In the mountainous country of Jiangyong, in Hunan Province, Hu Xin is working to welcome the team of a popular reality show to learn about nushu, a writing system that may look like a series of symbols at first glance. Xin, a resident aged 29, reproduces these unusual characters.
Nushu, a word meaning feminine writing is derived from ordinary Chinese characters. It was once used by the women of Jiangyong. This variant of Chinese writing, which is normal, finer, and apparently leaning as in italics, is often described as unique in the world to have survived as a system of characters intended exclusively for women. In 2006, it was classified as part of the national intangible cultural heritage.
Formerly, elderly women taught nushu to house girls, as girls were not allowed to attend school. At gatherings in villages, women used characters to write poems and lyrics of songs expressing their feelings unbeknownst to men.
Xin discovered nushu when she was eight years old. Having carefully practiced handwriting throughout her school years, she is now one of the youngest of the seven heirs certified as a written form of the language. Her work has been exhibited in public, including at the Shanghai Expo in 2010. “It takes patience to examine the whole cultural dimension of this writing system,” she says.
Zhao Liming, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who has been studying nushu for more than 30 years, is considered China’s best specialist in this field. She explains that unlike the written Chinese writing, where each character is a constituent element of a word, in nushu, which is based on a local dialect, each character represents a syllable. She found over 220,000 words and discovered that only 396 characters were commonly used. “But they are enough to communicate the feelings of people,” she says.
As part of a project hosted by Zhao Liming, Talkmate, an online language education system based in Beijing, is developing a phone app to expand the teaching of nushu to more students, learners. The teacher hopes that the app will help correct misconceptions about nushu in the population.
For example, people often mistake characters for symbols of any secret worship. Nushu is not exclusively linked to an ethnic group in particular since the population of Jiangyong is diverse and varied, Zhao Liming emphasizes.
Although many ancient poems in nushu have been autobiographical writings of women speaking of their difficulties in life, she notes the absence of any expression of feelings as negative as suicidal thoughts. “The words were full of messages of encouragement and positive energy, testifying to an unconventional openness among women at the time.”
Zhou Youguang, a regretted linguist, saw in nushu “an early instrument of women’s liberation”.
Zhao Liming attributes the current revival of characters to the promotion of self-expression that modern society favors. “With the advent of public education and the right of women to go to school, nushu has lost its functionality. But the current feminist ideas are accentuated.
The last natural heiress of nushu still alive, whom the professor describes as such, is 77 years old. Younger practitioners, such as Hu Xin, learned the writing system at school. “It’s not a natural heritage because of today, people’s lifestyles are totally different. Be that as it may, new ways must be found to prevent it from disappearing. ”
Zhao Liming believes that since nushu is a syllabic writing, it can theoretically be translated into other writing systems, adding that it is thus able to integrate modern content and ensure the continuity of its existence.Nevertheless, it warns that culture
Nevertheless, it warns that culture cannot be consumed in a superficial way. Thus, in recent years in Jiangyong, it has found many newly created characters. There are counterfeits of old books in nushu. In the neighboring province of Hubei, the so-called village of Nushu was once created by a company that recruited people from Jiangyong to come and practice the handwriting of the same name.
Thanks to the efforts of Zhao Liming, nushu was integrated into the Unicode standard at the beginning of the year. “We feared that the nushu would die, but now we are afraid that his typography will be lost,” says the professor. “Modern adaptation is inevitable to prevent crops from disappearing, but regulation is needed.”