Much Ado about Nushu [an Invited Post]29 Feb 2004
This is the first of what I hope to be many such “invited” posts.
by Laura Miller [invited author]
The recent Washington Post article by Edward Cody (“A Language by Women, for Women, February 24, 2004) is representative of the type of misunderstandings that continues to be perpetuated in reporting on [Nushu].
In 1999 Yue-Qing Yang released an English-language documentary reporting on the “discovery” of a “secret language” used among women in China’s Jiangyong region. Her film presented the elegant and spidery Nushu writing system as something women used to resist Han-derived Confucian male dominance. Chinese ethnographers began reporting on Nushu in the popular press in 1980s, so it is strange that suddenly Nushu is hot news in the U.S. The problem with the film and the numerous newspaper accounts that have been published since the 1990s is that descriptions of this unusual writing system often include inaccurate folk theories about language.
The recent Washington Post article by Edward Cody (“A Language by Women, for Women, February 24, 2004) is representative of the type of misunderstandings that continues to be perpetuated in reporting on this topic.
In Cody’s article the primary slips relate to these points:
the confusion of “language” with “writing”
an uncritical description of local languages as “dialects”
the description of Nushu characters as “letters”
the description of Chinese characters as “ideograms” that only represent “ideas”
the claim that *Nushu* was “kept secret” from men