Nu shu: The Secret Language of the Chinese Women
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Why A Secret Language Developed
Nu shu literally mean’s “women’s language.” It is believed to have evolved between 400 and 1000 years ago. At a time when the custom of foot-binding for women prevailed and Chinese women were forbidden to read and write, the women of the Jiangyong County in the Hunan province of China, in defiance had secretly created their own script and language.
The Characteristics of Nu Shu
Unlike the regular Chinese script, in which the characters are large and bold, the Nu shu characters were slanted and looked like scratch marks. Also where in regular Chinese each character represents a word, Nu shu was phonetic and the characters represented sounds such that the meaning had to be deciphered in context of what was being said. Furthermore, the language developed coded meanings for various words and phrases.
The Role of Nu Shu
Nu shu would be taught by one generation of women to the next in strict secrecy. It was never to be used in front of men. Rules between women mandated that men weren't even allowed to know about the language. Letters and poems in Nu Shu would be painted or embroidered into everyday items like fans, pillowcases and handkerchiefs, and probably passed off as artwork. That is how women, sometimes parted by marriage from their families would communicate with the other women in their home village. They would share tales of their dreams, hardships and hopes, and also send urgent messages if they were in trouble and in need of help.
The Death of Nu Shu
Incredibly though, the language was so well hidden from men, that when the Revolutionary guards first discovered it in the 1960s, they assumed it to be some cryptic code being used for espionage. When it was established to be a secret script between women, the Revolutionary guards destroyed a vast number of items – letters, weavings and embroideries that contained Nu Shu. They forbade women to practice the customs and festivals that had become associated Nu shu.
As Nu shu died, a whole secret sub-culture of women that had evolved around Nu Shu, of traditions, beliefs, poems and legends also died. One of these customs was that of the laotong, or “sworn sisters.” Moreover the biggest loss is that of the personal documentation of many women’s lives.
The Revival of Nu Shu
Of recent times however, the Chinese government has reinstated Nu shu as a valuable cultural heritage. There is now a Nu shu museum where attempts have been made to gather whatever remaining Nu shu related items can be located. There is also a school in Puwei where the language is being taught in an attempt to revive it. The last living woman able to understand and speak the language, Yang Huanyi, died in 2004. She was in her nineties.
- A Language by Women, for Women. The Washington Post, Feb 24, 2004.
- Last Inheritress of China’s female-specific Language Dies. China View, Sept 23, 2004.
- The Secrets of Nu Shu by Lisa See.
- World of Nu Shu. Internet Archive of research and documentation of Nu shu.