A Room of One鈥檚 Own: Woman鈥檚 Script 04-05-2005 17:30

Language, for men and women, old and young, rich and poor, perhaps it鈥檚 the only human activity that doesn鈥檛 discriminate against social status, age and gender, or does it?

For years, Rediscovering China has taken you to see the ancient nation through the eyes of foreigners, today, we will see it through the eyes of women. Hello I鈥檓 Laurel Bennett, and I鈥檓 from United States, and in today 鈥檚 show, we鈥檒l learn about what believed to be the worlds鈥 only writing system that belongs exclusively to women, and it鈥檚 hidden in the deep mountains of Southern China.

Our journey begins on the quiet campus of Tsinghua University, and a professor who has devoted 20 years to sustaining the last breath of a precious language.

Following in Professor Zhao鈥檚 footsteps, we came to Yong Zhou, where the Xiao and Xiang rivers merge. Rivers are known to be the cradle of human civilizations. I wonder if we can unveil the mysterious Nushu, or women鈥檚 script here?

Yong Zhou, located in southern China, lies 200 miles from Guangzhou, and is a place loaded with history. Previously called Lingling, this city was famous for its military significance. Here, women do not look very different from those in the rest of the province, and their Tuhua dialect, the dialect on which nushu is based, is also nothing special. Sometimes it鈥檚 even surprisingly familiar鈥

Voiceover: Today, language study is not something that we would think women would be prohibited from taking part in, but that wasn鈥檛 the case a few hundred years ago. At that time, the door to liberty and power in the elite culture was closed to women.

Hunan was famous for having many 鈥渂ook yards鈥, an ancient version of an academy. They were often located in beautiful, natural settings like this. Here members of the elite class often held discussions and were inspired to create works of literature and new theories of political thought. Through these relics, the walls, the roof, and stone benches, you can still hear some voices from the depths of history.

In feudal China, girls were not permitted to attend any schools, let alone academies. But it doesn鈥檛 mean they didn鈥檛 have a zeal for knowledge and literature. In 800 AD, Liu Zongyuan, an unlucky poet and writer was exiled to Yong Zhou for 10 years. He educated numerous local students, and in the small town, planted a love for culture.

Perhaps the social inequality in the culture triggered the invention of nushu, which was handed down secretly from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece. However, the long history of Yong Zhou has too many holes so that the exact age of nushu is unknown.

Long history plus a blend of Han and Yao minority culture has led to different speculations about the origin of Nushu.

Official research has yet to come to a conclusion, but the local people have their own interpretations.

Legend has it that a girl of Yong Zhou was chosen by the emperor to be his concubine. In seven years she only saw the emperor three times. She poured her sorrow-filled heart out in a letter to her relatives. In case the couriers read the letter and turned it over to the emperor, she invented a secret writing system based on the local dialect.

The strange letter was successfully interpreted and learned by the girl鈥檚 relatives. Using Nushu, local women wrote about their lives, joys, and many sorrows.

Some historical events have also appeared in Nushu writings. The invasion of Japanese in 1930鈥檚 for instance, and the Tai Ping Rebellion 200 years ago, which provided rare evidence by which to trace its origin.

This coin bears the oldest known nu shu writing. On one side are Chinese characters on the other, the delicate, italicized Nushu words.

The Tai Ping rebellion promised gender equality, and thus won support from many women, including the maker of this very special coin. Where was she from? The answer leads us to Dao Zhou in southern Yong Zhou city, where Tai Ping recruited many female soldiers.

It鈥檚 early spring. The vast land of Dao zhou County锛宩ust south of Yong Zhou, is already covered in green. Some old traditions don鈥檛 change with time, like starting farm work in late February. However, some things do changes: now, you can hardly hear the once prevalent crying wedding.

These women aren鈥檛 suffering; they are just giving us a hint as to what used to happen at local weddings. The bride would sing and cry with every member of the family in a certain tone. The lyrics are all about her sorrow, her hopes and uncertainty before leaving for the groom鈥檚 home. Actually, it was during this ritual, that Nushu writers showed their talents.

