The Secret Identity Of Chinese Women

For a large period women worldwide, especially in China were seen as wives who were intended to cook, clean, and take care of their children. Women in rural areas spent their entire days taking care of the house and looking after their husbands.Women had a lot of duties and responsibilities that they had to fulfil in order to be respected by their husbands and society. Women in China, in particular had a lot of pressure on them. Since the Chinese culture is heavily influenced by Confucian ideals, the men were looked as the heads of the household whereas the women were dependent on her father, her husband and her eldest son. There were many expectations from women including overseeing the household and producing heirs. Sine women didn't have many rights and were denied access to basic education, they created a secret writing system in which they expressed themselves in ways that would never be allowed to due to the rigid social circumstances.

In the early 1800s women did not legally exist. They could not own property and were subordinate to men in every way. For example in the article ‘From Being to Becoming’ by Fei-Wen Liu, it says “As were were the majority of peasant women born in Chinese androcentric communities prior to the Liberation of 1949, Cizhu was denied access to education in which she could learn Chinese hanzi character.' Men were superior to women in every way. However, gradually things began to change. Chinese women decided to take things into their own hands.

Around 500 years ago during the late Ming dynasty, an exclusive form of communication was born. In China’s Hunan Province, peasant women developed a script called Nushu which means “woman’s writing.' Nushu was a simplification of the Chinese characters used only amongst women. The purpose of Nushu was to give women a voice. It allowed women to express their feelings openly with other women. In the article “An amazing new discovery” by Liu Shouhua and Hu Xiaoshen they say “The descriptions in the Nishu narratives of the heroins and their adventures reflect a type of liberation from Confucian moral restraints.The image of the feminine they create is radiant with self-reliance and vigor that fully accords with the inclinations of working women”. The development of the language Nushu was an attempt for women to feel liberated and have a say without getting reprimanded.

Since the Chinese culture was mainly male dominated for centuries and women weren't permitted an education or given any rights, Chinese women developed their own means of a creative communication asserting themselves. Their lack of rights cultivated Nushus form which depicts the culture behind the women's language. Chinese women developed a script to express their sorrows with other females going through the same thing. Developing this script allowed females to verbalize about their sorrow and misfortune of separation, marriage and so on. The writings were written in a structured style and the letters were from women to women as they felt that this female-only script was the only way to keep in contact with their female friends. In rural China many women were ill literate since they were denied access to education hence the most literary inclined among them used Nushu to write down their daily thoughts and feelings. The Nushu language once united the women in an exclusive sisterhood. ‘Jiebai Zimei’ or “sworn sisters” is referred to a relationship that was recognized by women as valuable and even necessary for them in a local social system. Young girls were encouraged to make a pact of closeness with one another. The Nushu script depicted a form of loyalty women had with each other in which they expressed their feelings and opened up to one another about issues that only women could understand. Older women would teach younger girls to learn how to write Nushu. Then after they would get married the script would help keep them in touch. This secret language system was passed down from one generation on women to the next. Nushu created a sisterhood with women that couldn't be broken. This hidden language was a act of female solidarity in one of the world's oldest civilization. Zhao Liming, a professor at a University of Beijing, describes Nushu as “It was like a bolt of sun lightning that made women’s lives more pleasurable. It is a culture of sunlight that allows women to speak with their own voices and fight male chauvinism”. Zhao Liming asserts that Nushu isn't just a script but it represents the whole traditional Chinese female culture.

Nushu twisted versions of of ordinary Chinese characters, and it only contained around 700 or so characters. Some people believe that the reason behind the twisted characters were made so that men would consider them as ordinary decorations The type of writing system of Nuhsu was syllabic and the direction of writing was vertical columns running from top to bottom and from right to left. The writers valued each character written with very fine lines as a mark of good penmanship. In Xinhua's work she describes Nushu as “The gracefully- written rhombic Nushu language are structured by just four kinds of strokes, including dot, horizontal, virgule and arc” (Xinhua). Women used to write Nushu in many ways. Many women used the script in embroidery, calligraphy, and handicrafts. The secret code was written on paper and embroidered on fabric and paper fans. Since the Nushu language was a secret there were no references found in documents and many of the scripts were buried with the women who owned the writings. The reason the language was written in secrecy was because at the time the world was largely invisible to men. Women were neither understood nor respected.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was a novel, and a movie constructed around the secret language of nushu. In this novel a 80-year-old women named Lily is finally old enough to speak her mind without getting in trouble. Lily begins the novel by explaining the hardships she had to face. As a child, Lily had to go through foot binding so her feet could be perfect in order to marry into a rich town. Soon after Lily’s aunt begins teaching Lily Nushu which she must keep a secret from men. Lily’s friend, ‘Snow Flower’ also has gone through the excruciating pain of foot binding. After both the girls got married they stayed in touch by constantly writing to each other in Nushu. Through their everlasting devotion both the girls stayed true and loyal to each other their entire lives. Their secret code for communication, Nushu, helped women maintain their bond and stayed connected for many years. The paper fan that Lily and Snow Flower communicated through was a symbol of their true sign of friendship and of everything that happened between the two girls from childhood to death.

The last speaker and writer of Nushu and the last woman who possessed the most and genuine knowledge of a 400-year old tradition was Yang Huanyi. She was the last person who could recognize, read and write the Nushu. Yang Huanyi was born in Jiangyong County. As a little girl she was taught read and write the language. Before Yang got married, she used to exchange letters in Nushu to her sworn sisters. The “sworn sisters” formed small sororities that became crucial female support in the face of male domination. Yang Huanyi never joined the ‘sworn sisters’, but she spent enough time with them to learn the language. In one of her interviews Yang Huanyi expressed that by writing and communication in Nushu she felt that so much suffering disappeared. By the end of 1990s, Yang Huanyi was the only surviving inheritance of Nushu. After Yang Huanyi, there is no longer anyone alive who has learned Nushu in the traditional way. Yang Huanyi died on September 20, 2004. Many people believe that the tradition of Nushu died when she died.

Nushu started dying out after the Chinese revolution after being in use for a hundred of years. The younger generation has no use of Nushu. After the revolution many young women were encouraged to become literate in the standard Chinese script. Therefore the need to have a special form of communication between women dyed down. Although Nushu has no pertenece to anyone's lives anymore, some Chinese and Western scholars are trying to preserve the language. There is now a Nushu dictionary and a school was opened to teach the script. Many young girls are keen on keeping the tradition alive and learning the writings of their ancestors. Nushu is a great example for young women to be brave enough to accomplish anything. Chinese women defied the patriarchal norms of the time that forbade them to have a education and instead they conceived a language of their own. Through their commitment and hard work, Nushu was able to grow and spread. 

09 March 2021
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