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.
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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.
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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