Three 'Translations' of Nushu: Visual Art, Dance, Music

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Published conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


    In Europe the practice of writing was separated from the input of content it was meant to communicate, hence, the actual writing was often left to professionals. However, in China the practice of writing was not separated from the input of content and thus the practice of writing itself was considered on par with painting and poetry. The practice of all three was expected of scholars and was perceived as an expression of their character expected of the good scholar. Hence, whilst in Europe artists were not judged on their capacity to form letters nor were poets judged by this criteria, in China they were. By definition the artist and the poets were also expected to excel in calligraphy. However, women were not generally trained to write. With very few exceptions women were trained and allowed to participate in the practice of writing, painting and poetry. And yet, in a small remote rural area in Hunan province women developed a practice of phonetic writing called Nushu (literally, women's writing/book). It is unclear when this practice started since most related artefacts were either buried or burned with the owner. However, Nushu was not limited to writing, it was transmitted though song Nuge (women's song) whilst women were producing a wide range of related artefacts from visual works including embroidery to poetry and other narratives. This was not the practice of the elite urban but the rural peasant women. During the Cultural Revolution the practice was not tolerated and by the end of the 20th century few surviving women still remembered the practice.

    The paper looks at three 'translations' of the practice of Nusu and Nuge. Each in an attempt to construct new narratives. The work of the Hong Kong choreographer Helen Lai entitled HerStory seeks to reinterpret women's history in a global context by mixing Chinese practices and European and American practices of dance, music and visuality. The work of the Chinese, Hunan born, American based composer Tan Dun seeks to incorporate women's song (Nuge) from the province he comes from into a work which mixes Chinese and European music. The Hong Kong artist Yuenyi Lo uses the practice of Nushu in the context of global discourse in order to construct a narrative which takes Nushu as a practice of writing which will open up the door for women artists to develop and as such circumvent the difficulties of Chinese tradition in accepting women as artists.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe University of Edinburgh - Art in Translation
    Subtitle of host publicationThe University of Edinburgh
    Publication statusUnpublished - 28 Oct 2017


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