Nushu

Nushu (or josho in Japanese; 女書, lit. woman’s writing) is a very peculiar script, and it is so due to few reasons.

Until 1983 everyone was convinced that the Chinese writing system consisted exclusively of logographic ideograms (or sinographs), i.e. han zi (漢字, or kanji in Japanese). Nushu is an ancient syllabary created by women of Jiang Yong county (江永縣), located in the southern part of Hunan (湖南) province in central China. It was discovered by sheer accident, revealing an astonishing cultural secret.

Fragment of handwritten text on a handkerchief, nushu script, 20th century.


To understand the origins of this peculiar writing system we need to look closer at the environmental and political situation of that region nearly two thousand years back.

The terrain of Jiang Yong is rich in water and fertile soil, and the climate warm. Consequently, the main occupation was farming. Women did not have to assist men in agricultural work so they focused on craftsmanship. They gathered and chanted songs or recited poetry while knitting or creating various folk items.

Lyrics of those songs were passed from generation to generation for thousands of years. Many of the texts were composed on the occasion of marriage, expressing hopes for the new couple, and especially the bride. So called “third day letters” (三朝書, Chinese: san zhao shu) were gifted to a newly married woman on the third day of her marriage.

In light of the above and the fact that education was only accessible to men, women gradually developed their own writing system based on kanji, to a certain extent. It is said that there were approximately 1700 characters created.

Josho characters are not of a semantic nature. They bare phonetic relevance to the local Chengguan dialect (城關土話), which is why they cannot be considered exclusively logographic characters. In this capacity, nushu is similar to the Japanese kana (仮名, syllabary).

Apparently, nushu was a natural outcome of the need to express one's own feelings and pass them on to the younger generation. It is the only style in calligraphy (in a broad sense of the word) created and used by only one sex. It is also the only style that was kept secret for centuries, cleverly embedded in folk craft items, disguised as designs and motifs.

Nushu in handwriting is very feminine, delicate and simple in form. Calligraphy written in josho has undeniable artistic value, although perhaps not for orthodox Chinese calligraphers.

After the death of the last transmitter of this endangered writing system in 1994, a few young women have begun its study once again. Currently, it is said that there are only five women in the world able to teach nushu. Unfortunately they have not learned it from their “sisters” as traditionally performed. Luckily, scientists have managed to gather enough material for the script to be preserved.

Women are not the only ones that strive to keep this candle of tradition burning. The only male that has mastered it is Zhou Shuoyi (周碩沂), who in 2002 published a dictionary of nushu characters and their Chinese equivalents.


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