A fascinating story by Edward Cody about nüshu (sample with Chinese equivalent here), a form of writing developed by women in the southwestern corner of Hunan province:

It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend—and never, ever shared with the men and boys.
So was born nushu, or women’s script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind.
“The girls used to get together and sing and talk, and that’s when we learned from one another,” said Yang Huanyi, 98, a wrinkled farmer’s widow who learned as a girl and whom scholars consider the most accomplished reader and writer among a fast-dwindling number of nushu practitioners. “It made our lives better, because we could express ourselves that way.”

Read the article for more details about the murky history of nüshu and its discovery by outsiders and the regional custom of “sworn sisterhood” it reflects, and go to Adam Morris’s Brainysmurf entry for further links and a gorgeous image of the writing. (Thanks to Adam and to Pascale Soleil for alerting me to this story.)
Addendum. Laura Miller has written a stern critique of Cody’s article over at Kerim Friedman’s Keywords.
[April 2010: Sorry about the broken links!]


  1. Thanks for the links. As for Miller’s complaints, I guess I’m so inured to journalistic confusion of “language” with “writing” and misunderstanding of syllabic characters and “ideograms” that I’d be astonished if they got them right. Besides, unlike many other language-related “news stories” of recent vintage, this one doesn’t vanish away when you remove the misunderstandings; it’s fascinating stuff no matter how it’s described.

  2. True, but most articles on language would be even more “fascinating” if they got the spent more time trying to understand language and less time mystifying it!

  3. The original Washington Post article (print, not online) had a photo of a nushu poem that was translated (in part): “The mountains are green, the water is beautiful and how nice is the scenery. Furthermore there is nushu, which is amazing.”

  4. It’s a little odd (for me) to see this story again (I think it popped up somewhere almost two years ago?). However, at least now I have passable reading ability in Japanese, so I can begin to look at the subject further. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. You’re welcome. (Drop me a line sometime, OK?)

  6. Tiffanie Liegh Snider says

    I am a 19 year old girl. That goes to school to be a CNA. I am very intressed about learing Nu Shu. I would like to know if thier is a book or a web site to teach me. I go to school in Reno NV,USA. But I am from Quincy IL,USA. If you could please e-mail me about away I can learn the way of the girl lanuguge.
    yours truly,

  7. It’s a system for writing Chinese, so if you’re interested, you might start by taking classes in Chinese. You can also visit the links above and contact the specialists mentioned, who might be able to give you information.

  8. Actually, it is not a system for writing Chinese, but a phonetic alphabet representing the sounds of the region’s Cheng Guan Tuhua dialect, which is only spoken around Jiang Yong, in SW Hunan. There is a woman who is teaching Nushu to locals in Pumei, but yes, you’d have to know Chinese to understand her. As for books or websites, there are none available now for learning the language. The best resource person would be Orie Endo, a Japanese academic who is the world’s formost expert on the subject. She speaks good English, and would probably be happy to help you any way she can.

  9. Just noting here the death of the last speaker of Nushu.
    I’ve noted it on my blog here.

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