Ma Hui in Ningxia



Inmiddels tien jaar ben ik bezig herinneringen aan mijn kindertijd vast te leggen in beelden, vooral de periode van acht tot achttien jaar in een heropvoedingsdorp in Ningxia, Noord-West China tijdens de Culturele Revolutie. Ik doe dit door grafisch werk te combineren met fotografie en tekst. Vloeiende lijnen met de zon als middelpunt, verweerde oude deuren, portretten van bewoners. Korte dagboekfragmenten geven in woorden vorm aan mijn emotie. I


n 2008 ben ik teruggereisd naar Ningxia voor een eerste oriëntatie, dertig jaar na dato (zie bijlage, artikel in NRC Handelsblad). Eind vorig jaar ben ik teruggegaan. Vlakbij de grens met Binnen Mongolië heb ik oeroude nederzettingen gefotografeerd, grotwoningen die nog steeds worden bewoond. Ze staan op de nominatie van Unesco als werelderfgoed. Weinigen kennen het bestaan ervan. Dit is het oude China van eeuwenoude tradities, in scherp contrast met het moderne, hectische China.


Deze mensen voorzien zelf in hun basisbehoeften, hun dagelijkse strijd om rond te komen, gebruik makend van de vruchten van de aarde. Het is deze snel verdwijnende Yellow Earth cultuur (zoals zo treffend vastgelegd door de Chinese regisseur Chang Kaige) die ik wil laten zien – het andere gezicht van China. Het gemeenschapsleven telt hier, zonder al te veel sociale controle. Dit landschap speelt al een rol in mijn vroegste werk: strakke lijnen, de zon als spetterende cirkel van inkt, stralende oerkracht boven de mistige velden. Ik ben opgevoed met het idee dat je nietig bent. In het Chinees betekent mijn naam 'grashalm'. Ik voel het als een dure plicht om kennis door te geven.



My art represents a core view of myself shaped through life in the countryside. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) I was sent far away from my family to be ‘reformed through labour’ in a so called re-education village. I was just eight years old. Youai, fifteen kilometres from Ningxia’s provincial capital Ying Chuang, is a hamlet in the countryside along the banks of the Yellow River. It was home for eight long years. The only way to express myself in solitude was through drawing and writing in a diary. Maybe I inherited this faculty from my father, an accomplished calligrapher. To the day he died he used a brush, not a pen, even for writing small notes.


I added small poems that were influenced by the simple style of Japanese haiku. The river, the sun, thin lines to the horizon, water streaming over yellow pebbles, it was nature that inspired me most. The landscape was bare and unforgiving as in ‘Yellow Earth’, Chen Kaige’s beautiful film. Looking through my window I saw snow and a red sun and I slowly found my way. Much later I was allowed to draw on the school blackboard.


Most of the time I spent on my own. The villagers were afraid to get involved. My father had been the governor of Ningxia province. He was branded a bourgeois and the whole family had been declared anti-revolutionary. I was only eight when I arrived but I was forced to do heavy manual jobs. In 1977 after eight years of hard labour I was finally reunited with my parents in Beijing. For my own survival I decided to view the past as an illusion. Finding the key to forget the past and get on with the future; this became my main focus in life. But I realised that one day I would have to face the past, confront it. Chinese do not like to dwell in the past, simply because it is too painful. They even avoid talking to their children about it. I never knew what really happened to my parents. So many years passed by without looking back. Until the summer of 2008, when, for the first time I returned to Ningxia.


In Ying Chuang I visited a grand mosque and met an imam who knew my father well. They had enjoyed long discussions together. The imam preached before the Hui, a Muslim minority of ten million in Ningxia province. The imam told me that my father, the governor, had shown a deep interest in his people. I was proud and saddened at the same time. In my memory he was always very strict and severe with his six children who longed for his attention. I walked through the spacious building almost hearing his footsteps, as if his spirit was passing by.


The journey gave me an opportunity to reach a point of departure, where past and future merge. Through my travelling I was learning to deal with the past. To find the right answers I focused on my daily life in the belief that everything begins and ends with nature. A trip to the countryside of Xi Hai Gu, close to Inner Mongolia, brought about new inspiration. I decided to photograph ancient doors and to incorporate the images in my art, in new mixed media collages.


A door is not just a door. Old doors represent memories. A wall without a door cannot be walked through. A door without a key cannot be opened. Doors fascinate me. From early childhood I collected pictures of them. A door represents class, religion, wealth and political status. In China we cherish a ‘door culture’. A door’s true meaning extends way beyond its function. Doors not only serve to protect from harm, they also lead to perception, providing a better understanding of social life and history. I have walked through villages with all kinds of doors. In the countryside people put pictures of gods and war heroes from ancient history on their doors for protection. There’s always a pair of these pictures, Chinese believe that single brings bad luck. Often the posters show two guardians with swords; two characters for sun and moon on either side. Villagers pray to them to protect themselves from illness.


Different keys fit different doors. I also photographed earthen walls, the stony remains of old fortresses, pu zi, or castles as they are called in Chinese. My driver recalled long forgotten stories of warlords and peasants seeking protection behind these thick walls from plundering and raping soldiers. The frightened villagers assembled in the cramped court yards, taking along their children, their belongings and their cattle. As a child I had hardly noticed these fortresses and their shelters within. They were part of the red and yellow landscape. I could not help identifying with the inhabitants of these earthen dwellings. Recently the United Nations organization Unesco nominated them for the world heritage list.


The people I met made me feel like I belong in spite of their class consciousness. To them I will always remain the daughter of Ningxia’s governor. Here folks have their own habits. Behind the doors I found two brothers who had married the same wife. One of them told me about his jealousy. She only slept with him when his brother was less interested in her. Monogamy in China is strictly the rule, but no one in the village seemed to mind this manège a trois. Behind another door I met an old couple. They remained childless until one day the husband took a poor blind girl, just in her twenties, into their home. He had three sons with her. His proper wife now cares for all of them. The kids sleep next to her in her bed while her husband beds his blind mistress. No one was bothered.


There are a thousand stories like this behind the closed doors. I try to take them all in. I will go back to Ningxia, continuing a journey that has no end