女书 Nüshu – A Fascinating Tale of Chinese Language and Culture
No one knows exactly when or how Nüshu (女书) was created.
Was the reason for its emergence a society deeply segregated by sex? Or was it – as local legends claim – first written by an imperial concubine in the 11th century?
Whilst no one has the exact answers, experts nevertheless agree that it is an extremely interesting script worthy of our attention.
Let’s find out why!
女书 Nüshu || An Introduction
女书 Nüshu || Similar to Modern Chinese?
女书 Nüshu || How Was it Used？
女书 Nüshu || FAQs
女书 Nüshu || An Introduction
It is believed the women of Jiangyong County in Hunan province invented a secret script in the 19th century called Nüshu – literally meaning “woman’s writing”.
Some believe the script dates back to the Song Dynasty, around 1,000 years ago. Others believe it originated Shang Dynasty, more than 3,000 years ago.
It is the only script in the world which is specific to women, meaning that no man could read or write it.
For many centuries, women did not have access to formal education and so they developed the Nüshu script to communicate with one another.
The script was embroidered into cloth and written in books, letter and on paper fans.
This language was passed from mothers to daughters through time. It allowed them to forge and maintain friendships throughout their communities and endure considerable hardships at home.
Although experts first believed that Nüshu was a secret language only used by women to communicate, the most recent findings show that men actually probably knew about it and could even understand it if they heard it being spoken.
But they usually weren’t that interested in a script only women used.
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女书 Nüshu Script – Similar to Chinese of Today?
The script was even called ‘mosquito writing’ because of its elongated characters.
Unlike Modern Chinese, Nüshu is a syllabic script containing approximately between 600 and 700 characters.
Many Nüshu characters are based on Chinese characters, but some are modelled on embroidery stitches and designs.
Women would usually use a bamboo stylus to write on paper, cloth, and fans.
Although it is mostly modelled on Chinese, the differences are sufficient enough to make the script unintelligible to anyone not familiar with Nüshu. The script’s characters are also thinner and more elongated than those of the Chinese language and are written from top to bottom.
Since the writing wasn’t standardized, every writer often had her own distinctive style and wording. There are approximately 500 known texts written in Nüshu.
女书 Nüshu – How is it Used?
The script was used for writing various texts, from poems to autobiographical narratives.
It was very often used to write down the so-called “third-day missives” or San Chao Shu (三朝書) booklets. These booklets were usually created by mothers for their daughters before the daughter’s marriage.
Nüshu was used in many ways and often for documenting various phases of women’s lives – women would write letters to each other, as well as poetry, prayers, even lengthy biographies.
This is one of the reasons it is so valuable to researchers – often melancholic in tone, this script provides an insight into the daily lives and the culture of women and girls of that time.
Although women from higher classes had some access to education, it was very rare to find such texts from peasant women.
Want to learn more about Chinese history? Check out our Beginner Guide to Chinese Dynasties here!
It is exciting to study a script which was used to write down women’s narratives in a deeply patriarchal society, one in which women had to follow “the three obediences” – to their fathers, their husbands and their sons.
Bearing that in mind, the following translated verses originally written in Nüshu are especially powerful:
Holding my brush to write this letter, two streams of tears flow.
Of the thousand hardships I’ve suffered, nobody knows.
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What are your thoughts on 女书 Nüshu? Let us know in the comments!
Nüshu || FAQs
What is 女书 Nüshu?
Nüshu literally means “woman’s writing” and is a secret script created by women in China to communicate between themselves. It would often be embroidered in cloth or written on paper or fans.
How many 女书 Nüshu characters are there?
It is believed that there are between 600-700 女书 Nüshu characters.
Who invented 女书 Nüshu?
Whilst no one knows for certain, it is believed that peasant women in Jianyong County in Henan created the script.
When was 女书 Nüshu created?
This is disputed among experts. While the script rose to prominence in the 19th century, some believe it dates back to the Song Dynasty about 1,000 years ago or even the Shang Dynasty, more than 3,000 years ago!
Is 女书 Nüshu still being used today?
Whilst the final ‘native speaker’ of Nüshu unfortunately passed away in the early 2000s, there has been a push to revive Nüshu in some Chinese communities.
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