Blog: Jude Christian

The Manchester writer and performer describes how her Chinese heritage and a high school maths teacher set her on the path towards her latest play, Nanjing

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My favourite ever lesson at school was a maths lesson with a teacher called Mrs Bentley, where she started by saying something along the lines of: “This will be completely useless to you in your exams but I just want to talk about it for a bit because I think it’s really cool.” Then she drew a circle on the board and wrote some numbers inside it, saying: “These are numbers that we know exist, like eight, and minus seven billion, and forty-four point five three nine. This second circle is for numbers that we know don’t exist, like the square root of a minus number, or the end of pi.” She left the third circle empty and said: “This is for all the numbers we don’t know about, whether they exist or not.”

Obviously, I was quite into maths at school – enough to get excited about the concept of numbers that don’t exist or don’t end, even though I couldn’t even begin to explain what that really means or how it works. But I think what really hit me was how matter of fact she was about not knowing things. Maybe because at school especially it feels reassuring to hear someone say that there are things we don’t know the answer to, either as individuals or as the entire human race, and that’s okay. But probably also because she was basically saying that she found it mind-blowing and awe-inspiring to remember that life and the universe are so vast that our understanding of them is just a drop in the ocean.

For the last few years, I’ve been making a piece of theatre called Nanjing. It’s about war: specifically, about the Rape of Nanking, a notorious massacre which took place in China during World War Two, and its repercussions and resonances. One reason for making a piece of theatre about this particular massacre is that I’m half Chinese, but I was born and raised in England and didn’t know anything about the Rape of Nanking until I was in my twenties. The process of making the show has forced me to think a lot about all the things I don’t know.

Just because it’s not possible to know everything, that doesn’t mean we should stop learning

First, there’s all the information I don’t have: historical events, facts and evidence, hidden secrets and forgotten stories, across the world and even within my own family. Second, the answers I can’t find. What’s the truth of these events? How should we remember them? How should we, as individuals and the entire human race, respond to violence, racism, persecution, despotism, exploitation and the threat of extinction? Is there a way we can reduce suffering, and protect the world and its inhabitants? And will we ever find a consensus?

The only conclusion I really came to is that just because it’s not possible to know everything, that doesn’t mean we should stop learning. And the joyful thing about theatre is that it’s a place for questions, not answers. I don’t go and see plays so they can tell me what to think or do. I go because it’s comforting to see people asking the same questions I am, and because it’s challenging and inspiring to step into the unknown with a roomful of strangers, knowing we’ll never “solve” life but maybe we’ll realise something new or remember something we used to know.

As well as embracing the unknown, the other thing I want to take forward from Mrs Bentley’s random maths lesson is the sense that the vastness of the world can be comforting rather than depressing. That can be quite a difficult notion to hang on to when you’re making a play about war, but one of the main focus points of Nanjing was the individual people within the big picture. In amongst all the horror, there were – and always have been and always will be – countless moments of bravery, kindness, warmth and integrity, some extraordinary and some completely ordinary, and it feels important to recount them alongside the ugliness and mess; to count the good things when I know they exist.

Nanjing was at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 27 Feb-2 March and is at Birmingham Rep, 13-16 March

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