WildChina > WildChina Book Club > Nüshu: China’s Mystery Language

By Laurence Coulton  

The remote hills and villages of southern China hold many secrets. One, in particular, has captured the imagination of the world since it was discovered by outsiders in the second half of the twentieth century. It has inspired books and movies, concerts and clothing lines, even an American new-age wellness community. 

Nüshu means ‘women’s writing’ in Chinese and is the only exclusively female writing system discovered anywhere in the world, passed from generation to generation by the women of Jiangyong County, a secluded, mountainous region in the south of Hunan province. The script once served as a phonetic alphabet for the local dialect – spoken aloud, nüshu was fully comprehensible to any resident of the region – but when written down it became unintelligible to men.  


A patriarchal society

Yet it was the male dominance of China’s pre-imperial society that created the conditions for this unusual language to grow. Historically, only boys learned to read and write in China, a culture where foot-binding exemplified the subordinate role of women in daily life. Young peasant girls in Jiangyong, who likely also underwent this painful modification of their bodies, were taught to write nüshu by older female relatives.  

Without access to education, this means of transcribing thoughts and ideas became an important mode of female expression and communication in a society where patriarchal Confucian values dictated all aspects of everyday life.  

For centuries, the use of nüshu was heavily tied up with tradition and ritual. Vows of friendship would bind Jiangyong girls in sworn sisterhoods, after which they would be taught to write these enigmatic symbols by their mothers and aunts. Nüshu characters would then be used to adorn gifts to each other such as fans and embroidered clothes, tokens of companionship within these sacred sororities. One of the most ritualized uses of nüshu were sanzhaoshu, cloth-bound booklets filled with phrases of affection and good luck, given to a bride three days after her wedding. 

Once married, nüshu took on a greater role in the lives of these girls. After marriage, women moved to their husband’s village, sometimes far away from their own, where they became subject to the authority of their spouse. Powerless, isolated and with no other form of writing, nüshu became a valuable means of communication with family and friends back home. Letters of this kind make up a large percentage of existing nüshu literature, but so too do poems and songs, rare first-hand accounts of the female experience in pre-modern China. 

‘Mosquito writing’

Discover the secret language that was created and spoken by women only in 19th -century China.
Nüshu script

At first glance nüshu resembles italicized Chinese characters, but on closer inspection the script is undecipherable to readers of Mandarin. Some ideograms appear reversed, others mirrored or simplified. All are skewed to fit a rhomboid shape where their Chinese counterparts are square.  

Slender, spidery strokes further set nüshu apart from the more robust structure of standard Chinese. Nüshu, after all, was the name given by those who ‘discovered’ it. Locally, it is known as ‘mosquito writing.’ Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a historical novel in which the language plays a crucial role, compares nüshu’s delicate form to the footprints of a bird. 

While the exact provenance of nüshu is unknown, the characters themselves hold clues that hint at the date of its origins. The presence of certain Chinese characters in the nüshu lexicon suggests it was developed after a countrywide simplification of standard Chinese that took place during the Song dynasty. 

The language reached its peak in the 1800s during the late Qing dynasty, after which the turbulence of China’s twentieth-century history took its toll. Nüshu was suppressed under the Japanese occupation, and edged closer to oblivion after communist liberation in 1949, when nationwide literacy campaigns saw women and girls learn to read standard Chinese for the first time.  

During the Cultural Revolution, when historic practices were viewed with suspicion, what remained of the language fell further into decline, until it became the focus of widespread academic interest in the mid-1980s. 

Since then nüshu has become well-known throughout China and beyond, both as a historical curiosity and a symbol of hope for women in a society striving for equality. The government, keen to safeguard its cultural heritage, has encouraged its preservation in Jiangyong and beyond.  

A powerful symbol

Ironically, nüshu is more prevalent and well-known than ever despite the last native user, Yang Huanyi, passing away in 2004 at the age of 98. Signs in modern-day Jiangyong bear nüshu characters alongside the Chinese. A museum in nearby Puwei, promotes, teaches and preserves this unique culture to an ever-increasing number of domestic and international tourists. Younger Jiangyong women and girls, riding this new wave of popularity, are beginning to learn nüshu again for the first time in nearly a hundred years. 

Today, this once mysterious female-only language is many things to many people. A symbol of female empowerment. A marvel of China’s linguistic heritage. A brand which can used, sometimes frivolously, to promote a product or place. But before it was any of these things, nüshu was a vital medium of personal expression for thousands of otherwise voiceless women in rural Hunan.  

Prior to her death, Yang Huanyi explained to the Los Angeles Times what the language meant to her: “When I learned nüshu, it was meant to exchange our thoughts and letters with friends and sisters. We wrote what was in our hearts and our true feelings.” 

Learn more about nüshu with us this week

Join us this week as we chat with Lisa See about her New York Times-bestselling novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a tale of 19th-century Chinese women, foot binding and a secret language called nüshu. As with so many of Lisa See’s novels, history meets fiction to open a captivating window into China’s past and an immersive tale of female companionship that has us gripped in its emotional orbit.

Images courtesy of Lisa See

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