After the heart-wrenching revelation, the bride will bid her parents farewell and face the uncertain future. Like this typical Yao wedding. In southern Hunan, the Yao minority people live with Han people, but their colorful wedding clothing are easily recognized.

Three days after wedding, the bride would expect a visit from her girl friends and women relatives. They would bring some special gifts, among them, the 鈥渢hird day book鈥.

For both Yao and Han girls, these books are their most prized possession. From the graceful lines girls can read of their friends鈥 life experiences and their sentiments of best wishes and friendship.

The crying wedding tradition is closely linked with Nushu, but the happy tears didn鈥檛 lead us to the secret writing. Most of the local women learned some Chinese writing from the village schools or other family members. No nushu speaker or writer can be found. And even the slightest description of the writing is missing in the very detailed local annals. Can we find it in Dao Xian? Someone said yes, and he did, but a long time ago.

What the old man discovered, a fan covered in nushu writing, is an encouraging message. Because the fan is one of nushu writers鈥 favorite choices. So Tian Guangdong, the place where the old man found the fan might be a breakthrough.

Who took the fan with her to Dao Xian? A bride? An old lady visiting her friends? No one knows.

Nushu used to be a writing used only by women, but that鈥檚 no longer the case. The first local Nushu expert we met is, a man.

The village Mr. Zhou mentioned got our hopes up again. Residences with hundreds years鈥 of history are scattered along the river. Many of the village names were taken from ancient poems. They are simple and beautiful, the logical birthplace for the delicate characters.

In the last 100 years, according to a local scholar鈥檚 research, there have been 132 writers or speakers of Nushu in Jiang Yong County.

Many of the 1000 plus Nushu words were adopted from Chinese. Some are stretched and altered Chinese characters. Some others are italic reflections. 80% of Nushu words can be traced back to Chinese characters, though the former is based on sounds and the latter is on ideas. Of the remaining 20% of nushu words, some resemble the patterns on local clothes, and some others just take the shape of natural things. Take for example, the character for tree, seedling, and bird.

The local market is always crowded and noisy. Here you can find many patterned belts, which women use to hold their babies, and fasten baskets among numerous other uses. The patterns on the belts and quilts could be very complicated; some of them are nushu characters.

The local women love to show you their works. And if you are lucky enough, you might find some nushu belts, like we did.

I didn鈥檛 expect to find the insightful poem on the belt weaved by a woman who lived her whole life in the remote village. Actually He Yanxin is one of the few fluent nushu users who are still alive. She learned the writing from her grandmother.

Just like her grandmother, Ms. He sometimes sings Nushu songs at the village hall with her good friends. But they were not as close.

The ancient custom of 鈥渟worn sisters鈥 is what fostered nushu. Ms. He鈥檚 grandmother and women of that time often had 7 sworn sisters, comparing themselves to the legendary 7 fairies. Together they sang of the many sorrows in life, but also of their determination to hold on to their self-respect.

The melody can hardly be heard now, but whenever it is sung, those who are able to sing will soon come and join in. Today, most singers are nearing the end of their lives.

Singing of Nushu is definitely important, but it鈥檚 not the only aspect of Nushu. Still, Ms. He is not the most accomplished user.

Nushu has been known as a writing system, but its more than just putting pen to paper. The definition of a fluent Nushu user has four parts: singing, writing, embroidery and the sworn sisterhood. In the early 20th century, The Revolution empowered Chinese women. Given a much larger opportunity for development and communication, they didn鈥檛 need a tight sister hood to share sorrows and kill time anymore. Without sworn sisters, Nushu as a culture can鈥檛 be fully expressed today.

Sadness was the pervasive theme of Nushu speakers. Deaths of relatives, low social status, the hardship of lives鈥ll these trials were experienced by Yang Huanyi, the last breath of real Nushu culture.

no one knows exactly how old nushu is, but we do know the age of the last nature heir was 95.

It may seem that for some it is easy to give up on life, get old and die. But when one鈥檚 life so linked to the life or death of a language, it might be harder to close one鈥檚 eyes.

