On September 4, 2004, Yang Huanyi died at her home in
Central China. She was 98 years old, and the last fluent practitioner of Nüshu,
one of the oldest and most beautiful, and certainly one of the more intriguing
languages in the world. (1) (2)
(literally, women's writing and/or women's script) is the only known language
in the history of the world that was created by women and that was used and
understood only by women, handed down for generations from mother to daughter.
The origins of the language are lost in the mists of time, with scholars today
debating almost every aspect of its existence, including its origin and
creation. The few written works remaining today are at most around 100 years
old, though some place the origin at more than 1,000 years ago.
Nüshu is what we today would term a 'dead
language', one no longer in use, and one which, without the intervention of
Providence, would have died and become extinct without even a funeral. This
mysterious language was accidentally discovered only about 40 years ago. In the
early 1980s a teacher accompanied his students to a remote area of China's
Hunan Province to study local customs and culture. During their studies, they
found a strange calligraphy which they discovered no man could understand, with
characters very different from Chinese letters and from any other script in the
Nüshu was a special form of writing and song that was
used and understood only by the women in Jiangyong County in China's Hunan
Province, and in corners of three adjacent provinces. Despite its long history,
it seemed that no one outside the area, including much of Hunan Province
itself, had seen it or was even aware of its existence. Immediately recognising
the importance of their discovery, the teacher sought help from professional
linguists who formed a research group where they collected samples and
recordings, and created a dictionary. Nüshu, which had been passed quietly from
woman to woman for uncounted centuries, had now left its rural home with its
secrets exposed, causing ripples of excitement both at home and abroad. Nüshu
has been officially declared a World Heritage item, and listed as one of the
world's most ancient languages and the only exclusively female language ever
Because it was virtually a secret language, we can
find no references to it in old documents or historical works, and no one
outside the area appears to have been familiar with it. Yet that cannot be the
entire story because in Nanjing in 1999 some coins were discovered which bore
inscriptions in the characters of Nüshu, coins which had been minted by the
Taiping government dating from the early to mid 1800s. These were legal coins,
which means Nüshu must have been in some kind of official use during that
period, but to date no documentation has been discovered. (People’s Daily News
international edition dated March 2, 2000).
The End of a Tradition
Nüshu declined in the 1920s in the midst of various
social and political changes, and use of the script was heavily suppressed by
the Japanese during their invasion of China in the 1930s-40s because they
feared it could be used to send secret messages. As well, during the Cultural
Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the language was discouraged as a kind of feudal
leftover in a time when the nation was trying to throw off two centuries of
stagnation and bring itself into a modern world. More social and cultural
changes occurred during the latter part of the 20th century, including the
standardisation of the Mandarin language and simplification of the characters,
resulting in the younger generation adopting Mandarin and abandoning Nüshu
which then fell into disuse as the older women died.
It seems always true that as times change, especially
with major social upheavals, our cultures and traditions evolve and sometimes
dissipate. NüShu fell victim partially to the Cultural Revolution which was
rewriting history for a new China, and simultaneous universal educational
reforms focused on Mandarin and rendered NüShu redundant, so it ceased to be
taught, and gradually disappeared from the culture of the time.
Nüshu in Daily Life
Using their script, the women wrote letters, poetry,
and songs in books and on paper fans, and they often embroidered the script
into cloth for handkerchiefs, scarves, aprons and other handicrafts. Instead of
writing letters, they would often embroider poems and messages onto
handkerchiefs to be delivered as essentially secret messages to their friends
and relatives back home. In addition to poetry and songs, they wrote Nüshu in
their prayers and chants to god, but perhaps the most notable use was in their
letters and vows to each other as sworn sisters.
It was a tradition among the girls of this area to
enter relationships with each other which were called Jiebai Zimei (結拝姉妹) or "sworn sisterhood" which entailed
pledging commitment to female friends who were not biologically related but
committed to a deep friendship. These sworn sisters were generally were much
closer to each other than to their real sisters, and one of the main uses of NüShu
was as a means of recording these lifelong friendships in letters and poetry.
These were serious relationships of emotional
companionship, almost akin to marriage and expected to last for life. The girls
would swear pledges to each other and share fortune and misfortune, a practice
that played a very important role in the invention and dissemination of Nüshu.
