Tuesday, August 25, 2009


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.
Dictionary of unique women's language published in China

CHANGSHA, May 30 (Xinhuanet) -- A dictionary containing all the 1,800 ancient characters only used and inherited by Chinese women has been published in central China's Hunan Province.

Nushu, a kind of mysterious writing unique to women, appeared in Hunan's three adjacent counties of Jiangyong, Daoxian and Jianghua and some other areas in southern China's Guangxi Zhunag Autonomous Region.

Nushu was faced with extinction because of lack of use. Zhou Shuoyi, 78, a retiree who worked at the Cultural Bureau in Jiangyong, compiled the unique dictionary after 50 years of study.

"The dictionary acts as an encyclopedia for Nushu playing an important role in inheriting and studying the characters," said Jiang Hao, dictionary editor.

These gracefully-written rhombic characters are structured by just four kinds of strokes, including dot, horizontal, virgule andarc, and can be spoken in dialect to describe women's misfortunes and inner feelings.

The dictionary has complete stylistic rules and layout with pronunciation, glossary and grammar, and arranged in internationalphonetic symbol order.

Each Nushu character is followed by phonetic notation, notes and paraphrase and a corresponding Chinese character and example sentences.
Xinhuanet 2003-05-30 23:06:46
Female-only language loses master speaker

BEIJING, Oct. 20 (Xinhuanet) -- China's oldest inheritress of the mysterious Nushu language, probably the world's only female-specific language, died at her Central China home last month. She was in her 90s.

Chinese linguists say the woman, Yang Huanyi, was the last woman who possessed the most and genuine knowledge of a 400-year-old tradition in which women shared their innermost feelings with female friends through a set of codes that were incomprehensible to men.

Yang was born in Jiangyong County, where many people believe the language originated. She learned to read and write the language as a little girl. Before her marriage, she used to exchange letters in Nushu with Gao Yinxian, the eldest of the seven sworn sisters of the county who were the local authorities on the female-only language.

Though Yang herself did not join the sworn sisters, she did spend three years with them to learn the language, and became its only surviving inheritress at the end of the 1990s, after all the seven sisters had passed away.

Since then she had been dubbed a "living fossil of the women-specific language" by linguists.

Until her death on September 20, it remained a mystery as to how old Yang was. During an interview with Xinhua in the summer of 2002, she said she was 94. Authorities in her hometown, however, said she was 98 when she died. Zhao Liming, a specialist with Tsinghua University, said Yang was born in 1909.

It is often hard to tell the actual age of elderly Chinese people because many are accustomed to giving their "nominal age," which is one to two years ahead of the actual age. A baby's "nominal age" is considered to be one at birth and becomes two at the beginning of the very next year.

Yang was invited to Beijing in 1995 to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. The letters, poems and prose she wrote were collected and compiled by linguists of the Beijing-based Tsinghua University in a book that was published earlier this year.

Linguists are trying hard to learn the language and experts say Yang's writing was more standard, original and unaffected by Putonghua, or standard Chinese or Han language, in which she was totally illiterate.

None of Yang's children or grand-children inherited her proficiency in the unique language. The gracefully-written rhombic Nushu characters are structured by just four kinds of strokes, including dot, horizontal, virgule and arc, and can be spoken to describe women's misfortunes and inner feelings.

Some experts presume that the language is related to Jiaguwen - the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells of the Yin Ruins from more than 3,000 years ago - but no conclusions have been drawn as to when the language originated.

Besides Hunan Province, the language was also used in some areas of southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Nushu manuscripts are extremely rare because, according to local custom, they were supposed to be burnt or buried with the dear departed in sacrifice.

The language, among the first to enter the national list of China's ancient cultural heritage, has aroused keen interest in worldwide scholars. At least 100 surviving manuscripts are abroad, according to archive keepers in Hunan Province.

China has stepped up preservation of the language since the 1990s amid assiduous efforts to better protect the country's traditional culture in an increasingly globalized society.

The Hunan provincial archives have collected handkerchiefs, aprons, scarves and handbags embroidered with Nushu characters, manuscripts written on paper or fans, and calligraphic works.

"We have collected 303 artifacts bearing the rare language during five trips to Yongjiang County, birthplace of the female language, over the past year," said Liu Gening, head of the provincial archives. "The oldest of them dates back to the late Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s, and the most recent pieces are from the 1960s or 1970s."

Among their collections are calligraphic works by Zhou Shuoyi, a retiree in Jiangyong County who is believed to be the first man to learn the language in China. Zhou, after half a century of study, compiled a Nushu dictionary last year at the age of 79.

The dictionary, which contains all the 1,800 ancient characters of the language, has complete stylistic rules, a layout with pronunciation, a glossary, and grammar is arranged in international phonetic symbol order. Each Nushu character is followed by a phonetic description, notes, a corresponding Chinese character and example sentences.

(China Daily)

The passage roughly translates as "They taught her to apply makeup and comb her hair; on her head she was wearing pearls that are shining magnificently; she is sitting like Guanyin out of a Buddhist shrine". Source: Chinese Expat.com

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