Secret Language of Women: ‘Subterranean Feminism’ in the Work of Three Chinese Artists

December 11, 2017


The ‘F-word’ – feminism, that is – can be a minefield for non-Chinese writers in conversations with Chinese women, something I discovered whilst researching a book about women artists. An interpreter assisting me at first refused to translate the term, adamant that there was no such Chinese equivalent. The term ‘gender’, albeit much debated, is widely used, but the term for ‘feminism’ – variously, ‘nüxing zhuyi’ or 'nüquan zhuyi’ – frequently causes ‘lost in translation’ moments. Over time I learned not to make assumptions from a Euramerican feminist paradigm, and I discovered a Chinese feminist history. The problem for writers and curators, of course, is how to present the work of artists who do not identify with feminism, yet appear to be making feminist work, without speaking ‘for’ them, or orientalising their work. In ‘Toward Transnational Feminisms’, for the exhibition Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art in 2007, Maura Reilly drew on the work of Ella Shohat to describe the work of such artists as a form of ‘subterranean feminism’. How do artists whose identification with feminism is complicated by their perception of an East/West divide navigate this somewhat treacherous territory?


The work of three women who examine hidden female histories reveals a gendered language of materiality and imagery. Tao Aimin (陶艾民) collected wooden washboards from hundreds of rural women to re-present as sculptural objects and surfaces from which to make prints and rubbings. Gao Rong (高蓉) applies embroidery to ambitious, padded fabric installations. Dong Yuan (董媛) paints tiny details of interior spaces, creating installations made up of separate canvases. In their work, the domestic and the humble are memorialised, the unsung labour of women is honoured, and the fast-vanishing world of an earlier generation of women is given physical form. They do not explicitly identify their work as feminist, but rather as exploring highly personal histories and individual responses to a rapidly changing world. From artists emerging into the aspirational present from the collectivist past, this emphasis is unsurprising.


The history of feminism in China explains the deep ambivalence many artists, writers and intellectuals feel about the term. Their unease with the feminist label reflects the suspicion of many towards the state-sponsored feminism of the recent past, epitomised by the All China Women’s Federation. After 1949 the explicit policy of the state was the erasure of traditional ‘feudal’ gender distinctions and the equal participation of women in the great Socialist project: female comrades would ‘hold up half the sky’ as workers, soldiers and farmers. Feminism became enmeshed in, but always secondary to, the utopian visions of the Chinese Communist Party. The impact of this history on the work of women artists who emerged in the post-Mao period into a globalising art economy should not be underestimated.


Identification as a feminist artist is as contentious in China as everywhere else, but here there is a particular art-world history. Exhibitions of women artists during the 1990s and early 2000s were focused on interiority and ‘womanliness’. Many women artists began to see them with a degree of suspicion, feeling (often quite rightly) that their work was trivialised by this curatorial separatism. In her catalogue essay for the 2013 exhibition Breakthrough: Work by Contemporary Chinese Women Artists, Peggy Wang argues that in this late twentieth century history: ‘… "women's art" served less as a rallying call for female artists, and more as the start of a set of thorny parameters against which to navigate and negotiate.’ In Gendered Bodies: Toward a Women's Visual Art in Contemporary China, Shuqin Cui characterises these exhibitions as “entangled in misconceptions” about feminism and femaleness. The disavowal of political activism continues: in 2017, curator Ai Lai’er insisted that her aim was not to reveal a ‘collective female identity’ but rather, ‘a “hint” towards a non-determinable factor’. In Beijing, where exhibitions of women’s art risk being closed by the authorities, this carefully vague and apolitical stance is understandable. (See, for example, The Guardian’s report on the closure of an exhibition focused on violence against women in 2015.) Ai, like others, perceives a shift from discussions of gender identity to an emphasis on the individual.


Tao Aimin, Gao Rong and Dong Yuan express considerable doubt about the word ‘feminist’ but they are deeply invested in female histories. Tao Aimin’s installations, paintings and books present the traces left by applying ink to wooden washboards collected from rural women. Choosing the ancient female script of Nüshu (女书) as her calligraphy, she inserts a language invented by anonymous rural women into the canon of the literati tradition, bringing an unacknowledged history into the light of day. Taught by mothers to daughters in remote villages of Hunan Province, the Nüshu script was used to embroider texts onto fans and belts, written in ‘Third Day Missives’ (San chao shu, books given to brides on the third day of marriage) or used to record the ‘bridal laments’ sung for young women leaving their family homes for their husband’s village.


In 2008, Tao exhibited The Secret Language of Women, an installation of eight hand-made books, their pages printed from washboards, featuring Nüshu calligraphy on their fore-edges. For Women’s Book, she bound the boards with twine, recalling ancient bamboo tomes. They are inscribed with Chinese script, which begins, ‘Here on display is a volume of female history…’. Tao’s works communicate experiences that are or were hidden or ignored in a patriarchal society: gendered labour, bonds between women and, indeed, her own background as a rural woman from Hunan. She describes Nüshu as a code, a covert or oppositional subtext that she inserts into the contemporary art world. Tao Aimin views feminism as an essentially western discourse, although she has recently participated in women-only exhibitions, including Naturally Women at Milan EXPO 2015, a show that presented a warmly fuzzy and entirely unthreatening notion of femininity.


