Last Known User of Secret Chinese Women's Language dies
An obituary in the IHT introduced me to a facinating Chinese calligraphy I'd never heard about. Nushu is a secret written Chinese language intended only for women and the [presumed] last woman to use it has died.
Obituary: Yang Huanyi, a writer of coded women's script
Douglas Martin NYT Wednesday, October 06, 2004
Yang Huanyi, the last woman to communicate secretly with others in a rare linguistic script used exclusively by Chinese women, died Sept. 20 in her home in Hunan Province. She was believed to be in her late 90s.
The Xinhua news agency reported her death, saying that estimates of her age ranged from 95 to 98.
The script, Nushu, represents the language spoken in Jiangyong Prefecture in southern Hunan. Women, who were denied education for many centuries, used it to share feelings, including fears about arranged marriages, husbands and, of course, mothers-in-law.
"By writing, so much suffering disappears," Yang said in an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly in 1996.
Xinhua called Yang the "last practitioner" of Nushu. However, Orie Endo, a language professor at Bunkyo University in Tokyo and a leading scholar of the writing system, said that at least two other women still used some Nushu.
She said Yang was the last woman to use Nushu to communicate with other women under an ancient oath of secrecy.
Some Nushu characters are taken from Chinese, while others appear to be invented, but all are rendered in a style much more cursive than written Chinese. In addition, the characters are "thinner" than Chinese characters, which tends to be square-shaped. Also, like Chinese, Nushu is written from top to bottom in columns, and the columns are written from right to left.
PUMEI VILLAGE, China - Nowadays, it would be called empowering women. But back then, centuries ago, it was just a way for the sworn sisters of this rugged andtradition-laden Chinese countryside to share their hopes, their joys and their many sorrows.
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.
Nushu - In 1982, a Chinese teacher discovered a language spoken only by women. It has been passed on for centuries; locals in Jiangyong County, in China's Hunan Province, call it nushu — literally, "women's script." (By far the best description of the language I've found is on World of Nushu, a website maintained by a Japanese scholar.) [page no longer exists, Ed.]
Today there remain only two women who know the language. In 1999 they were the topic of a documentary shown at a Vancouver film festival (which in turn inspired one article in London's Sunday Times, and another in the Guardian.)
Now, China's People's Daily reports that "a protection zone will be set up" to preserve the language. The BBC sheds some light on what this might mean: The Chinese government has earmarked some $1 million to build a museum and compile a dictionary for the endangered language.
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