For Chinese Women's Ears Only

A 'secret' language of sisterhood nears extinction

Yang Huangyi closes her eyes, keeps time by tapping her foot on the dirt floor of her son's home in rural Heyun, China, and starts to sing in the Nushu, an ancient poetic dialect.

Her chant is an emotional one: She sings a medley of fragments from the songs she still remembers - songs of loneliness for sisters who are separated when married into other villages, songs of poverty and starvation.

Mrs. Yang is said to be the last woman alive who can read and write the ancient Nushu. A few other women in the village speak only a few words and phrases.

A phenomenon apparently unique to China, the Nushu, or ''women's language,'' is a 3,000-year-old language used exclusively by women; and it is on the verge of extinction.

''The Nushu is in great danger,'' says Zhou Shuoyi, widely acknowledged as the world's leading authority on the Nushu. ''Now we have only one woman left who can read and write it.''

This urgency seems to be lost on the Chinese government, which has done little to protect this little-known cultural treasure or to preserve it for posterity.

Ancient Chinese women were barred from formal education and were treated as illiterate and unthinking by men. So women of this region empowered themselves by creating their own language which uses a different set of characters. ''The men knew about Nushu activities, but they neither cared nor participated,'' Yang says.

Pictographic precursors of modern Nushu characters, or words, can be traced back to inscriptions on the ''oracle bones'' used for divination in the Shang Dynasty (17th to 11th centuries BC).

Found only in Jiangyong county in a remote mountainous area of southern Hunan province, the Nushu documented historical events, such as when Ming Emperor Yongli fled to the city of Jiangyong after being overthrown. More recently, it recorded atrocities suffered by women in Jiangyong during the Japanese invasion of China in World War II.

But the Nushu's most common use has remained in the private detailing of women's personal lives, friend to friend. It is found written on rice paper, fans, belts, handkerchiefs, tiaofu (hanging calligraphy scrolls), and in sanzhoushu (wedding gift books), and journals.

''I write in the Nushu all the time,'' explains octogenarian Yang. ''For joyful occasions, I send congratulatory songs and poems. And for sorrowful times, I try to cheer people. I am even writing about myself, my own life, and the history of my family and ancestors. By writing, so much suffering disappears.''

Spoken in a singsongy, epic poemlike style, this dialect also served as entertainment in traditional Hunan. It provided a source of support and sisterhood between women who were bound as property to their husbands, bound to Draconian cultural roles, and cripplingly bound about their feet. ''On hot summer evenings, I used to sit out with other women in the neighborhood and read the Nushu together after a long day's labor,'' Yang says.

The Nushu was passed down from mother to daughter, generation after generation for millennia. In the Nushu, these women expressed themselves without fear of their husbands' condemnations or reprisals. It is arguably the only thing traditional Hunan women could completely control.

Ironically, as women's rights and education in China improved, the need for and use of this secretive women's language diminished.

A researcher in Jiangyong for over 40 years, Mr. Zhou, who learned the language from his mother, is the first linguist to codify the Nushu. His Collection of Chinese Nushu was published by Qinhua University Press in 1992. Since Yang feels too frail to teach, Zhou alone is striving to see that this antediluvian language does not die out. He has compiled a Nushu dictionary of more than 1,000 characters that he hopes will soon be published by Yuelu Press. Zhou donated Nushu documents and artifacts to Hunan's Provincial Museum and a local Jiangyong museum to help preserve the language.

Though the provincial government has promised to buy 1,000 copies of Zhou's book, there is no national money for the Nushu.

Zhou warns, ''The language will become extinct if young people do not pick it up. Now there are only a few individuals - young women and men - who show interest in the Nushu and come to learn from me. But they really haven't learned the language yet.''

''My highest hope for Nushu now is to have this dictionary published so that a record of the characters and pronunciations will be preserved,'' Zhou says. ''Then my heart can rest.''

Nushu lent women bound by Draconian cultural roles a system of support.

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