In China, a Scholar, a Once-Forbidden Script, and Tourism

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Nov 1 18:50:16 UTC 2004



In China, a Scholar, a Once-Forbidden Script, and Tourism

Beijing, China

The story is compelling. Thousands of years ago, forbidden to read and
write, Chinese women in several villages in Southern China developed a
secret writing system. In cloth diaries women wrote Nushu, which means
literally "women's book." These diaries, which may have been shared,
liberated women from illiteracy and allowed them to express their
thoughts without being censored by the village men.

But the facts about the secret system are now being distorted by the
Chinese government, as it tries to promote tourism by exploiting the

I was intrigued by the idea that a secret script for women existed
alongside other Chinese historical phenomena like the binding of
women's feet and the taking of concubines. So I made an appointment to
see Zhao Liming, a professor of Chinese at Tsinghua University, who is
often referred to as the foremost expert on Nushu. My visit with Ms.
Zhao, however, gave me more insights into the difficulties and politics
of doing academic research in China than into the actual history of

Ms. Zhao bicycles to meet me near the front gate of the campus, where
the business school and the science departments, more lucrative fields
of study than the humanities for the university, occupy shiny new
buildings. A lively woman in her 50s with permed hair, she leads me to
the Chinese department, which is in a dingy, old building far from the
front facade of the school. As we sit in a dim classroom looking at
samples of coded script, Ms. Zhao laments, "It's a headache to do this
kind of work. The study of Nushu is luanqibaozhao." The Chinese phrase
essentially means "a complicated mess."

Nushu has received plenty of attention since the government reportedly
earmarked more than $1-million a few years ago for the development of
tourism in the villages where Nushu originated. The government has
drummed up publicity in the local news media to increase people's
awareness of the secret script. News reports about Nushu convey a sense
of urgency, because it is said that the remaining few women who learned
the script, which was used in only a handful of villages, are nearing
the end of their lives.

In recent years Nushu has also attracted international attention. In
2002, a dance performance based on Nushu was presented in Canberra,
Australia. A few months ago, an article in The Washington Post traced
the origins of the secret script. And in April, Nushu relics were put
on display at Lingnan University, in Hong Kong.

But here's the problem: The scholarship on Nushu posits what the script
could have been, not what it actually was. One story is that three days
after getting married, a new bride would receive from the other women
in the village a book in which they had jotted notes at the beginning
in a coded script that was incomprehensible to men. The remaining pages
would be left blank for the bride to record her own thoughts. According
to another legend, Nushu was used by imperial concubines, allowing them
to write home in secret and tell their families about their miserable

Though there is scant evidence to support those stories, besides the
testimony of the locals, "the legends themselves have historical
value," says Ms. Zhao. Villagers have told her that Nushu actually
dates back only a thousand years at the most, and because Nushu books
were burned when their owners died, scientists have been able to verify
only that existing samples are at most a few hundred years old, says
Ms. Zhao.

She shows me samples -- she says they are at least 50 years old -- on a
piece of brown, weather-beaten paper. The long, wispy characters look
like modern italicized Chinese. Like "complex" Chinese characters,
which were used before the Chinese Communist Party revised China's
writing system in the 1950s and which are still used in overseas
Chinese communities, Nushu characters are written from top to bottom
and right to left. Because they represent sounds rather than ideas, the
same characters can be used to represent many things, making Nushu a
less complicated script to write than complex Chinese.

Despite the legends, the script is actually quite easy to read. Even I,
with my feeble three years of Mandarin classes -- giving me the
proficiency of a not-very-talented Chinese third-grader -- can read
some of the script. "How long would it take me to learn Nushu?" I ask
Ms. Zhao.

She studies me for a moment, evaluating the Chinese that I've spoken to
her. Her eyes narrow. "It would probably take you one evening," she

Contrary to the official government spiel on Nushu, the script, it
seems, would be quite comprehensible to the average Chinese, whose
reading skills far surpass my own.

Imre Galambos, a Chinese writing philologist at the British Library, in
London, says that China does indeed have a history of encrypted
scripts, but it was invented for bookkeeping purposes. When he came
across Nushu four years ago and wanted to investigate it further, he
found that "there weren't any sources on it. You don't see
manuscripts." He says the script could have been loosely coded: "Maybe
it was a family thing. Maybe it was a clan thing. But I don't buy it as
a female thing."

When told of Mr. Galambos's assessment, Ms. Zhao tells me that most of
her research has been derived from interviews with villagers. She will
not say much more. Because the government, through the official news
media, has issued what it says are the facts about Nushu, Ms. Zhao has
to be careful of her wording in both scholarly articles and interviews
with journalists. In China, saying things that are perceived as going
against the government can land you in hot water. Instead, she relates
how her interest in Nushu began.

In 1985, when she was a Ph.D. student in Chinese at Wuhan University
studying oracle bones, a form of record keeping used during the Shang
dynasty (from the 16th to the 11th century B.C.), she came across a
journal article about Nushu. Little research had been done on the
topic, she says, and she "thought Nushu could have been the missing
link" between oracle bones and later writing forms.

Her research involved spending several months at a time living in
villages in Hunan province, where Nushu purportedly developed. She
lived on a diet of rice, grapefruit, and taro, a starchy root -- all of
which were grown locally. She became friends with the villagers, who
spoke in a thick dialect that is incomprehensible to most Mandarin
Chinese speakers. She walked along the Xiao River, which connected the
villages to each other. After two years of research, she concluded that
Nushu was not the link that she had hoped it would be. Nushu, Ms. Zhao
surmised, was essentially a simplified form of writing that illiterate
women came up with at a time when education wasn't available to them.

Ms. Zhao thought that it was still noteworthy, however, that Chinese
women without any education were writing any script at all. After
assuming a professorship at Tsinghua University in the early 1990s, Ms.
Zhao compiled a dictionary based on the Nushu characters she had come
across. But funds in the Chinese department were tight, and no
publisher was willing to take the risk of publishing the book until she
put down more than $1,000 of her own money -- the equivalent of several
months of a professor's salary.

Now, as the government tries to promote Nushu to encourage tourism,
it's a different story, says Ms. Zhao. The Hunan provincial archives
opened an exhibition last spring that features items like scarves,
handbags, and handkerchiefs embroidered with Nushu. The Chinese
government recently asked Ms. Zhao to compile a new edition of a
dictionary of Nushu terms, and she has agreed to help.

But Ms. Zhao spends little time on Nushu research these days. She is
content to devote most of her time to teaching. Occasionally, she'll
come across articles on Nushu that allude to the mystery surrounding
it, leaving her wanting to deflect rumors about the script.

For starters, says Ms. Zhao, it is a writing system, not an oral
language. Some scholars, eager to promote the script, say that it was
used as a means of communication between lesbians, an idea that Ms.
Zhao investigated but found had no merit. She recently came across some
unscrupulous villagers in Hunan -- men, in particular -- who had
invented new Nushu words and were selling them on souvenir items.

"To some people, whether it's real or unreal, it doesn't matter," says
Ms. Zhao with a sigh.
Section: Notes From Academe
Volume 51, Issue 11, Page A56

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