History of China #1: 女书 (NüShu) ‘Women’s writing/script’

Today’s post is a bit of a history lesson, the first in a series of posts related to Chinese History, something I am quite passionate about!

In the first post of the series, I will be discussing 女书 (NüShu) which translates to ‘Women’s writing/script’. 女书 was developed and used by women in the Jiangyong County of Hunan Province and considered to be the only known script developed and used by women EXCLUSIVELY. It has its own grammar, writing system, and speaking. It is based on 汉字 (standard Chinese) however 女书 is phonetic/syllabic and some characters were based on embroidery stitches and some origins are just unknown.

It’s not entirely known when 女书 developed but it’s believed to have come from the 19th century, during the Ming or Qing Dynasty as there have been some artifacts from then. It was mainly passed from mother to daughter and used by 老同s (which 老同 (laotong) culture is sooooo interesting, I’ll talk about that on another day!). The script was found in various handcrafts by women like calligraphy or embroidery. Small books written using 女书 were often given to a girl from her friends and other women in her community when she was getting married. It was a way of lamenting their loss of a friend/daughter, wishes for her, encouragement, poems, etc. with some pages left blank for her to add her writing, as a diary.

女书 was a way for the women of this small county to break free from the patriarchy in their own way, during a time when women were not allowed to receive formal education, they were confined to their home and lived in the shadow of what their husband wanted. When women gathered together, they would often sing the words of 女书 writings. Men were never taught 女书, nor was it widely taught in China, just this small county. Through 女书, women could openly express their thoughts.

During the Cultural Revolution 女书 was heavily attacked with attempts to get rid of it and users of it were persecuted. There are stories of the users of 女书 being sent to reeducation camps and 女书 works being destroyed.

The last proficient user of 女书 died in September of 2004. While there are a few people who know it today, descendants of those who were of the original users and lived in the original small county. There is also a museum to 女书 in Jiangyong County that offers classes to learn more about 女书. One thought that has been shared is that for today’s generation, 女书 is only a cultural/heritage interest that is not useful for learning or useful and unwanted because of gender equality, so no need for exclusive languages or writing systems based on gender.

What are your thoughts?

By Jia's ZhongWen Shop

Just a girl with a passion for Chinese language and culture~ On a journey to learn more and share my experiences with others!

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