Terracotta Daughters


Most people know about the Terracotta Warriors, located in Xi’an, China. The museum covers an area of 16,300 square meters and contains over 7000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, and even weapons have been unearthed from these pits. Created in 221 B.C. for Qin Dynasty Emperor Qin Shi Huang, this massive tomb has been named one of the 7 Wonders of China, a UNESCO heritage site, and can be considered an 8th Wonder of the World.

Inspired by these impressive sculptures, a New York based French artist, Prune Nourry, decided to recreate the Terracotta Warriors using life models of eight orphaned girls instead of soldiers. This project, the Terracotta Daughters, reflects on the idea of gender preference in China through 116 life size statues. Nourry emulates the style and technique of the original sculptures exactly in her project: using the same clay, adhering to traditional practices, and making sure that each of the girls’ faces are unique.


The world tour of the Terracotta Daughters army which will start by Paris in April 2014, Switzerland in June, and travel to New York City this October. The army will then be sent back to China in 2015 to be buried in a “contemporary archaeological site” until the year 2030. An hour long video will be a part of the traveling exhibition. To find out more information visit the website: http://www.prunenourry.com/en/projects/terracotta-daughters

Prune Nourry, Terracotta Daughters, Xi'An, China

As a Chinese adoptee and someone potentially displaced because of societal preferences for males, this project is one that impacts me deeply. When I look at these statues, I see the little girls who were forcibly aborted by the government. I see the daughters who, through infanticide, never had a chance. I see a clay shadow of the Chinese girl I could have been. As I sit at my computer half way around the world, I acknowledge that I am a statistic – that I, too, am one of China’s missing girls.

My identity as someone both Chinese and American is something that I hold onto strongly. Through my growing up years, I’ve learned to love my heritage while simultaneously questioning certain practices. I take pride in coming from the culture that gave the world paper, gun powder, printing ability, and the compass. I love the rich history and beautiful calligraphy, yet I loathe the (now changing) One Child Policy and the societal pressures that favor sons.

I think much of my maturation has been defined by being able to understand the dichotomies and complexities of my identity, cultures, and family formation. I have always felt a sadness and longing for my first family, but achieving empathy for their situation was another landmark on my journey to adulthood. I think this project, the Terracotta Daughters, is so powerful because it combines the stunning, political, and visual acknowledgement of the missing girls with the educational video on gender preferences that explains what factors have contributed to their disappearance.  I hope to be able to see the Terracotta Daughters in person, if not this year, in fifteen years when the exhibit opens again.

16 responses to “Terracotta Daughters

  1. As a Chinese adoptee and someone potentially displaced because of societal preferences for males, this project is one that impacts me deeply… I see a clay shadow of the Chinese girl I could have been.

    I can’t even begin to imagine. Would it be an exageration to say that you think that, in a real sense, your life was stolen from you? Oh, you got another one, a replacement, but… it’s not exactly yours? Or do I mistake?


    • Thanks for the thought-provoking question, Jim. At this moment, I would say that my life feels very fragmented – almost as though my one body has carried the thoughts, visions, and potentials of three different people. I guess I would agree that the life I could have had has been taken away by international adoption. I will proudly claim the life I live now as mine, but it shouldn’t have been mine.


      • I begin to understand objections to the concept of “the red thread” that I’ve heard. We on the parent side who believe in that sort of thing see the Red Thread as a Good Thing: we are “destined” to be the parents of a particular child. We go into adoption with the intent of the best parents that we can, of creating a warm, loving, supportive family, of giving our children all the advantages that we can provide. But… I see how it can be seen as trying to replace something that never should have been taken away* in the first place.


        (*) “Taken away” being perhaps not the best term as it implies something perilously close to theft, a crime. I’ve seen some recently-published photos from a “baby hatch” in Guangzhou. The parents are clearly devastated. But, from their perspective, they aren’t taking away anything from their children. To the contrary, they are making a great and gut-wrenching sacrifice: “I cannot care for my child. If I try, he will surely die. This is his only hope.” Certainly there is no intent to “take away” – to steal, to cheat, to plunder – on the part of us adoptive parents. There is clearly a victim, but who is the guilty party? Who do we put into the dock?


