I have always been fascinated with writing. My mother used to read me the Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling, and I loved hearing the stories ‘How the first letter was written’ and ‘How the alphabet was made’. When I was a small child, I saw writing as a way of giving importance to my thoughts and experiences. From the time I was eight years old, I carried a small notebook and pencil around with me, wherever I went. My writings ranged from lists to observations of my world and the people in it. As I grew older, my notebooks grew larger, I kept observing and now my notebooks contain story ideas, scenes that pop into my head, prose. I always took writing for granted. I don’t remember learning to write, just that I always had. Writing gave me a sense of control over my life, that as a frequently bullied child I sorely needed.
I was interested to discover while doing my linguistics course this year, that there was a writing system invented by women and used exclusively by women. It is the only written language by women that has been discovered in the world! Nüshu means ‘women’s writing’ or ‘women’s script’ and arose in the Hunan prefecture in ancient China. No one can determine where it came from, or who invented it. It was a secret script, and only a written language — it was never spoken. Poor and working-class women of that time weren’t allowed education to learn the Chinese script, and were confined to home life while the men worked in the fields. The women were further confined by the Confucian patriarchy of their time — to be obedient first to their father, second to their husband, third to their son.
Women used it to communicate to each other, to express their feelings and frustrations with their lives. Using the language gave the women the freedom to express themselves. The works created varied widely. There were accounts of local events, poetry and stories, letters, instructions and prayers. Close relationships and social networks were formed between the women, some becoming ‘sworn sisters’ and ‘sames’. Sworn sisters were two girls who made a pledge to treat each other as sisters for the rest of their lives. They wrote to each other, visited when they could, recorded their vows to each other in Nüshu.
Here’s an example, written in a letter to an ‘Elder sister’, expressing grief and loneliness.
“Joining the Lu household was deathly oppressive,
Old and young, the lot of them, inhuman.
The mother-in-law had her own way,
There was sky all right, just no sun…
When I’d been there nine years going on ten,
I had my precious son — I was so happy.
When my son was two,
His mouth got dry and he went to the underworld.
His death cut like a knife…”
The Nüshu writing system was taught orally, passed down from grandmother to granddaughter or mother to daughter, or from female friends and relatives. Knowledge of Nüshu was respected, and granted a higher social status amongst the women. When a woman died, often her Nüshu works would be burned or buried with her, so she could bring them with her in her next life through reincarnation. This practice has meant that much of the evidence of Nüshu has been lost.
Nüshu started dying out in the early 20th century when social change reached China, and women were allowed to be formally educated and learn Chinese. For a time, those who wrote Nüshu were targeted by the government, who saw the writing system as an evil feudal leftover and a lot of materials were destroyed.
I find it immensely encouraging to read about women who still find ways to express themselves despite the oppression that they live under. Hundreds of years separate us, yet women are still feeling and caring about similar things. Writing systems are important tools in our drive to express our creativity, share our experiences, and forge relationships.
Do you use writing as a way of expressing yourself? What medium do you use to share your experiences? How do you nurture your friendships?