Sworn Sisters and Secret Letters

‘Daughters are like wild birds in the deep mountains/ They fly off when full-fledged.’ (Nüshu poem)

Sworn Sisters and Secret Letters: Tao Aimin’s solo exhibition at Vermilion Art

Hundreds of years ago, secluded women in remote mountain villages of southern China invented a form of writing. Denied formal literacy, mothers and grandmothers taught Nüshu, or ‘women’s script’, to their daughters after their feet were bound and before they were married. Their writing was kept secret from men, who dismissed it as ugly insect-like markings: a ‘fly-headlike tiny script that no man can read’. Certainly, its slanting, hook-like strokes appear very different to the fluid strokes of Chinese characters, but women used the script to communicate the joys and sorrows of their lives, writing poems, songs, heartfelt letters and the books called san zhao shu. These ‘Third Day Missives’ were given to young brides by their sworn sisters, friends to whom they were formally connected from early childhood. Very few now remain, as they were meant to be burnt when their recipient died. The arrangements to connect young girls as sworn sisters (jiebai) were as formal as betrothals, sometimes across villages; they allowed cloistered women to forge connections beyond their own kinship networks, as this Nüshu poem shows:

Fate grants us the chance to form a pact of friendship.

As the golden chicken faces the phoenix.

Intelligent gentle lady of the jade tower,

Are you willing to make this tie?

It is extraordinary that illiterate rural women, confined to their enclosed quarters as ‘upstairs girls’ and constrained by Confucian expectations of filial piety and obedience, invented their own written language. Nüshu was used to record the oral culture of village life, including narrative poems – often bawdy and a bit subversive – that were performed at village festivals. Nüshu texts were also embroidered onto handkerchiefs, fans and belts. There is a canon of Nüshu songs called ‘bridal laments’ (nüge), or ‘crying songs’ (kuge) that were performed at weddings, when young brides were leaving their birth families to join their husband’s, most likely never to return. Long narrative songs were chanted aloud, in what the historian Anne McLaren describes as ‘a private domain of fantasy and self-assertion, consolation and misery.’ Marriage is presented as a terrible, but inevitable fate:

‘[…] Don’t be upset at being married out so young /It is the emperor’s decree that women have to leave their villages / Women are like swallows / They fly their own way when full-fledged.’ (Nüshu text from a San Zhao Shu)

During the Spring Festival in 2007, the contemporary artist Tao Aimin – who herself was born and raised in rural Hunan Province – made an arduous journey to a remote village buried deep in the mountains of Jiangyong County. She was seeking old women who still had knowledge of this ‘secret’ written script invented in the distant past. There are many questions about its origins: did it develop from ancient Oracle Bone Script? Is it a variation on the embroidery stitches used by women in these villages? How did these isolated, unlettered women create their own written language? But Nüshu remains shrouded in mystery. In fact, nobody outside these remote mountain communities was even aware of its existence until it was discovered by anthropologists in the 1980s.

In several conversations in Beijing over several years, and in subsequent emails, Tao Aimin told me how she had been fascinated by this female language ever since she had found a book recounting its discovery by a team of researchers. She explained why:

Because Nüshu is the only inherited women’s script in the world. It’s unique. It’s a way of communication between women. From mother to daughter. No boy is taught to learn Nüshu. They have this secret language.

In our first long conversation in a noisy café in Beijing’s 798 Art District in the winter of 2014, Tao explained that she became increasingly determined to go to Jiangyong County and find out if it still existed. Accompanied by her brother, she travelled by multiple buses through snow and ice deep into the mountains for three days to find Pumei Village. She was looking for an old lady who had been named in the book as a Nüshu ‘heiress’, someone who still knew all the songs and poems. By asking around amongst the elders of the village, she eventually found 83-year-old Yi Youqi and stayed in her home for a week. Yi showed her fans and belts embroidered with Nüshu texts, and as they sat around the fire she sang the ancient songs.

Up until that journey, Tao Aimin had been making works inspired by the hard lives of rural women. She collected the weathered, splintered old washboards widely used for laundry in China before the arrival of electricity and washing machines in the countryside. She used the washboards, sometimes combined with painting or video, to make  sculptural installations. In one work, River of Women, she painted the portraits of old women whose stories she had collected onto the washboards they had used in a lifetime of relentless domestic labour. She wrote: ‘Here is a display of the history of women…a deeper life language, it is the witness of their past youth. Each piece traces individual women and the traces are a text that tells of their experiences, emotions and misfortunes… This is a vision beyond literal language. It is the fate of women.’

‘It shouldn’t have been that we came into this life wrong as girls

Red plums on the tree, a useless branch.’ (Fragment of Nüshu poem)

After visiting Pumei Village, Tao Aimin realised that she could combine the very humble found objects of the washboards with Nüshu to reflect female lived experiences. Recalling the ancient Chinese technique of making rubbings from stone stelae she printed the textured surfaces of the washboards with ink on xuan paper. Their ridges and grooves, now printed as positives and negatives, are like lines of printed text on a page. By rubbing ink onto dampened xuan paper laid over the washboards, Tao created evocative abstract works that evoke ink paintings. The dark lines and subtle tonal gradations form images that very intentionally suggest the mist-shrouded mountains and plunging waterfalls of Song Dynasty shan shui landscape painting. At the same time, with the addition of seals and calligraphy they resemble pages of a mysterious diary.

By choosing the secret female script of Nüshu as her calligraphy Tao Aimin inserts a language invented by anonymous, unlettered rural women into the scholarly traditions of calligraphy (shu fa) and ink painting (shuimo hua), bringing a largely unacknowledged female history into the light of day. In a later conversation at the artist’s Beijing gallery in 2017, Tao Aimin told me:

I tried to mix the ink painting with the washboard works and expand the possibilities of mixing these two things. I am Chinese therefore I always loved ink painting. I studied it in college, and now I use the washboards as prints and rubbings. By using rubbing I can produce an effect – because the washing board is usually in the water, so the effect of the ink print is like water, and women’s destiny is also like water.

In early 2023 Sydney audiences will have their first opportunity to see these works, and the expressive Secret Fan series that depicts aspects of life in the Nüshu villages today now that the script is considered a national treasure of intangible cultural heritage. Tao Aimin’s solo exhibition at Vermilion Art, curated by Luise Guest, will open on 23 March.


About the artist:

Born in 1974 in Hunan, Tao Aimin lives and works in Beijing

Tao Aimin graduated from the Fine Arts Department of National Huaqiao University, Fujian in 1999 and completed an Assistant Lecturer training course in the Mural Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2001. She has previously exhibited in World Art Museum of China Millennium Monument (2005, 2006, 2011), National Art Museum of China (2009), Today Art Museum (2008, 2010), Sakshi Gallery (2009), and Ink Studio (2014). Most recently, her work has been included in ‘Stepping Out: Female Identities in Contemporary Chinese Art’ at the Lillehammer Museum, Norway (2022), GL Strand Copenhagen, Denmark  (2022/2023) and Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria (2023)

Vermilion Art

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