SECRET SCRIPT Volunteers Decode Mother-Daughter Language By Norma Libman Taipei, Taiwan - This is the ultimate in secret codes. For at least 200 years (some experts think it might be closer to 2,000), female villagers in the Hunan Province of China had their own secret written language that was passed on from mother to daughter, from older sister to younger, from friend to friend, according to Su Chien-ling, vice chairwoman of the Awakening Foundation, which worked to decipher the script. No one except the women knew about it until the 1950's when it was discovered, quite by accident, in Jiang Yung County in China's Hunan Province, Su says. At that time a woman trying to find her childhood home became lost. She had some directions written on paper, which she took to a police station and asked for help. No one could read one word of what was written on the paper. It resembled Mandarin Chinese, but it was not Chinese. The characters were more design-like than Chinese characters. None held any meaning for the people who looked at it. Despite the intriguing nature of this event and the slow unraveling of the story behind it as more examples of the script were found on fans, handkerchiefs, napkins and other items and used by women, not until 1982 did anyone try to translate the script into modern Chinese. At that point, Gong Zhe-bing, a male professor from Central Southern Ethnic Studies College in Wuban, China, attempted to interest other scholars in translating the writing. He even found three women who had been taught the mysterious language and could still write it. When he could find no interest in the project in China, Gong contacted the Awakening Foundation in Taipei, an activist group at the forefront of the growing women's movement in Taiwan. According Cheng Jhi-huei, a board member, the foundation was delighted to take on the work, and a group of 30 volunteers translated all the existing Nu Shu [women's script] into Mandarin in six months. Hu Chin-yun, a director of the Awakening Foundation, says, "Our volunteers enjoyed the work, becoming more excited every day by what they were finding in the text about the details of everyday life and the inner thoughts and feelings of women. We printed 1,000 copies of the book, Nu Shu [Women's New Knowledge Foundation, $40] in 1991. It was an important project for us. Now we are opening a bookstore, Fem Books, in Taiwan." The story behind the script is still not known completely and may never be because its inherent nature is one of secrecy. Over hundreds of years, the women devised the writing as a way to communicate with each other because few were sent to school or taught to read and write Mandarin, Su says. They sewed their stories into fans, scarves, handkerchiefs or napkins and sent them to each other to inform their friends of what was happening in their families, or purely to provide entertainment for their otherwise harsh or boring lives. "They put their wishes on fans and handkerchiefs and brought them to the temple to tell God their wishes," says Su, who teaches English at Ming Chuan College in Taipei. "When a friend would get married, her friend would send the Nu Shu as a wedding present and write her wishes about her marriage. Or if something bad happened, such as a family member got sick, they used the Nu Shu to send their condolences. In this way they kept their friendships even after they married." The men were largely unaware of the secret script. "They paid no attention at all," says Su. "The women were so unimportant to them. It never occurred to the men that their wives were doing anything but sewing. This fact, alone, demonstrates much about the low position of women in Chinese society historically. The idea that they were writing words and sending messages to each other just wouldn't occur to the men, most of whom led virtually separate lives [from the women]." Much of the Nu Shu has been lost over the years. According to Buddhist tradition, when a person died, most of the person's important possessions were burned so they could accompany the deceased to their next existence. For this reason the women often requested their Nu Shu be burned, Su says. Also, many Nu Shu embroidered items were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution of the early Communist era. The majority of the prose and poetry, including epic poems that told personal stories or retold well-known tales and myths, was lost. Still, some wonderful examples exist of the literature of women in China. There is one story a woman has written about her homesickness. She has married and gone to live with her husband's family, in the traditional manner, but she wants to return to her family home. She tells her husband: "Although I have had good times and good days in your home, I don't have anything to do. I have been here so long. I'm so restless. If I could I would step on a lily flower and go back. If you do love me you have to send me back." Then there is a beautiful retelling of an old Chinese tale that combines several familiar themes. Here a young woman dresses as a boy so she can go to school. She has to share a room and a bed with a fellow student, but she never takes her clothes off in front of him so he will not discover her secret. Eventually, though, he learns the truth and they fall in love, but their families will not let them marry. He dies from longing for her, and she commits suicide at his grave. Then, the story goes, the grave opens and two butterflies fly out, and those two butterflies are the young lovers. Nu Shu script has provided great insight into the lives of Chinese women, ancient and modern, Su says. Also, she says, it has awakened an interest in Taiwan in women's studies at the university level. The Awakening Foundation is exploring the possibility of distributing copies of the Nu Shu book to libraries, and there has been some interest on the part of German and Japanese publishers in translating the text into those languages. This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Norma Libman is a freelance journalist who publishes articles in newspapers nationwide. ©Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No portion of this article may be republished without the express written permission of the author TOP OF PAGE
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