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Nüshu, the language that gave women a voice

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Nüshu, the language that gave women a voice

Born three centuries ago in Southern China, in a female world oppressed by patriarchy, from November 25th it is told in an exhibition at the PIME Peoples and Cultures Museum

“All women in the world belong to the same family,” reads a bronze coin dating back to the mid-19th century and found in southern China. The text characters, however, are not in Chinese, but in nüshuthe only written language in the world invented and used exclusively by women.
The history of this highly original cultural phenomenon has its roots in some villages of the remote county of Jiangyong, in the province of Hunan, where, three centuries ago, mothers and daughters, sisters and friends, illiterate because they were considered unworthy of receiving an education according to chauvinistic and patriarchal society of the imperial age, invented a simplified syllabic writing to exchange confidences and give voice to the hardships of a hard and sacrificial daily life. A life marked by the “three obediences” – due to the father, the husband and the sons – and characterized by the need to rely only on themselves from the day of the wedding, around the age of fifteen, when the girls were married off to strangers and they had to abandon their village and their loved ones.
Yet, in this asphyxiated context, «the code of a creative freedom endowed with a formal power conquered with discretion by women who, through writing, singing, embroidery, have handed down daily events, warnings, legends, but above all the solidarity and mutual understanding for the destiny that united them”, explains sinologist Giulia Falcini, professor at the University of Macerata and curator of the exhibition “Il nüshu. The characters who gave voice to women”, scheduled at the PIME Museum of Peoples and Cultures in Milan from 25 November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, until 10 February 2024, Chinese New Year.

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Girls and elderly people, relegated to domestic work, used graphic symbols with thin and elongated shapes, transcription into syllables of the sounds of local dialects, to embroider poems, stories and popular songs on fans and dresses, handkerchiefs and belts, or to write, using sticks of sharpened bamboo dipped in an improvised ink with the burnt bottoms of the wok, their most intimate thoughts. The “female language”, which is still practiced in Jiangyong county, although with a cultural value and no longer of practical necessity, was used in moments of aggregation and represented an outlet for an oppressive condition, which in some cases led to deep desperation. But surprisingly, in these villages, the sad percentage of female suicides was lower than average.
In nüshu the girls communicated with theirs laotong, a sort of soul sister assigned to them by the mediators after the traditional practice of binding their feet (reduced to a length between seven and twelve centimeters, to obtain the oscillating gait compliant with the aesthetic canons of the time). And in nüshu the “third day books” were compiled, given to the new bride when she was forced to leave her native village to follow her husband: they contained wishes, advice and recommendations but also blank pages, which the girl could then fill with her own thoughts on married life.

«The exhibition, organized in collaboration with Associna, an association that brings together the new Italian-Chinese generations, is deeply linked to the themes narrated by the Peoples and Cultures Museum and with its desire to be a place for relationships, a crossroads of views, a space for dialogue and meeting”, explains Francesca Moretti of the PIME Museum. The exhibition represents a dialogue between some original works, created by one of the youngest and most appreciated heirs of the tradition nüshu, Hu Yuanyu, alongside the interpretations created by Giulia Falcini, who was able to study this writing with her. The result is a balanced comparison between the original practice – that of the objects coming from the village of Pumei – and its contemporary declination, in a transcultural key, created with different techniques and materials.
«Inside our museum – continues Francesca Moretti – many of the objects on display tell us stories that have women as protagonists and continually offer us food for thought to investigate not only the past, but also and above all the world around us. Thus this exhibition, which at first glance is very specific, actually aims to open a further window on the female condition, offering a piece for the interpretation of a complex and more current than ever theme which intersects, at different levels and with different nuances, the experiences of society and of each of us.”
On the opening day of the exhibition, Saturday 25 November, Giulia Falcini’s book will also be presented Nüshu, the writing that gave women a voice (CSA publishing), while writing workshops will be organized during the opening period of the exhibition.

For every information: museopopolieculture.it/mostre

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