On September 4, 2004, Yang Huanyi died at her home in Central China. She was 98 years old, and the last fluent practitioner of Nüshu, one of the oldest and most beautiful, and certainly one of the more intriguing languages in the world. (1) (2)
Nüshu, (女书), (literally, women’s writing and/or women’s script) is the only known language in the history of the world that was created by women and that was used and understood only by women, handed down for generations from mother to daughter. The origins of the language are lost in the mists of time, with scholars today debating almost every aspect of its existence, including its origin and creation. The few written works remaining today are at most around 100 years old, though some place the origin at more than 1,000 years ago.
Nüshu is what we today would term a ‘dead language’, one no longer in use, and one which, without the intervention of Providence, would have died and become extinct without even a funeral. This mysterious language was accidentally discovered only about 40 years ago. In the early 1980s a teacher accompanied his students to a remote area of China’s Hunan Province to study local customs and culture. During their studies, they found a strange calligraphy which they discovered no man could understand, with characters very different from Chinese letters and from any other script in the world.
Nüshu was a special form of writing and song that was used and understood only by the women in Jiangyong County in China’s Hunan Province, and in corners of three adjacent provinces. Despite its long history, it seemed that no one outside the area, including much of Hunan Province itself, had seen it or was even aware of its existence. Immediately recognising the importance of their discovery, the teacher sought help from professional linguists who formed a research group where they collected samples and recordings, and created a dictionary. Nüshu, which had been passed quietly from woman to woman for uncounted centuries, had now left its rural home with its secrets exposed, causing ripples of excitement both at home and abroad. Nüshu has been officially declared a World Heritage item, and listed as one of the world’s most ancient languages and the only exclusively female language ever discovered.
Because it was virtually a secret language, we can find no references to it in old documents or historical works, and no one outside the area appears to have been familiar with it. Yet that cannot be the entire story because in Nanjing in 1999 some coins were discovered which bore inscriptions in the characters of Nüshu, coins which had been minted by the Taiping government dating from the early to mid 1800s. These were legal coins, which means Nüshu must have been in some kind of official use during that period, but to date no documentation has been discovered. (People’s Daily News international edition dated March 2, 2000).
The End of a Tradition
Nüshu declined in the 1920s in the midst of various social and political changes, and use of the script was heavily suppressed by the Japanese during their invasion of China in the 1930s-40s because they feared it could be used to send secret messages. As well, during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the language was discouraged as a kind of feudal leftover in a time when the nation was trying to throw off two centuries of stagnation and bring itself into a modern world. More social and cultural changes occurred during the latter part of the 20th century, including the standardisation of the Mandarin language and simplification of the characters, resulting in the younger generation adopting Mandarin and abandoning Nüshu which then fell into disuse as the older women died.
It seems always true that as times change, especially with major social upheavals, our cultures and traditions evolve and sometimes dissipate. NüShu fell victim partially to the Cultural Revolution which was rewriting history for a new China, and simultaneous universal educational reforms focused on Mandarin and rendered NüShu redundant, so it ceased to be taught, and gradually disappeared from the culture of the time.
Nüshu in Daily Life
Using their script, the women wrote letters, poetry, and songs in books and on paper fans, and they often embroidered the script into cloth for handkerchiefs, scarves, aprons and other handicrafts. Instead of writing letters, they would often embroider poems and messages onto handkerchiefs to be delivered as essentially secret messages to their friends and relatives back home. In addition to poetry and songs, they wrote Nüshu in their prayers and chants to god, but perhaps the most notable use was in their letters and vows to each other as sworn sisters.
It was a tradition among the girls of this area to enter relationships with each other which were called Jiebai Zimei (結拝姉妹) or “sworn sisterhood” which entailed pledging commitment to female friends who were not biologically related but committed to a deep friendship. These sworn sisters were generally were much closer to each other than to their real sisters, and one of the main uses of NüShu was as a means of recording these lifelong friendships in letters and poetry.
These were serious relationships of emotional companionship, almost akin to marriage and expected to last for life. The girls would swear pledges to each other and share fortune and misfortune, a practice that played a very important role in the invention and dissemination of Nüshu. Much of the Nüshu writing and embroidery consisted of letters between sworn sisters, and there is reason to believe that the need for accurate expression of these emotional bonds was responsible for the creation of the language.