Much of the Nüshu writing and embroidery consisted of letters between sworn
sisters, and there is reason to believe that the need for accurate expression
of these emotional bonds was responsible for the creation of the language.
One of the more charming traditions involved books
knows as San Chao Shu, (三朝书,
literally third-day book) which were beautiful hand-made cloth-bound booklets
written in Nüshu and to be given to a daughter or a sworn sister upon her
marriage. In the traditional Chinese marriages of the time, a bride would join
her husband’s family and would have to move, sometimes far away, perhaps rarely
seeing her birth family or her sworn sisters again.
These lovely San Chao Shu were wedding gifts delivered
on the third day after the young woman's marriage, typically expressing fond
hopes for the girl's future happiness as well as describing the sorrows upon
being parted from her. The first several pages were filled with songs and poems
for the young woman leaving the village, while the remaining pages were left
blank to be used as a personal diary. These books were looked upon as great
treasures and were considered very personal, so much so that they were usually
either burned or buried with the woman upon her death - a practice which
explains the dearth of examples of NüShu extant today.
When we examine the NüShu writings available, we
realise we are looking into not only the lives but the hearts of these village
women, reflecting the deepest feelings and emotions in their hearts, a form of
expression that became rooted in the consciousness of the women. These women
created something by and for themselves, a language perfectly tailored to the
needs of women for expression. The script is so feminine and the writing so
descriptive that together they touch the souls of these sworn sisters,
transmitting accurately through their letters, poems and songs their hopes and
tears, their joy and despair.
Nüshu has been described as "A light of
civilisation in history, an especially beautiful scenery in the history of
women, a method to build a rare and valuable, and beautiful, spiritual kingdom
unique to women". Nüshu is a large measure of a rich folk culture, a
product of the great Chinese civilisation, which was formed in a very special
and complex cultural soil. One scholar wrote that now that Nüshu has withdrawn
from the historical stage with the blessing of history, what remains today is
"a rainbow of human civilisation". (Zhao Liming)
It is more than fascinating that Nüshu could ever be
created because, while the purpose of all language is to communicate, Nüshu was
created as a language of emotion and feeling. This is so true that one Hunan
woman, writing a poem in Nüshu, was asked why she didn't write in Mandarin
which would be easier. Her reply was that she couldn't, that it was too
daunting to even think about recording or expressing her feelings in another language
but, using Nüshu, she could do it. Nüshu is not so much a language of the
heart, but of the soul. One woman described her expressions in Nüshu as an
ability to whisper her deepest hidden feelings, to describe not only tears, but
It is well-known that different languages have
different abilities to communicate concepts. There are German words - for
example, schadenfreude - which cannot be translated into a single word in
another language. Sometimes, a paragraph may be needed in one language to
express a single word in another. With most languages, the expression of facts
is easy, but feelings and emotions are more difficult to express verbally or in
writing without resorting to much flowery vocabulary.
The conclusion that seems to fit the circumstances is
that this valley of women in Hunan felt a need to express their emotional
thoughts, feelings, desires, sorrows and hopes, and so created a language
specifically for women which contained the vocabulary to do precisely that. And
they expressed all those delicate and indefinable feelings through the
vocabulary they created for Nüshu. If this assumption is accurate, it is not a
surprise that no man could understand it nor that no man would be invited to understand
it. Nüshu is entirely a language of emotion and feeling; perhaps the first (and
only) time women were able to accurately express the secrets of their heart.
All Nüshu writings are from women to women, whether
letter, song or poem, each an artifact of a unique woman's culture reflecting
and preserving the spiritual feelings of female friends. The language, a unique
artistic wonder, was the basis not only for communication but for cohesion,
creating as one author wrote, "a romantic spiritual kingdom based on the
realistic feelings and sufferings of these women". Simply put, the women
needed a way to express themselves but, lacking the necessary tools in the
common dialects, used their unique knowledge of their own hearts to create a
new language with an appropriate subjective vocabulary to reflect female
emotions. It was this that could create the scaffolding for the sworn sisters
to swear their vows, almost like a secret female sorority. Nüshu is a great
initiative of Chinese women and a contribution to human civilisation.
It is interesting to note that in all the Nüshu
writings discovered, there are no love songs.
