Shhhh, China’s secret female language
by Jaime Tong
VANCOUVER (CUP)-You hold in your hand a crisp white paper fan from your sworn sister. The vellum crackles as you slide it open to reveal a poem that she has written along the folds. If she were there with you, she would sing it to you to express her support and friendship.
Only you and your "sworn sisters," a group of close friends, can read this poem - it is written in a language called Nu Shu, a language that has been passed on from one generation of women to the next in the southern Chinese province of Hunan. No one knows for sure, but some estimate the language is almost 1000 years old.
The first time local documentary filmmaker Yue-Qing Yang heard about Nu Shu was when she was in Beijing to attend the fourth United Nations World Conference on Women. She was at the conference to present a work in progress - a documentary on foot binding - when she heard about the existence of the language, now kept alive by only a tiny group of elderly women in the villages of Hunan.
"Once I heard that women actually have their own writing, their own way of communication, I mean, that was really intriguing," said Yang. "So I had to know. I had to find out what it is, what they do, what their secret communication is, what they communicate about.
"The way they ‘read’ their writing is to sing it. Formally, it is written all in poetic form, like seven or five characters per line."
Nu Shu, which is Chinese for "women’s writing," was once written and sung by many of the women in Hunan villages of the Jian-yong region, but the number of women who fluently read and write the language has dwindled.
The language and the women who used it are chronicled in Yue-Qing Yang’s documentary, Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China.
"These old ladies are beautiful," said Yang. "They are strong and they carry the strength of the Chinese women as a whole. What can say more than if, for centuries, for thousands of years, the women don’t get an education, yet they invent a writing for themselves."
Yang made several visits to Hunan over four years to film the documentary. "I’ve lived with them and shared their homes, which was great. I think I developed a very intimate relationship."
Although Yang’s isn’t the only film about Nu Shu, the movie’s intimate feeling sets Yang’s documentary apart from the rest. China’s Central TV (CCTV) went into the region a few years ago to document the dying language, but as Yang explained, "Beijing hired a male director from CCTV to make a documentary about Nu Shu, which only treats Nu Shu as a tourist attraction."
Her outrage grows as she said, "You know, it was like the producer was thinking ‘who is going to see old ladies?’ To them, [the Beijing team] these old ladies are ugly." During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the Red Guard prosecuted women who used Nu Shu, burning books and artifacts, and sometimes the women themselves.
Nu Shu was thought of as "old culture" by the government, and because only women were fluent in it, Nu Shu writings were suspected as spy documents. Nu Shu wasn’t always written into books. It was embroidered into handkerchiefs, woven into cloth, written onto fans. The language itself is very different from written Chinese. Each Nu Shu character represents a syllable, so it was more accessible to women because one only needed to learn about 300 characters to be able to write it. On the other hand, in order to read and write fluent Chinese, also known as Nan Shu, or men’s writing, one needs to learn several thousand characters. Unfortunately, as more women started attending university, less of them were able to keep Nu Shu alive. Yang’s documentary examines the subculture that surrounds Nu Shu, as well Nu Shu’s function in the women’s lives.
Nu Shu was a means of communicating with other sworn sisters about abusive marriages, the isolation of arranged marriages and the liberation in widowhood.
A line from a Nu Shu poem reads, "Beside a well, one won’t thirst; beside a sister, one won’t despair." Although Nu Shu is very nearly a dead language, it fostered that sense of sisterhood. And although the language is dying, the bond it created has been passed on to subsequent generations.