Nüshu: Mysterious Script Created by Women

BySi Ji July 13, 2021
The Nüshu script inscribed on fans


Nüshu, or "women's writing" in Chinese, is a kind of script designed and used exclusively by rural women in Jiangyong County, in Central China's Hunan Province, during ancient times.

Nüshu, also known as "Jiangyong Nüshu," is a writing system that originated in the town of Shangjiangxu, and its surrounding areas, in Jiangyong County. Nüshu was designed and used exclusively by rural women during ancient times.

Nüshu is a rhomboid variant derived from square Chinese characters to record the local dialect in Jiangyong County. The characters are structured by four kinds of strokes — dots, horizontals, verticals and arcs. These elongated letters are written with very fine and thread-like lines.

The Nüshu script can be found inscribed on paper and fans, and also embroidered on clothes, handkerchiefs and belts.

Mysterious Script

There are many legends about the origin of Nüshu. Some studies indicate Nüshu originated from the symbols carved on prehistoric potteries. However, some researchers have differing opinions on its origin, based on the patterns of the characters, the local customs and historical records. As of now, the origin of Nüshu remains a mystery.

In the past, Nüshu was taught mainly by mothers to their daughters, and it was practiced for fun by sisters and friends. Nüshu was generally used for writing diaries and autobiographies, as well as letters between sworn sisters. It was a method for women to share their innermost feelings through codes incomprehensible to men.

Women used Nüshu to express good wishes to brides, to mourn relatives who had passed away, and to pray to the gods. It was also used to record folk songs, riddles and translations of ancient Chinese poems, and to compose songs eulogizing women, especially for their good morals. All of the Nüshu works were in poetry form — most were seven-character poems and a few had five characters.

Unique 'Cultural Fossil'

Nüshu has special meaning in the history of Chinese culture, and in the history of characters in the world. Nüshu is not just a script — it represents traditional Chinese women's culture.

The content of Nüshu works comes from women's everyday lives — marriage, family, anecdotes and social interactions. Women used their own script to tell stories, to comfort each other, to sing their happiness and sorrow, and to express admiration and well-wishing.

Nüshu was like a ray of sunshine in women's lives, as it allowed them to speak with their own voices, and to find comfort. It guided them through all their sorrows and difficulties to a better life.

As a unique "cultural fossil," Nüshu is important for the study of linguistics, grammatology, archeology, anthropology and other human and social sciences. In 2002, Nüshu was added to the Chinese National Register of Documentary Heritage. In 2005, it was added to the Guinness World Records, as the Most Gender Specific Language. In 2006, the State Council, the Chinese Government's cabinet, added Nüshu to its list of national intangible cultural heritage.

Protecting, Promoting Nüshu Culture

Many people have — and continue to — devoted themselves to protecting and promoting Nüshu culture throughout the centuries.

Tan Dun, a renowned Chinese composer and conductor, spent five years conducting field research on Nüshu, and collecting Nüshu songs. Nüshu: The Secret Songs of Women, Tan's micro-film symphony, debuted in Shanghai in 2013. The 13-movement modern symphony, which combines Eastern and Western musical forms, reflects different aspects of Nüshu culture. It has been performed at several prestigious musical venues around the world.

"Those are letters men cannot understand, full with sorrow that only women know. It is the warmest place on cold nights. Our sisters keep the promise till old …" These are the words of Sisters' Letters, a song about Nüshu sung by Li Yuer, a young singer with China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater. Li has promoted Nüshu culture through songs.

"I hope to combine traditional Nüshu culture with popular songs, so more people will learn about Nüshu and fall in love with it," Li says.

Great efforts have been made to promote Nüshu and to protect Nüshu culture, such as establishing a Nüshu museum. The Jiangyong Women's Federation has worked with a Nüshu culture research center to hold Nüshu culture training sessions.

Inheritors of Nüshu have made great contributions to the protection of Nüshu, and to passing it down to younger generations. He Jinghua, born in a village in Jiangyong in 1934, is a national-level inheritor of Nüshu. She began learning Nüshu when she was young. She is skilled in reading, writing and singing Nüshu. She taught her daughter, granddaughter and niece how to read, write and sing Nüshu. She also runs a Nüshu academy, where she teaches — for free — Nüshu culture to local women and children.

He Jinghua (L), a national-level inheritor of Nüshu


Nüshu has caught the attention of an increasing number of young people in recent years.

"Now, the Nüshu museum attracts more and more visitors. Our free Nüshu training sessions, held every summer vacation, are packed with people," says Hu Xin, a city-level inheritor of Nüshu.

Hu has promoted Nüshu culture by attending expos and recording television programs. She has made great efforts to develop cultural and creative products related to Nüshu, such as designing Nüshu characters on scarves, porcelains and clothes.

"I hope more people will learn about Nüshu, and like it. I hope products related to Nüshu will become a common sight in our lives," Hu says.

Hu Xin, a city-level inheritor of Nüshu


Photos by Huang Hai

(Women of China English Monthly May 2021 issue)


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