The Forgotten Language That Only Women Once Knew

The Forgotten Language That Only Women Once Knew

Why you should care

Because one language dies every 14 days.

On a cold and gloomy day in rural Hunan Province, Cathy Silber and Yi Nianhua huddled over a tiny table in a cramped kitchen, like revolutionaries planning a secret ambush. Silber’s flashlight shone over frayed pages as a smoky fire blazed in the corner. Yi, a withering widow, was one of the last few people still fluent in Nüshu (女书), an ancient Chinese script known only to women and hidden from men’s prying eyes. Together, in 1988, they poured through Yi’s writings to the world, letter by letter and line by line — and did so quickly, before the language vanished into thin air.

Ever had the sneaking suspicion that women speak in different tongues? If you were a Hunanese peasant woman in 20-century China, there was a kernel of truth to the old joke. Inside a hilly, remote village of Jiangyong County, unschooled women and girls developed a mysterious system of writing called Nüshu to express their innermost thoughts and passed around favorite songs, prayers, traditional tales, birthday letters and wedding congratulations to each other in coded script.

Men weren’t clamoring to be let in on the secret, just as they were not storming the lofts demanding to learn embroidery.

Cathy Silber, Chinese language and literature professor, Skidmore College

Generations passed along a treasure trove of female-fueled songs, ballads, complaints, poems, musings and stories inscribed on paper, handkerchiefs, aprons, quilts, fans and other handicrafts — from mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter and aunt to niece. The communications were hidden in plain sight from the men, who largely disregarded Nüshu — which means “women’s writing” in Chinese — as frivolous, not bothering to learn a word. “Men weren’t clamoring to be let in on the secret, just as they were not storming the lofts demanding to learn embroidery,” says Silber, a Chinese language and literature professor at Skidmore College.

secret language

A Nüshu manuscript reveals the elegant style of the hidden language.

Source Courtesy of Cathy Silber

A certain romanticism now surrounds the history of Nüshu. Similar female scripts arose in Japan and Korea too, but only Nüshu bore a certain mystique. When women died, they had their favorite works burned or buried with them. So we don’t know exactly when Nüshu began, but we know that women were using the script around 200 years ago, when girls weren’t expected to go to school and long before they received any formal education. Nüshu helped fill that void, with some 1,000 characters, each representing a spoken syllable. Written in columns from right to left, it was inked thinly with elegant wisps and threadlike strokes, far different from the stocky, squat block characters of Mandarin.

Started as a simple way to communicate, Nüshu became a log of a woman’s private torment and misery. Women would often weep while writing the script, expressing fears about arranged marriages, the anguish of leaving one’s family and all of life’s misfortunes. Nüshu was meant to be written in verse and sung or chanted aloud; that deep sorrow was meant to be heard, says anthropology research fellow Fei-wen Liu at Academia Sinica in Taiwan. “The core of Nüshu are feelings of misery and bitter experiences,” she says. It provided a rare window into the everyday misgivings of rural daughters, wives and mothers as they transmitted life lessons on how to survive in a society that was harsh to women, giving new meaning to the phrase “girl squad,” says Liu. “Nüshu was about sisterhood,” and they called themselves “sworn sisters,” using Nüshu as “a way to bind them together,” she explains. And after putting pen to paper, “they felt liberated, in one way or another.”

Eventually, Nüshu fell victim to the 1920s push for a more unified China tied together by one dominant language and one culture, despite China’s great diversity. Nüshu was condemned as “the witch’s script” and “evil characters,” thought to be a vehicle of espionage and lesbianism by the government, according to scholars. These days, you can count the number of fluent Nüshu writers on one hand, says Harvard University Chinese literature professor Wilt Idema: Unlike Mandarin, “the advantages of knowing the women’s script are limited today, and what is available for reading in women’s script is also very limited.” So, over the years, Nüshu writings have dwindled.

Even today, “there’s still this longtime tension in China between homogenizing languages and preserving local culture,” says Silber. The same debacle is playing out all around the world, with languages dying at a fast clip. According to UNESCO, a language dies every 14 days, and half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of this century. Eurasian and Incan tongues like Tuvan and Quechua seem no match for the mightier languages of Mandarin and English.

Nüshu may face that fate sooner than others. Although China has made a concerted effort to revive Nüshu as a UNESCO-stamped intangible cultural heritage and set up a museum with pricey Nüshu-inscribed books, historians like Silber say their attempts could do more harm than good. Injecting tourism dollars doesn’t always help preserve culture, and some native Nüshu users may prefer that the ancient script — which conveyed the most intimate of despairs — stay to themselves. In 1991, Yi, the old widow, died at age 85, taking centuries of Nüshu knowledge to the grave.

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