> Interview - Peilin Shi On Daughters Married Away, Water Spilled Away - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview – Peilin Shi On Daughters Married Away, Water Spilled Away

Peilin Shi, a multimedia artist from Lianping, China, presents her first photography exhibition at Print Culture, Glasgow, in April. The show questions the extent to which people can reclaim a suppressed culture, the patriarchal implications that the ceremony reinforces, and Peilin’s own attitude towards it, as a migrant to the UK.

Peilin is from a community of Hakka people in Southern China. The Hakka dialect and culture have been widely suppressed in recent years, causing a severe disconnect between a people and their history.

Can you give me some background behind the photos? 

They depict a ceremony that took place when I went home in December last year.

It’s specifically for daughters who have been married away, meaning they don’t belong to their village any more, but to their husbands’. It’s custom for their names to be taken out of the family tree.

Are there different attitudes between generations regarding the Hakka community and its censored status?

My parents’ generation are more involved in it, but my generation isn’t any more because we all moved out of the village and into towns. I remember in primary school we were suddenly told ‘from today you can’t speak Hakka any more. You have to speak Mandarin in class and even after class’.

Of course, at that time, I just followed. Later I moved to boarding school and had to blend in with other people – [I had to] take on another identity. I didn’t spend time with my family, so I just didn’t think of myself as Hakka any more.

When you look at these pictures, the ceremony looks traditional, right? Actually, this is the first time the village held this event. Everyone is wearing traditional clothes and using traditional instruments, but it’s the first time they’re doing it.

Photograph from Spilled Water by Peilin Shi

Why was it important for you to capture these moments? 

I know that the stories behind the photos won’t fit with people’s expectations of them. Hakka is a group that is stigmatised – they don’t want you to do anything that emphasises your Hakka identity. It’s funny that the government at first didn’t want us to express our culture, and now they encourage this form of entertainment, to enrich our cultural lives.

On one hand, it’s nice that they’re talking about us again, but I question whether it’s something I should be happy about.

When I look at the photos, although they’re colourful, they feel melancholic. There are no individuals there, rather members of a whole collective. You dress the same, you walk in line, you don’t have a name. They are just married daughters coming home.

Do you think the migrant history of Hakka people, who travelled from North China to South, reflects the way you perceive yourself as a community?

I would say so. Because to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out who I am. I never thought about being Hakka until I came to the UK, because here I met a lot of people who were speaking in the same dialect as me. I stopped talking in that way from a young age, and I had almost forgotten that I knew that language. So I went online and learnt about the Hakka community in Glasgow and London.

I found my roots so far away from home. The difference is that the people here are proud. They don’t hide.

Is the suppression of individuals within the community something that you feel?

I think it’s unfair for the women in my family who didn’t have access to education but just accept it’s because they’re women. Even today, sons are given land over daughters who are the same age.

Do you feel that the photos show another facet of the patriarchal system you’re talking about?

On one hand it’s performative, but on the other hand, how many performative moments will these women have in their lives? They’re not even visible in daily life, but here they are. There’s some sort of power in it, but only to an extent. Maybe they don’t even care whether they have power or not. They just get on with living life.

What’s your predominant feeling about it? 

I feel like a tourist. I feel like I’m watching a show, but as long as people are happy, I’m happy for them. We don’t even know if it will continue every year, but we hope so. At any moment, the government could tell us to stop showing Hakka qualities again, like with the language, and the ceremony would be banned.

I think we are used to the fact that things are not in our control. It’s a good time and an excuse to be together. I suppose it depends on what you want the day to mean for you.

Peilin’s exhibition, Daughters Married Away, Water Spilled Away, will be shown at Print Culture, 23 Parnie Street, Glasgow

The exhibition runs from 4th April till 4th May 2024

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