Mother tongue

Nushu, the secret women’s script of the Yao minority in China, was widely declared extinct last year, when its most famous user, Yang Huangyi died aged 92. But obituaries for the world’s only gender-specific language appear to have been premature.

This secret code, once used as a covert, intimate form of expression for heretical feelings about the frustration and loneliness of wives forced into arranged marriages in this remote community in southwest Hunan, is now being exploited in a way that is empowering and enriching women.

The impetus is economic and the results anything but romantic. But the reinvention of the embroidered script as a tourist moneyspinner is reaping dividends and a new generation of girls is studying the language not for a means of intimate communication but because it offers a chance to earn more than their brothers and fathers.

It was not always so.
For much of its still sketchy history, Nushu, which means women’s writing, has been associated with persecution and misery. Its origins are obscure. Romantically minded linguists trace it back to a concubine of an emperor of the Song dynasty (960 to 1279), who is said to have used the secret script to write to sisters and friends outside the court.

A more prosaic explanation is that Nushu is a remnant of a 4 000-year-old language stamped out elsewhere by the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, who decreed one standardised mandarin script as a means to unite the country. Any man who used an alternative writing style was put to death. But women were not considered important enough to warrant an application of the law.

By the 19th century, Nushu was being used in poems, letters and embroidery by groups of ‘sworn sisters’‘, who formed secret friendships.

‘In Nushu literature, there is no reference at all to sex. Chinese women are rather conservative in that respect,’’ says Hu Meiyue, a teacher in Jiangyong. But there are heretical expressions of independence and frustration with men. One Nushu tale describes a wife in an arranged marriage who runs away on her wedding night after discovering how ugly her husband is. Another tells of a woman who is so impatient that she marches off to her fiance’s home demanding to know why he has not yet married her.

In most writings, however, the dominant theme is resignation. The happiest Nushu poems are those exchanged by girlfriends when they become ‘sworn sisters’‘. The saddest form of Nushu is the third-day book, a lament for the loss of a sister to marriage. These books, presented to brides three days after their wedding, also contained space to keep a diary. Wives considered these so precious that they had them buried or burned with them when they died.

Until well into the last century, a Chinese woman’s life was measured by ‘three followings”—her father before marriage, her husband after, and her son when he became head of the household. So the final words of advice from her sworn sisters, were: ‘Be a good wife, do lots of embroidery and try your best to tolerate your husband’s family.”

But Yao women’s lives have been transformed. ‘We are now educated and we have the freedom to choose our husbands,’’ says Hu Meiyue, who started teaching the script four years ago and has seen it pushed into the international limelight.

Academics have compiled a Nushu dictionary, a school has been opened to teach the language and the Ford Foundation is donating $209 000 to build a museum to preserve the remaining third-day books and embroidery. A Hong Kong company has invested several million yuan for the construction of roads, hotels and parks—all aimed at exploiting Nushu’s growing fame.

‘It is one of our main selling points,’’ says Zheng Shiqiu, head of the ethnic minority division of the local government. ‘Nushu is the only women’s script in the world that is still alive.’‘

The commercial exploitation of the language is not pretty, but it is transforming relations between the sexes in a way that would have shocked the writers of the old third-day books. Now that women are bringing in money through Nushu, they have moved to the centre of economic and cultural life. After all, tourists and academics come to hear the women sing, sew and write. This has brought them a kind of power.

The transformation is evident in Huang Yuan. ‘Things are different these days. We have real equality of the sexes,’’ she says. Huang is 29 and not yet engaged, which would have been a source of consternation for a woman just 10 years ago. As she says, ‘I’m still young. I don’t need to rush into marriage.’‘

Some things have not changed. One of the new legion of teachers, He Jinghua, is teaching Nushu to her 13-year-old granddaughter Pu Lin. Her husband fans himself in the corner. He does not understand the language. Nor does his grandson. I ask He if she will teach the language to the boy now that it has become public knowledge. ‘No,’’ she says. ‘Nushu is only for women. We cannot tell men how to use it.’’—

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