One of the more charming traditions involved books knows as San Chao Shu, (三朝书, literally third-day book) which were beautiful hand-made cloth-bound booklets written in Nüshu and to be given to a daughter or a sworn sister upon her marriage. In the traditional Chinese marriages of the time, a bride would join her husband’s family and would have to move, sometimes far away, perhaps rarely seeing her birth family or her sworn sisters again.
These lovely San Chao Shu were wedding gifts delivered on the third day after the young woman’s marriage, typically expressing fond hopes for the girl’s future happiness as well as describing the sorrows upon being parted from her. The first several pages were filled with songs and poems for the young woman leaving the village, while the remaining pages were left blank to be used as a personal diary. These books were looked upon as great treasures and were considered very personal, so much so that they were usually either burned or buried with the woman upon her death – a practice which explains the dearth of examples of NüShu extant today.
When we examine the NüShu writings available, we realise we are looking into not only the lives but the hearts of these village women, reflecting the deepest feelings and emotions in their hearts, a form of expression that became rooted in the consciousness of the women. These women created something by and for themselves, a language perfectly tailored to the needs of women for expression. The script is so feminine and the writing so descriptive that together they touch the souls of these sworn sisters, transmitting accurately through their letters, poems and songs their hopes and tears, their joy and despair.
Nüshu has been described as “A light of civilisation in history, an especially beautiful scenery in the history of women, a method to build a rare and valuable, and beautiful, spiritual kingdom unique to women”. Nüshu is a large measure of a rich folk culture, a product of the great Chinese civilisation, which was formed in a very special and complex cultural soil. One scholar wrote that now that Nüshu has withdrawn from the historical stage with the blessing of history, what remains today is “a rainbow of human civilisation”. (Zhao Liming)
It is more than fascinating that Nüshu could ever be created because, while the purpose of all language is to communicate, Nüshu was created as a language of emotion and feeling. This is so true that one Hunan woman, writing a poem in Nüshu, was asked why she didn’t write in Mandarin which would be easier. Her reply was that she couldn’t, that it was too daunting to even think about recording or expressing her feelings in another language but, using Nüshu, she could do it. Nüshu is not so much a language of the heart, but of the soul. One woman described her expressions in Nüshu as an ability to whisper her deepest hidden feelings, to describe not only tears, but “crimson-colored tears”.
It is well-known that different languages have different abilities to communicate concepts. There are German words – for example, schadenfreude – which cannot be translated into a single word in another language. Sometimes, a paragraph may be needed in one language to express a single word in another. With most languages, the expression of facts is easy, but feelings and emotions are more difficult to express verbally or in writing without resorting to much flowery vocabulary.
The conclusion that seems to fit the circumstances is that this valley of women in Hunan felt a need to express their emotional thoughts, feelings, desires, sorrows and hopes, and so created a language specifically for women which contained the vocabulary to do precisely that. And they expressed all those delicate and indefinable feelings through the vocabulary they created for Nüshu. If this assumption is accurate, it is not a surprise that no man could understand it nor that no man would be invited to understand it. Nüshu is entirely a language of emotion and feeling; perhaps the first (and only) time women were able to accurately express the secrets of their heart.
All Nüshu writings are from women to women, whether letter, song or poem, each an artifact of a unique woman’s culture reflecting and preserving the spiritual feelings of female friends. The language, a unique artistic wonder, was the basis not only for communication but for cohesion, creating as one author wrote, “a romantic spiritual kingdom based on the realistic feelings and sufferings of these women”. Simply put, the women needed a way to express themselves but, lacking the necessary tools in the common dialects, used their unique knowledge of their own hearts to create a new language with an appropriate subjective vocabulary to reflect female emotions. It was this that could create the scaffolding for the sworn sisters to swear their vows, almost like a secret female sorority. Nüshu is a great initiative of Chinese women and a contribution to human civilisation.
It is interesting to note that in all the Nüshu writings discovered, there are no love songs.
