Nüshu script


"Nüshu" written in Nüshu (right to left).
Languages Shaozhou Tuhua
Direction Left-to-right
ISO 15924 Nshu, 499

Nüshu (simplified Chinese: 女书; traditional Chinese: 女書; pinyin: Nǚshū [nỳʂú]; literally: "women's script"), is a syllabic script, a very different variation of Chinese characters that was used exclusively among women in Jiangyong County in Hunan province of southern China.[1]


The Nüshu script is used to write a distinct local Chinese variety known as Xiangnan Tuhua (湘南土話, 'Southern Hunanese Tuhua') that is spoken by the people of the Xiao River and Yongming River region of northern Jiangyong County, Hunan.[2] This dialect, which differs enough from those of other parts of Hunan that there is little mutual intelligibility, is known to its speakers as [tifɯə] "Dong language." It is written only in the Nüshu script.[3] There are differing opinions on the classification of Xiangnan Tuhua, as it has features of several different Chinese varieties. Some scholars classify it under Xiang Chinese or Pinghua and other scholars consider it a hybrid dialect.[2] In addition to speaking Tuhua, most local people in Jiangyong are bilingual in the Hunan dialect of Southwestern Mandarin, which they use for communication with people from outside the area where Tuhua is spoken, as well as for some formal occasions.[2][4] If Hunan Southwestern Mandarin is written, then it is always written using standard Chinese characters and not with the Nüshu script.[4]

Jiangyong County has a mixed population of Han Chinese and Yao people, but Nüshu is used only to write the local Chinese dialect (Xiangnan Tuhua, 湘南土話), and there are no known examples of the script being used to write the local Yao language.[5]


In the gender-segregated world of traditional China, girls and women did not have the same access to literacy as boys and men, and most people—male or female—were illiterate. However, throughout China's history there were always women who could read and write, and by late Imperial times, women's poetry became a matter of considerable family pride in elite circles. Reforms of the early 20th century, which popularized education and promulgated a writing style reflective of speech (baihuawen) to replace the arcane literary style (wenyanwen), increased literacy rates for both males and females. It is not known when or how Nüshu came into being, but—because it is clearly based in the standard Chinese script, hanzi—Nüshu could not have been created before standardization of hanzi (circa 900). Many of the simplifications found in Nüshu had been in informal use in standard Chinese since the Song and Yuan dynasty (13th - 14th century). It seems to have reached its peak during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).[6]

Though a local educated worker at the Jiangyong Cultural Office (Zhou Shuoyi) had collected, studied and translated many Nüshu texts into standard Chinese, he was unable to draw outside attention to the script until a report was submitted to the central government on this subject in 1983.

During the latter part of the 20th century, owing more to wider social, cultural and political changes than the narrow fact of greater access to hanzi literacy, younger girls and women stopped learning Nüshu, and it began falling into disuse, as older users died. The script was suppressed by the Japanese during their invasion of China in the 1930s-40s, because they feared that the Chinese could use it to send secret messages., and also during China's Cultural Revolution (1966–76).[7] The last original writers of the script died in the 1990s (the last one in 2004). It is no longer customary for women to learn Nüshu, and literacy in Nüshu is now limited to a few scholars who learned it from the last women who were literate in it. However, after Yang Yueqing made a documentary about Nüshu, the government of the People's Republic of China started to popularize the effort to preserve the increasingly endangered script, and some younger women are beginning to learn it.


Unlike the standard written Chinese, which is logographic (with each character representing a word or part of a word), Nüshu is phonetic, with each of its approximately 600-700 characters representing a syllable. This is about half the number required to represent all the syllables in Tuhua, as tonal distinctions are frequently ignored, making it "the most revolutionary and thorough simplification of Chinese characters ever attempted".[6] Zhou Shuoyi, described as the only male to have mastered the script, compiled a dictionary listing 1,800 variant characters and allographs.[8]

Nüshu characters are an italic variant form of Kaishu Chinese characters,[1] as can be seen in the name of the script, though some have been substantially modified to better fit embroidery patterns. The strokes of the characters are in the form of dots, horizontals, virgules, and arcs.[7] The script is written from top to bottom or, when horizontal, from left to right, as is traditional for Chinese. Also like standard Chinese, vertical lines are truly vertical, while lines crossing them are angled from the perpendicular. Unlike Chinese, Nüshu writers value characters written with very fine, almost threadlike, lines as a mark of fine penmanship.

About half of Nüshu is modified Chinese characters used logographically. In about 100, the entire character is adopted with little change apart from skewing the frame from square to rhomboid, sometimes reversing them (mirror image), and often reducing the number of strokes. Another hundred have been modified in their strokes, but are still easily recognizable, as is 'woman' above. About 200 have been greatly modified, but traces of the original Chinese character are still discernible.

The rest of the characters are phonetic. They are either modified characters, as above, or elements extracted from characters. There are used for 130 phonetic values, each used to write on average ten homophonous or nearly homophonous words, though there are allographs as well; women differed on which Chinese character they preferred for a particular phonetic value.[6]

Nüshu works

A large number of the Nüshu works were "third day missives" (三朝书; 三朝書; sānzhāoshū). They were cloth bound booklets created by laotong, "sworn sisters" (结拜姊妹; 結拜姊妹; jiébàizǐmèi) and mothers and given to their counterpart "sworn sisters" or daughters upon their marriage. They wrote down songs in Nüshu, 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.[9]

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

Recent years

Nüshu Garden school, July 2005

Yang Huanyi, an inhabitant of Jiangyong county, Hunan province and the last person proficient in this writing system, died on September 20, 2004, age 98.[10][11]

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

Chinese composer Tan Dun has created a multimedia symphony entitled "Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women" for Harp, Orchestra, and 13 microfilms. Tan Dun spent 5 years conducting field research in Hunan Province, documenting on film the various songs the women use to communicate. Those songs become a 3rd dimension to his symphony, and are projected alongside the orchestra and harp soloist.

