Nüshu: Echo Chambers

Nüshu: Echo Chambers

By Yam Lau

The following text provides context and description of Nüshu: Echo Chambers, a seven-minute computer-generated animation piece I authored in 2014 to commemorate Nüshu, a form of writing script invented and circulated exclusively among women in feudal China. Nüshu: Echo Chambers can also be regarded as poetic musings on the feminine, architecture and space.

Context and history

I first learned of Nüshu around 2010. Literally translated as “women’s hand,” Nüshu is a form of writing that was invented, practiced, and circulated exclusively amongst women in an isolated county called Jiangyong in Hunan province, China. This rare form of cultural practice was current until the early part of the twentieth century. However, when Nüshu was officially “discovered” by scholars in the late 1980s, it had already fallen into disuse, its living transmission having stagnated. Current academic work on Nüshu is mostly undertaken by a small number of Japanese and Chinese scholars. I began to study the subject and traveled to Jiangyong, its region of origin, in 2013, with the hope of learning first hand the vital connections between the Nüshu script and its culture, people, and place of origin. I had hoped also to study and collect relevant materials and artifacts, in order to create an artwork that commemorated and transmitted Nüshu to a global audience.

Despite illiteracy being the norm in feudal China, women in Jiangyong (an area roughly less than 60 km in diameter) invented their own form of writing based on a creative adaptation of standard Chinese characters and traditional decorative patterns. Unlike standard Chinese ideograms, Nüshu characters are phonetic and are distinguished by their slender, delicate, and elegant forms. It was customarily inscribed with a thin stalk instead of the Chinese brush. As opposed to the agility of the brush, the stiffness of the stalk produced the general uniformity and lack of variance of the stokes in Nüshu script.

Nüshu script was taught and disseminated among a "sworn sisterhood," mainly through the circulation and exchange of journals, songs, and craftwork. The contents of the journals are mostly short prose pieces and poems that express the daily struggle and longing of their female authors. Many Nüshu poems were integrated into daily life as songs. Also, given its origin in decorative patterns, Nüshu script was frequently sewn on clothing or fabric; these sewn scripts were intricately integrated with other motifs to form complex designs that are simultaneously abstract and textual.

Nüshu is sometimes labeled as the “secret writing of women." This appellation, all too eagerly embraced by the West perhaps, highlights Nüshu's subversive role in feudal patriarchy. But I came to regard this interpretation as erroneous. From my field research, I learned that Nüshu was practiced openly, if not widely (due to the relative geographical isolation of the region and it being phonetically tied to the local dialect) during its lifetime. The practice of Nüshu was simply left alone within the patriarchal system. This is not at all surprising given the strict gender divisions and their clearly defined social roles and responsibilities in feudal China. These restrictions actually granted women a certain degree of freedom within the feudal economy. Also, given that illiteracy was the norm in agrarian, feudal China, possession of a script that enabled communal and individual expression in a remote region would not have posed a threat to the status quo. In fact, I believe Nüshu was regarded as a craft, with a cultural status equaled to the other crafts that were practiced by women at that time. The acquisition of Nüshu, however, enabled the formation of sisterhoods, usually composed of seven women in an individual group. Knowing the script thus facilitated the sharing of Nüshu writings and songs within the group.

Today Nüshu is a “dead” language: the last living practitioner is now in her 90's. Not only is Nüshu no longer practiced but surviving material artifacts are also extremely rare. According to custom, Nüshu artifacts, such as personal journals and embroidery work, were usually burned when their author passed away. Later, widespread censorship of its circulation and destruction of Nüshu artifacts during the Cultural Revolution, coupled with the democratization of education, which opened access for women, contributed to Nüshu’s demise. Due to the scarcity of information, in spite of current academic research on Nüshu there is no general consensus on its origin and age. Existing artifacts typically associated with Nüshu, such as books and embroideries, only date the practice back to the 1800s. However, I find it unlikely that Nüshu is only two hundred years old. I was greatly moved when older inhabitants of the villages where Nüshu was once practiced pointed out to me the various spots, now vacant, where women used to gather to sing Nüshu songs.

