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In 1982, a Chinese teacher discovered a language spoken only by women. It has been passed on for centuries; locals in Jiangyong County, in China's Hunan Province, call it nushu — literally, "women's script." (By far the best description of the language I've found is on World of Nushu, a website maintained by a Japanese scholar.)

Today there remain only two women who know the language. In 1999 they were the topic of a documentary shown at a Vancouver film festival (which in turn inspired one article in London's Sunday Times, and another in the Guardian.)

Now, China's People's Daily reports that "a protection zone will be set up" to preserve the language. The BBC sheds some light on what this might mean: The Chinese government has earmarked some $1 million to build a museum and compile a dictionary for the endangered language.

"Nobody learns it now," the oldest surviving speaker (who's now either 93 or 95, depending on the source) recently told the Los Angeles Times. "They all go to work."

Of course, modern women also know that most men can't understand them even when they do speak the same language....

June 4, 2002 8:42 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

I have a fan with nushu characters on the guardsticks. Is there anyone out there who could translate them for me?

Posted by John Price on January 9, 2003 2:50 PM

I have some basic knowledge of the script and a character reference source. Depending on the legibility, I should at least be able to come up with a Chinese translation.

Posted by D Kai on December 29, 2003 2:55 AM

This ancient system is based on a woman having sworn sisters(usually seven?) .There are still women who use this language, though more when singing . It is mainly known as a writing system , but is also known for embroidery, sworn sisterhood and singing. The last natural heir to the language, Yang Huanyi, is 95 years old . She is still capable of producing poems and songs even though she is in the decling years of her life.This is this literally a "dying language."
I think it is important to remember that this system was used by women who for centuries were not socially the same as men. In the past where two floor houses were the norm in Hunan province, the women (with bound feet) were restricted to the top floor, so they didn't go to school to learn "Chinese" and instead had this sister language to talk to fellow women/ sisters in the same situation.
Now of course poeple are learning the language but this perhaps is more for the tourism opportunities that are inevitably going to follow in this beautiful and so far unspoilt part of southern China.

Posted by johnnie wintle on April 2, 2004 9:16 AM

My name is Kris, and I am a third year Anthropolog student. I am currently in a directed study program, my topic is the Nushu language. I am trying to locate a dictionary of the Nushu language. I would appreciate if any body can tell me where I could acquire one. I live in Nanaimo Britiash Columbia.


Posted by Anonymous on April 6, 2004 7:33 PM

I would love to know the symbol for the word "family" in Nushu.

Posted by Priscilla Faria on May 11, 2004 10:52 PM

I am a language teacher in a busy school in Oxford, England and today we celebrated International Language Day.
I was amazed to discover by chance about the Nushi language, a women-only language!
Reading through the reports, it seems that all writers assume that the position of woman has always been as an underdog. Why make this assumption?
From my perspective, I find it possible to believe that this langauge was conceived, sung (spoken) and written by women and possibly had very widespread usage. With cultural changes and greater dominance by men in the society at large, it is conceivable that the language had to be used in secret and the network to communicate freely was gradually broken down by the implementation of rigorous territorial control.
Before I sign off I'd like to pay my respects to the last custodian of Nushi, whose death brought about a significant awareness of her language and a world-wide phenomenon.

Posted by Alison Fayers-Kerr on September 24, 2004 10:53 AM

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