I first read about the unique script of Nushu, the only one known to be used solely by women, in the Sydney Morning Herald almost a quarter of a century ago. Then it was being “discovered”. Last year, it was being declared “dead”, when Yang Huangyi, its “last user” died at the age of 92.
Yet the Guardian reports that it is still going strong in its remote homeland in southwestern Hunan province.
The impetus is economic and the results anything but romantic. But the reinvention of the embroidered script as a tourist moneyspinner is reaping dividends and a new generation of girls is studying the language not for a means of intimate communication but because it offers a chance to earn more than their brothers and fathers.
It is thought that Nushu was invented by women so they could record their thoughts, and communicate with each other, without their words being intercepted by men. In the area there is a strong tradition of “sworn sisterhood”, and the script was one way women could maintain these relationships after marriage, when they could be torn from their home families and villages, to become virtual prisoners in the homes of their husband’s families.
There’s a whole website devoted to the script, the World of Nushu (it has some technical problems, but is worth sticking with) and you can see some examples of the script, in comparison with the Chinese, here. There’s also a short academic article and a Chinese account of an exhibition here here (although something seems to have been lost in translation, since it speaks of an exhibition, but doesn’t say where it was).
There also don’t yet seem to be any commercial sites selling items on the web – an opportunity for somebody!