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A Women’s Writing System

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1 A Women’s Writing System
Nü Shu A Women’s Writing System By Kristen Skipper

2 What is Nü Shu ? Where did Nü Shu occur? Why did Nü Shu occur? Sworn Sisterhoods and Old Sames Nü Shu Language Structure Nü Shu Themes Preserving Nü Shu

3 Nü Shu is: Women's Script, as it is known to its practitioners
Used by peasant women in remote villages in Jiang Yong county, Hunan province in China A phonetic script quite distinct from Chinese character script A written version of the local spoken dialect Nüshu is a syllabic script created and used exclusively by women in Jiang Yong Prefecture, Hunan Province, China. The women were forbidden formal education for many centuries and developed the Nüshu script in order to communicate with one another. They embroidered the script into cloth and wrote it in books and on paper fans. Nü Shu has been known as a writing system, but it’s more than just putting pen to paper. The definition of a fluent Nü Shu user has four parts: singing, writing, embroidery and the sworn sisterhood. Photo - Xinhua News Agency

4 Source of Nü Shu Hunan Province 湖南省 Jiang Yong Prefecture 江永県
In 1999, the Sunday Times of London announced that a “secret language” used only by women had been “discovered” in southern China. The story was prompted by the premiere of Yue-Qing Yang’s documentary film, Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China. The journalist got it wrong, however, since nu shu is a writing system, not a language, and its existence had been known and documented by Chinese scholars for at least half a century. Touted as a “women’s secret language”, its discovery holds fascination for many. Nü Shu was first developed in PuMei Village, a town of less than 20,000 people, in JiangYong county (Hunan Province). The script is also used in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

5 Why Did Nü Shu Develop? Narrowness of a woman’s life
Strength of sworn sisterhoods Foot binding Need for self-expression Lack of male objection Until well into the last century, a Chinese woman's life was measured by "three followings" - her father before marriage, her husband after, and her son when he became head of the household. Footbinding, sexual segregation, and arranged marriages all shaped the world of women in Jiangyong County. Women were forbidden formal education for many centuries and developed the Nüshu script in order to communicate with one another. They embroidered the script into cloth and wrote it in books and on paper fans. Nü Shu women lived in sexually-segregated households. They bound their feet and did not work in the fields but spent their days in weaving, sewing, cooking and domestic duties. Foot binding kept women even more inactive, often restricting them to a single room upstairs for most of their youth. Started as young as five. Broke the bones in the feet and reduced the foot length to only three inches. Why here and no where else? the isolation of the region, the strong bonds of sisterhood, possible Yao influence and so on. the indifference of men towards these activities the lack of any attempt to suppress Nü Shu an important factor. Men knew about the script and some read it in the past, but that it was commonly ignored as unworthy of male effort or attention. They belittled Nushu by calling it “ant graphs” or “mosquito graphs”

6 NüShu, Sworn Sisterhood,
and Old Sames Sworn sisterhoods: Seven girls sworn after foot binding (around 10 years old) Remained united until the first girl married then sisterhood was dissolved Old Sames: Two girls with seven matching characteristics Life-long bond Nü Shu was not used by all women in the Jiang Yong areas. It is used chiefly by a group of non-kin sisters; girls could swear oaths of sisterhood from the age of ten. They did women’s work with other non-kin sisters (weaving, sewing and embroidery), celebrated special seasons and festivals together and bade farewell to their sisters on their marriage. Lao tong were preferably born in the same year, month and date, similar socio-economic background, same age and gender distribution of older and younger siblings, and same birth order. Ideally the two girls had the same height and shoe size, and were equally pretty. Sometimes children who were affianced in utero, then both turned out to be girls were made lao-tong. The invitation or request to become lao-tong would be written on a fan by one girl then handled by an intermediary matchmaker to give to the other girl. The exchange of fans, along with other gifts like shoes, candy or tobacco, took place in the fifth or sixth lunar month, after agreement to the match was reached by word of mouth. When the match was sent, the girls would arrange to meet. Shared customs between Han Chinese and minority groups in this region include: age-mate relationships (sworn sisterhoods and brotherhoods) boys' and girls' houses a rich oral and festival culture reflecting the strength of age-mate networks. Kristen Skipper collection

7 Houses in Jiang Yong had two storeys
Houses in Jiang Yong had two storeys. The top floor was devoted to women's work. This top room (referred to often in Women's Script material) has a lattice window facing the street. In Han Chinese culture generally women were confined to the 'side chambers' of the house, which in affluent households would be entirely enclosed by a wall. The Jiang Yong arrangement allowed for a greater sense of intimacy with the community as a whole and provided a focal point for women's work and oral performance. It was also the place where bonds of sisterhood were forged and celebrated. Photo by Orie Endo The design of the houses in Jiang Yong (unlike Han houses) encouraged women to gather and socialize.

