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    The Last Guardians of China’s Women-Only Script

    Mysterious characters once meant as an outlet for the female condition are now being used to attract tourists.

    HUNAN, Central China — He Jinghua opens a faded notebook bound with cotton thread. Inside, lyrics written in a spidery script run down the page, incomprehensible to the average Mandarin speaker. In her wheelchair, which she’s used since a stroke left her paralyzed two years ago, the 84-year-old begins to sing.

    As the mournful sounds escape her lips, tears stream down her weathered face. Her mind goes back 22 years to when she lost her youngest son in a road accident. “These books contain my sorrow,” He Jinghua tells Sixth Tone. She gestures to a collection of similar handbound notebooks in pink, green, and ocher, where she faithfully records her life in nüshu, a script that is only used by women.

    In remote Jiangyong County, the script has been passed down from mother to daughter, elder to younger, for hundreds of years. To get to the downtown area of the county hidden in the hills, visitors must drive some three hours from Guilin, the nearest major city in neighboring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. When they arrive, they’re greeted by a street of nondescript shops, including a takeaway outlet with a storefront mimicking the KFC logo.

    The town is believed to be the only place in China where women used nüshu — a name coined by academics that means “women’s script.” The locals, whose ancestors likely invented the script, know it by a different name: “long-legged mosquito characters,” due to the elongated, insectlike appearance. He Jinghua is one of only a handful of women who can still read and write nüshu.

    These days, nüshu is arguably at its most visible. You can see the characters — which constitute a phonetic script for recording the local dialect — on the shop signs around downtown Jiangyong, thanks in part to the government’s efforts to keep the script alive. But nüshu no longer has its original aim of giving uneducated women an outlet for their feelings. Instead, the essence of nüshu risks being lost to the authorities’ tourism strategy.

    Bitter Literature

    Like most women of her generation born before 1949, He Jinghua was never taught how to read and write Chinese characters. In Jiangyong, the women used nüshu to record their feelings of melancholy: sadness over leaving their parents when they married, grief over losing a loved one, heartbreak, regrets. Like Japanese hiragana, each nüshu character stands for one syllable. This makes it easier to learn than the Chinese script, where one syllable can technically be represented by a number of different characters. Nüshu poems are often sung; when He Jinghua was a child, the women in her community would sit in small groups, singing as they embroidered nüshu on dyed handkerchiefs, fans, and belts.

    After China came under Communist rule in 1949, education became a universal right for both men and women. There was no longer a practical need for nüshu. The script fell out of use, narrowly escaping complete extinction during the Cultural Revolution, when traditions were shunned and books and letters written in nüshu were burnt to ashes.

    He Jinghua vaguely remembers learning nüshu as a child, but she only began picking it up properly in the 1980s when she was asked to assist scholars and experts flocking to the small town for field research. At the time, academics were calling nüshu a major discovery — they believed it was the only script in the world exclusively used by women.

    In the old days, women had few outlets for venting their frustration at the difficulties in their lives. They couldn’t complain to their husbands — the patriarchal society held that women had a duty to suffer in silence. Nüshu became a way to relieve sadness, and some say the tradition can only be nourished through tragedy. When He Jinghua’s young son lost his life in a truck crash in 1996, she cried so much that she could no longer hear clearly. She felt an overwhelming need to master nüshu and vent her feelings. The next year, when He Jinghua’s sorrow still felt endless, she spent three months pouring her soul into her first poem:

    I tell my sorrows to the folded paper fan.
    First, my anger now my parents are gone;
    second, my rage over my unfortunate fate;
    third, my fury over my unfair lot in life.
    I write it on the fan so I can spread my story in all directions.
    I sit alone in my room with a restless mind.
    I complain about my misery while blood streams from my eyes.

    We had such a good time during the New Year.
    The family was full and carefree.
    During the next month,
    the water tasted sweet despite the cold weather.

    Spring came with February’s arrival.
    Leaves sprouted from the trees;
    an orchid grew from the jade pot,
    its fragrance wafting over the lakes.

    When March came, my son went to the underworld.
    Blood and tears stream from my eyes.
    I can’t see the sky.

