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A Language Created by Women, for Women

China Today, January 24, 2017 Adjust font size:

Mystery to Explore

Professor Gong Zhebing came upon this female script in 1982 while on a field trip in Jiangyong. He and other scholars first regarded it as a code rather than a written language. As research into the script expanded, Gong and linguist Yan Xuejiong, then vice president of the South-Central University for Nationalities, co-wrote in 1983 a paper analyzing Women’s Script. When made public at the 16th International Sino-Tibetan Linguistics Conference in the U.S. it aroused great interest in international academic circles. Meticulous research by scholars from the U.S., Japan, and Australia as well as domestic institutions such as Tsinghua University and South-Central University for Nationalities, ensued in Jiangyong’s villages.

Among the legends surrounding the origins of the language, that most prevalent tells of women creating the script according to the patterns they embroidered on the cloth they had weaved when they gathered to do needlework. Excluded from school, and thus unable to study official language, women dared to create their own. This story confirms, from another angle, that Women’s Script was related to standard Chinese characters.

Other scholars support this theory. They found that Women’s Script records a type of Chinese dialect through adapting standard Chinese characters. As this transformation varies in an arbitrary fashion, however, it is hard to relate the form of Women’s Script to standard Chinese characters. But researchers have agreed on three levels of variation – strokes, structure, and form. Owing to the randomness of the script, many characters have variant forms. This makes it difficult for researchers to agree on their exact number. Estimates range from around 100 to 3,000, depending on the different materials and sorting criteria.

As a member of the Chinese linguistic family, Women’s Script is distinctive for its graphic phonetic feature, whereby one character represents a group of homophones. Standard Chinese, in contrast, is a typical ideographic language. As Women’s Script was commonly embroidered on clothes or cloth belts, its characters appeared smaller and more curved. This singular mode of writing endows special status on Women’s Script in the history of the development of language.

Women’s Script constitutes a cultural fossil whose significance embraces anthropology, ethnology, sociology, linguistics, philology, ethnology, and archaeology. It is of inestimable value to researchers of the origins of human languages and civilizations, and of women’s cultures. Unfortunately extant literary works in the script are more or less non-existent. They would, in accordance with convention, have been burned when their writers passed away or buried as sacrificial objects. It was seldom that any works remained as legacies to daughters or female friends in commemoration of the deaths of women who had compiled works in Nü Shu.

There are few historical records or local chronicles that refer to Women’s Script, or mention of it in clan family trees. No such works have been found among local excavated relics. The sole reference to Nü Shu is that of a few lines in the Survey Notes on Counties of Hunan Province by Zeng Jiwu in 1931: “Each May, women from various towns gather to burn incense, pay tribute, and sing together while holding fans on which songs have been written. The characters on these fans are as small as a fly’s head, similar to Mongolian characters. I met no men in the county who could read this script.” With no other materials to go on, the academic field is far from a consensus on the creation and development of this language.

The last natural successor of Women’s Script, Yang Huanyi, passed away on September 20, 2004. As those privy to the key to this exotic written medium are no more, many characters may forever retain their inscrutability.

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