Marks Left by Life: an Interview with Tao Aimin

“In the past, Chinese history has been dominated by Confucian and male culture. Nüshu is absolutely comparable to the dominant language used by men” – Tao Aimin

“Mosquito writing, a female-only, secret Chinese script, nüshu: these are all terms used to describe a written language used by the Yao minority in the Hunanese county of Jiangyong. Used exclusively amongst women since at least the 13th century, nüshu was developed as a necessity; as skills such as literacy were inaccessible to women, this melodic, monosyllabic style of writing, speaking, and singing was once their primary form of communication.

These counterfactual narratives – and their inclusion or marginalization in history books – has been a focal point of Tao Aimin’s practice for the past 15 years. Born in Hunan and currently based in Beijing, Tao inhabits multiple worlds, from the pastoral, domestic landscapes of her childhood to the industrial concrete monoliths of her working environment. In 2005, she began documenting the livelihoods and histories of various communities around her hometown, some of which are at risk of erasure due to rapid modernization and industrialization. Tao learned nüshu from an octogenarian master of the language, one of the few remaining people who have studied and practiced it all their life. In another project, recorded the life of her elderly landlady before her passing, from the ritualistic washing of her bound feet to her daily domestic duties.

Part anthropologist, part memory resurrector – her washboard installations, for example, evoke a strange childhood nostalgia – Tao identifies and challenges the patriarchal norms that have dominated Chinese literature and culture. In her paintings, installations, photographs, and videos, she is always asking: who decides what is written, which legacies are canonized? How much of what is labeled a minor history is actually a construct by those in power?

I Was Flying.jpg

Nü Shu: Brother and Sister Series – I Was Flying (2019) | Ink on paper, audio recording | 138 x 34 cm x 7

Ysabelle Cheung: How did you discover nüshu? Are you aware of any other scripts or languages developed in and used by rural female communities?

Tao Aimin: I discovered nüshu through an article about the local cultures of Hunan – where I am from – in a magazine. As far as I know, nüshu is the only script used exclusively by female communities in the world.

In your work, you often speak with hundreds of women. How do you navigate these communities when collecting their stories? Are you operating as a facilitator, documentarian, collaborator, or all three? 

Tao Aimin in front of Washed Relics 2

Tao Aimin in front of Washed Relics 2

The women I interview are from different places. They have different occupations, personalities, ages, and educational backgrounds. When I collect stories from these different communities, I try to be sensitive and provide guidance. For example, if I’m interviewing an artist, I will ask them about their creative ideas, exhibitions, lifestyles, and try to explore and understand their innermost thoughts. If the interviewee is a white-collar worker, then my questions will focus more on social issues, gender equality. If the interviewee is a housewife, then I will concentrate more on their personal emotions and how these emotions play into their relationships with other family members. In this sense, I’m playing the role of all three: a facilitator, a documentarian, and a collaborator.

I read that when you were young, your father painted wooden furniture, and your mother worked in a factory, which were typical roles at that time. How has this exposure to labor, especially in relation to physical objects, influenced your practice?

My father used to be a craftsman. So handmade objects have a subtle influence on me. The domestic environment of my grandparents’ home had a big impact on me as well. There were many antique pieces of furnitures dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasty in their house. I think that’s where my love and passion for objects with history came from.

The intimate, domestic sensibility of your materials is often transformed in the final project. You have used a washboard as a tool to make prints or as a surface to inscribe writings on, and in your nüshu projects, symbols are represented in more formal contexts, such as in paintings and books. How do you consider the materiality and presentation of each object – whether a softened wooden washboard or a written symbol – to tell a story?  

The materials I use are quotidian objects that have a very intimate relationship with the people who use them. The washboard is an ordinary object found in Chinese households. I collected them while conducting my fieldwork, recording the stories behind them, as well as many other similar objects. It cannot be more appropriate to use washboards to express the life of Chinese women [in rural communities]. In her daily routine, a woman washes clothes by rubbing them on a piece of wooden washboard using her hands. The use-wear marks left by the lifetimes of manual labor are just like their unique language inscribed on the board, telling their own stories and history.

“In the past, Chinese history has been dominated by Confucian and male culture. Nüshu is absolutely comparable to the dominant language used by men” – Tao Aimin

For my installation The River of Women in 2005, I installed several washboards like a flowing “river”, a formation that symbolizes collective strength and the passage of time. Most rural women in China cannot read or write, and they seldom have photographs of themselves. The combination of the washboards and the portraits of women became a perfect metaphor for this phenomenon. In the Book of Women (2006), the washboards are bound together to mimic the form of an ancient Chinese bamboo slip book. Each washboard, with its unique marks left by the daily manual labor of a specific rural woman, is like a passage telling its own story – the washboard is transformed into a wordless book. For Washed Relics (2006), I strung these washboards together with fishing lines into wall-size suspended displays that recalled archaeological relics and anthropological specimens in museums.

The Secret Language of Women (2008) | Wooden washboards, ink on paper, thread-bound book, video | 320 x 80 cm

The Secret Language of Women (2008) | Wooden washboards, ink on paper, thread-bound book, video | 320 x 80 cm

In Secret Language of Women (2005), I used washboards not directly as found objects, but rather as printing blocks to create rubbing impressions on xuan paper. I then collected such rubbings into classical string-bound volumes and inscribed nüshu onto them.

My more recent nüshu works combine performance, calligraphy, fan painting and poetry. I collect stories of contemporary women and present them in the form of “sound calligraphy” (calligraphy accompanied by an audio recording of the written story), which not only preserves and re-invigorates this unique writing system that is now dying out, but also makes women’s stories “heard” through the sound element, to illustrate the power of sharing.

The Secret Language of Women No. 8 (2008)| Ink on Paper | 70 x 56 cm

The Secret Language of Women No. 8 (2008)| Ink on Paper | 70 x 56 cm

Often when one thinks of Chinese poetry, literature and art history, the image of the elitist scholar-gentleman is dominant. Contemporary Chinese culture is also dominated by male actors such as Xu Bing and Gu Wenda. Yet language belongs not only to one gender or specific social class – we see in nüshu a very human desire for storytelling, narrative, form, even linguistic play.

Yes; it is true that our culture has been dominated by men. Women are still on the edge, hidden and silent. But in ancient times, women from ethnic minorities from remote areas were highly respected, including those who used nüshu from Jiangyong and the Mosuo in Yunnan (a small ethnic group that maintains their matrilineal culture). The counterfactual artefacts in my work indicate an alternative literary tradition—unfamiliar to us not because it is fictive or imaginary, but because it has been suppressed and confined to the margins. Secret Language of Women, in particular, is a counterpoint to the monumental and universalising estrangements of language and culture by contemporary male artists, most notably Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky series.

I hope that the cultures and histories explored in my work can be revitalised but also presented in a more contemporary way. In the past, Chinese history has been dominated by Confucian and male culture. Nüshu is absolutely comparable to the dominant language used by men.

You previously spoke of your fascination with ink painting. How do you feel this medium intersects with your research? 

Ink has always been a medium I love. To me, ink is a natural language for Chinese artists, as it goes well with our mind and spirit. The language of ink is also good at expressing the water-based nature or quality of an object. This is an Eastern way of expression. It includes the study of water culture and the use of water-related themes in artworks.

Could you tell us about any upcoming projects?  

Right now, I’m working on various media at the same time: nüshu, installation, oil painting, ink, etcetera. Each phase of my creative practice is based on in-depth research and exploration.”


This article is written by Ysabelle Cheung, an art writer based in Hong Kong, and published on Pavilion. 

Vermilion Art

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.