It’s been three years since Parisian artist Prune Nourry began her anthropological investigation into gender selection in China. Back in 2013, Nourry was approached by a team of sociologists from Xi’an Jiaotong University with a plea to address gender issues in China. Nourry’s response was Terracotta Daughters, an army of 116 life-size effigies, each crafted in the likeness of one of the eight orphan girls from the NGO she worked with, Children of Madaifu.
Over the past two years, the Daughters travelled across China, Europe, and America, and, earlier this week, they returned to their motherland for burial, to be untouched and underground for the next 15 years. Unlike Emperor Qin’s original funerary Terracotta Army, however, the buried Terracotta Daughters serve as a reminder of the living: to the girls whose lives are dictated by a society that favors men, and to the boys who are taught the superiority of their gender. Although news just broke of China’s abandonment of the decades-old one-child plan, the irrevocable and negative social impact caused by such a policy might take generations to correct — much longer than the 15 years Nourry will put the girls to sleep for.
The burial further promulgates the sociological narratives that Nourry presents with Terracotta Daughters, most prominently the disappearance of girls in China. Due to the country’s (now former) one-child policy, the rate of infanticide, abortion, and abandonment for girls has skewed the gender ratio, leading to an epidemic that, according to a United Nations report in 2000, greatly contributes to the 200 million girls that are demographically missing from the planet. “The gender preference toward boys is now less obvious in the Chinese cities, but in the countryside it’s still problematic. I’ve realized that a cultural preference can take many generations to change. We have to be patient,” says Nourry, who considers herself more of an observer than an activist in her exploration of gendercide. Over the past three years, through her interactions with the girls, the sociologists at the university, and even the sculptors at Xi’an — who remarkably still use traditional techniques similar to those dating back to 210 BC, the burial year of the original Terracotta army — Nourry pieced together a story. “I listen, observe, document, and then create a work based on specialists and people’s testimonies,” she says. “My artworks are a result of my digestion of others’ point of views. Initially, the craftsmen didn’t like my idea. [They said] soldiers are men and that’s it. But in the months I worked there, they appropriated the project, and now it’s theirs as much as mine.”
Some of the orphaned girls and craftsmen were among the select few invited to the Earth Ceremony (the preliminary event in which the sculptures were lowered into dug trenches), but the burial itself, as well as the location of the burial site, will be kept secret, mimicking the trajectory of the original Terracotta Army. The location of Emperor Qin’s necropolis was unknown for centuries — and thought to be merely a local fable — until the discovery of the Xi’an site in 1974. “[The Terracotta Daughters burial was] like creating a myth,” explains Nourry. “We don’t know if this burial really happened or not. I’m fascinated by the myths of creation, and in many religious texts, humans were made out of clay. We are all made of earth and we’ll go back to earth, the same way the terracotta sculptures are.” This inception into the ground — a forced disappearance — will be forgotten until the date of uncovering, 15 years from now, by which time a new generation of Chinese girls and boys will have cycled in.