Monday, March 08, 2004

'Each word is like a flower'

Denied a voice by social repression and never taught to read or write, the women of central China developed a secret language that has been passed from mother to daughter since the 3rd century:

Only men learned to read and write Chinese, and bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband's homes after marriage. So somehow -- scholars are unsure how, or exactly when -- the women of this fertile valley in the southwestern corner of Hunan province developed their own way to communicate. It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend -- and never, ever shared with the men and boys.

So was born nushu, or women's script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind.

The written language superficially resembles written Chinese, but the symbols are phonograms (representing sounds, as with western alphabets) as opposed to ideograms (representing ideas). As their culture changed and social restrictions against women reading and writing faded away, the knowledge of this language nearly vanished, but fortunately in the the last century people became aware of nushu while there were still women who knew the language. Then the Cultural Revolution came along, and the Red Guards destroyed all of the documentation they found on the subject. In the late 1970s, the studies were resumed, and today there there are classes taught in Hunan.

Even so, aside from scholars there are fewer than 10 people can fluently read and write nushu, and some of the most skilled practitioners (century-old women who remember when the language was necessary for self-expression) have little time left.