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Skidmore College

Upcoming SPAC concert has special appeal for Skidmore scholar

August 14, 2014

On Aug. 15, 2014, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center will offer a rare performance of a piece about something even rarer: nüshu, a dying tradition of writing and singing practiced only by women and girls in a remote part of China’s Hunan Province. They wrote letters and prayers, translations of traditional tales, and the stories of local events and their own lives—in a script men could neither write nor read. Skidmore College has just welcomed to its faculty Cathy Silber, one of the world’s few experts on nüshu.

When Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra with principal harpist Elizabeth Hainen performing Tan Dun’s 2013 composition, Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Silber will be attending the Aug. 15 multi-media event with special knowledge of the people and places, sights and soundsthat inspired it.

In a wonderful  coincidence, Hainen and her Saratoga Harp Colony are longtime summer residents of Skidmore, celebrating their 10th anniversary on campus this year. Silber will join Hainen at 7 p.m. Aug. 15 to present a pre-concert talk at SPAC.

Members of the Skidmore community who would like to see the performance are eligible for a special private discount offered by SPAC. Tickets purchased online are eligible for a 25 percent saving until noon on Friday, Aug. 15. Purchasers must use the code NUSHU at the checkout to secure the savings. To purchase tickets, please visit the SPAC web site.

A graduate of the University of Michigan where she earned a Ph.D. degree, Silber, with solid knowledge of Chinese and some study of Chinese literature already under her belt, followed her interest in Chinese women’s writing to those remote Hunan villages in 1988 to study nüshu with the two best of its last writers: Yi Nianhua (1906-1991) and Gao Yinxian (1902-1990). Silber lived in the home of a family of seven just down the cobblestone lane from Yi Nianhua, studying with her nearly every day for six months. This research became the impetus and basis for her Ph.D. dissertation, upon which Lisa See’s popular novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, is based.

Best known for his score to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the music in the medals ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, composer Tan Dun grew up in a rice-farming village near Hunan’s capital and followed his interest in the roots music of his homeland to research nüshu and capture its spirit in his 2013 symphony for 13 short films, harp and orchestra. The work had its U.S. premier last fall and its Chinese premier this May.

Returning to Hunan for the fourth time last year to complete research for her book, Writing to the World: Women’s Script and Women’s Lives in Rural China, Silber consulted frequently with Gao Yinxian’s granddaughter, Hu Meiyue, an official transmitter of nüshu who is featured in the symphony’s films. Nearly complete, Silber’s book uses Yi Nianhua’s life story, told in her own words, as a narrative thread for an exploration of the kinds of things girls and women read, wrote, and sang through the stages of their lives. The book will include a rich collection of English translations of these works, as well as an account of the demise of the tradition and the struggle to preserve it.

Silber, who first learned of nüshu from a newspaper article in 1986 while teaching English in Inner Mongolia, China, has worked as a translator and editor at Beijing’s Foreign Language Press, taught Chinese language and literature at Williams College and Hamilton College, and published acclaimed translations of Chinese fiction and poetry. At Skidmore, she will teach first- and second-year Chinese, and courses about Chinese culture.

Amy Biancolli of the Times Union has written an advance for the upcoming concert in the Aug. 14 issue of the paper.

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