginning point of your next life.
At this point, I started to research old silent movies from China from the 1920s and 1930s – this was the moment in time that the women’s movement started; before, women were just staying in the house. Those movies, that came especially from Shanghai, started what we call in China the first wave of female liberation. Suddenly women were also going to work. I started to discover all these stories about the Chinese women’s feminist history – and I combined my own life experience with the historic ones and the ones of the younger generation.
We talked about this before: the situation of the woman today is not so much different as back then in the 1920s and 1930s.

After listening to what you just described and all we talked before about your filming experiences with your third grandmother, I wonder if you feel that there are similarities between her life and your life?

Actually, it’s true. You are right, both, “Listening to My Third Grandmother’s Stories“ (film and stage play) and „Dancing with My Third Grandmother“ (film), are also somehow the beginning of my personal story. I did not think of if like that before.
After listening to her story, I felt like this is also the history of Chinese woman. When she was eleven she met my third grandfather, with twelve she married him (really married him), at fourteen she gave birth to her first child, who died three days later because she was too young. And at twenty her husband left her for another woman.
To bring her story to the stage, I also wrote to my mum to include her in the film/play, and I included me and the young dancers in it – I don’t have children, but the young dancer is from my hometown, so she is like my child. Four generations on stage.

Do you find it easier to share your experiences in your work than, for example, in an interview or in conversation with other people?

I think that depends who I talk with. I feel that today you opened me up, you have a technique. Yesterday I talked to a Chinese friend, who wants to write an article about me, but I did not know how to start – and this was even in Chinese. But today you found the key.

Thank you. That’s lovely to hear.

It is really important who you talk with.

I have one more question: do many memories pop up for you when you rewatch your old works? Like a kaleidoscope of personal memories, of lifetimes events?

I think so. I think memory is moving. Sometimes, when you talk to someone, you find another layer to discover, you remember. The memories are moving.

So you still find new memories in you?


That’s nice. Thank you Wen Hui for sharing so many personal stories and reflections with me.


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Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

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