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Nüshu script

"Nüshu" written in Nüshu (right to left).
Languages Jiangyong Dialect, Xiang
ISO 15924 Nshu, 499

Nüshu (simplified Chinese: 女书; traditional Chinese: 女書; pinyin: Nǚshū</i> [nỳʂú]; literally: "women's writing"), is a syllabic script, a very different variation of Chinese characters that was used exclusively among women in Jiangyong County in Hunan province of southern China.[1]


The Nüshu script is used to write a distinct local Chinese language known as Xiangnan Tuhua (湘南土話, 'Southern Hunanese Tuhua') that is spoken by the people of the Xiao River and Yongming River region of northern Jiangyong County, Hunan.[2] This dialect, which differs enough from the dialect of other parts of Hunan that it is unintelligible to speakers of that dialect, is known to its speakers as [tifɯə] "Dong language", and it is written only in the Nüshu script.[3] There are differing opinions on the classification of Xiangnan Tuhua, as it has features of several different Chinese languages. Some scholars classify it under Xiang Chinese or Pinghua and other scholars consider it a hybrid dialect.[4] In addition to speaking Tuhua, most local people in Jiangyong are bilingual in the Hunan dialect of Southwestern Mandarin, which they use for communication with people from outside the area where Tuhua is spoken, as well as for some formal occasions.[2][5] If Hunan Southwestern Mandarin is written, then it is always written using standard Chinese characters and not with the Nüshu script.[5]

Jiangyong County has a mixed population of Han Chinese and Yao people, but Nüshu is used only to write the local Chinese dialect (Xiangnan Tuhua, 湘南土話), and there are no known examples of the script being used to write the local Yao language.[6]


In the sex-segregated world of traditional China, girls and women did not have the same access to literacy as boys and men, and most people—male or female—were illiterate. However, throughout China's history there were always women who could read and write, and by late Imperial times[when?], women's poetry became a matter of considerable family pride in elite circles. Reforms of the early 20th century, which popularized education and promulgated a writing style reflective of speech (baihuawen) to replace the arcane literary style (wenyanwen), increased literacy rates for both males and females. It is not known when or how Nüshu came into being, but—because it is clearly based in the standard Chinese script, hanzi—Nüshu could not have been created before standardization of hanzi (circa 900). Many of the simplifications found in Nüshu had been in informal use in standard Chinese since the Song and Yuan dynasty (13th - 14th century). It seems to have reached its peak during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).[7]

Though a local educated worker at the Jiangyong Cultural Office (Zhou Shuoyi) had collected, studied and translated many Nüshu texts into standard Chinese, he was unable to draw outside attention to the script until a report was submitted to the central government on this subject in 1983.[citation needed]

During the latter part of the 20th century, owing more to wider social, cultural and political changes than the narrow fact of greater access to hanzi literacy, younger girls and women stopped learning Nüshu, and it began falling into disuse, as older users died. The script was suppressed by the Japanese during their invasion of China in the 1930s-40s, because they feared that the Chinese could use it to send secret messages.[citation needed], and also during China's Cultural Revolution (1966–76).[8] The last original writers of the script died in the 1990s (the last one in 2004). It is no longer customary for women to learn Nüshu, and literacy in Nüshu is now limited to a few scholars who learned it from the last women who were literate in it. However, after Yang Yueqing made a documentary about Nüshu, the government of the People's Republic of China started to popularize the effort to preserve the increasingly endangered script, and some younger women are beginning to learn it.


Unlike the standard written Chinese, which is logographic (with each character representing a word or part of a word), Nüshu is phonetic, with each of its approximately 600-700 characters representing a syllable. This is about half the number required to represent all the syllables in Tuhua, as tonal distinctions are frequently ignored, making it "the most revolutionary and thorough simplification of Chinese characters ever attempted".[7] Zhou Shuoyi, described as the only male to have mastered the script, compiled a dictionary listing 1,800 variant characters and allographs.[9]

Nüshu characters are an italic variant form of Kaishu Chinese characters,[1] as can be seen in the name of the script, though some have been substantially modified to better fit embroidery patterns. The strokes of the characters are in the form of dots, horizontals, virgules, and arcs.[8] The script is written from top to bottom or, when horizontal, from right to left, as is traditional for Chinese. Also like standard Chinese, vertical lines are truly vertical, while lines crossing them are angled from the perpendicular. Unlike Chinese, Nüshu writers value characters written with very fine, almost threadlike, lines as a mark of fine penmanship.

