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China's Mother Tongue Is Dying

Generations of women passed down a unique form of writing that was kept away from men. Now a 95-year-old may be the last alive who grew up using nushu.

April 15, 2002|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JIANGYONG, China — Stooped over like a wilted rose, 95-year-old Yang Huanyi hobbles out of her tiny, spartan home to receive guests who come calling from around the world.

In her gnarled hands she clutches a rough-hewn notebook. It is the reason so many foreigners journey to this bucolic corner of southern China to visit her.

On its pages Yang has written the woeful story of a girl trapped in an unhappy marriage, a common lot among women in rural China. But the tale is not what attracts attention. It is how Yang recorded it: in a unique form of writing invented and passed down through generations by the women of Jiang-yong--and kept apart from their fathers, husbands and sons.

Long before Western pop psychologists coined the concept of "he said, she said," the women here were putting it into living, daily practice. Using their special form of communication--called nushu, or women's script, in Chinese--they carved out their own private linguistic space in a world dominated by men.

It was a rare act of female solidarity in one of the world's oldest civilizations, kept mostly hidden from public view until 20 years ago.

The language, mainly written but sometimes spoken or sung, enabled its users to share thoughts, spread gossip and swap experiences at a time when most of their sex in China were illiterate and often denied identities apart from their menfolk.

Confined to the home, the women of Jiangyong transformed objects of daily life into tools of greater intellectual independence. They copied down their writings in books, embroidered them into handkerchiefs and painted them onto paper fans.

Their stories are recognizable to women everywhere. Wistful nushu poems lament over faraway friends, letters complain of nasty husbands and nastier mothers-in-law, jealous tales attack enemies and rivals.

The women circulated their texts among close companions, "sworn sisters" who formed small sororities that became crucial female support networks in the face of male domination.

"Beside a well, one does not thirst," a popular nushu saying holds. "Beside a sister, one does not despair."

Scholars believe that Yang is the last woman alive who grew up with nushu as a vital part of her girlhood and adult life, the sole survivor of a tradition that will die when she does.

Already, her hands are too unsteady to write much. The soul mates who once deciphered her script, giggled at her jokes, cried at her losses and then wrote back about their own lives are gone.

And the younger generation, Yang's granddaughters and great-granddaughters, has no use for nushu. "Nobody's learning it now," Yang lamented. "They all go out to work."

A handful of Chinese and Western scholars is working to preserve the script, as are a few local women and government officials who hope to exploit its tourist value.

But like Latin, nushu has ceased to function as a living language, driven to obsolescence by the universality of Mandarin Chinese and the availability of public education for girls, who see no need for a secret form of communication as their mothers once did.

"It has no pertinence to anyone's lives anymore," said Cathy L. Silber, an authority on nushu who teaches at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Because the script was never codified, and because of slight variations from village to village, no precise count exists of the number of nushu characters invented over the years. Experts put the figure at between 600 and 1,000. Mandarin Chinese, by contrast, boasts at least 50,000 characters.

Unlike their Mandarin Chinese counterparts, nushu characters do not represent meanings but sounds. Visually, some nushu writing resembles Chinese, perhaps because wives and daughters watched their husbands and brothers learn the dominant language, memorized a few characters and then modified them for their own use.

But mostly, nushu and Chinese look as different as female and male, almost literally. Classic Chinese characters are bold and boxy, whereas nushu characters are wispy, often curvy and written at an elegant slant. Local residents liken nushu characters to the hieroglyphic-like scratchings on oracle bones, the earliest evidence of writing discovered in China.

Through generations, mothers passed on their knowledge of nushu to their daughters. Grandmothers taught granddaughters while they worked together at home, spinning, sewing, cooking and singing, segregated from the men.

"We lived upstairs and didn't even go downstairs, much less go out to work," Yang recalled.

Occasionally, elite families hired tutors for their daughters. Female teachers could thus teach nushu in more formalized settings.

Yang learned alongside a neighbor girl, Gao Yinxian, who eventually became a prolific nushu author. "I was about 10 years old or so," Yang said. "I was so happy first learning to sing the songs and then how to write."

Men Just Didn't Listen

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