By September 30, 2014 0 Comments Read More →

Nu Shu – A secret writing system

NuShu_VHC-4550Composer Tan Dun is best known for his Oscar-winning work on the martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Dun’s latest work is Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, which is inspired by a writing system that originated in his hometown in China.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to do some research into this writing system for a joint project with UC Berkeley and Unicode. So, here’s a bit of info about this fascinating script.

Nu Shu is a secret writing system that was created in the Jiangyong Prefecture in south eastern Hunan Province, China. Nu Shu translates as “women’s writing” and it was created and used exclusively by women. One theory traces the writing back to the Song dynasty (960-1279) where it is said that an Emperor’s concubine devised the system to write to her sisters and female friends outside of court. Linguists tend to date Nu Shu to the 15th Century.

In those days, women were forbidden to have a formal education, so they developed this code in order to communicate with each other in secret. These were the times of arranged marriages and many were engaged to their future husbands as babies. Married women were segregated from their families and trapped in this remote mountain community, lonely and living in loveless relationships in a patriarchal society. Nu Shu expressed the hopes, joys, and sorrows of the female experience.

Nu Shu was taught to women by their grandmothers and mothers. It was handed down through poetry, letters, and books. It was written on paper fans, and embroidered on cloth, hidden in the hemlines. Nu Shu was also written in San Chao Shu (“Third Days Missives”). These were cloth-bound books that were written by mothers and given to brides on their third day of marriage. They contained blank pages at the end to be used as a diary. There aren’t many examples of these books left because many women considered these books to be so precious they had them burned or buried with them when they died.

Nu Shu is a syllabic script (each symbol represents a syllable) and consists of about 600-700 symbols. The symbols are rendered in a thin, cursive style. Some are based on Chinese characters while others are modeled after embroidery stitches and designs. Like Chinese, Nushu is written from top to bottom in columns, and the columns are written from right to left.

Nu Shu holds a Guinness world record for being the world’s “most gender specific language” although technically, it’s a writing system, and not a language. Nu Shu is used to write Xiangnan Tuhua, a variety of Chinese found in Jiangyong Prefecture.

Some lament that Nu Shu is slowly dying out. The last proficient user of Nu Shu was Yang Huanyi, who died in 2004 at the age of 92. However, there are attempts to revive and preserve the writing system. There is now a Nu Shu dictionary and a school has been opened to teach the script. Many young girls and women are keen to learn the writing of their ancestors, but in keeping with tradition, only females learn how to read and write Nu Shu.


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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

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