About half of Nüshu is modified Chinese characters used logographically.[dubious ] In about 100, the entire character is adopted with little change apart from skewing the frame from square to rhomboid, sometimes reversing them (mirror image), and often reducing the number of strokes. Another hundred have been modified in their strokes, but are still easily recognizable, as is 'woman' above. About 200 have been greatly modified, but traces of the original Chinese character are still discernible.

The rest of the characters are phonetic. They are either modified characters, as above, or elements extracted from characters. There are used for 130 phonetic values, each used to write on average ten homophonous or nearly homophonous words, though there are allographs as well; women differed on which Chinese character they preferred for a particular phonetic value.[7]

Nüshu works

A large number of the Nüshu works were "third day missives" (三朝书; 三朝書; sānzhāoshū). They were cloth bound booklets created by laotong, "sworn sisters" (结拜姊妹; 結拜姊妹; jiébàizǐmèi) and mothers and given to their counterpart "sworn sisters" or daughters upon their marriage. They wrote down songs in Nüshu, which were delivered on the third day after the young woman's marriage. This way, they expressed their hopes for the happiness of the young woman who had left the village to be married and their sorrow for being parted from her.[10]

Other works, including poems and lyrics, were handwoven into belts and straps, or embroidered onto everyday items and clothing.

Recent years

Nüshu Garden school, July 2005
Yang Huanyi, an inhabitant of Jiangyong county, Hunan province and the last person proficient in this writing system, died on September 20, 2004, age 98.[11][12]

The language and locale have attracted foreign investment building up infrastructure at possible tourist sites and a $209,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to build a Nüshu museum scheduled to open in 2007. However, with the line of transmission now broken, there are fears that the features of the script are being distorted by the effort of marketing it for the tourist industry.

Chinese composer Tan Dun has created a multimedia symphony entitled "Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women" for Harp, Orchestra, and 13 microfilms. Tan Dun spent 5 years conducting field research in Hunan Province, documenting on film the various songs the women use to communicate. Those songs become a 3rd dimension to his symphony, and are projected alongside the orchestra and harp soloist.

Lisa See describes the use of Nüshu among 19th century women in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Nüshu is currently under proposal[1] for encoding in Unicode, in the Supplementary Multilingual Plane, with 385 basic characters from U+1B000 to U+1B180, and 64 allographs from U+1B181 to U+1B1C1.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Proposal text, slides), 2007-9-17
  2. ^ a b Zhao 2006, p. 162
  3. ^ Chiang 1995, p. 20
  4. ^ Zhao 2006, p. 162
  5. ^ a b Chiang 1995, p. 22
  6. ^ Zhao 2006, p. 247
  7. ^ a b c Zhao Liming, "The Women's Script of Jiangyong". In Jie Tao, Bijun Zheng, Shirley L. Mow, eds, Holding up half the sky: Chinese women past, present, and future, Feminist Press, 2004, pp. 39–52. ISBN 978-1-55861-465-9
  8. ^ a b Additional text - Chapter 12, An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, Jeff Connor-Linton and Ralph Fasold, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-84768-1
  9. ^ "Last inheritress of China's female-specific languages dies". 2004-09-23. Retrieved 2012-10-03. 
  10. ^ A language by women, for women, Washington Post, Feb 24, 2004
  11. ^ "Language dies with woman". London: 2004-09-26. Retrieved 2012-10-03. 
  12. ^ Jon Watts (2005-09-22). "Jon Watts, The forbidden tongue, The Guardian 23 September 2005". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2012-10-03. 


  • Zhao, Liming 赵丽明 (2006). Nǚshū yòngzì bǐjiào 女书用字比较 [Comparison of the characters used to write Nüshu] (in Chinese). Zhishi Chanquan Chubanshe. ISBN 978-7-80198-261-2. 
  • Chiang, William Wei (1995). We two know the script; we have become good friends. University Press of America. ISBN 978-0-7618-0013-2. 
  • Wilt L. Idema. Heroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women's Script. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009). ISBN 9780295988412. Ballads include: Moral tracts -- Admonitions for my daughter; The ten months of pregnancy; The family heirloom; The lazy wife -- Narrative ballads: The tale of third sister; The daughter of the Xiao family; Lady Luo; The Maiden Meng Jiang; The flower seller; The demonic carp; The karmic affinity of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai; Fifth daughter Wang.

External links