Composer Tan Dun recalls being impressed when he learned of a secret language used by a small group of women in central China’s Hunan Province.
It inspired him to create “Women’s Script,” a concert featuring 13 symphonic poems that are each accompanied by a short film.
Five years in the making, the concert in conjunction with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra will premier on October 20 at Shanghai Oriental Art Center as part of the Shanghai International Arts Festival.
“The characters are amazing,” Tan says, “very different from regular Chinese characters. Some of them resemble musical instruments like a pipa. I feel like I am staring at music when I look at these characters.”
The secret language, known today as nv shu (女书), or “women’s script,” of a small group of Chinese women was used to build lasting relationships and pass on information in their community without men interfering.
In ancient China women were usually illiterate. But some women in the Jiangyong region of Hunan created their own language. It was passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
The women have historically used items such as fans, handkerchiefs and bellybands to write down their thoughts and feelings and share them with other women who knew the language.
Women’s script is also the basis for the novel “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” which was adapted into a film with the same name in 2011.
The secret language aroused Tan’s interest five years ago when he read a story about it in a bookstore in Taiwan.
The story goes that a group of women arrived in Beijing to meet Chairman Mao in the early 1950s. Nobody knew their language. The women were thought to have psychiatric problems and sent to a mental hospital until a linguist figured out they were speaking an ancient language.
Tan, who is also from the province, soon started visiting some women who speak the language and began collecting samples of the secret script.
He says the women he met who speak it are all over 70 years old and most were reluctant to show him their scripts and songs because they were labeled “monsters” during the cultural revolution (1966-1976).
“I tried to convince them that I was not taking sides, that I just wanted to study the scripts and songs as a musician, like an archeologist wants to study old artifacts,” Tan says.
The women gradually accepted him.
Their songs, according to Tan, have similarities to the tones and rhythms of people who lived around the border of present-day Hunan and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Some of the rhythms even sound like heartbeats, the composer says.
Though Tan says he had planned a pure musical concert at first, he gradually found it was insufficient to give a complete picture of the secret language. He then added short films to his creation.
“The ancient songs of the women’s script are presented by the women themselves through film,” he says. “There won’t be any accompanying music from the orchestra during these moments because I want to keep it indigenous and natural, delivering the simple and ancient message,” Tan says.
About half of the 13 women Tan filmed have since died.
“I was always worried when I left the village. Would I ever see them again,” says Tan. “I hope that my music and 200 hours of video material can help preserve the culture.”