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 Nüshu is still widely debated by scholars, there are records of usage that date back to the Qing dynasty, transmitted from generation to generation through matrilineal descent.
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 only 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.
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 a few 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
, although digital support for Nüshu still remain scarce, if not virtually non-existent.