Nüshu (simplified Chinese: 女书; traditional Chinese: 女書; pinyin: Nǚshū [nỳʂú]; literally: "women's script"), is a syllabic script derived from Chinese characters that was used exclusively among women in Jiangyong County in Hunan province of southern China. Nüshu has been included in the Unicode Standard since June 2017.
Unlike the standard written Chinese, which is logographic (with each character representing a word or part of a word), Nüshu is phonetic, with each of its approximately 600-700 characters representing a syllable. This is about half the number required to represent all the syllables in Tuhua, as tonal distinctions are frequently ignored, making it "the most revolutionary and thorough simplification of Chinese characters ever attempted". Zhou Shuoyi, described as the only male to have mastered the script, compiled a dictionary listing 1,800 variant characters and allographs.
It have been suggested that, Nüshu characters appears to be an italic variant form of Kaishu Chinese characters, as can be seen in the name of the script, though some have been substantially modified to better fit embroidery patterns. The strokes of the characters are in the form of dots, horizontals, virgules, and arcs. The script is traditionally written in vertical columns running from right to left, but in modern contexts it may be written in horizontal lines from left to right, as is the case for Chinese. Unlike Chinese, Nüshu writers value characters written with very fine, almost threadlike, lines as a mark of fine penmanship.
About half of Nüshu is modified Chinese characters used logographically. In about 100, the entire character is adopted with little change apart from skewing the frame from square to rhomboid, sometimes reversing them (mirror image), and often reducing the number of strokes. Another hundred have been modified in their strokes, but are still easily recognizable, as is nü 'woman' above. About 200 have been greatly modified, but traces of the original Chinese character are still discernible.
The rest of the characters are phonetic. They are either modified characters, as above, or elements extracted from characters. There are used for 130 phonetic values, each used to write on average ten homophonous or nearly homophonous words, though there are allographs as well; women differed on which Chinese character they preferred for a particular phonetic value.
It is not known when or how Nüshu came into being, but—because it is clearly based in the standard Chinese script, hanzi—Nüshu could not have been created before standardization of hanzi (circa 900). Many of the simplifications found in Nüshu had been in informal use in standard Chinese since the Song and Yuan dynasty (13th - 14th century). It seems to have reached its peak during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).
Though a local educated worker at the Jiangyong Cultural Office (Zhou Shuoyi) had collected, studied and translated many Nüshu texts into standard Chinese, he was unable to draw outside attention to the script until a report was submitted to the central government on this subject in 1983.
During the latter part of the 20th century, owing more to wider social, cultural and political changes than the narrow fact of greater access to hanzi literacy, younger girls and women stopped learning Nüshu, and it began falling into disuse, as older users died. The script was suppressed by the Japanese during their invasion of China in the 1930s-40s, because they feared that the Chinese could use it to send secret messages., and also during China's Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The last original writers of the script died in the 1990s (the last one in 2004).
It is no longer customary for women to learn Nüshu, and literacy in Nüshu is now limited to a few scholars who learned it from the last women who were literate in it. However, after Yang Yueqing made a documentary about Nüshu, the government of the People's Republic of China started to popularize the effort to preserve the increasingly endangered script, and some younger women are beginning to learn it.
Yang Huanyi, an inhabitant of Jiangyong county, Hunan province and the last person proficient in this writing system, died on September 20, 2004, age 98.
The language and locale have attracted foreign investment building up infrastructure at possible tourist sites and a $209,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to build a Nüshu museum scheduled to open in 2007. However, with the line of transmission now broken, there are fears that the features of the script are being distorted by the effort of marketing it for the tourist industry.
Chinese composer Tan Dun has created a multimedia symphony entitled "Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women" for Harp, Orchestra, and 13 microfilms. Tan Dun spent 5 years conducting field research in Hunan Province, documenting on film the various songs the women use to communicate. Those songs become a 3rd dimension to his symphony, and are projected alongside the orchestra and harp soloist.
The Nüshu script is used to write a distinct local Chinese variety known as Xiangnan Tuhua (湘南土話, 'Southern Hunanese Tuhua') that is spoken by the people of the Xiao River and Yongming River region of northern Jiangyong County, Hunan. This dialect, which differs enough from those of other parts of Hunan that there is little mutual intelligibility, is known to its speakers as [tifɯə] "Dong language." It is written only in the Nüshu script. There are differing opinions on the classification of Xiangnan Tuhua, as it has features of several different Chinese varieties. Some scholars classify it under Xiang Chinese or Pinghua and other scholars consider it a hybrid dialect. In addition to speaking Tuhua, most local people in Jiangyong are bilingual in the Hunan dialect of Southwestern Mandarin, which they use for communication with people from outside the area where Tuhua is spoken, as well as for some formal occasions. If Hunan Southwestern Mandarin is written, then it is always written using standard Chinese characters and not with the Nüshu script.
Jiangyong County has a mixed population of Han Chinese and Yao people, but Nüshu is used only to write the local Chinese dialect (Xiangnan Tuhua, 湘南土話), and there are no known examples of the script being used to write the local Yao language.
A large number of the Nüshu works were "third day missives" (三朝书; 三朝書; sānzhāoshū). They were cloth bound booklets created by laotong, "sworn sisters" (结拜姊妹; 結拜姊妹; jiébàizǐmèi) and mothers and given to their counterpart "sworn sisters" or daughters upon their marriage. They wrote down songs in Nüshu, which were delivered on the third day after the young woman's marriage. This way, they expressed their hopes for the happiness of the young woman who had left the village to be married and their sorrow for being parted from her.
Other works, including poems and lyrics, were handwoven into belts and straps, or embroidered onto everyday items and clothing.
Nüshu in Unicode
Nüshu is included in the Unicode Standard under the name "Nushu" (because Unicode character names, block names, and script names can only use ASCII letters). 396 Nüshu letters were added to the Nushu block as part of Unicode version 10.0 which was released in June 2017. An iteration mark for Nüshu, U+16FE1 𖿡 NUSHU ITERATION MARK, is in the Ideographic Symbols and Punctuation block.
The Unicode block for Nüshu is U+1B170–U+1B2FF:
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
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