Nushu, a Woman-Only Language of China

Chinese Women's Secret Calligraphy

Chinese women playing a game together, about 1900 (unknown location)
Chinese women playing a game together, about 1900 (unknown location). FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nushu or Nu Shu means, literally, “woman’s writing” in Chinese.  The script was developed by peasant women in Hunan Province, China, and used in Jiangyong county, but probably also in nearby Daoxian and Jianghua counties.  It nearly became extinct before its very recent discovery.  The oldest items are from the very early 20th century, though the language is assumed to have much older roots.

The script was often used in embroidery, calligraphy and handicrafts created by women.

  It is found written on paper (including letters, written poetry and on objects such as fans) and embroidered on fabric (including on quilts, aprons, scarves, handkerchiefs).  Objects were often buried with women or were burned.

While sometimes characterized as a language, it might better be considered a script, as the underlying language was the same local dialect used also by the men in the area, and usually by the men written in Hanzi characters. Nushu, like other Chinese characters, is written in columns, with characters running from top to bottom in each column and columns written from the right to the left.  Chinese researchers count between 1000 and 1500 characters in the script, including variants for the same pronunciation and function; Orie Endo (below) has concluded that there are about 550 distinct characters in the script.  Chinese characters are usually ideograms (representing ideas or words); Nushu characters are mostly phonograms (representing sounds) with some ideograms.

  Four types of strokes make u the characters: dots, horizontals, verticals and arcs.

According to Chinese sources, Gog Zhebing, a teacher in South Central China, and linguistics professor Yan Xuejiong, discovered calligraphy used in the Jiangyong prefecture.  In another version of the discovery, an old man, Zhou Shuoyi, brought it to attention, preserving a poem from ten generations back in his family and beginning to study the writing in the 1950s.

  The Cultural Revolution, he said, interrupted his studies, and his 1982 book brought it to the attention of others.

The script was well known locally as “woman’s writing” or nüshu but it had not before come to the attention of linguists, or at least of academia. At that time, about a dozen women survived who understood and could write Nushu.

Japanese professor Orie Endo of Bunkyo University in Japan has been studying Nushu since the 1990s. She was first exposed to the existence of the language by a Japanese linguistics researcher, Toshiyuki Obata, and then learned more in China at Beijing University from Professor Prof. Zhao Li-ming.  Zhao and Endo traveled to Jiang Yong and interviewed elderly women to find people who could read and write the language.

The area where it has been used is one where the Han people and the Yao people have lived and intermixed, including intermarriage and mixing of cultures.

  It was also an area, historically, of good climate and successful agriculture.

The culture in the area was, like most of China, male-dominated for centuries, and women were not permitted an education.  There was a tradition of “sworn sisters,” women who were not biologically related but who committed to friendship.  In traditional Chinese marriage, exogamy was practiced: a bride joined her husband’s family, and would have to move, sometimes far away, not seeing her birth family again or only rarely. The new brides were thus under the control of their husbands and mothers-in-law after they married.  Their names did not become part of genealogies.

Many of the Nushu writings are poetic, written in a structured style, and were written about marriage, including about the sorrow of separation. Other writings are letters from women to women, as they found, through this female-only script, a way to keep in communication with their female friends.

  Most express feelings and many are about sorrow and misfortune.

Because it was secret, with no references to it found in documents or genealogies, and many of the writings buried with the women who possessed the writings, it’s not authoritatively known when the script began.  Some scholars in China accept the script not as a separate language but as a variant on Hanzi characters. Others believe it may have been a remnant of a now-lost script of eastern China.

Nushu declined in the 1920s when reformers and revolutionaries began to expand education to include women and to raise women’s status. While some of the older women attempted to teach the script to their daughters and granddaughters, most did not consider it valuable and did not learn.  Thus, fewer and fewer women could preserve the custom.

The Nüshu Culture Research Center in China was created to document and study Nushu and the culture around it, and to publicize its existence.  A dictionary of 1,800 characters including variants was created by Zhuo Shuoyi in 2003; it also includes notes on grammar.  At least 100 manuscripts are known outside of China.

An exhibition in China that opened in April, 2004, focused on Nushu.

• China to reveal female-specific language to public - People's Daily, English Edition