Yang Huanyi is fully aware of her responsibility. She has seen other natural nushu writers pass away, one after another, Yang works even harder to produce as many nushu pieces as possible.

Yang learned nushu as a girl and practiced the only writing she ever mastered with her sworn sisters. Her first husband died 3 months after their wedding. In her second marriage, only 3 of her 8 children survived. Now she lives with her son and daughter-in-law, both of whom are in their 60s, and have no interests in Nushu. Frequent visits from the media and scholars has changed their lives, but no one can alter the fact that the most accomplished user is towards the end of her life.

Gao Yinxian, Yi Nianhua, some of nushu users were discovered in their last years, more died and were buried without much notice.

95 year old Ms. Yang is still able to create poems and songs today. Every piece from her will be subject of research in the future.

When we finished shooting plan, Yang was moved back into her little hut. Breathing hard, she put away her stick. As the last natural heir of nushu, she hopes her image is strong and confident.

The community is really very compact. Behind each doors there are stories, each one is different in details, but the sadness was the same.

This village was built in 16th century. Every building has two floors. Because of their bounded feet, women were confined to the upper floor where they spent their whole lives. So they were called 鈥漸pper floor women鈥. Behind the window, they witnessed the changing of the seasons and their lives, and penned them in the secret writing. Nushu works are vivid pictures of their lives and a vision of the heaven they dreamed of. The content of Nushu has three layers. First, it is about the hardship of women鈥檚 lives. Secondly, it is about life鈥檚 routines and rituals. Thirdly, it is about the elite culture translated from Chinese, a world they hoped to enter but failed.

If those women could have been admitted to schools, if they could have learned Chinese writing, if they could have sat side by side with boys from childhood just like today, if they hadn鈥檛 suffered so much, we wouldn鈥檛 have the writing and the stories recorded by it, and the access to women 鈥檚 psyche.

It happened not just in China. Greatly influenced by Chinese culture, ancient Japanese and Korean women were once embroiled in the same quest for social equality. When Chinese characters prevailed in Japan, women developed a special writing system to write essays and diaries, which is today鈥檚 Japanese Kana. In another eastern Asian country, Korea, the emperor wanted to shake off the dominant Chinese writing too, but before the second world war, the Korean writing system invented by scholars was accepted only by women who where not allowed to learn Chinese. So, today鈥檚 Korean characters were at one time, another kind of female writing. Chinese, Nushu, Japanese Kana, and Korean writing formed a chain from ideogram to phonogram.

This $80,000 school and museum was built last year in Pumei. Hu Meiyue teaches nushu to village girls and women.

In the whole world there is only one natural heir of nushu and as we鈥檝e seen she is old. Besides, there are only a few other students of nushu. So the question is, whether the language and the culture around it disappear all together?

The 42 year old woman is now the youngest fluent user of female writing. Including yang Huanyi, He yanxin and her, there are only 4 women able to create new works with Nushu. She took the volunteer position, primarily, as a way to remember her grandmother who taught her the writing and singing 30 years ago. But, the purpose of her students might be preparation for coming tourism opportunities. For women like Hu Meiyue and the young generation, life is much more fast-paced. There is not much time to ponder on ones鈥 sorrow or to lament the passing of some old traditions.

As we came to the end of our journey, we stumbled upon a Nushu studio. Like everywhere else, the unique culture has been carefully manufactured and ready to sell. Girls in Yao minority clothing designed Nushu fans, and danced to attract the attention passersby and hopefully lure them into the souvenir store. Their singing is much different. We can鈥檛 help remembering the original melodies, and the page written in a world which once belonged exclusively to women and is now turning yellow in China鈥檚 history book.

Out of Jiang Yong鈥檚 19,000 residents, only four are fluent Nushu users, able to create new Nushu works.

There are only one and half natural heirs of nushu living in the world.

Author Virginia Woolf in her book 鈥淎 Room of One鈥檚 Own鈥 said given enough private space, women can create works as profound as men did. Nushu is a perfect example of Woolf鈥檚 confidence. It鈥檚 from the small village in Hunan,women created a large space in human history.


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