The old woman had fainted and lay unmoving. No wonder, crowded Chinese train stations on a summer afternoon had caused younger and stronger bodies to swoon. The guards who searched her for identification stumbled on a book with unrecognizable characters, slender and spidery, where Chinese characters were blocky and solid. Even if these hadn’t been the chaotic days of the Cultural Revolution, the guards might have reported her to the police, who detained her on suspicions of being a spy. Only when local scholars identified the characters as purportedly extinct nu shu, “woman’s writing”, were the charges dropped; the scholars were re-educated for their trouble.
If the Revolution had truly been about the triumph of the oppressed, however, the scholars and the old woman would have been feted, not banished. Whatever subclass or minority one might care to propose as China’s most downtrodden, the women in that group were at least one notch further down. It was divine order, as Kongzi himself had decreed.
But no tradition yet devised by man can entirely crush the seeds of intellect and creation. Prisoners invent codes, and respectable Chinese wives for centuries were prisoners, if relatively well fed and housed. The wide world outside their homes was forbidden them, and their feet were slowly crushed into the shape of three-inch lilies, beginning at the age of seven. Bound feet were considered the paradigm of Chinese feminine beauty, but they spoke of women’s hobbled rights louder than any decree.
With no school to nurture their discounted intellects, and no labor manageable on warped feet, village groups of seven-year olds would form sisterhoods, under the encouragement and supervision of a matron. Outside of her family life, spent largely in the “woman’s chamber”, this was her social milieu. If she was fortunate, her mother might bid the matchmaker to find her not only a husband but also a lao tong, a life-long female companion. If a girl with the requisite characteristics of birth year and family standing could be found, the two would be life-long soul mates, once removed, to give each other the spiritual and emotional fulfillment not even factored into marriages.
It was among these bound-female societies and pairings that nu shu flourished. The Chinese love to ascribe origins to royal intrigue, and many ascribe nu shu to a Hunan concubine of a Song emperor. Disillusioned with court life, she invented the script to tell friends and family back home the truth of her situation.
There is a germ of truth in the tale, inasmuch as scholars identify the southeast corner of Hunan as the home of woman’s writing. This is the home of the Yao, a minority people as ancient as the Han, whose graceful script was all but erased during the Qin unification. Any man who used writing other than the prescribed Mandarin characters would be put to death. If women wanted to use some silly writing of their own device, what harm could that be?
The passage roughly translates as “They taught her to apply makeup and comb her hair; on her head she was wearing pearls that are shining magnificently; she is sitting like Guanyin out of a Buddhist shrine”.
So did the writing of the Yao pass exclusively into female custody. A phonetic system with an estimated 2,500 characters, nu shu embodies the ancient Yao dialect, one of the many tu hua, or “farmer’s language”, disdained by usurpers. Just as well for the women who used it. With it, they recorded the outrage they felt over their unjust fates, tempered over time to frustration, stoicism, and yearning for freedom from the world of men.
Existing samples of nu shu, often embroidered into clothing or painted on fans, tell stories.One tale describes a wife who escapes her arranged wedding night, revolted by how ugly her husband is. Another describes a woman so exasperated at her fiance’s postponement of their union, that she storms his home demanding a fixed date. Poems and lyrics also give evidence of these marginalized women’s creative yearnings.
Yet the most common function of nu shu was commemorative. Sisters sworn by their bound feet would create cloth-covered “third day books” (sanzhaoshu) to be presented to a fellow sister three days after her wedding. Although her days in the group were over, the songs and well-wishes contained in the books would serve as a talisman of reminiscence to lose herself in during the many lonely hours of the woman’s chamber.
There was space in the back of the book for a diary, and most women considered their books so precious that they were burned or buried with them at death, to take into the next world.
Happily, this almost lost writing of the dispossessed has turned into a tool for empowerment. Scholars are compiling a nu shu dictionary, and grants have made possibl a museum to preserve remaining third day books and embroidery. Best of all, Hunan’s impoverished Jiangyong township, the seat of nu shu writing, is experiencing an economic revitalization thanks solely to this female art. Roads, hotels and parks are springing up in the area, bringing ever more tourists to marvel at the songs and stories of the women (not the men), whose songs and stories remain as fragilely beautiful as the script they still use.