Many scholars have collected examples of the Nüshu
script and created dictionaries of some repute, but my feeling is that a cat
cannot be turned into a bird. In the case of Nüshu it is only in a very
specific emotional environment that the true and complex sentiment of a group
of characters can be understood. This cannot be translated into other languages
which have no vocabulary for those sentiments. The words to describe subjective
feelings of resonance with one's sisters, as one of the basic needs of human
spiritual life cannot be found in most dictionaries, especially those created
For its part, the Nüshu script is exclusively
feminine. If there is one striking sign of this language, it is the gender.
Nüshu characters have a soft and flowing, quaint and unique, female beauty.
Considering that this was a means to communicate privately, these lovely small
letters were beautifully designed.
Many scholars, instead of focusing on the material
issues of the language usage and intent, seem to busy themselves with
similarities to Chinese or other characters. However, Chinese is a character
language with each character representing an idea, or a word or part of a word.
Nüshu on the other hand, is phonetic, with the characters (letters)
representing sounds rather than concepts. They are not ideas, but
pronunciations, as in most Western languages. It is primarily for this reason
that I believe dictionaries and translations may be of limited use.
Nüshu characters are a primarily a storehouse of
female culture, not a list of nouns. Nüshu has more than 2,000 characters, some
of which have no spoken counterparts, and which display little mutual
intelligibility with other languages. In addition to all the above, Nüshu has a
full set of rules for layout with pronunciation, style, and a framework of
I stated above that scholars appear to focus entirely
on elements that are almost irrelevancies in the overall picture. To my mind,
there are two factors most important in the study of this language.
First is the female and feminine nature of the
language, the emotional foundation, a language created by and for women
apparently for the purpose of expressing the deepest and almost inexpressible
feelings in their hearts.
The second is perhaps even more astonishing and more
cause for wonder. How did a group of peasant women living in a remote valley in
China's Hunan Province 1,000 years ago, women who were possibly illiterate but
who almost certainly had never attended a school of any sort, manage to create
a full-fledged language with 60,000 words and rules of grammar, and an entirely
new and very beautiful script designed to express those 'inexpressible
feelings'? That task today would be so daunting as to be almost impossible for
even the most accomplished linguists, yet it was done.
Every Silver Lining has a Cloud
When Nüshu was first discovered, many foreign
'scholars' made their way to Hunan and looted the finest and oldest examples of
the Nüshu writing, the San Chao Shu, and the embroidered artifacts, all of
which were of immense historical and cultural significance to China. They are
now gone forever because of this predatory "research".
Additionally, too many foreigners have conducted
research on Nüshu and produced a flood of papers and books which are wrong at
best and fraudulent and insulting at worst. Nüshu has been the basis of several
Western documentaries, all bad, all serving primarily to denigrate China and,
in one way or another, to trash this beautiful historical artifact.
More disappointingly, many foreign so-called scholars
have executed written and film works on Nüshu which are intended to be
offensive, to denigrate yet another beautiful portion of Chinese cultural
heritage. One author dismissed Nüshu as "a language designed for a culture
of lesbians", then claiming the Chinese national government moved to save
the language from extinction only because it envisioned huge potential profits
from cultural tourism.
Other uninformed 'scholars' state women learned this
language because they were forbidden formal education and prohibited from
learning Chinese. Some claim the women "rebelled" against a
"grotesque male-dominated Confucian society", the language emerging
as a result of the conflict. Others view Nüshu through a feminist lens, forming
imaginary Western parallels with "empowering women" by
"strengthening their collective ego consciousness". Some claim men
disregarded the Nüshu language "in feudal China" since women were
considered inferior, denied educational opportunities and condemned to social
isolation with bound feet. And so on. Of all those I have seen, none exhibit
any understanding of the cultural or social context, and none even recognise,
much less appreciate, the primordial underlying elements.
I am therefore by design providing no Western links
for any part of this article. I would strongly advise readers interested in
Nüshu to avoid any website that is not physically in China and created by
authoritative Chinese sources. There are dozens of foreign Nüshu websites purporting
to be Chinese but which are primarily US-based and which have little or no
accurate or factual information to provide.
Mr. Romanoff’s writing has been translated into 30 languages and his
articles posted on more than 150 foreign-language news and politics websites in
more than 30 countries, as well as more than 100 English language platforms.
Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held
senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an
international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at
Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs
to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing
a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He is one of the
contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new anthology ‘When China