    In their dimly lit home, He Jinghua’s husband, Pu Qiucheng, sits listening to his wife. The pair were married at the instruction of their parents and matchmakers, and for a long time afterward, Pu didn’t know his wife could write the long-legged script. The characters remain a mystery to him, but when she reads them aloud in their shared local dialect, he understands. Underneath some of her poems, which stretch like a fine row of ants down the page, Pu has translated the script into the tighter, square-like characters of standard Mandarin. Despite his translation efforts, he can barely stand to read what he calls her “bitter literature.”

    Time’s ticking for people of He Jinghua’s generation to keep the script alive. She’s already passed her knowledge of nüshu to her daughter, but her own ability to protect the script is limited. She’s recovering from her stroke — but it’s a slow process. Just four years ago, she danced in the town square with a thousand others as part of an event she organized to promote nüshu. Now, He Jinghua struggles to walk. When she watches a DVD of the nüshu event on her television set, a light flickers in her cloudy eyes.

    “We are the oldest generation [using nüshu],” He Jinghua says. “If the government doesn’t pay attention, it will be too late to save it.”

    An Open Secret

    Nüshu is sometimes seen as a secret script, a mysterious medium to communicate without men knowing. The reality is quite different, according to Zhao Liming, a history of Chinese language professor at Tsinghua University. The script has always been out in the open — it’s just that in such a patriarchal culture, men had little interest in the writing of women, she says.

    And rather than serving as a way to communicate subversive ideas, nüshu was often used to educate women on how to become the ideal Confucian wife. Before a traditional wedding in Jiangyong, a bride’s mother used to sing her a song in nüshu as she left her home to get married, urging her to be a good wife to her future husband:

    Daughter, please listen to your mother’s advice:
    The first thing about being a woman is chastity.
    Show filial piety to your parents;
    maintain good relationships with your siblings.

    You will be another’s daughter-in-law;
    it won’t be like when you were in your own house.
    Don’t snooze — get up early, when the sun comes out.
    Don’t stay up late, wasting the light from the lamps.

    Respect your elders, love your children, and keep your family happy.
    Listen to your husband on every matter.
    Daughter, please bear in mind what your mother taught you;
    never forget your mother’s instruction.

    While it wasn’t intended as a secret language, nüshu can be difficult for the average Mandarin speaker to pick up. Outsiders must first master the challenging local dialect, known as tuhua, before they can understand the nüshu writing system.

    Despite decades of research, scholars can’t agree on the origin of nüshu. The script was used during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), though others trace it back as far as the 13th century. As for how it came about, there are at least four competing theories. Some say it was invented by a concubine in the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279). Others say Yaoji, the goddess of clouds and rain, taught women the heavenly writing. Others still date nüshu back to the symbols that were carved on oracle bones in the Shang Dynasty, some 3,600 years ago. Some experts claim the script is a combination of Chinese characters, or hanzi, and the language of the Yao people, who make up 60 percent of the population in Jiangyong County.

    But for local nüshu practitioners, the history isn’t that important. Their focus is on keeping the ailing tradition alive.

    Distorting Tradition

    In downtown Jiangyong, nearly every store has its name written in two scripts: standard hanzi and nüshu. The most luxurious hotel in town is even named after the women’s script. Unfortunately, according to He Jinghua’s daughter Pu Lijuan, who teaches the script to locals, a lot of the nüshu written around town is incorrect.

    In 2006, nüshu became one of the first traditions to be added to the nationwide intangible cultural heritage system. Under the system, practitioners are given “inheritor” status, entitling them to monthly subsidies in exchange for preserving the tradition through education, research, and cooperation with local publicity departments. But as with all customs assigned this status, responsibility for protection ultimately falls at the feet of the government. Lu Zhaohui, formerly the government official responsible for promoting nüshu, tells Sixth Tone that the only way to encourage people to learn the script is to show them that it has practical benefits.

    One such benefit is tourism — although the county’s isolated location doesn’t exactly help. In 2002, the government spent over 1.5 million yuan ($219,000) building a museum in Pumei, a village in Jiangyong County where now-dead nüshu inheritor Gao Yinxian once lived. The museum sits on a lush island in the middle of a calm, green river and can only be accessed by crossing a suspension bridge. Each summer, the museum holds free, crash courses on nüshu, taught by the seven designated inheritors, including He Jinghua. But when Sixth Tone went to the museum on a particularly hot day in July, there were only a handful of visitors.

    Hu Xin, who works full time at the museum, tells Sixth Tone that visitors come every day — but the fluctuating numbers don’t affect how she does her job.

