Posted by: Khepera | Sunday, 26 April 2009

Nu Shu: China’s Women-Only Language

As a contextual note, this is one I’m pulling from the archives of my blog in one of it’s earlier incarnations.  This info is not so easy to find, but I was able to track down some more up to date references, which are listed at the bottom. This article on language addresses what, IMHO, are crucial elements of an ongoing cultural struggle happening in many places across the planet. One of the often overlooked calamities of *globalization* is the resulting cultural sterilization — or monotyping, if you will allow me to coin a term — in the image of the western social paradigm.  As a result, many cultural aesthetics which are nonaligned with the western modality are discarded, left behind forced into obsolescence.  To see this for yourself, check what languages are readily available for computer translation, or computer-based education.

Few cultural paradigms — and modes of cultural sustenance — are as crucial as language.  It is through language that the cultural context is stored and reified.  This importance has given rise to the field of sociolinguistics. It is said that when an elder dies, particularly in a traditional/indigenous culture, a library is lost. When traditional/indigenous languages are lost, it is a much more wholesale cultural catastrophe. The loss is particularly acute in this instance due to the gender-driven basis of this obscure Chinese language. It’s challenging enough for a man to attempt to discern what a woman is expressing when they are using the same language.  Here is a language whose structure, context, grammar, etc., were tailored to the feminine perspective from the beginning. Clearly, there is a great deal all of us could learn from an examination of its nuances.


Yao woman, Hunan province

Yao woman, Hunan province

Women-Only Language Reemerges

By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

March 29, 2004 — In late April, Chinese archivists will unveil a rare collection of items featuring Nushu, a mysterious ancient language created by, and exclusively for, women.

The exhibition, to be held at the provincial archive of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China, appears to be part of a growing effort within China to both recognize and preserve Nushu, which many scholars feared was on the verge of extinction.

Nushu, meaning women’s script, was held so securely by its speakers and writers that women used to burn manuscripts to keep them away from men, or they would bury items containing Nushu with female friends upon their deaths.

The language’s origins are unclear, but most scholars believe Nushu emerged in the third century during a time when the Chinese government prohibited education of women. Practices such as arranged marriages and foot binding also prevented many women from travelling far beyond their homelands.

Orie Endo, professor of sociolinguistics and Japanese teaching methodology at Bunkyo University, has been called the world’s foremost expert on Nushu. At an Association of Asian Studies Annual Conference, she theorized that Nushu arose out of a custom called Jiebai Zimei, or “sworn sisterhood,” in the counties of Daoxian, Jianghua, Jiangyong, and Yongjiang.

For the pact, women would pledge commitment to female friends who were not blood relations, Endo said.

“These ‘sworn sisters’ would go to festivals at the village shrine together, do Nuhong (textile arts and crafts) together, and generally were much closer to each other than they were to their real sisters,” explained Endo.

She said that although village life was, in many ways, idyllic, due to the regions’ relatively warm climate and fertile soil, “the hell of married life awaited.”

According to Endo, young brides were forced into the homes of men they had never met before, and were bullied by their mother-in-laws to work and produce children, who often died at young ages.

“(The women) would compose songs expressing their sorrow,” Endo said. “However, once separated (from other women), they could not, of course, sing together, nor could their voices travel the distances between villages. It can be hypothesized that the origin of (Nushu) can be found in the fervent desire to somehow express their feelings to each other, to find a way in which to communicate.”

Nushu somewhat resembles Hanzi, a more common Chinese script, but Nushu has a more fluid, rhombic style, which Endo thinks could have been inspired from embroidery designs. Many of the objects in the upcoming exhibit reflect this idea, as they include aprons, handbags, handkerchiefs and scarves embroidered with Nushu characters.

“We have collected 303 pieces of heritage bearing the rare language during five trips to Yongjiang county, birthplace of the female language, over the past year,” Liu Gening, one of the upcoming exhibit’s archivists, told the Chinese news service Xinhuanet. “The oldest of them dates back to the late Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s, and the most recent pieces were from the 1960s or 1970s.”

Liu added that Nushu still is in use, but only by very few elderly women in remote rural areas.

Endo and several other Asian linguists hope to keep the language alive through books, education, and further efforts at preserving what is believed to be the world’s only female-specific language.

For more info:

Scholars try to save unique Chinese script

Race to Save World’s Only Women’s Language

Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China – A film by Yue-Qing Yang



  1. […] An Artist’s Bazaar put an intriguing blog post on Nu Shu: China’s Women-Only LanguageHere’s a quick excerptAs a contextual note, this is one I’m pulling from the archives of my blog in one of it’… […]

  2. This is analogous to the jazz language created by the indigenous black musicians of America to express themselves and communicate among themselves in an oppressive social environment. It has been passed from master to apprentice not along gender lines and sometimes not strictly along racial lines, but it is also a disappearing language under the aegis of its superficial codification in classrooms over the past 50 years.

  3. Hi, interesting post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for sharing. I will definitely be coming back to your posts.

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