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NO. 25 JUNE 21, 2012
Newsletter> NO. 25 JUNE 21, 2012
UPDATED: June 18, 2012 NO. 25 JUNE 21, 2012
Women Words
A mysterious ancient language struggles for its survival
By Yuan Yuan

YOUNGER FANS: He Jinghua and her daughter Pu Lijuan demonstrate nushu writing to children in Jiangyong County (LI GA)

In 1990, Zhao visited Yang Huanyi, who was then 81 years old and was the only known genuine nushu speaker left in Jiangyong.

"Nushu is spread mostly among rural women who had their feet bound to a tiny size," Zhao said.

Yang started to read and write nushu as a little girl with her seven sworn sisters. Yang watched nushu's wax and wane in the past century, and would even write nushu on her knees, as only men were allowed to write on tables.

On September 20, 2004, Yang passed away. Unfortunately, none of Yang's children and grandchildren inherited her proficiency in this unique language.

Experts said that Yang's death marked the end to the tradition in which women shared their innermost feelings with female friends through a set of codes incomprehensible to men.


Local authorities in the late 1990s started to attach importance to nushu's cultural value and tourism potential. In 2000, a free nushu training school was set up in Puwei Village in Jiangyong for women learning the language in their spare time.

With a total population of around 200 people, Puwei is one of the most famous villages for nushu culture. In 2004, the Nushu Museum was founded in the village, where visitors and villagers can take nushu classes. Meanwhile, tourists can also enjoy the unique female social life and cultural ecology.

Hu Meiyue, 42 years old, visits the museum every Saturday to teach nushu to any village girls who show up. Hu is the granddaughter of Gao Yinxian, another genuine nushu speaker who passed away in 1990. "I found some flowery-looking characters in my grandmother's handkerchieves at my childhood and asked her to tell me what they were," said Hu, who never thought she could make a living by teaching the flowery-looking characters. "It is a pity that I couldn't learn more from my grandmother as she couldn't teach at all due to her bad health in her later years."

Another teacher at the Nushu Museum, Pu Lijuan, learns nushu with her mother, 78-year-old He Jinghua, who set up a nushu training school in 2004 in her own house in Puwei. He said that it was her responsibility to pass down the unique language to younger generations.

On April 19, 2012, at a cultural exhibition in New York City on the Third UN Chinese Language Day, He and Pu wrote down the unique feminine script on handkerchiefs, chanted out the written contents and fascinated the audience.

The Jiangyong County Government established a nushu certification process in 2003 and offered a subsidy of 100 yuan ($16) per month to those who qualify. Of the seven living people who have earned the certificate, 24-year-old Hu Xin is the youngest.

Hu first studied nushu with her mother in 2000, when her mother attended the free training school in Puwei. After graduating from a technical secondary school in 2007, Hu came back to her hometown. With a strong interest in nushu, she started to work at the Nushu Museum as a ticket collector. In 2008, she became a guide and teacher after receiving intensive training. Hu was invited to demonstrate the calligraphy of nushu at the China Pavilion of the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010.

In 2011, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a historical drama film based on the novel of the same name by the Chinese-American author Lisa See, was released worldwide. It is about the friendship of two sworn sisters in the 19th century. The heroines express themselves by writing in nushu on paper fans. It is the first time for nushu to be shown in a film.

"But nushu still faces a big challenge," said Xiao Ping, a village official in Puwei. "There is just a small handful of people who can read and write nushu. Most people don't have the interest in learning it at all, especially young people."

Hu admitted that nobody else of her age was willing to spend time studying nushu, which she said helps little to find jobs or earn money. "Almost all the young people went to big cities to work," she said.

"The subsidy of 100 yuan per month is far from enough to make a living," said Pu, who suggests making and selling souvenirs with printed or embroidered nushu. "Efforts should be made to let more people know it.

Email us at: yuanyuan@bjreview.com

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