Nüshu was taught mainly by mothers to their daughters in a feudal society that lacked access to education in reading and writing.
Originating in China’s Jiangyong county in the nineteenth century, it is endangered today but the country’s local and national authorities are working to revive it.
Nüshu literally means “women's writing” in Chinese. Today it is the world’s only script designed and used exclusively by women and was developed among the rural women of the Xiao River valley, in the Jiangyong county of China’s Hunan province, where there is a mixture of Han culture and Yao folkways.
The earliest known artefact in the Nüshu script is a bronze coin discovered in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province. It was minted during the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a rebel kingdom in China from 1851 to 1864, which introduced important social reforms and adapted to a certain extent several policies regarding gender equality. The eight characters etched in Nüshu on the coin mean “all the women in the world are members of the same family”.
Nüshu was taught mainly by mothers to their daughters and practised for fun among women. It was used by women in a feudal society who lacked access to education in reading and writing.
This syllabic script was generally used for writing autobiographies, letters between sisters, and sanzhaoshu – "third-day missives" of good wishes, presented to a bride by her closest friends, three days after her wedding. It was also used to record folk songs, riddles and translations of ancient Chinese poems, and to compose songs for farm women that promoted morality and encouraging frugality in household management.
Zhao explains that it was customary for women to gather together to sew clothes and sing Nüshu songs. The Nüshu script can be found inscribed on paper and fans, and also embroidered on clothes, handkerchiefs and belts.
“This script helped women in Jiangyong to dry their tears,” says Tan Dun (link is external), renowned Chinese composer and conductor, and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. “When I hear their beautiful songs, I can see their tears.” In 2008, he went back to Hunan, his home province, to research Nüshu culture. “At the gate of Shanggangtang village, there is an 800-year-old Song Dynasty bridge. Half of it has collapsed. It reminded me of Nüshu, which is also on the verge of extinction,” he wrote in his travel diary.
The death of centenarian Yang Huanyi on September 20, 2004, marked the start of the “post-Nüshu era”. Yang was one of the most famous writers and holders of Nüshu culture.
In 2002, Nüshu was added to the Chinese National Register of Documentary Heritage. Since 2003, the introduction of Nüshu workshops in Jiangyong county has helped develop this culture by attracting more people to learn about it. In 2006, the State Council listed Nüshu as a national intangible cultural heritage.
A Nüshu museum was built in Puwei Island, Jiangyong county, in May 2007. This beautiful island, surrounded by the Xiao River, was home to many famous Nüshu authors, making it an important place for Nüshu culture.