Written similarly to the Chinese script, in top to bottom columns, from right to left, Nüshu characters are made up of four types of strokes: dots, arcs, horizontals and verticals and are more rhomboidal in shape than classic square characters. Unlike the standard Chinese script, which is logographic (each character represents a word or part of a word), Nüshu is a phonetic script, with each of its 600 different characters representing a syllable. Some 1,500 characters have been identified in the script altogether, including variants for the same pronunciation and meaning.
Nüshu originated in an area where Han and Yao people used to live and mix by marrying each other and having their cultures intertwine, in a male-dominated society where women were not allowed to get educated. In traditional Chinese marriages, which were often arranged, young women joined their spouses’ families, were under the strict control of their husbands, their names were not mentioned in family trees and they often had to move far away from their families. After leaving their parental homes, many of them faced a life of hardship, which created a need for a secret script that they could use to communicate among each other, become literate, maintain relationships and express their most intimate thoughts and feelings. The secret script was mostly passed from mother to daughter, but there also used to be a tradition of “sworn sisters”, women who were not blood relatives, but swore to lifelong loyalty and friendship to each other. On the third day after one of them got married, she was given ‘The Third Day Book,’ where her mother and sisters wrote about their sadness over the lost daughter and sister and their wish for her marital happiness. The women treasured their books, decorated them with embroidery, ink and pieces of cut paper, leaving a few blank pages at the end to write their own wishes, hopes, fears and misfortunes.
Many women found the books so valuable that they requested to be buried or burnt with them, which is why nowadays there is not much evidence of this specific script or why its age cannot be determined with certainty. It is thought to have been devised by a concubine belonging to an emperor of the Song dynasty (960-1279). A bronze coin minted during the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a rebel kingdom of China (in power from 1851 to 1864), which introduced some important social reforms and adopted several gender equality policies, is considered to be the oldest known Nüshu artefact. The following is engraved on the coin in eight Nüshu characters, ‘All women in the world are members of the same family.’ Fortunately, many handicrafts created by women in the Nüshu script, pieces of calligraphy, written poetry and embroidery on different fabrics (aprons, handkerchiefs and scarves) were saved.
This original script started being studied at the beginning of the last century but the activity soon stopped on the account of major social, cultural and political change in China that made it possible for women to learn to read and write in the official Chinese script. At the same time, traditional cultures were pushed aside and gradually started fading into oblivion. While some elderly women tried to teach their daughters and granddaughters Nüshu, most refused to do so, considering it to be worthless, so a decreasing number of women could preserve this custom. When the research started again in the 1980s, only a dozen women could read and only three of them could write Nüshu. Yang Huanyi, the last woman who was able to speak and write Nüshu, passed away in 2004 aged 98.
Recognising the value of this unique script as the world’s cultural heritage, the Chinese government has taken a number of steps in the last 20 years to preserve it, first by opening a Research Centre to document and study the Nüshu culture and then the Nüshu Museum on the Island of Puwei and also by having a dictionary of 1,800 characters compiled, including grammar notes. This is how the nearly extinct Nüshu became a tourist attraction of sorts, which motivated women in Jiangyong County to re-learn the secret language of their mothers and grandmothers and to gain such economic freedoms that their predecessors never used to enjoy, while cherishing this legacy.