Remembering Nüshu, the 19th-Century Chinese Script Only Women Could Write

From Atlas Obscura:

In 1988, Yi Nianhua, a woman in her 80s, spent many evenings scribbling elegant characters at a table in her kitchen in a small rice-farming village in Shangjiangxu, China. With only a blunt writing brush, the elongated script came out fat and blotchy on the newsprint she used for paper. But Cathy Silber, a professor at Skidmore College in New York, worked alongside Yi in her kitchen, diligently deciphering and studying the written language.

“Out of the thousands of scripts that are gender-specific to men, here we have one that we know is gender-specific to women,” says Silber, who has been researching Nüshu since 1985. Yi was one of the last remaining writers of Nüshu, a fading script that only women knew how to write and read.

Stemming from the southwestern Hunan Province county of Jiangyong, a small group of women in the 19th and 20th centuries practiced this special script that no man could read or write. The writing system allowed these women to keep autobiographies, write poetry and stories, and communicate with “sworn sisters,” bonds between women who were not biologically related. The tradition of Nüshu is slowly vanishing, but at one time gave the women of Shanjiangxu freedom to express themselves.

. . . .

 As of 2012, there were approximately 500 known texts written in Nüshu, ranging from four-line poems to long autobiographical narratives. Today, the texts that have survived give researchers such as Silber the opportunity to peer into the daily lives of Chinese women throughout this period of history.

. . . .

The first definite record of Nüshu dates to 1931, but Silber and most academics reason women likely began writing it in the early years of the 19th century. The script is syllabic, each sign standing for a distinct unit of sound in the local dialect. More than 1,000 signs have been counted thus far, according to Idema.

“It’s more efficient than Chinese because it’s phonetic,” says Silber. “A single symbol would represent every syllable with the same sound. So you get more bang for your buck with each character.”

Additionally, Nüshu’s elegant, elongated lines contrast the stocky, squat blocks of Chinese characters. The visual beauty of Nüshu is distinguished by fine wisps and thin strokes, flanked by diamond shapes and precise dots. Some people even called it ‘mosquito writing’ because the characters looked like they were drawn by the legs of an insect, says Silber.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

8 thoughts on “Remembering Nüshu, the 19th-Century Chinese Script Only Women Could Write”

      • Keep going. You’ve got 1999 more to go before “thousands” is accurate.

        Also Hebrew is still written and is not restricted to men.

        • Writing and literacy are performed in specific times and places and for most of human history has not been an activity available to all humans. Hebrew as a functioning form of writing was limited to men only for a portion of its history. For another period (Inquisition Spain) the very possession of Hebrew texts outside of a very limited group (the Inquisitors) could get one killed, male or female. Fraternal order ciphers would be another example of restricted use scripts. For that matter, in the US, all forms of writing were legally restricted from slaves by law in at least one state. Considering that religious orders and military orders in many societies were male-only and that girls and women in some societies are being violently attacked for seeking schooling today, I don’t find it implausible that there may indeed be thousands of male-only forms of writing throughout human history.

          • All of your examples are class-specific. None are gender-specific. While the classes may indeed have been restricted only to males or happened to only have been males, being male in itself was not sufficient for acceptance into the class. If a man could be denied the opportunity to use a script, forbidden from using a script, or punished or even killed for using a script, then maleness was not the critical factor in restricting use of the script.

            Nüshu is a fascinating subject. But at the time it developed, the main Chinese script was not gender-specific. There were literate women at the time in the Chinese script. Not many, but there weren’t a great many literate men, either. While most literate people were men, the divide between literate and non-literate was class-based. There have been female poets and scholars throughout Chinese history–of the proper social class, of course.

            There is a huge gender politics component to the story of Nüshu. The women wrote in a private script so the men in their circle could not read it. Avoiding oppression by secrecy. And by making silly little squiggles rather than writing properly, the women did not challenge the authority the men in their circle derived from knowledge. Avoiding oppression by not appearing threatening.

            • Gordon, think of them more as “ciphers” – that is the way to approach it. Many thousands of ciphers have been used over the centuries, and almost all for “man” things. War, diplomacy, business.

              However, the Chinese (and derived writing systems) did not have an alphabet. Note that “More than 1,000 signs have been counted so far…”

  1. Alma Alexander’s SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI is also based around nu-shu which she renamed for her alt-world Jin Shei.

Comments are closed.