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

Nüshu has been accepted for inclusion in a future version of Unicode[1][12] in the Supplementary Multilingual Plane.

Value of Nü Shu

Anthroposociologal value

There are unique characteristics surrounding the language, culture, and living environments of rural areas like Shangjiangxu township of Jiangyong counties in Hunan province, where Nü Shu is located. Southwest Mandarin and the local dialect of Southern Hunan are spoken here. This region is not only bounded geographically to three counties of three provinces, but it is also the cultural border area where the Confucian culture of the Central Plains as well as the culture of southern ethnic minorities merges.

Nationalities such as Han and Yao ethnic groups live together on the soil. Customs from Han and Yao are integrated in daily life. Nü Shu is an organism of this integrated culture preserving this truly unusual woman’s Script through female friends, women’s songs, and needlework. Nu Shu is an artifact of a unique woman's culture, reflecting a lifestyle preserved in writing, reflecting the thoughts of female friends, a women’s song reflecting a spiritual land of happiness, and using needlework as part of its material basis.

Nü Shu is a subculture to the mainstream culture which regards man as the centre in the old system. Convergence of the psychology and culture of women constrained to the bottom level of society is what gives Nü Shu its very great cohesiveness and ensuring its survival. Nü Shu uses its cultural strength to unite those simple rural peasant women during the process of making female friends, which ultimately strengthens women's collective ego consciousness and group consciousness. Hence, through confiding troubles to each other and exchanging opinions, it helps to ease the psychological pressure of dealing with the heavy load of life. It has condoled, saved and supported the women of the peasant family at the bottom of the social and economic power structure Still today, when meeting some difficulties in more modern, civilized society, Nü Shu is providing a social function, allowing the confiding of troubles and exchanging of views, and so is still maintaining its unique value. In summary, then, the functions of Nü Shu include a means for communication and cohesion, amusement and accommodation, and conveyance of custom etiquette, and so is enlightening by education and teaching, while being saved by materialization and demonstrating its general sociological significance (See Xie Zhimin 2003,90-92; Xie Zhimin 2001, 31-33).

Philological value

Nü Shu is first a set of characters. It is a set of self-created, systematic, ripe characters symbolizing systems of women in peasant families, making it unique in today’s world. There are four kinds of strokes in Nü Shu: bit, vertical, oblique, and arc, whereas there are eight separate strokes composing Han characters. Its most characteristic stroke is its “arc stroke”, whose radian is large or small, and changeful. This character’s various physiques mostly take the form of a long italic diamond. The upper right corner is usually the peak of the whole word, and the lower left corner is a bottom of the entire word. Nü Shu characters are written from the top to the bottom, from the right to the left. There is no punctuation mark, no divided paragraph, and they are written as a whole. Nü Shu’s grapheme is beautiful and very thin; the model is peculiar, neat and well-balanced. Nü Shu is full of classic elegance, also reflected in the style of xiaozhuan characters [the Official Script of Qin], as well as containing the forceful and vigorous style of inscriptions found on bones or tortoise shells. Recognition of these characters has not only offered new material for philology but also put forward some important academic subjects deserving of study. Some of these issues worth studying include examining the relationship between Nü Shu and the inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells, the relationship between Nü Shu and the ancient Yue ethnic group or Miao and Yao ethnic groups, the relationship between Nü Shu and Chinese character regular script, the way Nü Shu was created, the method of language recording, and the position of Nü Shu in philology.

Literary value

The Nü Shu characters present a kind of talking and singing literature, a courtyard song-hall literature for self-recreation. It is an unique artistic wonder in the literature garden, both because it is tied to women only and because it arose out of the experiences of a poorer and less formally educated group. In view of the content of its works, Nü Shu literature reveals bitter feelings as its core, and mainly reflects women's married life in the south of the Five Ridges, including social communication, religious beliefs, folk customs, etc. The growing recognition given to Nü Shu has brought magnificent splendor to the dark and unglazed reality of these women’s daily lives; this academic and international recognition has also brought bright hope to lives formerly drenched with tears. Nü Shu has constructed a romantic spiritual kingdom based on the realistic sufferings of these women, through the literary means, therefore attaining special aesthetic value for us all.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Proposal text, slides), 2007-9-17
  2. 1 2 3 Zhao 2006, p. 162
  3. Chiang 1995, p. 20
  4. 1 2 Chiang 1995, p. 22
  5. Zhao 2006, p. 247
  6. 1 2 3 Zhao Liming, "The Women's Script of Jiangyong". In Jie Tao, Bijun Zheng, Shirley L. Mow, eds, Holding up half the sky: Chinese women past, present, and future, Feminist Press, 2004, pp. 39–52. ISBN 978-1-55861-465-9
  7. 1 2 Additional text - Chapter 12, An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, Jeff Connor-Linton and Ralph Fasold, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-84768-1
  8. "Last inheritress of China's female-specific languages dies". News.xinhuanet.com. 2004-09-23. Retrieved 2012-10-03.
  9. A language by women, for women, Washington Post, Feb 24, 2004
  10. "Language dies with woman". London: Observer.guardian.co.uk. 2004-09-26. Retrieved 2012-10-03.
  11. Jon Watts (2005-09-22). "Jon Watts, The forbidden tongue, The Guardian 23 September 2005". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2012-10-03.
  12. "Proposed New Characters: Pipeline Table". Unicode Consortium. 2016-01-21. Retrieved 2016-01-23.


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