Many scholars have collected examples of the Nüshu script and created dictionaries of some repute, but my feeling is that a cat cannot be turned into a bird. In the case of Nüshu it is only in a very specific emotional environment that the true and complex sentiment of a group of characters can be understood. This cannot be translated into other languages which have no vocabulary for those sentiments. The words to describe subjective feelings of resonance with one’s sisters, as one of the basic needs of human spiritual life cannot be found in most dictionaries, especially those created by men.
For its part, the Nüshu script is exclusively feminine. If there is one striking sign of this language, it is the gender. Nüshu characters have a soft and flowing, quaint and unique, female beauty. Considering that this was a means to communicate privately, these lovely small letters were beautifully designed.
Many scholars, instead of focusing on the material issues of the language usage and intent, seem to busy themselves with similarities to Chinese or other characters. However, Chinese is a character language with each character representing an idea, or a word or part of a word. Nüshu on the other hand, is phonetic, with the characters (letters) representing sounds rather than concepts. They are not ideas, but pronunciations, as in most Western languages. It is primarily for this reason that I believe dictionaries and translations may be of limited use.
Nüshu characters are a primarily a storehouse of female culture, not a list of nouns. Nüshu has more than 2,000 characters, some of which have no spoken counterparts, and which display little mutual intelligibility with other languages. In addition to all the above, Nüshu has a full set of rules for layout with pronunciation, style, and a framework of grammar.
I stated above that scholars appear to focus entirely on elements that are almost irrelevancies in the overall picture. To my mind, there are two factors most important in the study of this language.
First is the female and feminine nature of the language, the emotional foundation, a language created by and for women apparently for the purpose of expressing the deepest and almost inexpressible feelings in their hearts.
The second is perhaps even more astonishing and more cause for wonder. How did a group of peasant women living in a remote valley in China’s Hunan Province 1,000 years ago, women who were possibly illiterate but who almost certainly had never attended a school of any sort, manage to create a full-fledged language with 60,000 words and rules of grammar, and an entirely new and very beautiful script designed to express those ‘inexpressible feelings’? That task today would be so daunting as to be almost impossible for even the most accomplished linguists, yet it was done.
Every Silver Lining has a Cloud
When Nüshu was first discovered, many foreign ‘scholars’ made their way to Hunan and looted the finest and oldest examples of the Nüshu writing, the San Chao Shu, and the embroidered artifacts, all of which were of immense historical and cultural significance to China. They are now gone forever because of this predatory “research”.
Additionally, too many foreigners have conducted research on Nüshu and produced a flood of papers and books which are wrong at best and fraudulent and insulting at worst. Nüshu has been the basis of several Western documentaries, all bad, all serving primarily to denigrate China and, in one way or another, to trash this beautiful historical artifact.
More disappointingly, many foreign so-called scholars have executed written and film works on Nüshu which are intended to be offensive, to denigrate yet another beautiful portion of Chinese cultural heritage. One author dismissed Nüshu as “a language designed for a culture of lesbians”, then claiming the Chinese national government moved to save the language from extinction only because it envisioned huge potential profits from cultural tourism.
Other uninformed ‘scholars’ state women learned this language because they were forbidden formal education and prohibited from learning Chinese. Some claim the women “rebelled” against a “grotesque male-dominated Confucian society”, the language emerging as a result of the conflict. Others view Nüshu through a feminist lens, forming imaginary Western parallels with “empowering women” by “strengthening their collective ego consciousness”. Some claim men disregarded the Nüshu language “in feudal China” since women were considered inferior, denied educational opportunities and condemned to social isolation with bound feet. And so on. Of all those I have seen, none exhibit any understanding of the cultural or social context, and none even recognise, much less appreciate, the primordial underlying elements.
I am therefore by design providing no Western links for any part of this article. I would strongly advise readers interested in Nüshu to avoid any website that is not physically in China and created by authoritative Chinese sources. There are dozens of foreign Nüshu websites purporting to be Chinese but which are primarily US-based and which have little or no accurate or factual information to provide.
(1) Last female-only Nüshu language speaker dies
September 24, 2004, China Daily
(2) China to reveal female-specific language to public. March 16, 2004;
(3) Qinghua University Research Center of Ancient Chinese Characters
(4) For Nüshu images: