Tao Aimin, The Secret Language of Women 女书, Book 3, Text 11, 2008, ink on paper, acrylic cover. Image courtesy the artist
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.
Tao Aimin, Women's Book, Installation of Washboards, Image courtesy the artist