Chinese (汉语) is an overall term for a language which encompasses seven main dialects: Mandarin (官话), Cantonese (广东话), Wu (吴语), Xiang (湘语), Hakka (客家话), Gan (贛语) and Min (闽南话). Though this disparity exists, a common script unifies them, called hanzi, or Chinese characters. But there’s yet another, not commonly known written form in the Chinese language family: NüShu (女书). Its script is defined by a delicate, cursive elegance, an elongated form and exclusively female masters.
Romanticism surrounds NüShu. Commonly considered a text unknown to men, the facilitator of deep female friendships and secret communications, and a motif of revolution for women condemned to a life of domestic hardship, it has come to represent female empowerment. Allowing room for maneuvering in a strictly patriarchal society, the existence of NüShu suggests that beneath the drudgery there was a secret female fraternity.
NüShu stems primarily from Jiangyong, in Hunan Province. It’s date of origin is unknown, but it certainly was in circulation before there was any kind of formal education for women late into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). To combat illiteracy due to lack of education, women developed their own style of writing. NüShu evolved as it was passed down through generations by grandmothers and mothers to their daughters. In the hands of women, it was adapted to female uses.
The origins of NüShu are indeterminable. It is derived from Chinese script, but vastly simplified and adapted to suit more ornamental uses, such as embroidery. Representing a spoken language, it is phonetic, as opposed to hanzi, which is both semantic and phonetic. The differences are sufficient to render it unintelligible to an eye uneducated in NüShu. It was not unknown to men; however, coveted by women, they disregarded it as the folly of the weaker sex.
Marriage and Sisterhood
Traditionally, NüShu is linked with a young woman’s entrance into society, or rather her husband’s household. An avid researcher of NüShu, Orie Endo from Bunkyo University in Japan, says NüShu was used as a means of recording the forging of lifelong friendships between laotong (老同) (two girls who became ritual siblings), or jiebai zimei (结拜姊妹) (‘sworn sisters,’ usually a number of girls), and what these ‘sisters’ shared and experienced. To be educated in NüShu raised you in the esteem of the community and the alliances between ‘sisters’ implied loyalty, both characteristics of a good wife.
Weddings saw the transfer of NüShu imprinted gifts. A sanzhaoshu (三朝书) (third-day letters), was received from other ‘sisters’ and contained, in NüShu, feelings about what would happen for the married couple and an offering of support and hope. Once married, women continued to gather privately and partake in NüShu practices. UN Women’s Country Program Manager Julia T. Broussard writes that NüShu’s poetic form, a stylized hepta-syllabic verse, was used to recount folktales, often making the female protagonist more robust than traditional renditions. It was also applied to the recital of autobiographies, not necessarily the woman’s own, expressing the hardships experienced in life. The content of traditional NüShu verse is often melancholic. Broussard offers the following example:
Holding my brush to write this letter, two streams of tears flow.
Of the thousand hardships I’ve suffered, nobody knows.
NüShu was a respite, a hobby, something to build relationships around, to communicate feelings and to indulge in traditions that perhaps shrouded reality by moderate distraction.
The End of a Tradition:
Times change and cultures and traditions evolve and dissipate. NüShu fell victim to the Cultural Revolution which was rewriting history for a new China. NüShu was thought of as a vehicle of espionage and lesbianism. Women were discouraged from involving themselves with it. The educational reforms that were taking place, which enabled and encouraged female education, rendered NüShu redundant. It ceased to be taught.
In the 1980’s Zhou ShouYi published an article on NüShu, tweaking widespread interest. Heralded as a ‘woman’s script,’ it appealed to both linguists and women. NüShu has since been the basis of documentaries, such as that of Yue-Qing Yang in 1999, of literature, like Lisa See’s book The Snowflower and the Secret Fan, and of academic research in linguistics, sociology and women’s studies.
By this time, the surviving practitioners of NüShu were few and aged. The Chinese government, motivated by a notable chance for cultural tourism, endeavored to save it, and in the township of Puwei, in Yongzhou Prefecture, there exist workshops where you can examine surviving texts and learn the art itself.
Endo says that although there are a small number of women who have been designated transmitters of NüShu by the local government, only one can be termed ‘a true transmitter,’ He Yangxin. She says the circumstances under which He Yangxin was taught by her grandmother give insight into the traditions that surround the script.
“When she taught NüShu to He Yangxin, she was singing and crying with pity of He Yangxin’s miserable destiny,” Endo says.
Even though He Yangxin learned NüShu early, she was never a part of the traditions that surround it. The last link to the “sisterhood,” Yang Huanyi (who was unrelated to He Yangxin), died in 2004, and the traditions which encircled NüShu died with her.
Realistically, it is a language that has met its natural end. Rendered useless by the inevitable changes of time, NüShu is bound for the archives of linguistics.
Photo by Linda Frost
Readers interested in the development of Chinese may also be interested in our mini series on the evolution of Pinyin with Sin Winz: The Prequel to Pinyin or Piecing Together Pinyin.