Nushu – a 19th Century Chinese Woman’s Silent Rebellion

19th century China was not a particularly pleasant place for women. Much of their existence has been summarized in the book, Snow flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See.

This was the age of foot-binding (large feet were considered ugly), as early as age seven – a painful method of curling toes under the foot and walking on them until they broke and were permanently bent under. It was an age in which young girls were promised to men, primarily as a result of financial arrangements between families; and no wife was worth much unless she was able to bear a son. In fact, the act of bearing that son became a mother’s identity. Girls went from living mostly inside their parents’ homes until they were married, and then they moved into their in-laws’ homes. Sometimes, girls in the same village were brought together, living as “sworn sisters” until they married. But life was emotionally harsh. Girls were removed from their familial homes and sent into another, strange one, where, according to See in her book, they were the lowest “rung of the ladder”.

Into this environment, a peasant woman in Hunan Province introduced a secret language for women only. It was a way in which females could communicate their thoughts and feeling among one another after they were separated by their marriages – thoughts and feelings they would never be able to openly express. It came to be known as Nushu.

Women who mastered the language taught it to their peers and to their daughters. And communication occurred via embroidery on pieces of clothing and bed linens, on fans, and, at times on paper.

Over time, the language declined in use, and by the mid-twentieth century, all but a few women still knew it or used it. Because it was so little known, a woman who fainted in a railway station who had Nushu writing in her possession, was arrested as a spy.

And during the Cultural Revolution, some linguistic experts were able to identify and decipher the script. They were sent to labor camps, until the 1980’s when they were released and allowed to further study the script.

Language or Script?

This is a matter for debate. While the characters were the same as those used by men in the same region, and while the language was written in columns of characters, there are fewer characters in the script. And, while standard Chinese characters usually represent ideas or whole words, Nushu characters depicted sounds more than ideas or words. Linguists disagree, even about its origins. Some insist it is a variation of Hanzi characters; others believe it originated from an old script of Eastern China.

But the point is moot. It was a “secret” script or language that women, who were denied any type of education, used to communicate.

Content of Nushu Writings

Many of the Nushu writings were structured in poetic form and were not thoughts of happiness or joy. On the contrary, the content included comments on marriage and specifically the pain of separation from their familial homes and villages. And many spoke about sorrow when a son had not yet been produced or other misfortunes of their lives.

Reasons for Its Decline

By the 1920’s, education in China slowly began to include females – something which obviously raised the status of women in society. Younger women and girls were just interested in learning it anymore, seeing no value in it. After all, they were able to communicate verbally with female peers in their schools.

And Today?

There is now a Nushu Culture Research Center in China with the purpose of documenting and studying the script and its underlying culture. Nushu is a piece of history that should certainly be preserved. A dictionary of about 1800 characters has been created, and some study has been done on the script’s grammar. And while no student of languages will probably ever produce a custom research paper on Nushu, at least the script/language will have a place in linguistic history.

And so that the environment for Chinese women in the 19th century could be more well-known and understood, See’s book was made into a movie in 2011.

Thanks to Linda Grande

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