“Now officially preserved as a UNESCO intangible heritage, Nüshu is believed to be one of the only scripts designed specifically for communication between women.”
Tao Aimin is featured in today’s issue of The Australian on the occasion of her solo exhibition Her Secret Code: Tao Aimin and Nüshu opening tonight.
“Tao Aimin tells the stories of rural women through their secret language Nüshu.
When Beijing-based artist Tao Aimin travelled to a remote village in the mountains of Hunan province in central China in 2008, the journey involved several days of arduous travel on buses over snowbound roads.
Having grown up in the province, Tao had read about the secret script called Nushu, invented by illiterate women of Jiangyong County hundreds of years ago to tell their stories of joys and sorrows. She wanted to learn more about it.
In the village, on an island, Tao found a woman in her 80s who showed her the Nüshu calligraphy and told her tales of the women – including the old woman’s grandmother, who had been able to write Nüshu – and sang her Nüshu songs.
Tao learned about the slanting script, written by women who were confined to the upstairs of their homes because of their bound feet. It was painted on fans, belts and in clothbound books, and embroidered on handkerchiefs, to be given as gifts to daughters and female friends.
Now officially preserved as a UNESCO intangible heritage, Nüshu is believed to be one of the only scripts designed specifically for communication between women.
Tao had long been interested in stories of women in rural China and in her artwork she used old washboards that she had collected from women. After her stay with the village women in Jiangyong County, she returned to Beijing and combined her new interest in Nüshu with ink-based artwork made from washboards.
Her works on rice paper, which combine ink rubbings of washboards and Nüshu script, and her painted fans will be shown for the first time in Australia in an exhibition called Her Secret Code at Vermilion Art at Sydney’s Walsh Bay.
“Nüshu is a kind of language and washboards are also a kind of language,” Tao says. “Putting these two together is telling women’s stories with two languages.”
She says the effect of putting ink on paper over the washboards is like water: “Women’s destiny is also like water.”
In a Zoom interview from Beijing, Tao says she is keen to see how her work will be received by Australian audiences.
“While Nüshu is not a practical communication tool which functions today, it is about human heritage, which is relevant not just for China but for the world,” she says.
She argues that the topics of conversation between women – which in Nüshu included discussions about leaving families for marriage and the importance of close friendships – are issues that connect women from ancient times with women today.
No one is sure how old Nüshu is, but some of the script was used on coins in circulation at the time of the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s.
Tao says Nüshu songs inspired Chinese composer Tan Dun – who won an Oscar for his score for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – to compose a symphony about Nüshu, called The Secret Songs of Women.
“Like me, Tan is also from Hunan Province,” she says. “He was inspired by the songs and I was inspired as an artist.”
The exhibition is curated by Sydney-based writer and researcher Luise Guest, who has made a study of modern Chinese female artists. Tao features in Guest’s book, Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China, which was published in 2016.
Guest says Tao’s work is her way of paying tribute to the unwritten history of the women who used the Nüshu language.
“She has this technique of running ink on to beautiful rice paper through the washing board, with some also using more subtle earthy tones,” Guest says. “Then she adds the Nüshu characters, which is a kind of secret language. What she is doing is quite extraordinary. It’s very different from other artists who work with ink.
“It is an interesting combination of well-known traditions in Chinese culture and what is really the unwritten history of these women.”
Guest says the works celebrate the unknown women who used Nüshu as their tool of communication, which included poems telling of their lives.
“These were women who were denied education,” she says. “They were confined to their home and they invented this script. The characters look totally different to written Chinese, they are like slanted hooks.”
Tao is known for her installations including those involving scores of washboards that she has painted with portraits of their owners.
Guest says Tao has immersed herself in research about the stories of rural women in China.
“She is particularly interested in the idea of female history and how it reveals a different story of Chinese culture – it’s not the one that’s usually told.
“The women were not working out in the fields. They were called ‘upstairs girls’ and confined to their homes. They were totally focused on family and domestic life.
“They were often engaged in doing embroidery. There is a theory that Nüshu characters were developed from embroidery stitches. It is a bit of a mystery. Nobody knows how it actually developed.”
The recent interest in Nüshu has led to the area becoming a tourist destination.
“You can now stay at a Nüshu hotel and go to a Nüshu school,” Guest says.
Tao has spent much of the Covid-19 pandemic back in Hunan doing more research about Nüshu culture, which she says is inspiring her latest works.
Her work has been shown in exhibitions in Norway and Denmark and, from next month, in Austria at the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg.
The exhibition at Vermilion Art – to be opened on March 30 by Lorraine Tarabay, chairwoman of the Museum of Contemporary Art – is the first of three by Chinese female artists at the gallery, which is run by Chinese-born doctor turned gallerist Yeqin Zuo. The next exhibitions are by Geng Xue, whose work is inspired by traditional Chinese porcelain, and Melbourne artist Echo Cai.
“Three artists, three very different techniques and media,” says Yeqin. “Each artist explores female histories and subjectivities.”
Tao Aimin: Her Secret Code is at Vermilion Art, Sydney, from Thursday to May 4.