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D-Stories | Culture

The secret ancient writing of Chinese women to prevent men from understanding

It is called Nüshu and dates back to more than two thousand years ago: today it has been rediscovered and is taught at a university level.

Nüshu writing was invented at the end of the third century BC in the remote county of Jiangyong in the Hunan region, South East China, to allow the communication among women. Nüshu is a secret writing system used only by women to prevent men from understanding them. It was created to defy the rules of imperial China’s patriarchal and male chauvinist society, where women could not receive any formal education.

This piece of Chinese culture has recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity: Nüshu is taught at the University Tsinghua of Beijing and also on the popular app WeChat; last summer it arrived in Italy with an exhibition in Venice.

The discovery of the first Nüshu writing has been «one of the most fascinating findings in the field of popular Chinese culture» Anne E. McLaren declared, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Melbourne (Australia) and author of a critical study on the subject.

The credit for the revival of Nüshu belongs to Zhou Shuoyi, who re-discovered it in the Fifties because his aunt was married to a man who came from a village where women still spoke Nüshu. Therefore, Zhou started to study the language with the aid of the last woman who could read and write in Nüshu, Yang Huan-yi: he published the first Nüshu dictionary in 2003, a year before both he and Yang died.

We weave thousands of motives, young boys read thousands of books

According to the historians who later studied the subject, the script was particularly thriving at the end of the nineteenth century, but they believe it is much more ancient, dating back to the Shang dynasty, that is more than three thousand years ago.

Nüshu writing was not different from the language spoken daily by women; it was just another way of writing it, unknown to men, which allowed women to have a greater freedom of expression. The script was not erudite, since it was used by illiterate women from the lower classes. The inscriptions often incorporate traditional poems that were sung while women were weaving – «We weave thousands of motives, young boys read thousands of books», a Nüshu line recites.

The graphic symbols of Nüshu are more elongated than the Chinese characters, and they are sung, not read: a syllable or a sound corresponds to every sign, which, therefore, does not have a semantic meaning – whereas the Chinese symbols are meaningful and can also represent a concept.

According to historians, sisters and female friends handed down the writing by copying its characters, but they were often not aware of the implications of their use of Nüshu. As professor Zhao Liming, who teaches Nüshu at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said, we are not dealing with a mere script, but with an all-female culture «that allows women to talk with their own voice and to fight against male chauvinism».

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