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Obituaries

Yang Huanyi; Last Speaker of a Secret Women's Language

September 28, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

Yang Huanyi, the last surviving writer and speaker of an enigmatic language invented and used only by women in a small pocket of central China, has died. She was believed to be in her late 90s.

Yang died Sept. 20 at her home in Jiangyong, a bucolic county in Hunan province, the official New China News Agency reported.

For years, Yang was the lone survivor of a generation of women in Jiangyong whose mothers and grandmothers had passed down the art of nushu, a secret script they developed to share their joys and sorrows, hopes and fears away from the prying eyes of men.

Confined to the home, the women of Jiangyong traded gossip, spread news and lamented their lots in letters, poems and songs that they collected in books, embroidered into handkerchiefs or painted on fans. At a time in China when most females were illiterate and considered the property of men, these women turned objects of domestic life into avenues of escape and found solace among "sworn sisters" with whom they communicated in their own language.

"When I learned nushu, it was to meet with friends and sisters to exchange our thoughts and letters," Yang told The Times in an interview two years ago. "We wrote what was in our hearts, our feelings."

The existence of nushu remained largely unnoticed until 20 years ago, when local scholars began to take interest in preserving it and the texts written by women in decades past. The language's origins are mysterious: Various legends say that it had antecedents in a tribal tongue more than 2,000 years old or that it was created by a clever girl from Jiangyong who was forced to become an imperial concubine and wanted to find a way to write home, in code.

Whatever its true origin, scholars say nushu dates at least to the mid-19th century, because a coin was discovered from that era bearing nushu characters.

Nushu, which means "women's script" in Chinese, is mostly a written language, consisting of up to 2,000 characters. By contrast, Mandarin Chinese boasts at least 50,000 characters. Nushu characters are curvy, wispy and relatively simple, more akin to the ancient scratchings on Chinese oracle bones than to their complicated modern, boxy Chinese counterparts.

Yang began learning nushu when she was about 10, alongside a neighbor, Gao Yinxian, who eventually became a prolific and admired author of nushu letters and verse. "I was so happy first learning to sing the songs and then how to write," Yang recalled.

Many of the extant nushu texts are in the form of special compilations presented to a bride by the female members of her family, clothbound booklets in which songs and poems bewail the imminent departure of the bride from her childhood home. Other nushu letters tell of unhappy marriages, pass along juicy tidbits of gossip or lambaste the recipient in hilariously acid tones.

"At least animals go into heat in season," one angry woman wrote another. "But you.... "

A few even treat political subjects, such as one song from the early 20th century that criticized China's government for drafting too many sons into the army.

As education for girls increased, nushu's usefulness declined. During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, it was denounced as a feudal leftover by China's Communist authorities. The women who once found it a source of liberation were forced to denounce it, and many texts were destroyed.

Yang became a minor celebrity in her hometown. She was invited to attend an international women's conference sponsored by the U.N. in Beijing in 1995 and received visits from scholars and journalists.

By the end of the 1990s, she was the only practitioner left, the New China News Agency reported.

Her exact age was unknown, but in her interview with The Times two years ago, she said she was 95. She lived with her son in a tiny, barely furnished home in a backwater village where life seemed little changed from decades past.

By then, her diminutive figure was stooped with age, her face wizened, her hair and teeth nearly gone. But she could still enthrall visitors by singing nushu songs in a quavery voice, the last keeper of a remarkable tradition.

"Now," she had said ruefully, "there's no use learning it anymore."

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