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NVSHU SANS:
Proposing & Designing a Heiti Font for an Ancient Chinese Women’s Script

HISTORY & CONTEXT

What is Nüshu?

Nüshu (女书), which means “women’s writing” in Chinese, is an ancient syllabic script invented and used exclusively by women from the small village of Jiangyong County, located inside the southwestern Hunan Province of China. Aided by the mountainous geography of the region, the script remained in virtual secrecy from the outside world until the 1980s, when it was first “discovered” by Chinese scholar Gong Zhebing, whose pioneering research on Nüshu introduced the script to the Chinese public and put Nüshu on the map of endangered ancient scripts. While the exact origin of Nushu is still widely debated by scholars, there are records of usage that date back to over a thousand years, transmitted from generation to generation through matrilineal descent.

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Although evidence of women’s literacy and literature of traditional Chinese characters (hanzi 汉字) has been documented since the first century B.C.E., formal education and use of classical Chinese script were available almost exclusively to women of the gentry class who resided in more affluent, urban areas. Prior to the 20th century, the rural women of Jiangyong country were not only denied of formal literacy education, but the inherent visual and semantic complexity of hanzi functioned as a tool of exclusion and prestige. It is therefore under this highly sex-segregated social context that Jiangyong women developed a writing system of their own, maneuvering strategically under patriarchal constraints in an effort to communicate, voice, and record their life narratives and daily grievances through the medium of songs, poems, letters, embroideries, and fan calligraphy.

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However, since the Communist Revolution of 1949, Nüshu slowly fell out of use as women were granted equal access to state-sponsored public education, under the socialist agenda of achieving “gender equality.” Moreover, Nüshu became condemned by the Maoist state as a “witch’s script” during the Cultural Revolution, and many texts and artifacts were burned, further ensuring the script’s dying vitality. The line of transmission was officially broken when Yang Huanyi, the last native writer and speaker of Nüshu, died in 2004.

On a more optimistic note, efforts to revive the script are currently being carried out by numerous scholars in both China and the West, particularly those from Tsinghua University and Southwest Minzu University. In 2017, over 600 Nüshu glyphs were encoded in Unicode 10.0.0. Digital support for Nüshu is still virtually non-existent, although github user Chromezh has recently created a Nüshu input keyboard for Windows users.

Features of the Nüshu Script

Visually, the Nüshu has often been described as an “italicized” variant of Chinese characters, appearing narrower and more elongated than the square, boxy hanzi characters. Similar to the hanzi character “多,” the defining features of Nüshu are its long, arced strokes that slope towards one side. Zhao Liming’s comparative research has revealed that more than 80% of Nüshu characters were “systematically redeveloped” from the square Chinese characters. Over 100 Nüshu characters borrow the whole Chinese character and “turn the square from into an italicized form,” while some others are “italicized in the direction opposite to the original” (Zhao, 129). About another 150 characters are “recognizable adaptations” of Chinese characters, often achieved through reducing strokes or simplifying certain elements of the original.

Unlike the logographic script of hanzi in which every 20,000-or-so character is assigned a semantic function, Nushu has a phonetic syllabary consisting of only around 1,000 phonetic signs that correspond to a sound in the local dialect. Therefore, reading and writing in Nüshu is highly contextual since one is able to use homophones to achieve a variety of meanings.

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DESIGN GOALS & CHALLENGES

Why design a font for Nüshu?

  1. Language Revitalization

    Even though Nushu has been encoded by Unicode, the lack of essential digital support such as fonts and keyboards obstruct the creation of digital online content. Although there are communities of scholars and young learners who are invested in learning and revitalizing Nüshu, the lack of digital resources that can be used to represent and teach Nüshu ensures that the actual script remain inaccessible to those outside of scholarship circles or the Jiangyong county itself.

    As Andras Kornai and Gary F. Simons has outlined in “A scale for assessing digital language vitality,” fonts, among other digital support tools, are a crucial component of achieving digital ascent among endangered languages since it allows writers of that language to generate, access, and record content in their script through digital devices.

