nushu, the secret language of women - elemi fuentes

 Nushu: The secret language of women


Nushu is a dead language. It is believed to be the last remain of a four thousand years old language spoken China. It had evolved from a form of old Chinese known as Hanzi. This is known thanks to the discovery and translations in 1899 of the Oracle Bone Scripts.

Thousands of Oracle Bone Scripts have been recovered and they show a well-developed writing system for Hanzi belonging to the Shang Dynasty period (approx. 1700-1050 BC). This has led experts to believe that the original Nushu could have developed at an earlier stage, dating it to be at least a four thousand years old language.

The word Nushu or Nu Shu, originally meant “woman’s writing”, as it was developed in secret by peasant women in the Hunan Provive of China.

China has traditionally been a male-dominated society. Men were the decision-makers of every aspect of life; while women were relegated to household duties. Men were taught to write and read, do finance and politics, etc.; but women were not permitted an education. However, women soon taught themselves how to write simply by watching over their husbands, brothers and sons while they were practicing calligraphy. They would then memorize some of the characters they saw and jotted them down, giving them their own meaning and deforming them in the process; thus creating a totally new language: Nushu.

Nushu text vs chinese transliteration, Nushu, the secret language of women

“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 (a Buddhist goddess) out of a Buddhist shrine”.

Originally conceived as a written language, Nushu soon evolved into a more complex, oral idiom. It is easy to visualize how this happened. Men spent most of their time labouring at farms, fighting, engaging in politics and other civil duties while females stayed at home performing a variety of household duties; such a sewing textiles and embroideries, making shoes, etc. They also sang songs of joy, sorrow and farewell. They composed poems and talked about politics. But most important of all, they taught each other the language they had learned in secret. And in secret the language was passed on from one generation to the next among women.

Originally, Nushu had about 550 characters. It soon grew as it spread to other provinces and was influenced by other dialects, totaling an amount of one thousand and five hundred characters. Zhou Shuoyi, described as the only male to have mastered the script, compiled a dictionary listing 1,800 variant characters and allographs. Nushu it’s written in columns and it reads from top to bottom and from right to left.

Forms of written Nushu have been found in skillfully and colorfully decorated paper fans and handkerchiefs, as well as in booklets with beautiful flower patterns. These texts covered every subject except finance; from which is understood that it was a part of everyday society to which women had no access.

Ancient Chinese culture was very harsh for women. When girls came of age, they were force to marry strange men that they have never met before. In order to help young brides in moments of despair, small hand-made booklets –called the Third Day Missives-, were presented to the wives in the third day of their marriage, and hence the name.

The San Chao Shu (三朝書 ) or Third Day Missives were usually given to the new wives by either their mothers, or their Jiebai Zimei or ‘sworn sisters’. Sworn sisters were very close friends with strong bonds in their friendship. Such friendship would usually last a lifetime, and when they were married off, they would comfort each other by secretly exchanging correspondence; often hidden in the embroidery of handkerchiefs, quilts, aprons, and other textiles, as well as in decorative fans or even small books. Sworn sisters would gather whenever they had a chance, usually at public events like village festivals. The Jiebai Zimei custom was a vast and crucial network of female support in the face of male domination.

Nüshu text by Professor Zhao Liming, via Tim Brookes at The Endangered Alphabets Project

” Beside a well,
one does not thirst.
Beside a sister,
one does not despair”

For several millennia, the language carried on and was passed unnoticed under the eye of men from one generation to the next. It was brought to the public’s attention for the first time in the early fifties; an attempt of cultural preservation that resulted in his author being sent away to a ‘rehabilitation program’.

During 1966-76 Chinese Cultural Revolution, woman that knew Nushu were seized and protested against and criticized, and many of their cultural tradition was confiscated and burned. Since then, several attempts have being made by the local authorities and organizations to preserve Nushu, with little or no success; due to the lack of interest of the young, who no longer see the need to keep secrets from their families.

The last Nushu transmitter was Yang Huanyi, who died in September 2004, age 98. She learned the language in her childhood and could express herself and create new compositions using that language. Although nobody else is able to do so nowadays, and the language is now officially dead; six other people still remain who are able to, at a certain degree, translate  Nushu. Their work and effort it’s extremely valuable to help understand Nushu tradition; a great legacy for the future generation.




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