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Nü Shu ( ), is a syllabary writing system that was used exclusively among women in Jiangyong County in Hunanmarker province of southern Chinamarker .


Unlike the standard written Chinese, which is logographic (with each character representing a word or part of a word), Nü Shu is phonetic, with each of its approximately 600-700 characters representing a syllable in the local Chéngguān dialect (城关土话) of the Yao nationality. This is about half the number required to represent all the syllables in Chengguan, including tonal distinctions; evidently digraph are used for the remainder.

It is not clear whether Chengguan is Mien of the Hmong-Mien languages, a Kadai language, or a local dialect of Xiang Chinese, all of which are spoken by people officially classified as Yao.

Many Nü Shu characters are an italic variant form of Kaishu Chinese characters , as the name of the script itself appears to be, though many others appear to derive from embroidery patterns; the characters are formed from dots, horizontals, virgules, and arcs . Nü Shu easily lends itself to being embroidered, and is (or was) often found in embroidered form.

The script is written from top to bottom or, when horizontal, from right to left, as is traditional for Chinese. Also like Chinese, vertical lines are truly vertical, while lines crossing them are angled from the perpendicular. Unlike Chinese, Nü Shu writers value characters written with very fine, almost threadlike, lines as a mark of fine penmanship.


Until recently, women in Jiangyong County were discouraged from learning Nan Shu "men's writing", that is, the standard Chinese script. Nü Shu was therefore invented and used secretly, carefully guarded from men. Women learned the writing from their "sworn sisters" and mothers. Sometimes the characters were disguised as decorative marks or as part of artwork. Most of the literature written in it takes a poetic form with lines of verse in 7 characters, or more rarely 5 characters . Typical contents of the writings were autobiographies, letters, folk songs, monody, or narration .

The script was suppressed by the Japanese in the 1940s, who feared that the Chinese could use it to send secret messages.

Although Nü Shu has existed for centuries, it was not known to the outside world until recently, when academics "rediscovered" the script in a report to the central government in 1983. Scholars have since been able to collate only 2000 characters, a fraction of the total.

After the Chinese Revolution, literacy spread among women, and Nü Shu fell into disuse and the line of transmission was broken. Also, the Red Guard suppressed Nü Shu during the Cultural Revolution and destroyed Nü Shu artifacts . At present, no one living has learned Nü Shu from her mother or sworn sisters, though there are a few scholars who learned it from the last of the women who did. After Yang Yueqing made a documentary about Nü Shu, the government of the People's Republic of China started to popularize the effort to preserve this rare writing system, and some younger women are beginning to learn it.

Nü Shu works

A large number of the Nü Shu works were "third day missives" (三朝书, ). They were cloth bound booklets created by "sworn sisters" (结拜姊妹, ) and mothers and given to their counterpart "sworn sisters" or daughters upon their marriage. They wrote down songs in Nü Shu, 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 .

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

Current situation

Nü Shu Garden school, July 2005
Huanyi, an inhabitant of Hunan province and the last person proficient in this writing system, died on September 23, 2004 at the age of 98.

The language and locale have attracted foreign investment with money from Hong Kongmarker building up infrastructure at possible tourist sites and a $209,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to build a Nü Shu 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.

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

Nü Shu is currently under proposal 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


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