    The creation of a new font may support an increase in the digital inscription of prominent Nüshu texts as well as the proliferation of digitized instructional materials for learning and revitalizing the script.

  2.  Standardization & Compatibility with Modern Digital Aesthetics

    The Nüshu glyphs that correspond to each Unicode code point are scans of a local calligrapher’s handwriting. No unified standards currently exist for writing or representing Nüshu. The same graphs from different writing samples vary in form, making it difficult to determine the essential features of a character. A key motivation behind designing a Nüshu font is thus to digitally standardize the script with modern digital aesthetics so that it can be seamlessly integrated with other CJK fonts on the digital plane.

  3. Symbol for Women’s Empowerment in China

    Zhao Liming, a prominent Nüshu scholar, says that the script represents a “culture of sunshine which allows women to speak up with their own voices and to fight against male chauvinism.” Despite a global resurgence in feminist movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, contemporary feminist voices in China are often seen as a threat to political stability and are thus routinely censored by the state. By creating digital support for Nüshu, there is a potential to revive this gendered script as an alternative symbol and tool of online female expression in China.

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Challenges of Designing an Unstandardized Script

  • No access to native reader or writer of Nüshu — designers who are working to create fonts for a language they don’t natively read or write should ideally collaborate with people that do to ensure the legibility of the font. But because so few writers and scholars exist (especially in the U.S.) I was not able to consult an expert for this project.

  • Working with poor scans of handwritten texts — this is sort of a Catch-22 situation in that my effort to digitize the script is constrained precisely by the lack of online Nüshu resources available. Every handwritten sample reflects the varying styles of its author. Without a history of standardization, it is difficult for me to identify what elements of each character are necessary for letterform identification. Where should a stroke begin and end? Which elements are ornamental and which are absolutely essential? Where should this dot be positioned relative to the stroke?

  • Every single character needs to be individually designed — although Nüshu is much more economical than hanzi, there are still over 600 characters with its own unique proportions and stroke alignments that need to be individually accounted for. Due to time constraints, I’ve chosen around 40 characters to start with for the purpose of this project.

 

DESIGN PROCESS

I. Research & Preliminary Sketching

I consulted a total of three different sources of classified Nüshu glyphs to gauge what the “ideal form” of each character should look like. One is obviously the handwritten glyphs provided by Unicode. The other two are from the Nüshu Dictionary and the Nüshu Calligraphy Book. The website www.nushuscript.org proved to be an invaluable resource in helping me compare different glyphs as well as converting text from hanzi to Nüshu.


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Then, I proceeded to familiarize myself with how the characters looked by writing and sketching them out on paper.

II. Digitization & Experimentation with Stroke Styles

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III. Standardization

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REFLECTION

  • The Politics of Typefaces — My decision to design a heiti (黑体) font (the equivalent of sans serif for Chinese typefaces) was made with the intention of making Nüshu more compatible with other CJK fonts utilized on digital user interfaces. Sans serif/heiti fonts are characterized by their clean, modern look and are considered more readable on a digital screen, especially at smaller sizes. However, the “simplicity” of sans serif fonts and the ubiquity of Helvetica stem from a very Western notion of utilitarianism, minimalism, and universalism. In designing a heiti font for Nüshu, many of the decorative elements of the script that give the script its distinct look — the organic strokes, the tapering tips, etc. — had to be reduced for the sake of uniformity and functionality. In the future, I would like to try designing a songti (equivalent of serif) font for Nüshu that strives to preserve some of the original elements of the script.

  • Revitalization vs. Surveillance — I had mentioned previously that the creation of a Nüshu font may support the usage of the script as a new tool of feminist communication and expression. Paradoxically, however, the standardization of a font makes a script much more available for state surveillance, which is a real concern and threat that Chinese feminists face today. The conflicting goals of language revitalization and information privacy is a unique challenge of the 21st century that we still do not have an adequate solution for. In what ways can we envision and carry out a script’s digital ascent that protects the privacy of its speakers and writers?