S01E35 Nushu

Episode 35: Commercializing History (The Murky Story of Nushu & Chinese Tourism)

Join Meredith and Emily as they explore the  history of Nushu – a secret language used by Chinese women in Hunan province for centuries. They discuss how Nushu arose out of contract marriages, why the Chinese government can’t decide if it’s a dying language or not, and why they’ve spent so much money trying to control and manipulate its history.  The real story of Nushu is hard to unravel, but is an important lesson in what happens when history, political agendas, and commercialism intersect.

Links & Additional Resources

Excerpt and essay from Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Sacred Fan.  Also includes her pictures of women who speak Nushu and their community. From the excerpt:

As I did my research, I discovered that few nu shu documents—whether letters, stories, weavings or embroideries—have survived, since most were burned at gravesites for metaphysical and practical reasons. In the 1930s, Japanese soldiers destroyed many pieces that had been kept as family heirlooms. During the Cultural Revolution, the zealous Red Guard burned even more texts, then banned the local women from attending religious festivals or attending gatherings where nu shu might be written, read, sung, or exchanged as gifts. In the following years, the Public Security Bureau’s scrutiny further diminished interest in learning or preserving the language. During the last half of the twentieth century, nu shu nearly became extinct as the primary reasons that women used it disappeared. (For more information on nu shu , please read Cathy Silber’s forthcoming non-fiction book, Writing from the Useless Branch: Text and Practice in Nushu Culture .)

Excerpt from the 1999 documentary “Nu Shu: The Secret Language of Women.”

Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China

A film by Yue-Qing Yang

Canada/China, 1999, 59 minutes, Color, DVD, Subtitled

Order No. W00655

“NU SHU: A HIDDEN LANGUAGE OF WOMEN IN CHINA is a thoroughly engrossing documentary that revolves around the filmmaker’s discovery of eighty-six-year-old Huan-yi Yang, the only living resident of the Nu Shu area still able to read and write Nu Shu. Exploring Nu Shu customs and their role in women’s lives, the film uncovers a women’s subculture born of resistance to male dominance, finds a parallel struggle in the resistance of Yao minorities to Confucian Han Chinese culture, and traces Nu Shu’s origins to some distinctly Yao customs that fostered women’s creativity.”

via http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c473.shtml


Harpist Elizabeth Hainen talks about working with Tan Dun on his Nu Shu symphony.

Obituary for Yang Huanyi, “China’s oldest inheritress of the mysterious Nushu language” or “the last living speaker of Nushu” (depending on who you talk to!). She died at the age of approximately 90-100. Includes a brief biographical sketch. Via China Daily

Inheritor Proposes to Establish Cultural Reserve for Nushu from February 2014, via China Women’s News. From the article:

Delegate of the 12th Hunan Provincial People’s Congress and inheritor of Nüshu(women’s script) Hu Xin recently proposed to establish a special cultural reserve for the special written language in Jiangyong County in central China’s Hunan Province… 

According to Hu, Jiangyong County meets the requirements of establishing a cultural reserve. Local government has made plans for the preservation of Nüshu and acquired a 10 million yuan (US$ 1.65 million) grant from the Ford Foundation in 2005 to collect and catalogue Nüshu information and materials, establishing Nüshu schools and museums over the past few years. Meanwhile, Nüshu has been building into a cultural brand to boost local tourism industry. 

Hu believes the establishment of a cultural reserve will drive the development of local economy as well as Nüshu culture. She hopes the Hunan government will allocate funds to enhance the infrastructure of Jiangyong County and set up an expert committee for the cultural reserve as an intellectual support

The re-invention of a Chinese Language via the Hindu, September 2005.  The author discusses both government and private commercialization of Nushu for tourism purposes – including how the industry has affected women in Hunan province. From the article:

But Yao women’s lives have been transformed. “We are now educated and we have the freedom to choose our husbands,” says Hu, who started teaching the script four years ago and has seen it pushed into the international limelight and used to promote the local economy.

Academics have compiled a Nushu dictionary, a school has been opened to teach the language and the Ford Foundation is donating $209,000 to build a museum to preserve the remaining third-day books and embroidery. A Hong Kong company has invested several million yuan for the construction of roads, hotels and parks — all aimed at exploiting Nushu’s growing fame.

“It is one of our main selling points,” says Zheng Shiqiu, head of the ethnic minority division of the local government. “Nushu is the only women’s script in the world that is still alive.”

The commercial exploitation of the language is not pretty, but it is transforming relations between the sexes in a way that would have shocked the writers of the old third-day books. Now that women are bringing in money through Nushu (which many have only started learning in the past few years), they have moved to the centre of the community’s economic and cultural life. After all, tourists and academics are not interested in the men, but instead come to hear the women sing, sew and write. This has brought them a kind of power.

The transformation is evident in Huang Yuan. “Things are different these days. We have real equality of the sexes,” she says. Huang is 29 and not yet engaged, which would have been a source of consternation for a woman just 10 years ago. As she says, “I’m still young. I don’t need to rush into marriage.” At the Nushu Garden school, the contrast with the elderly generation could not be more different. Ni Youju, now 80, was engaged while still a baby. “I couldn’t say if it was a happy or a sad marriage. Life was too much of a struggle to think about such things. But I was happy on my wedding day because it meant there was someone else to look after me. “


“Women Who Found a Way, Creating a Women’s Language” – Article on the History of Nushu by Christie K K Leung, 2003


Video on Nu Shu made by students for a school project (awesome work, KamikazeWatermelon!).


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