Have You Heard of ‘Nüshu’?

Have You Heard of ‘Nüshu’? | One Hour Translation

The story of women who developed a method whereby they could communicate with each other by creating a set of characters that only they could interpret.

While surfing the net this week I accidentally came across a documentary about a group of women living in Hunan, which is a very remote region of southern China. These amazing women have a unique and extremely interesting history to contribute to the world of languages and translation.

The Desire to Communicate

Have you heard the old saying ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’? Well that’s what happened here! These women developed a method whereby they could communicate with each other by creating a set of characters that only they could interpret. You must remember that between the 17th and 20th centuries women in China had no access to formal education, so these women developed the Nüshu script (which literally means ‘women’s writing’) so they could communicate between themselves.

It appears that some of the characters used in the Nüshu language were invented, while others were borrowed from Chinese. Either way, they’re all represented with a more cursive, thinner front than Chinese characters which are usually written in a square-shaped way. But, similar to Chinese, Nüshu is also written in columns from top to bottom, with the columns being written from right to left.

The Secret Language of Women

In ancient Hunan it was only males who had access to teachings of Nan Shu (meaning men’s writing) and so the women of the region invented Nüshu; a secret language to be used only by women. The method by which they communicated is fascinating! The idea was to keep their communications secret, so these mothers, daughters, granddaughters, sisters and friends communicated via the Nüshu language through painting paper fans and embroidery on scarves.

In this way the language was passed down through generations, being translated from mother to daughter, friend to friend. Most of their writings are poems with verses varying from five to seven characters. At times the characters served as decorative paintings on crafts or as decorative frames, due to the scripts more aesthetic and stylized appearance when compared to its masculine equivalent.

The Freedom to Communicate

Following the Chinese Revolution when women were finally granted access to education the Nüshu language fell into disuse. So, even though this language is no longer used it serves as the perfect example of how vital communication is between people: there’s always the desire to convey our feelings, stories and our thoughts and to be able to do so free from external constraints or restrictions.