What fascinates choreographer Helen Lai Hoi-ling about nu shu is not so much it's a 400-year-old secret language invented by women for only women, but what was being exchanged and communicated among them.
Having always had an interest in turning text into movement, she saw great potential in transforming this coded 'women's writing', which she first heard of a decade ago, into a dance work. However, she didn't know how to go about it. 'Then recently I was trying to think of something to do for my production. Suddenly I thought nu shu in Chinese means 'women's writing' - it doesn't have to be exclusively that script, it can be women's writing, women's expression.'
This gave Lai the idea of combining the history of nu shu with elements from the work of two local contemporary female writers, Xi Xi and Wong Bik-wan, to try to relate the situation of modern Hong Kong women to that of the nu shu scribes.
The result is her latest full-length piece, titled Nu Shu (HerStory in English), which is part of the City Contemporary Dance Company's Masters Series.
Nu shu was created by the women of Jiangyong County in Hunan province so they could communicate among themselves without men being able to read what they wrote. Some characters of the script are related to Chinese, others are quite different.
When a woman married, her female relatives and friends would create a book for her, filled with their writings, and leave pages blank for her to add her own. They would also sing or read their writings to each other - only the written form was secret, transcribing the local dialect of the Yao minority. Today nu shu is considered a dying art, with only a handful of elderly women still able to read and write the script.
The first part of HerStory deals with the lives of the women who created the language. 'I didn't use stories, but took elements of their life ... what they wrote about was always their own life, how they were forced to marry somebody, how they had these friendships between women but were then forced to separate and would never see each other again. There will be a sort of marriage scene.'
This section will use fans and handkerchiefs as props - 'the kind of props you usually see in traditional Chinese dance'- because the women often wrote poems on those objects. It will be danced largely to music sung by women, including some nu shu singing. While there will be an Asian feel, Lai has avoided using Chinese traditional music or folk music. 'I didn't want the audience to think, well, these are just Chinese women wearing traditional Chinese costumes and doing folk dancing with fans and handkerchiefs.'
In the second section, Lai will use male as well as female dancers, and the music will feature international standards such as She and Besame Mucho.
Of the oppression faced by women in 17th-century Hunan and the situation of their counterparts in 21st century Hong Kong, Lai says: 'I think women still sometimes feel suppressed, but in a different way.
In the second section I'm trying to present how men perceive women, and how they feel themselves to be perceived, how they're expected to behave and how they try to struggle free from that.'
While the nu shu women accepted their situation and developed a secret way to rebel in private, women now are much more public in their struggle with a more subtle set of social restraints.
The third section will be cathartic, showing women finding themselves and being liberated.
'The nu shu women sometimes burned their writings when they died,' she says. 'Either to keep them secret or as a sort of ritual thing, like having your belongings buried with you. So at the end there may be some sort of ritual.'
Chinese writing paper will be used as props in this part of the piece, and there will be a recording of author Wong Bik-wan reading from her own work.
The written word is an integral theme of HerStory and there will be video projection of 'words, just words', including extracts from nu shu writings and from books by Xi Xi and Wong.
To emphasise the importance of the words and ensure the whole audience can read them, Lai has decided to present the production in a conventional proscenium arch format instead of using the 'in the round' space at the Cultural Centre Studio Theatre.
However, she will not seek to create a visual reflection of the nu shu characters in the way some choreographers have attempted to interpret calligraphy through movement, preferring to focus on the content of the writing rather than the form.
Best known for her play on the relationship between text and movements, with works such as Comedy of K (2004) based on Franz Kafka's works, and Movements and Shadows (2006) inspired by writings of Chinese contemporary poet Beidao, Lai is one of Hong Kong's most respected choreographers.
After beginning her career in classical ballet, she studied at the London School of Contemporary Dance and launched into choreography on returning to Hong Kong in the 1970s. She was artistic director of the CCDC from 1985 to 1989; she's now its resident choreographer. Her work is distinguished not only by inventiveness of movement but also by her ability to convey emotion and a welcome leavening of humour, rare commodities in modern dance.
Her latest work will be a 'counterbalance' to CCDC's previous programme, Willy Tsao Sing-yuen's Warrior Lanling, a high-testosterone examination of different facets of the tragic hero that put the spotlight on the company's male dancers.
HerStory is the women's chance to shine, and the choreographer says she has been impressed by their strength and how well they are performing during rehearsals.
Asked what she wants the audience to feel when they leave the theatre, Lai says: 'That they enjoyed it. That they would think about how women these days are still maybe not suffering, but still trying to find a way to express themselves. To be themselves.'
HerStory, Dec 7-8, 8pm, Dec 8-9, 3pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Studio Theatre, TST, HK$120 and HK$160. Inquiries: 23297803