A very probable speculation on the origin of Nüshu suggests that it might have been influenced by the Miao minority group that cohabitated with the Han Chinese in the same region. The Miao minority abided by very different forms of life and value systems than those of the Han Chinese and its Confucian culture. The Miao's practice of matriarchy engendered radically different social structures, economies, rituals, and material life. Economic transactions and cultural exchanges between the two cultures and belief systems may have precipitated the development of Nüshu. The Miao were renowned for their elaborate and sophisticated embroidery technique. The formal resemblance between these and Nüshu embroidery prompts one to muse on the possibility of entangled histories between the two cultural paradigms.

The recent “discovery” of Nüshu since the late 1980s has somewhat elevated it into a subject of scholarly and popular interest. Local government has invested in regenerating this cultural heritage, albeit mostly as a tourist curiosity. Today Nüshu writing classes and songs are taught in a sporadic and limited capacity in its place of origin. Through my traveling between the network of villages where Nüshu used to circulate, I was fortunate to meet the oldest Nüshu practitioner, Miss Ho, who learned the script from her aunt. She also told me her mother was a practitioner. When I met her in her village, Miss Ho was living with her son in a small, one-room house. Typical of a countryside lifestyle, she lived modestly and simply. I also met a young practitioner in her twenties, Miss Wu, who took up the initiative to learn Nüshu during her teens. I recorded both of their songs and collected Miss Wu's samples of Nushu script. These materials formed the basis of Nüshu: Echo Chambers. Nüshu was once a living, empowering practice that fostered intimacy, community, and expression. Perhaps it is through artistic means that its living spirit can be accessed, commemorated, and transmitted. This is the aim of my work.

The work

Nüshu: Echo Chambers is a commemorative piece that takes place in virtual space. Using 3D modeling and animation technology, two separate and dark, tomb-like architectural chambers are assembled as a response to the Nüshu song. These chambers are constructed to resemble mausoleums, signifying the current obsolescence of Nüshu. Above each one of these chambers a ceiling composed of Nüshu characters (with texts derived from Nüshu songs and Miss Wu’s calligraphy), is suspended forming a kind of lattice. The character/lattice ceilings are animated to hover and revolve, like slow moving clouds, above the tomb-like chambers. A light source is projected through the lattice, casting Nüshu characters as moving shadows into the dark chambers, animating the desolate interiors.

Of equal importance with the visual elements is the audio component. Each chamber is assigned a unique Nüshu song performed by Miss Ho and Miss Wu respectively. The moving character shadows projected through the lattice ceiling are the lyrics, performing as a kind of illusory libretto for the audio. Another critical audio element is the use of echo effect, as indicated by the title of the project. The songs are animated to reverberate within the vacant chambers, creating an immersive soundscape of complicit echoes. The echo effect generates an excess but also distancing of signification within the otherwise spatial/temporal void of the chambers. This complication of visual, audio, and architectural elements is orchestrated to create a contemporary enunciation of Nüshu, one that is pneumonic, mysterious, feminine, and gentle.

The work has been exhibited as a two-Channel video installation. The two chambers and their associated songs are alternately projected onto two opposing surface. A translucent wall separates the two projections without closing the passage between them. When one video is completed, the audience will hear the audio starting from the opposing projection and proceed to the other projection.

Epilogue: Musing of place, text, architecture, and echoes

In Nüshu:Echo Chambers, a song calls forth and summons an "architecture,” assembling text, partitions, floor, and light to house its echoes across the distance of space and time.

Born in Hong Kong, Yam Lau is an artist based in Toronto. His work explores new expressions and qualities of space, time, and the image. In addition, Lau has initiated a number of independent projects that explore alternative models of art and design dissemination. These include using his car (Toronto), a donkey (Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art, Beijing, China), and his custom-designed home in Toronto (China Town) as project spaces. Currently Lau is professor of art at York University, Toronto.