Nushu, the secret women's script of the Yao minority in China, was widely declared extinct last year, when its most famous user, Yang Huangyi, a local matriarch, died aged 92. But obituaries for the world's only gender-specific language appear to have been premature.
This secret code, once used as a covert, intimate form of expression for heretical feelings about the frustration, melancholy and loneliness of wives forced into arranged marriages and semi-imprisonment in this remote mountain community in southwest Hunan, is now being exploited in a way that is empowering and enriching women.
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 was not always so. For much of its still sketchy history, Nushu, which means women's writing, has been associated with persecution and misery. Its origins are obscure. Romantically minded linguists trace it back to a concubine of an emperor of the Song dynasty (960-1279), who is said to have used the secret script to write to sisters and friends outside the court. A more prosaic explanation is that Nushu is a remnant of a 4,000-year-old language stamped out elsewhere by the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, who decreed one standardised mandarin script as a means to unite the country. Any man who used an alternative writing style was put to death. But women, who were kept at home as part of the family property, were not considered important enough to warrant an application of the law. Denied an education, mothers passed on the secret code, with its slender characters of sloping lines and dots, to their daughters. Experts estimate that the language has between 1,800 and 2,500 characters, each representing a syllable of the local Tuhua dialect. By contrast, mandarin has 30,000 ideograms, each with a different meaning.
By the 19th century, Nushu was being used in poems, letters and embroidery by groups of "sworn sisters", who formed secret bonds of friendship. Some think it may have formed the basis for a lesbian cult, but more likely it was simply an outlet for feelings of sisterly love and sadness at having to marry. "In Nushu literature, there is no reference at all to sex. Chinese women are rather conservative in that respect," says Hu Meiyue, a teacher in Jiangyong.
But there are heretical expressions of independence and frustration with men. One Nushu tale describes a wife in an arranged marriage who runs away on her wedding night after discovering how ugly her husband is. Another tells of a woman who is so impatient that she marches off to her fiance's home demanding to know why he has not yet married her.
In most writings, however, the dominant theme is resignation rather than rebellion. The happiest Nushu poems are those exchanged by girlfriends when they become "sworn sisters". The saddest - and most famous - form of Nushu literature is the third-day book, a lament for the loss of a sister to marriage. These books, presented to brides three days after their wedding, also contained space at the back to be used as a diary. Wives considered these so precious that they had them buried or burned with them when they died, so they could take the Nushu from their sworn sisters to the next world.
Only a handful survive, one of which belonged to the great grandmother of Hu Meiyue. As she leafs through the embroidered indigo cotton-and-linen-bound book, the 100-year-old pages look in danger of crumbling. But the words still have power. "Now we sit together because our feelings are disturbed by the imminent marriage of one of our sworn sisters and we must write the third-day book. We cherish the days when we are together and hate losing one of our sisters. After she gets married it will be difficult to meet her so we worry that she will be lonely. For a woman, marriage means losing everything, including her family and her sworn sisters."
Until well into the last century, a Chinese woman's life was measured by "three followings" - her father before marriage, her husband after, and her son when he became head of the household. So the final words of advice from her sworn sisters, were: "Be a good wife, do lots of embroidery and try your best to tolerate your husband's family."
But Yao women's lives have been transformed. "We are now educated and we have the freedom to choose our husbands," says Hu, who started teaching the script four years ago and has seen it pushed into the international limelight and used to promote the local economy.
Academics have compiled a Nushu dictionary, a school has been opened to teach the language and the Ford Foundation is donating $209,000 to build a museum to preserve the remaining third-day books and embroidery. A Hong Kong company has invested several million yuan for the construction of roads, hotels and parks - all aimed at exploiting Nushu's growing fame.
"It is one of our main selling points," says Zheng Shiqiu, head of the ethnic minority division of the local government. "Nushu is the only women's script in the world that is still alive."
The commercial exploitation of the language is not pretty, but it is transforming relations between the sexes in a way that would have shocked the writers of the old third-day books. Now that women are bringing in money through Nushu (which many have only started learning in the past few years), they have moved to the centre of the community's economic and cultural life. After all, tourists and academics are not interested in the men, but instead come to hear the women sing, sew and write. This has brought them a kind of power.
The transformation is evident in Huang Yuan. "Things are different these days. We have real equality of the sexes," she says. Huang is 29 and not yet engaged, which would have been a source of consternation for a woman just 10 years ago. As she says, "I'm still young. I don't need to rush into marriage." At the Nushu Garden school, the contrast with the elderly generation could not be more different. Ni Youju, now 80, was engaged while still a baby. "I couldn't say if it was a happy or a sad marriage. Life was too much of a struggle to think about such things. But I was happy on my wedding day because it meant there was someone else to look after me. We are still together and he doesn't drink or smoke or gamble too much so I guess I can't complain."
Ni's mother taught her Nushu when she was 12, but she never had sworn sisters because her family was too poor. "There was a group that met near my house and I used to go and listen to them sing," she says. In the classes, she is now the most enthusiastic singer.
Despite the investment, there are still fears that the language may die out. As Zhou Huijuan, who has spent 10 years writing a biography in the script, says: "In the past, girls never used to be educated so they needed their own language. But now they study mandarin at school, so why should they bother learning Nushu - a script that very few other people can understand?"
But her brother, who played a major role in bringing the language to international attention, disagrees. "Nushu is based on a local dialect that people still speak. As a form of expression and a part of our cultural heritage, it lives on," says Zhou Shuoyi.
One of the new legion of teachers is He Jinghua, who writes - and sells - third-day books with a handy mandarin translation for tourists. "Even today, I think it is still necessary for women to express their feelings in Nushu," says the 67-year-old, who only started writing the language in 1996. "There are some moods - particularly of sadness and loneliness - that cannot be conveyed as well in mandarin. Nushu is a more intimate language."
Some things have not changed. Jinghua is teaching Nushu to her 13-year-old granddaughter Pu Lin. Her husband fans himself in the corner. He does not understand the language. Nor does his grandson. I ask He if she will teach the language to the boy now that it has become public knowledge. "No," she says. "Nushu is only for women. We cannot tell men how to use it."
· Additional reporting by Huang Lisha
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