Nushu: The secret language of Women
Nushu, a language believed to be the last remnant of a four-thousand-year-old Chinese dialect, has a captivating history that dates back to ancient times. It had evolved from a form of old Chinese known as Han.
Its roots can be traced to the Shang Dynasty period, approximately between 1700 and 1050 BC, as evidenced by the discovery of thousands of Oracle Bone Scripts in 1899. These scripts revealed a well-established writing system, suggesting that Nushu could be even older than initially thought.
Thousands of Oracle Bone Scripts have been recovered and they show a well-developed writing system for Hanzi belonging to the Shang Dynasty period (approx. 1700-1050 BC). This has led experts to believe that the original Nushu could have developed at an earlier stage, dating it to be at least a four thousand years old language.
Empowering Peasant Women
The word Nushu or Nu Shu, originally meant “woman’s writing”, as it was developed in secret by peasant women in the Hunan Province of China.
China has traditionally been a male-dominated society. Men were the decision-makers of every aspect of life; while women were relegated to household duties. Men were taught to write and read, do finance and politics, etc.; but women were not permitted an education. However, women soon taught themselves how to write simply by watching over their husbands, brothers and sons while they were practising calligraphy. They would then memorize some of the characters they saw and jotted them down, giving them their own meaning and deforming them in the process; thus creating a totally new language: Nushu.
“They taught her to apply makeup and comb her hair; on her head she was wearing pearls that are shining magnificently; she is sitting like Guanyin (a Buddhist goddess) out of a Buddhist shrine”.
Originally conceived as a written language, Nushu soon evolved into a more complex, oral idiom. It is easy to visualize how this happened. Men spent most of their time labouring at farms, fighting, engaging in politics, and other civil duties while females stayed at home performing a variety of household duties like sewing textiles and embroideries, making shoes, etc.
Women, while managing various household tasks, sang songs, composed poems, and discussed politics in the secrecy of their homes. They also sang songs of joy, sorrow, and farewell. They shared their newfound language with one another, passing it down through generations. But most important of all, they taught each other the language they had learned in secret. And in secret, the language was passed on from one generation to the next among women.
Originally, Nushu had about 550 characters. It soon grew as it spread to other provinces and was influenced by other dialects, totalling an amount of one thousand and five hundred characters. Zhou Shuoyi, described as the only male to have mastered the script, compiled a dictionary listing 1,800 variant characters and allographs. Nushu it’s written in columns and it reads from top to bottom and from right to left.
Forms of written Nushu have been found in skillfully and colourfully decorated paper fans and handkerchiefs, as well as in booklets with beautiful flower patterns. These texts covered every subject except finance; from which is understood that it was a part of everyday society to which women had no access.
Ancient Chinese culture was unforgiving toward women, who were often married off to strangers. To offer support to new brides during moments of despair, they received “Third Day Missives” on their third day of marriage. Sworn sisters, close friends bound by strong bonds, played a pivotal role in exchanging these secret correspondences, often concealed in textiles, fans, or small books. The Jiebai Zimei custom provided a crucial network of female support against male dominance.
The San Chao Shu (三朝書 ) or Third Day Missives were usually given to the new wives by either their mothers or their Jiebai Zimei or ‘sworn sisters’. Sworn sisters were very close friends with strong bonds in their friendship. Such friendship would usually last a lifetime, and when they were married off, they would comfort each other by secretly exchanging correspondence; often hidden in the embroidery of handkerchiefs, quilts, aprons, and other textiles, as well as in decorative fans or even small books. Sworn sisters would gather whenever they had a chance, usually at public events like village festivals. The Jiebai Zimei custom was a vast and crucial network of female support in the face of male domination.
”Beside a well,
one does not thirst.
Beside a sister,
one does not despair
For millennia, Nushu remained hidden from the eyes of men, passing silently from one generation to the next. However, it gained public attention in the early 1950s, leading to its author’s exile to a “rehabilitation program.” During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, women knowledgeable about Nushu faced persecution, criticism, and and many of their cultural tradition was confiscated and burned . Efforts to preserve Nushu have been made since then, albeit with limited success, due to waning interest among the younger generation in maintaining family secrets.
During the 1966-76 Chinese Cultural Revolution, the women that knew Nushu was seized and protested against, and criticized, and many of their cultural tradition was confiscated and burned. Since then, several attempts have been made by the local authorities and organizations to preserve Nushu, with little or no success; due to the lack of interest of the young, who no longer see the need to keep secrets from their families.
The last Nushu transmitter was Yang Huanyi, who died in September 2004, at age 98. She learned the language in her childhood and could express herself and create new compositions using that language. Although nobody else is able to do so nowadays, and the language is now officially dead; six other people still remain who are able to, to a certain degree, translate Nushu. Their work and effort it’s extremely valuable to help understand the Nushu tradition; a great legacy for the future generation.
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