8 Historical Origins of Nu Shu
Main Theories: Predates the oracle-bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (16th -11th century bc). Official writing of the Yi (ancient name for tribes in the east of China) Remnant of a 4,000-year-old language stamped out elsewhere by the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang. A concubine of an emperor of the Song dynasty ( ), who embroidered the secret script on handkerchiefs to write to sisters and friends outside the court. Recent researchers consider NüShu a result of a hybrid Yao-Han culture. Photo by Orie Endo Because of the lack of evidence, there is little agreement among investigators as to when and why nu¨shu was generated. nu¨shu as a residue of an ancient script as old as jiaguwen (bone and tortoiseshell inscriptions), created at least 1,000 years before the unification of the Chinese writing system in 221 B.C.E. In contrast, Chen Qiguang and Zhao Liming maintain that the nu¨shu script was derived from Chinese kaishu calligraphy, making it no more than 1,000 years old. And Gong argues that nu¨shu was not invented until the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). However ancient the script, it has obviously been heavily influenced by the Han Chinese script Recent researchers consider NüShu a result of a hybrid Yao-Han culture.

9 National Consciousness
Nü Shu’s Emergence in National Consciousness Surfaced during the 1960’s Cultural Revolution buried it Chinese Intellectual interest revived in the 1980’s Chinese Government support for the past decade One day in the 1960s, an old woman fainted in a rural Chinese train station. When police searched her belongings in an effort to identify her, they came across papers with what looked to be a secret code written on them. This being the height of the Cultural Revolution, the woman was arrested and detained on suspicion of being a spy. The scholars who came to decipher the code realized almost at once that this was not something related to international intrigue. Rather, it was a written language used solely by women and it had been kept a “secret” from men for a thousand years. Those scholars were promptly sent to labor camp. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, memories of and interest in Nu Shu resurfaced. Miss Tian 1921 – Kristen Skipper collection

10 Nü Shu Structure Nü Shu has between 1,800 and 2,500 characters, each representing a syllable of the local dialect. Written top to bottom, right to left One character per sound – the character for father “fu” is the same as the character for woman “fu”. The character wang (king) also represents other “wang”-sounding words such as “garden” or “whole”. The writing system contains around 700 core graphs, and individual graphs might be composed of one to twenty strokes combined with dots, curves or small chevrons. Borrowing the entire character then writing it on a slant and sometimes reversed (approx. 100 characters) Modifying the orthography, but original character is still discernable. (approx. 100 characters) Modifying characters but still retain recognizable traces of Chinese characters (approx. 200 characters) Characters created borrowing elements from Chinese characters to serve as phonetic symbols. The first three make up 50% of nushu, with the fourth category making up the remainder. Photo by Orie Endo

11 Nü Shu Structure Phonetic rather than logographic
Nü Shu is linguistically significant for its simplification of the Chinese writing system about seven hundred commonly used graphs representing the sounds of Jiangyong dialect (also known as Xiangnan tuhua). The heavy use of phonetic loan characters in Nü Shu makes it very different from Chinese, developing instead into a phonetic system of writing. Represents perhaps the most thorough simplification of Chinese characters ever attempted. Photo by Orie Endo

12 The passage roughly translates as "They taught her to apply makeup and comb her hair; on her head she was wearing pearls that are shining magnificently; she is sitting like Guanyin (a Buddhist goddess) out of a Buddhist shrine". There are obvious similarities between Nü Shu and Mandarin characters.

13 Nü Shu Content Most works use rhyming, seven-syllable lines
Expressions of independence and frustration with men Sorrow at the loneliness of married life Stories in which female characters had active roles and won victories through piety and fortitude. A considerable part of nüshu writings were recorded as part of actual performance by women at women's festivals guniang jie, chuiliang jie and winter rest periods, or on the eve of a bride's marriage. One Nü Shu tale describes a wife in an arranged marriage who runs away on her wedding night after discovering how ugly her husband is. Another tells of a woman who is so impatient that she marches off to her fiance's home demanding to know why he has not yet married her. The final words of advice from her sworn sisters were usually: "Be a good wife, do lots of embroidery and try your best to tolerate your husband's family.“

14 Nü Shu Content San Chao Shu were decorated in ink or paper cutouts
Both sides of the first three pages would be filled with songs written for the bride leaving the village The rest were left blank for the bride to write on. Both sides of the first three pages would be filled with songs written for the young women who left the village, while the rest was left blank. San Chao Shu were considered personal treasures and those who received them would store their embroidery patterns and threads between the unused pages. Wedding 1922 – Kristen Skipper collection

