A Language by Women, for Women

Margaret Ronkin ronkinm at georgetown.edu
Tue Feb 24 19:40:39 UTC 2004


A Language by Women, for Women
Scholars Try to Save Unique Chinese Script

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 24, 2004; Page A01

PUMEI VILLAGE, China -- Nowadays, it would be called empowering women. But back then, centuries ago, it was just a way for the sworn sisters of this rugged and tradition-laden Chinese countryside to share their hopes, their joys and their many sorrows.

Only men learned to read and write Chinese, and bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband's homes after marriage. So somehow -- scholars are unsure how, or exactly when -- the women of this fertile valley in the southwestern corner of Hunan province developed their own way to communicate. It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend -- and never, ever shared with the men and boys.

So was born nushu, or women's script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind.

"The girls used to get together and sing and talk, and that's when we learned from one another," said Yang Huanyi, 98, a wrinkled farmer's widow who learned as a girl and whom scholars consider the most accomplished reader and writer among a fast-dwindling number of nushu practitioners. "It made our lives better, because we could express ourselves that way."

Scholars and local authorities have taken renewed interest in the exclusive language, trying to preserve it as the last women who are fluent reach the end of their lives. Generations of women in the region once penned their diaries in nushu, and the few journals that have survived offer a unique chronicle of these private lives long ago. Today, young girls learn Chinese along with the boys, so learning nushu has less appeal.

Nushu in some ways resembles Chinese, if some of the characters were stretched and altered. But it also differs in many respects. For example, according to researchers, the letters represent sound -- the sounds of this region's Cheng Guan Tuhua dialect -- and not ideas as in the Chinese ideograms that men studied and wrote. Nushu was written from top to bottom in wispy, elongated letters in columns that read from right to left.

Much remains unknown about nushu. Its origins, reaching perhaps as far back as the 3rd century, have been the subject of scholarly exchanges among a handful of researchers in China and elsewhere. They know it was used in Hunan's Jiangyong County, in south central China about 200 miles northwest of Guangzhou, and believe it was limited to what is now Jiangyong's Shungjian Xu Township, which includes Pumei and these days has a population of around 19,000 people. But even that is not certain.

What seems clear is that nushu was fostered by the region's ancient custom of "sworn sisters," whereby village girls would pledge one another fealty and friendship forever. The tight sorority, which included growing up together in cobbled village lanes and gathering with adult women to weave and embroider, inevitably was shattered when the time for marriage came. Tradition dictated that a bride go away to her groom's home -- and that is where nushu came in.

Three days after the wedding, the adolescent bride would receive a "Third Day Book," a cloth-bound volume in which her sworn sisters and her mother would record their sorrow at losing a friend and daughter and express best wishes for happiness in the married life that lay ahead. The first half-dozen pages contained these laments and hopes, written in nushu that the groom could not read. The rest were left blank for the bride to record her own feelings and experiences -- in nushu -- for what would become a treasured diary.

The sworn sisterhood tradition in this region has led some scholars to speculate that nushu developed as a secret language for lesbians, according to Zhao Liming, a literature professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who helped bring nushu to researchers' attention in the 1980s and is one of the foremost authorities on it.

"But that is not true," she said in an interview. "They just wanted a way to express themselves." She added: "Women needed a spiritual life. They could not write Chinese, but they wanted to express their feelings."

Most important to the women who learned it, sometimes memorizing letters written on the palms of their hands because of a lack of paper, nushu liberated them from illiteracy.

The way nushu came to light some 20 years ago also has been clouded in competing theories.

Lin Lee Lee at the University of Minnesota has written that a Jiangyong County woman visiting relatives in Beijing in 1982 astounded them by singing and then writing a language and script they could not understand. The relatives passed along their amazement to scholars, she said in a conference presentation, and research into the strange female writing system began.

But Zhou Shuoyi, 78, a self-described countryside intellectual who lives in nearby Yongzhou city, said he knows better, and he explained why.

One of his ancestors, a grandmother six generations back, wrote a poem entitled "Educate the Girls." The poem, handed down from generation to generation, was translated into nushu by some local village women, he said, and his aunt brought the nushu version to his father's house sometime in the 1920s as a subject of curiosity.

Zhou's father, a schoolteacher, was impressed by the strange writing he could not understand and urged the young Zhou to investigate. Later, working for the Jiangyong County cultural department in the 1950s, Zhou said he discovered a number of elderly peasant women still mastered nushu. A speaker of the Tuhua dialect, he was also able to get a whiff of what nushu was about -- and what a cultural discovery there was to make.

"At that time, many grandmothers could sing it, write it and read it," he said in an interview, sipping green tea, smiling with satisfaction and arching his bushy black eyebrows under a flat golfer's hat. He added, "In society at that time, there was injustice between men and women, and women needed this language as a way to express themselves."

After further research, Zhou reported his findings to authorities in Beijing. But by then the Cultural Revolution had convulsed China. As an intellectual, Zhou said, he was branded a rightist and forced to halt his work. Red Guard zealots destroyed the nushu documents he had painstakingly accumulated.

"But the stuff in here could not be burned," he smiled, pointing at his head and its tufts of white hair.

So in 1979, when calm had returned, Zhou said he went back to work at a local museum and resumed his interest in nushu, eventually learning to read and write.

Zhou collected more samples and broadened his understanding of the little-known phenomenon. In 1982, he said, he wrote a book about the region's culture, including a section on nushu. When the Hunan provincial government published the book, scholars from relatively nearby Wuhan, from faraway Beijing and eventually even from abroad started dropping by. Nushu had been discovered.

"Now a lot of people are studying it and a lot of people come here to ask about it," he said.

Zhao said that over the last 20 years she has guided a number of graduate students, Chinese and foreign, in studying nushu at Tsinghua. Estimates of its contemporary vocabulary range from 670 to 1,500 words. A dozen of Zhao's students recently started compiling them in a dictionary. The students include three young men, she specified with a smile.

But aside from scholars, Zhao and Zhou said, fewer than 10 people can fluently read and write nushu. Yang, the 98-year-old, has little time left. Several other women in Jiangyong County who can read and write, or at least read, also have neared the end of their lives.

Local authorities nevertheless have seized on nushu's cultural value, and on its tourism potential. An $80,000 school and museum went up last year here in Pumei, where Hu Mei Yue, 42, visits every Saturday to teach nushu to whoever among the village girls shows up for class.

Hu, who learned from her grandmother, the late Gao Yinxin, also embroiders bags and handkerchiefs with nushu writings to sell to tourists, who people here hope will start coming soon to see what they have baptized "Pumei, Nushu Cultural Village."

"It's very interesting, and Gao Yinxin left this valuable thing for our village," said Hu Linyin, 10, a Pumei girl who recited nushu poetry and tried to puzzle out the writing under teacher Hu's direction during a session Saturday.

"I don't know how people can write like this," remarked a classmate, Hu Cui Cui, 12, who said she can read about 200 words and write a few. "Each word is like a flower."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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