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What Is Nüshu?

This week, while surfing through an online video site, I came across a documentary on a group of women living in Hunan, a remote region in southern China, who have a unique and interesting history to contribute to the world of translation and languages. This group of women created a set of characters that only they could understand, because at that time (between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, that is, not so far removed from today) women in China did not have access to formal education; they therefore developed the Nüshu script (literally “women’s writing”) in order to communicate with each other.

Some of the characters used in the Nüshu language were borrowed from Chinese, while others appear to have been invented. Nevertheless, all are represented with a thinner, more cursive font than those of Chinese characters, which tend to be written in a square-shaped manner. However, like Chinese, Nüshu is written from top to bottom in columns, and the columns are written from right to left.

As noted earlier, in ancient Hunan, only men had access to the teachings of Nan Shu (“men’s writing”), and thus Nüshu was invented to be used secretly by the women of the region. It is interesting to discuss the method by which they communicated. These mothers, daughters, friends, granddaughters, and sisters communicated with the Nüshu language through embroidery on scarves and paintings on paper fans, with the goal of this means of communication being kept secret. The new language was passed down from mother to daughter or from friend to friend. Sometimes characters served as decorative frames or as decorative paintings on crafts, given the script’s more stylized and aesthetic appearance than its “masculine” equivalent. Most of the writings are poems with verses of five or seven characters.

After the Chinese Revolution, women finally gained access to education, and Nüshu fell into disuse. Although no longer used, Nüshu is an excellent example of the importance of communication between people, and the constant desire to find ways to convey thoughts, feelings, and stories, free from external restrictions or constraints.