    At 30 years old, the Pumei native is the youngest nüshu inheritor and spends her days guiding tourists, writing delicate calligraphy, and teaching students. After graduating from a vocational school in 2006, Hu returned to the village and began working as a ticket seller at the museum. There was little else to do in the small village, so she began spending her free time learning to read and write nüshu from a co-worker. When the museum was short-staffed in 2009, the fair-skinned Hu stepped up to cover a shift and caught the attention of the local publicity officials. Ever since, Hu has been the young face of nüshu, even presenting a nüshu translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at an exhibition in Geneva.

    Hu’s personal interest fits with the local government’s aim of investing in new talent to carry on the tradition. For a time, the county government wanted to set up an extracurricular class for elementary schoolers, but that didn’t go down well: Some parents were opposed to their children learning something that might not grant them any advantages in the future. Despite the setbacks, Hunan’s provincial government issued a nüshu calligraphy textbook in March.

    Tsinghua University professor Zhao is disappointed with the official documents on nüshu, which she says are riddled with mistakes. While she thinks it’s nice that the government is working to develop souvenirs featuring the script, getting it right must be the priority. “Distorting tradition is worse than losing it,” Zhao tells Sixth Tone.

    Zhao believes that young researchers and locals alike are concerned only with profit, not preserving culture. “It’s good to make some noise and expand nüshu’s influence,” Zhao says, before cautioning: “These officials need to keep a cool head. They can’t just talk nonsense and ruin [the script’s] reputation.”

    For Hu, though, promoting the script isn’t just her livelihood — it’s her passion. “My whole life centers around nüshu,” she says. “It brings me honor and broadens my horizons.”

    A Resentful Inheritor

    He Yanxin’s cottage can only be accessed via a twisting maze of cobbled alleyways in the nearby mountain village of Heyuan. Roosters roam the streets, and slogans painted in red fade into brick walls.

    Experts believe the last true nüshu “natural inheritor” — someone who learned the language in girlhood and used it all her life — died in 2004, so these days, 78-year-old He Yanxin is the closest thing the nation has. He Yanxin spent four years learning the script from her maternal grandmother — a more intensive introduction than was afforded to He Jinghua (no relation), who was only taught a few words by her aunt.

    He Yanxin has a sweet smile and a rebellious side. Unusually for a woman of her time, she mastered both nüshu and hanzi. As a headstrong 19-year-old, she was already going against the grain: About to be married off by her mother, she sent a letter to her future husband telling him not to come back to her village after their wedding. She managed to persuade him, and they spent the first three years of their marriage apart. Eventually, He Yanxin compromised, settling down with the husband she didn’t choose.

    Over the years, He Yanxin tried to hide her talent for nüshu — she was too busy taking care of her family while her husband worked first as a school teacher, then as a farmer. “I had 10 mouths to feed,” He Yanxin says. “If I went away to write nüshu, who would take care of them?”

    Slowly, she began embracing the script. For the past two decades, nüshu has kept her busy with forums, seminars, and research projects. In 2003, for instance, He Yanxin helped Tsinghua University professor Zhao recognize and catalog over 300 nüshu characters. In 2014, He Yanxin and other nüshu singers helped Oscar-winning music composer Tan Dun create a symphony about the script’s heritage.

    But when Sixth Tone visited He Yanxin in July, she refused to talk about nüshu, though a carefully framed, yellowed paper marked with nüshu calligraphy still hangs in her house. “Nüshu is not my business,” she says resolutely. “There are other people who are doing it.” Now, she spends her time on idler matters, like chatting with other elderly villagers in the alleyways.

    He Yanxin believes her contribution has been forgotten by both scholars and the county. “People drink tap water, but no one remembers who dug the wells,” she says bitterly.

    To Zhao it’s a shame He Yanxin no longer wants to be involved — but she, too, feels that her work to standardize nüshu characters is undervalued. There’s more to be done to understand the script’s origins and decipher now-unrecognized characters. “There are so many problems still unresolved,” Zhao says.

    Unfortunately, the final gatekeepers of nüshu are aging. Someday, the script — once the sole outlet for women who were otherwise barred from education — may live on only in tourist signs, and incorrect ones at that.

    Editor: Julia Hollingsworth.

    (Header image: Hu Xin writes ‘nüshu’ calligraphy at Nüshu Museum in Jiangyong County, Hunan province, July 18, 2018. Yin Yijun/Sixth Tone)