Discover Nüshu, a 19th-Century Chinese Writing System That Only Women Knew How to Write

Lit­er­a­cy in Chi­nese may now be wide­ly attained, but it isn’t eas­i­ly attained. Just a cen­tu­ry ago it was­n’t wide­ly attained either, at least not by half of the Chi­nese speak­ers alive. As a rule, women once weren’t taught the thou­sands of logo­graph­ic char­ac­ters nec­es­sary to read and write in the lan­guage. But in one par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the land, Jiangy­ong Coun­ty in Hunan province, some did mas­ter the 600 to 700 char­ac­ters of a pho­net­ic script made to reflect the local dialect and now called Nüshu (女书), or “wom­en’s writ­ing.”

In its hey­day, Nüshu’s users had a vari­ety of names for it, “includ­ing ‘mos­qui­to writ­ing,’ because it is a lit­tle slant­ed and with long ‘legs,’ ” writes Ilar­ia Maria Sala in a Quartz piece on the scrip­t’s his­to­ry. Its great­est con­cen­tra­tion of prac­ti­tion­ers lived in “the vil­lage of Shangjiangxu, where young girls exchanged small tokens of friend­ly affec­tion, such as fans dec­o­rat­ed with cal­lig­ra­phy or hand­ker­chiefs embroi­dered with a few aus­pi­cious words.”

Oth­er, more for­mal occa­sions for the use of Nüshu, includ­ed when girls decid­ed to “make a full-fledged pact of close­ness with one anoth­er that they were ‘best friends’ — jiebai zimei or ‘sworn sis­ters’ — a rela­tion­ship that was rec­og­nized as valu­able and even nec­es­sary for them in the local social sys­tem. Such a once-obscure chap­ter of Chi­nese his­to­ry has proven irre­sistible to read­ers from a vari­ety of cul­tures in recent decades.

“Most inter­pre­ta­tions and head­lines have been about a ‘secret lan­guage’ that women used, prefer­ably to com­mu­ni­cate their pain,” writes Sala, which struck her as evi­dence of peo­ple tak­ing the sto­ry of Nüshu and “read­ing into it what they want­ed, regard­less of what it meant.” Yet such an inter­pre­ta­tion has sure­ly done its part to spread inter­est in the near-extinc­t’s scrip­t’s revival, described by’s Andrew Loft­house as orig­i­nat­ing in “the tiny vil­lage of Puwei, which is sur­round­ed by the Xiao riv­er and only acces­si­ble via a small sus­pen­sion bridge.” After three Nüshu writ­ers were dis­cov­ered there in the eight­ies, “it became the focal point for Nüshu research. In 2006, the script was list­ed as a Nation­al Intan­gi­ble Cul­tur­al Her­itage by the State Coun­cil of Chi­na, and a year lat­er, a muse­um was built on Puwei Island.”

There train­ing is pro­vid­ed to the few select “inter­preters or ‘inher­i­tors’ of the lan­guage, learn­ing to read, write, sing and embroi­der Nüshu.” Iron­i­cal­ly, Loft­house adds, “much of what we know about Nüshu is due to the work of male researcher Zhou Shuoyi” who hap­pened to hear of it in the nine­teen-fifties and was lat­er per­se­cut­ed dur­ing Mao Zedong’s Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion — a treat­ment that includ­ed 21 years in a labor camp — for hav­ing researched such an arti­fact of the feu­dal past. Once a use­ful tool for express­ing emo­tions and per­form­ing social rit­u­als social­iza­tion, Nüshu had become polit­i­cal­ly dan­ger­ous. What it becomes now, half a cen­tu­ry lat­er and with its renew­al only just begin­ning, is up to its new learn­ers.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Free Chi­nese Lessons

The Improb­a­ble Inven­tion of Chi­nese Type­writ­ers & Com­put­er Key­boards: Three Videos Tell the Tech­no-Cul­tur­al Sto­ry

The World’s Old­est Mul­ti­col­or Book, a 1633 Chi­nese Cal­lig­ra­phy & Paint­ing Man­u­al, Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online

How Writ­ing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Ani­mat­ed Map

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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