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Nüshu, Women's Secret Script
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

Older 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

At 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 script.

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.

(Women of China 2001,4)

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