For women’s eyes only
'Nshu', a Chinese script, was invented by women in the 19th century to communicate among themselves
In 19th century China, when women had almost no access to the written word, they came up with a script, birthed in defiance, that no man could decipher. It is said that nüshu (female writing) thrived and circulated among poor peasant women, particularly in rural Jiangyong’s Hunan province, where it first took root. The written form transformed women into memoirists, allowing them to record their most private thoughts in the form of vivid poems or detailed autobiographies.
These texts encapsulated their lives: long-drawn narratives describing local ceremonies, letters traded furtively, or prayers penned to goddesses. “And, in the greatest numbers surviving, were cloth-bound volumes written to brides, to be delivered to them in their new home on the third day after their wedding," says Cathy Silber, a professor at Skidmore College, New York, on email. Silber, a scholar of Asian literature, has been studying the script since 1988. These books carried “congratulations, but contained as much, if not more, lamentation and condolences", she says.
A distinctive break from Chinese historiography, in which Jiangyong’s public gazetteers only focused on women’s stories when they had to advocate moral values or reiterate the virtues of chastity, this private script empowered women.
Nüshu is uniquely different from the traditional Chinese characters. The women delicately drew characters on scrolls with a writing brush. “The shape is different—diamond-shaped for nüshu versus a square for Chinese," explains Prof. Silber. “In many cases, it’s easy to see that the nüshu forms derive from the Chinese, but nüshu characters also contain many shapes/figures/designs seen nowhere in Chinese characters."
Owing to its gender-specificity, nüshu today has earned the reputation of a “secret" script. But it was immensely publicly audible—passed on from mother to daughter over generations, it was written by women to be sung or chanted aloud. “Nüshu was only ‘secret’ in the sense that men were not allowed to learn it," says Prof. Silber. “But what does a secret mean to those who have no desire to be part of it? Men were not demanding to learn nüshu just as they were not storming the lofts demanding to learn embroidery."
For decades, the script languished in obscurity. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that nüshu was rehabilitated. Sometime in 1982, a professor at Wuhan University “discovered" it accidentally, catapulting nüshu to a wider, international audience.
In the late 1980s, while researching the women-only script, Prof. Silber spent many days with octogenarian Yi Nianhua in Shangjiangxu, watching her gracefully draw out the characters across paper. “The young girls I’ve talked to—the children of the children of the family I lived with in the late 1980s—aren’t really interested in learning the script; they don’t really see it as having anything to do with them," she says. Today, she believes, the majority of local Chinese women do not want to learn nüshu.
But the professor intends to revive the script. “When I go back again this summer, I will be collaborating with local people to develop programmes to make learning the script more easily accessible to anyone who wants to learn it. Its days as a women-only script have passed; if the script is to have any life at all going forward, I believe, it will be as a script for the local language."