Nushu, which can be translated as “women’s writing,” is a Chinese written language that was used solely by women. It was a carefully guarded secret from men, for a thousand years. Chinese scholars believe that Nushu is the only single-sex writing system of its kind.
It is believed that Nushu was developed by a young woman in the Hunan Province of Southern China. As the emperor’s concubine, she had a life of privilege, but she had a very lonely existence due to her isolation in the palace. The only way she was able to write honestly about her thoughts, feelings, and experiences was to invent a code that would be known only to a select few female family members. The secret language gave her a way to express her deepest joy as well as her darkest despair.
Over time, in Yong Ming County which is now called Jiangyong County, the Nushu language spread from woman to woman. It was always kept a secret from males.
The development of the Nushu language was important because at that time, Chinese women were not educated nor taught how to read and write. Also, their feet that were deformed from being bound kept them from being able to walk very well. They were also often restricted to either their homes, or had to stay very close to home.
In the midst of their lack of freedom and isolation, they longed to write their inner thoughts and feelings. Nushu, this secret language unknown by men, gave them the freedom to express themselves. Chinese women used Nushu to write letters, stories, and poems. They also hid Nushu in unexpected places such as paintings and works of embroidery, as a way to secretly express themselves.
Nushu spread, in large part, due to the custom of “sworn sisters.” Sworn sisters were girls who would pledge their loyalty to other girls. The language was passed from woman to woman and girl to girl. When it came time for the girl to marry, according to the custom of the day, the bride would have to go to the groom’s home, which resulted in her separation from her mother and sworn sisters.
To help ease the sting of the separation, the mother and sworn sisters carefully crafted a cloth bound book, known as a “Third Day Book.” This book was made out of cloth, and contained embroidered messages for the bride in the Nushu language. The messages expressed their hopes and dreams for the new bride as well as an expression of the sadness over losing their friend and daughter. Although the books were carefully guarded secrets, even if they were discovered, they would not be able to be read by the groom. Several pages in the cloth book were kept blank for the bride to use a journal as she embroidered her thoughts in the Nushu language. The book was a valuable treasure to the woman during a difficult time of transition.
After the cultural revolution, women began to be taught how to read and write Mandarin Chinese and therefore the need for Nushu decreased, and the Nushu language eventually died off.
Yang Huanyi, from the Hunan province was the last person fluent in Nushu. She died on September 23, 2004 at the age of 98.