Nushu, or "women's writing", was developed in 19th century China as a way for women to express themselves in a male-dominated society. Chen Jie reports
Feudal 19th-century China was a culture in which education was limited to male elites. Women, usually with bound feet, were illiterate, isolated and not expected to think, be creative, or have emotions.
But in some remote Hunan province villages women developed their own secret code: nushu, or "women's writing", a written language devised by women for women.
Believing women to be inferior, men disregarded the ideograms, but for centuries women wrote on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their windows to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
Obsessed by nushu, the Chinese-American writer Lisa See wrote the best selling novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which will be adapted by director Wayne Wang into a movie starring the Australian heartthrob Hugh Jackman, South Korean actress Jeon Ji-hyun and the award-winning Chinese actress Li Bingbing.
Writer See and director Wang are two of many artists fascinated by nushu, another is Helen Lai, the resident choreographer of Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company. In 2007, she created a three-scene dance, Her Story, to explore nushu customs and their role in women's lives and will bring it to Beijing on March 4 and 5.
As opposed to See's novel, which tells of the friendship between two women, against the backdrop of nushu customs, Lai's dance develops nushu into a wide range of "women's writing", referring to modern women writers concerned with women's lifes in modern times.
In the first part, the dance journeys into the dark duality of women's lives back in the 19th century, uncovers a women's subculture born of resistance to male dominance, finds a parallel struggle in the rural villages of Hunan province and traces nushu's origins to some distinctly local customs that fostered women's creativity.
"Those women were a brutally oppressed class. They were the reproductive oxen of a culture that was ruled by men for men, a culture that insisted upon absolute obedience," Lai says.
"Their lives were rigidly defined and programmed by their gender: foot binding, arranged marriage, virtual imprisonment by both their family of origin and their husband's family.
"They were partitioned, forced to dwell in women's chambers with their mothers, aunts and sisters. Every impulse toward self-actualization was tamped down. It is what the dance expresses in the first part," Lai says.
This is just the starting point. In the second part, modern womanhood is interpreted as an excursion between the secret and overt, between text and non-text. Men in black suits appear in this part accompanied by the jazz melody She's a lady. In the last scene, all women dance to express their struggles in the modern city, but there is a hopeful ending.
Her Story also features the writings of two Hong Kong female authors, Xi Xi and Wong Bik-wan, which will be projected on a screen, as backdrop.
"Women's writing has developed in China for thousands of years. In a male-centered society, women can only express their inner hearts by writing. I love the two writers' prose, the themes, thoughts and writing styles," Lai says.
"Wong herself is an amateur dancer and I watched two theatrical works adapted from her writings. I try to portray the characteristics of their works in Her Story."
Lai is an independent choreographer who began her ballet training in Hong Kong and later went to study at the London School of Contemporary Dance. In 1979 she returned to Hong Kong to join the City Contemporary Dance Company and served as artistic director from 1985 to 1989. She was named "choreographer of the year" by the Hong Kong Artists' Guild in 1990.
Lai is critically acclaimed for her emotionally charged dance theater and in-depth subject exploration. Her Story became the talk of the town after its premier in 2007 and won the Hong Kong Dance Awards in 2008.
7:30 pm, March 4, 5. 180-380 yuan. The Multi-functional Theater of National Center for the Performing Arts, west of Tian'anmen Square. 6655-0000
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