Tao Aimin, The Secret Language of Women 女书, 2008, 8 x hand-printed books, ink on paper, acrylic cover, washboards, video, 126 x 126 x 31 1/2 in. Image courtesy the artist


Like Tao Aimin, Gao Rong alludes to the labour of rural women and to the lives of the lao baixing, the ordinary people. She represents aspects of her past life in Inner Mongolia and her new life in the fast-changing urban world of Beijing using the embroidery techniques she learned from her mother and grandmother. In doing so, she transforms the act of sewing from decorative folk-art or utilitarian domestic craft into contemporary art. From graffiti-covered bus stop signs to shabby apartment doorways, from a ‘beng beng’ taxi, a public phone and a mailbox to (literally) the kitchen sink, everything she creates appears absolutely real, until you look more closely and discover they are created with tiny stitches on padded fabric. Level 1/2, Unit 8, Building 5, Hua Jiadi, North Village (2010), for example, replicates the entry to the spartan Beijing apartment she rented as a student. With its battered electricity fuse box, metal security door framed by red Spring Festival couplets, stencilled advertisements – even a muddy footprint where someone has been leaning on the wall – it’s a triumph of trompe l’oeil. Some Days Later (2015) shows a kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes. Dribbles of soy sauce and traces of noodles speak of endlessly repeated daily chores.


Gao Rong, Level 1/2, Unit 8, Building 5, Hua Jiadi, North Village (2010), cloth, cotton thread, sponge, metal support, 260 x 166 x 184 cm. Image courtesy White Rabbit Collection


For The Static Eternity (2012) Gao Rong recreated every detail of her long-since-demolished childhood home. From the kang with its flowered quilts to rust-stained pipes, stove, enamel mugs and thermos flasks, everything is embroidered fabric. Recording a fast-disappearing way of life, The Static Eternity alludes to the whirlwind of change reshaping Chinese society, and speaks of family and memory. When I asked Gao Rong whether she agreed that bringing the ‘private’ domestic world into the public world of ‘high art’ was a feminist act, she said flatly: “No. It’s just that I’m very good at embroidery, that’s all.” But her focus on a gendered ‘inside’ world may be understood as a validation of the all-too-often invisible work of generations of women.


Dong Yuan, too, came to Beijing from rural China. Feeling lonely, adrift in the city, she decided to paint all the mundane objects of her daily life on separate canvases. Sketch of Family Belongings (2008) records her small apartment. Ordinary things are rendered in minute detail: a pair of shoes, a box of tissues, empty coat hangers, a striped towel hanging on the back of the door, an electric kettle, a rice cooker, books piled haphazardly on wonky shelves, and a teapot. The canvases are arranged in real space, in three dimensions, to recreate a domestic interior.  Painted Kitchen (2010), similarly, is made up of rows of small canvases depicting bottles of cooking oil and soy sauce, saucepans, stacks of bowls, teacups, hanging spoons and spatulas, and plates of food. When she learned that her grandmother’s house near Dalian was to be demolished, Dong decided to re-create it from memory, one room at a time. Grandma’s House and Bosch’s Garden (2013) is an installation of hundreds of separate paintings juxtaposing the fantastical universe imagined by Hieronymus Bosch with a rural Chinese family home –– heavy furniture, cabinets filled with teacups, rice bowls, folded flowered quilts, porcelain gods and New Year pictures. Her paintings are a meditation on the rich imaginary that lies beneath the everyday, and a homage to her grandmother. At once personal and universal, Dong Yuan records a way of life that now seems fragile and ephemeral.


Dong Yuan, Grandmother’s House and Bosch’s Garden, 2013 (detail), acrylic on multiple canvases, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist​ 


Tao Aimin, Gao Rong and Dong Yuan focus on humble things; their work reveals the private realms of women, a ‘secret language’. The objects on which they turn their gaze – washing boards, enamel thermos flasks, china cabinets and flowered quilts – are often on the verge of extinction, vanishing under the wave of modernisation that has transformed China in the last half century. Their self-reflexive and gendered narratives thus represent a more complex picture: as Gao Rong said to me, “I don’t want to only show my individual life. My own shadow is there, but I want to make artwork that is about more than that. Not just me.”


Luise Guest interviewed each of the three artists in Beijing on several occasions between 2012 and 2015. Some works discussed by Gao Rong and Dong Yuan are held in the White Rabbit Collection of Chinese contemporary art where Guest is Manager of Research. Tao Aimin’s work may be seen at Ink Studio.

Writer, researcher and educator Luise Guest lives and works in Sydney. Her book, Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China (Piper Press 2016), is based on interviews with more than 30 contemporary artists. Guest’s writing on Chinese art has been published in numerous online and print journals, including Randian, Artist Profile, The Art Life, Daily Serving, The Culture Trip and in the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. Her blog ‘An Art Teacher in China’ recounts her continuing adventures in the Chinese art world. Guest’s current research examines the work of four women artists who subvert traditions of ink painting. She tweets @LuiseGuest. Image credit: Courtesy of artist, Tao Aimin, The Secret Language of Women 女书, Book 3, Text 11, 2008, ink on paper, acrylic cover. 



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