15 San Chao Shu 三朝書 Third Day Book
Photo by Orie Endo "Now we sit together because our feelings are disturbed by the imminent marriage of one of our sworn sisters and we must write the third-day book. We cherish the days when we are together and hate losing one of our sisters. After she gets married it will be difficult to meet her so we worry that she will be lonely. For a woman, marriage means losing everything, including her family and her sworn sisters." Outside and inside of a  three-day missive To help ease the sting of the separation, the bride’s mother and sworn sisters made a cloth bound book, known as a "Third Day Book“ which contained messages for the bride in Nü Shu language. a wedding keepsake for the new bride, a cloth-bound booklet, decorated with colored ink and paper cutouts, containing songs and lyrics in NüShu. There are usually empty pages for the bride’s personal embroidery patterns and threads. San Chao Shu is a joint composition to the bride by all the women in her natal family - her kin or non-kin sisters and her mother. It is to be sung aloud among women of the bride’s marital home and village, and is delivered to the young married woman on the third day of her marriage; if not, the woman would have no respect from her husband and his family because she is seen as deserted by her birth family. In the extant San Chao Shu, the contents are highly conventionalized, primarily because it is meant to be performed orally

16 Nü Shu Study and Preservation
Just over 300 pieces of authentic Nü Shu have been uncovered Bronze coin from the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom ( ), with a Nü Shu inscription on the back that reads “All women on earth are one family.” Authentic NüShu texts are rare because according to the local custom, they were supposed to be burned or buried with the dead. Experts in China have collected just over 300 pieces—handkerchiefs, aprons, scarves and handbags embroidered with NüShu writing, and manuscripts written on paper or fans. The earliest NüShu object found so far, according to Zhao LiMing, is a bronze coin from the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom ( ), with a NüShu inscription on the back that reads “All women on earth are one family.”

17 Yang Huanyi was the oldest living Nü Shu writer when she died in 2004 at age ninety-six.
Photo by Orie Endo

18 Tombstones for Ms. Gao Yin-xian ( ), one on the left is written in Nü Shu , one on the right is written in Hanzi (Pu Wei village) Although some authors claim that women’s Nu Shu items were burned upon their death to keep the text a secret, the reality is that at Chinese funerals personal items were burned for the departed to use in the afterlife. Photo by Orie Endo

19 Nü Shu - Fact and Fiction
Nü Shu us the only women-only language in the world. Similar female scripts have arisen in other cultures such as Japan and Korea. Nü Shu women were only rarely literate in Chinese script. The structure of Nü Shu characters indicates that its origins were Chinese-character based. Nü Shu is a “secret, forbidden language” Men knew about Nü Shu , but found it beneath their notice. Nü Shu was “rediscovered” in the 1980’s Nü Shu was used continuously since its creation, albeit by an extremely small group.

20 Pu Mei - Nü Shu Culture Village
You can witness Hunan Province’s Nü Shu cultural preservation efforts by visiting Pu Mei. In 2004, the Chinese Government built this school and museum in Pumei. Here village girls and women are taught Nü Shu and produce modern handicraft decorated with the ancient writing system. Why should we care about Nü Shu ? Nü Shu writings are an example of something belonging solely to the women of one specific locality. This makes the material of unique relevance to an audience interested in investigating non-elite women in traditional China. Academics have compiled a Nu shu dictionary, a school has been opened to teach the language and the Ford Foundation is donating $209,000 to build a museum to preserve the remaining third-day books and embroidery. A Hong Kong company has invested several million yuan for the construction of roads, hotels and parks — all aimed at exploiting Nushu's growing fame. "It is one of our main selling points," says Zheng Shiqiu, head of the ethnic minority division of the local government. "Nushu is the only women's script in the world that is still alive." Photos Copyright Orie Endo

21 Bibliography How a Secret-But-Not-So-Secret Code Let Women in China Share Hardships Voice of America's Program about the English Language 16 August 2005 World of Nu Shu by Orie Endo Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign News and Reviews vol. 4, no. 3 Spring 2001 Women’s Conceptions of Widowhood in Jiang Yong County, Hunan Province, China by Fei Wen Liu Journal of Asian Studies 60 No. 4, Nov. 2001 The re-invention of a Chinese Language By Jon Watts Crossing Gender Boundaries in China: Nüshu Narratives by Anne E. McLaren Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context Issue 1, September 1998 Heroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women's Script Translated by Wilt L. Idema Seattle: University of Washington Press. Reviewed by Katherine Dimmery, Indiana University

22 Bibliography Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the State
by Christina Gilmartin, Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel, Tyrene White Female-Specific Language to be Revealed March 15, 2004 CCTV - A Room of One’s Own: Woman’s Script Article - A Language by Women, for Women Hu Mei Yue Teaches Nu Shu in Pumei Village in South Central China by Edward Coty, The Washington Post Feb. 24, 2004 Visual Sourcebook on Chinese Civilization Holding Up Half the Sky By Jie Tao, Bijun Zheng, Shirley L. Mow April 1, 2004 Article - The Women’s Script of Jiangyong: An Invention of Chinese Women by Zhao Liming

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