    • Those photos from the Guangzhou baby hatch are devastating. I blame neither adoptive parents (who try to keep children connected to their language, culture, origin and use ethical practices) or first families. I would consider a government that profits from the One Child Policy guilty. I think governments that don’t provide welfare programs, support for single mothers, or alternatives to family separation guilty. I call child traffickers a guilty party. The media that perpetuates this notion of a “global orphan crisis” is guilty. Adoption agencies that don’t properly screen prospective adoptive parents and don’t prepare prospective adoptive parents for challenges are also guilty. And adoptive parents and onlookers who want to silence vocal adult adoptees are guilty. As always, thanks for the interesting comments.


  2. As the Mother of twins sons that were also adopted from China, I truly wish that the artist had included at least one boy. Yes, the vast majority of children orphaned in China are girls but the boys are all too often (again) forgotten. In other words, if I share this with my sons, how would I explain to them that they aren’t included? Food for thought for the IA China community….


    • I understand the frustration in not being able to find much adoption media related to Chinese boys, however I think the subject of this project was not directly international adoption, but to provide a visual representation of the gender imbalance problem in China as a whole. There are now 100 females per 120 males in China. Studies have shown that countries with higher rates of single males have higher rates of crime and violence. This gender imbalance has also led to the trafficking of women in other Asian regions as brides for the remaining Chinese men. The girls depicted in these sculptures are the missing girls as a result of female infanticide, sex selected abortions, and Intercountry adoption (the smallest factor) all contributing to the larger problem of a societal preference for males in China.


  3. I understand what you are saying, but, as a visible representation, I don’t see any correlation to a gender imbalance, only “missing daughters.” Yes, I could watch the video, but as a visual? Missing girls.

    We were in Beijing two weeks ago, and I was told that the ratio is now 130 males: 100 females. Whilst there, I also read that the bride price was, in some rural regions, over 1,000 times what the average man made in a year, making rural marriages practically impossible.

    Yes, there is a huge, multifaceted problem with and because of societal preference for males in China. But, looking at this installation, I see only girls. As you noted “it combines the stunning, political, and visual acknowledgement of the missing girls with the educational video on gender preferences that explains what factors have contributed to their disappearance.” I’m only seeing the missing girls. And so would my sons.

    Hopefully, in depicting orphans from China, soon some artist or movie director or author will remember to include all the children. My boys have been abandoned once, and are being excluded over and over again within a community that they should be able to find some solace in, one in which they are never represented, a shadow to all the girls. How does that feel, being on the outside of the only group to which you truly belong?

    Food for thought.

    Respectfully yours,


    • The Terracotta Daughters exhibit is in line with Prune Nourry’s previous project titled “Holy Daughters,” as a response to the countless sex-selective abortions to the detriment of girls, leading ultimately to such dramatic consequences on the feminine condition as the purchase of women for marriage, abduction of girls, and an increase in rates of prostitution and polyandry in India. Both of these socially provocative pieces of art address the status of women and girls in these two countries.

      Though this is not a piece of adoption art, I thought I would share it because of the cultural and political ties to China. Nourry’s models for the sculptures were orphans, but the project was not meant to comment on international adoption (directly) or the status of males. This project’s goal was to show the world a fraction of all of the Chinese girls currently missing from the country and from the world because of social policies and preferences (namely through sex selected abortion and infanticide). I think it’s an extremely powerful visual, thinking that all of these clay sculptures could have been actual children.

      You’re right that adoption media on China often excludes male adoptees. I try to include male adoptees when possible in my work, because they, too, are important. I’m sorry that your sons feel so excluded by the adoptee community. We should all be in support of each other’s struggles. One book that I can think of at the moment that does address boys is Sara Dorow’s “When You Were Born In China.” https://redthreadbroken.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/when-you-were-born-in-china-review/


  4. Pingback: Chengdu man uncovers 800-year-old terracotta figurine after peeing on the side of the road | China Daily Mail·

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