Much Ado about Nushu [an Invited Post]

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.”

Cody says: > Scholars and local authorities have taken renewed interest in the exclusive language, trying to preserve it as the last women who are fluent reach the end of their lives.

It is common for people in literate societies to consider language and writing as one, as Cody does, but these are entirely different phenomenon. Because there are many societies that never developed writing, it is important that we keep the difference in mind. Humans have used complex languages for many millennia, but writing is a recent invention–the earliest known script is from southern Iraq, dating to the 4th millennium BC. Nushu is not a language but a writing system that was used to represent a spoken language.

Both men and women used the local language spoken in Hunan’s Jiangyong county where Nushu originates, but only women used the script.

An uncritical description of local languages as “dialects”:

Cody refers to “the sounds of this region’s Cheng Guan Tuhua dialect,” and “A speaker of the Tuhua dialect.” All languages and dialects of languages are equally “good” as linguistic systems, and are structured, follow rules, and adequately meet the needs of speakers. However, dominant Han people often label local languages as tuhua, a term suggesting that they are low or degenerate forms, a sort of “farmer’s tongue.” Cody and other writers have unthinkingly used this denigrating Han term to refer to the language of those who write in Nushu, an error I too mistakenly reproduced in my review of Yang’s film.

I discovered the error when I read Orie Endo’s “World of Nüshu” website, and finally saw the characters for tuhua 土話, which made it clear that this is a term used to describe “low” dialects. Cody seems to have misunderstood the term tuhua as the proper name for the language, and not a word meaning dialect, so he ends up saying something like “a speaker of the tuhua (dialect) dialect.”

Although the difference between a language and a dialect is often a political or cultural matter, Cody uncritically accepts the dominant Han elite’s classification of China’s various languages into so-called “dialects.” Jiangyong county is native to several different non-Han indigenous populations who, although they have gradually changed under centuries of Han Chinese colonization and cultural subjugation, are still identifiably different. There is debate about what group of women invented the script. Some scholars thought it was women from a sort of creolized, hybrid Yao-Han culture, while recently the Chinese press has been linking Nushu directly to the Yao ethnic minority. See the People’s Daily article

A frustration one encounters when trying to learn about Nushu is that descriptions are always refracted through non-linguistic and Han notions about language. In any case, after the Cultural Revolution and the imposition of standardized education in Mandarin, use of local languages in general has deteriorated. When Cody states that

Today, young girls learn Chinese along with the boys, so learning Nushu has less appeal,

he forgets to note that the language and writing system they are learning is Mandarin, so boys as well as girls are learning a non-native language (the local language is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin).

The description of Nushu characters as “letters”:

Cody writes “Wispy, elongated letters.” Linguists generally classify writing systems into types depending on the way the script represents the spoken language. In the case of Nushu, it is a predominantly syllabic script (each graph represents a syllable), with the addition of logographic, iconic and punctuation graphs. The writing system contains around 700 core graphs, and individual graphs might be composed of one to twenty strokes combined with dots, curves or small chevrons. Scholars reserve the term “letters” for graphs found in alphabetic writing systems.

The description of Chinese characters as “ideograms” that only represent “ideas”:

Cody writes

For example, according to researchers, the letters represent sound- the sounds of this region’s Cheng Guan Tuhua dialect — and not ideas as in the Chinese ideograms that men studied and wrote.

Although there is debate about exactly when Nushu developed, the genealogy of the script is obvious to anyone familiar with the Chinese writing system. Nushu is clearly derived from Chinese characters, and the original shapes can still be detected in perhaps half of the graphs if you imagine that square, vertical characters have been gripped by the upper right and lower left edges and pulled diagonally. Modern scholars shun use of the antique term “ideographic” to describe Chinese writing. A majority of Chinese characters, perhaps 80% or more, are compound characters that combine semantic and phonetic elements that indicate both meaning and pronunciation. Indeed, all writing systems, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan glyphs and Chinese characters, incorporate the rebus principle, the idea that a graph may be used for its phonetic value alone.

The claim that Nushu was “kept secret” from men and the idea that ritual siblingships were unique to women:

Cody claims that Nushu was “never, ever shared with the men and boys.” The implication here is that it was a secret writing system. Yet anthropologists report that men knew about the script and some read it in the past, but that it was commonly ignored as unworthy of male effort or attention. They belittled Nushu by calling it “ant graphs” or “mosquito graphs” due to the extended legs of some of the strokes. In addition, both women and men in this region created ritual siblinghoods, special relationships contracted with same-sex, same-age friends, yet reporters only mention the custom of “sworn sisters.” Although shared and exchanged Nushu writings fostered and buttressed ritual sisterships, the institution of same-sex pledges of fealty and friendship was not limited to women.

Why has Nushu become the focus of so much fascination outside China? What accounts for its mass popularity in news reporting? I wish that interest in Nushu stemmed from a desire to learn about the beauty and diversity of the world’s peoples and their cultures, languages and writing systems. Instead, I suspect that journalistic interest in Nushu probably relates to the fantasies and anxieties held by a contemporary readership more than anything else. Since 1989 there has been periodic articles about Nushu in the international press, each time announcing the amazing “discovery” of a “secret women’s language,” even though its existence was documented by Chinese scholars more than half a century ago. In the EuroAmerican mind, Chinese women are imagined as the victims of a horrifically repressive male-dominated society, so the Cody article is widely reprinted and cited because the idea of resistant female transgression is so appealing to contemporary sensibilities. (I have been accused of the same flaw in my research on Japanese Kogals). Cody says

Only men learned to read and write Chinese, and bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband’s homes after marriage.

It is worth noting that reporters always manage to work in reference to “bound feet,” despite the fact that Yao women generally did not participate in this practice. Nushu also represents the fear or belief that “authentic” culture is fast disappearing. Although all cultures constantly undergo change, Americans in particular like to imagine that some group of people somewhere are still living in “traditional” and unchanging ways.

I also find it interesting that journalists continue to describe Nushu as “mysteries” or “shrouded in mystery,” despite the fact that there are at least three Ph.D. dissertations (Chiang William Wei, Yale, Cathy Silber, University of Michigan, and Fei-wen Liu, Syracuse University), and numerous scholarly articles published on the uses, meanings and socio-cultural functions of Nushu. It appears that Cody and other journalists are bypassing the library and are simply relying on past news articles about Nushu that are available on the internet. Thus, erroneous ideas such as the ones I have outlined here continue to appear year after year.

The value of knowing about Nushu is in recognizing its singular role as part of a local culture. This oblique, diamond-shaped script should also be studied for its incredible beauty and aesthetic value. Nushu is a remarkable demonstration of the social role of writing in an ethnographic context, allowing a glimpse into a female-centered milieu usually ignored in descriptions of “Chinese” culture.