Tan Dun | Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women
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Nu Shu is the culmination of years of research and continues the tradition of an ancient syllabic script developed by women, in secrecy, over hundred of years in feudal China.

In a time when women were barred from formal education, Nu Shu was devised as a private script passed down from mother to daughter through embroidered texts and songs.

It is one of the few languages that is sung and not spoken, and the only known language to be gender-specific.



Tan Dun returned to his home province, spending five years researching and capturing on film the unique Nu Shu culture and its ancient music–both of which have been fast disappearing to the point of near extinction.


Tan Dun devised a counterpoint concept in three parts

-Present vs. Past-

-Music vs. Visual-

-Ancient Nu Shu culture vs. the Future-



-1-

SECRET FAN

To express the love between mother and daughter, or among sister, generations of women write in a common secret language on paper and fans. This form the genesis of the ancient Nu Shu culture. The intimacy, compassion, and beauty of Nu Shu is a monument to women.

 


-2-

MOTHER’S SONG

“Wisdom on educating daughters,” the holy scripture that passed down from mother to daughter through countless generations, preserves the cultural traditions regarding family, ethics, and child-rearing, and what it means to be a woman.


-3-

DRESSING FOR THE WEDDING

Girls are typical married as early as 15. Their wedding day is the most beautiful day of their life. Sisters, soon to part with each other, help dress the bride. Underneath the dazzling head piece and the gorgeous wedding gown, is a reluctant heart bearing the weight of farewell. The fully attired bride captures the monumentality of life.


-4-

CRY-SINGING FOR THE MARRIAGE

The wedding tradition features three days of consecutive crying. The resulting tea-soaked scarf serves as a link between mother and daughter, as well as between generations. After the wedding, any communication between mother and daughter is conducted secretly through rewriting the “Wisdom on educating daughters.”


-5-

NU SHU VILLAGE

Every race and culture has a Mother River. In Nu Shu Village flows such a river since the Song Dynasty. Beside the river, the local women spend their lifetime nurturing their own language: Nu Shu. Nu Shu Village has never been relocated away from the river. The river has been serving as an emotional connection between mother, daughter, and sisters for generations.


-6-

LONGING FOR HER SISTER

Besides the relationship between mother and daughter, sisterly love is also featured prominently in this work. Singing songs that reminisce about sisterly love gives the woman a chance to be remidned of her innocent, happy childhood. This serves an anchor for her navigation of her current state of loneliness.


-7-

A ROAD WITHOUT END

The life of a woman contains endless alleyways. She meanders form one to another, searching for her childhood sisters. Household after household, gate after gate, river after river, dynasty after dynasty…the woman continues on her endless journey.


-8-

FOREVER SISTERS

Reunion between sisters dissipates all sorrows, leaving behind laughter at childhood memories and tears at understanding adult life. The compassion shared between sisters, often accompanies them into their marriages, providing strength in moments of hardship.


-9-

DAUGHTER’S RIVER

River, or a body of tears? Only the water knows the answer. River of Women is the river for daughters, mothers, and grandmothers of countless generations – as their tears form the melancholic melody on which float their boats of dreams.


-10-

GRANDMOTHER’S ECHO

Gao Yinxian was the most important woman of the Nu Shu Village, as she helped pass down the language from generation to generation. Gao passed away at the age of 88. In her former residence, Ago’s granddaugther sits on the stool that Gao once sat on, as echoes of Nu Shu songs once heard by Gao as she sat there sewing come from afar.


-11-

BOOK OF TEARS

Mo Cuifen cries in tears on remembering her wedding 50 years ago, when she was once a daughter to her own mother. Half a century went by. Her mother passed away. Mo’s tears remain.


-12-

SOUL BRIDGE

A bridge where a daughter walks to remember her mother.


-13-

LIVING IN THE DREAM

Despite the hardship encountered by the women of Nu Shu Village, why are their songs and lives filled with romanticism? That is because each day, when mothers, daughters, and sisters gather together to sing, write and sew in Nu Shu, the happy time shared provides them with a wonderful, dreamlike reality.