|Nüshu is a special
written language used and understood only by women in
Jiangyong County, Hunan Province. Discovered 20 years
ago, this mysterious language has been handed down, mother
to daughter, for generations. It now faces extinction.
The Discovery of Nushu
In 1982, Gong Zhebing, a teacher from the South-Central
China Institute for Nationalities ,accompanied his students
to Jiangyong County, in Hunan Province, where they hoped to
investigate local customs and culture. There they found a
strange calligraphy used only by women, which men did not
use or understand. It was referred to as "nüshu"(women's
script) in the locality. Gong Zhebing instantly realized the
importance of these characters, which despite having a long
history had never been seen before.
With the help of Professor Yan Xuejiong, a linguist, the institute
established a research group on this special language. Researchers
went to Jiangyong to investigate, where they collected calligraphy
samples and recordings of women reading nüshu and found
evidence of a 20,000 word vocabulary. It was not long before
nüshu was causing ripples of excitement both at home
and abroad. Hence nüshu, which has been passed quietly
from woman to woman in Jiangyong for unknown centuries, has
finally left its rural home. The secret is out.
According to studies by the Central-South China Institute
for Nationalities, nushu has finally been defined as a written
language, which contains more than 2,000 characters. The content
of nüshu writings have proved to be revealing about society,
history, nationality and culture. It is now listed as one
of the world's most ancient languages and the only exclusively
female language ever discovered. It is, however, a written
language only. Women formed their own written symbols to represent
the words in their local dialect. Hence men can usually understand
nüshu if they hear it read aloud.
Recording Women's Feelings
women from Jiangyong all remember the time when they were
little, after Qing Dynasty and before Liberation (1912-1949),
when there were women in every village who were familiar with
n¹shu. They wrote their female script on fans, paper,
handkerchiefs or embroidered the characters on cloth. Sometimes,
they used the characters to make patterns and wove them into
quilt covers and braces.
In ancient times, the women in the area where nüshu spread
were good at needlework. As they did needlework, they enjoyed
reciting nüshu. Every year there would be competitions
at festival time, where they could win prizes for needlework,
nüshu writing and calligraphy. When a woman got married,
other women would write nüshu for the occasion. In temple
fairs, they would write and chant prayers written in nüshu.
Among sworn sisters, nüshu was often used to write letters.
Nüshu letters reflect women's joy and sorrow. A large
amount of n¹shu work focuses on women's oppression and
the suffering they experienced in feudal society. Women had
no right to receive an education, let alone to take part in
social activities. They did not have as much power or status
as men in the home; they were not allowed to include their
names in the family genealogy, and of course could not inherit
legacies. Under strict control by their husbands and mothers-in-law
after marriage, many women were abused and exploited. Using
nüshu, they wrote letters, poems, invitation cards, riddles
and scripts for ballad-singing, recording authentically the
beauty and ugliness of their lives. These works allow us an
important insight into the minds of women in feudal society.
They also served as a means to help women cope, stay in touch
with their female friends and discuss their feelings.
In Crying About a Marriage, the author writes about her resentment
towards her friends parents-in-law, who mistreated her friend
after she married into their family. In Letters, the writer
complains about oppression and yearns for sexual liberation.
Nüshu writing also hits out against forced marriages
and almost every single piece of writing contains a sense
of resistance and feminist outcry, much stronger than in other
folk literature of the period. Another distinctive characteristic
of nüshu is that all nüshu letters are written in
a structured poetic style.
Nüshu Buried With its Authors
When Gong Zhebing discovered nüshu in 1982, there
were still a dozen old women who were still familiar with
it. One of them was Gao Yinxian, a woman who was very good
at nüshu. She told Gong that she had learned nüshu
from her mother, since women were not allowed to go to school.
She guessed that the women's script had been handed down for
at least two generations. All nüshu writers were buried
with their works, believing they could take their work with
them to the next life, so today we have very few examples
of this precious female script. The rarity of nüshu makes
research into the origin of nüshu very difficult.
In the 1920s, the Chinese Women's Liberation Movement made
progress and schools were established in Jiangyong County
where women could receive a standard education. The number
of women who had been learning nüshu rapidly declined
as a result. Since 1949, the feudal system has been abolished,
women enjoy a better status and the majority of young girls
go to school. Most of the young women in Jiangyong today do
not want to learn nüshu because they regard it as useless.
Gao Yinxian took great pains to teach her three grand-daughters
nüshu, but only the second, Hu Meiyue, continued in her
studies. Gao has now passed away and women like Hu Meiyue
are becoming fewer and fewer each year.
Nüshu Mysteries Left
present, in cooperation with the local government, the Nüshu
Culture Research Center is setting up a project to rescue
nüshu culture. This project will create a reference library
for studies on nüshu, build a museum, a cultural village
and will hold an international symposium, the first of its
kind. It is hoped that people both at home and abroad will
be more able to find out accurate information about this special
There are no accounts about nüshu in either historical
records or local annals and nothing related can be found in
genealogies or inscriptions on tablets.
In academic circles, there are various opinions about the
origin of nüshu. Some hold that it is a variant of regular
Chinese characters; others think it stems from cuts made in
wood; still others maintain that it is the official writing
of the Yi (ancient name for tribes in the east of China).
But nüshu still remains a mystery.
As an ancient script accessible only to women, nüshu
continues to attract attention, but big questions still remain.
Which dynasty did nüshu originate in? Why is it used
only among women? What kind of relationship is there between
nüshu and the standard, pictographic Chinese characters?
Maybe one day, we will find the answers.