A Film by: Yue-Qing Yang
Distributed by: Women Make Movies
Chinese Canadian filmmaker, Yue-Qing Yang has dedicated her life to producing documentaries about women in China (Women Make Movies, http://www.wmm.com/). “Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China,” produced in 1999, revolves around 86-year-old Huan yi-Yang, who is the one remaining person who can read and write Nu Shu.
Here is an excerpt I found on the Internet that describes Nu Shu simply and elegantly, much like Nu Shu itself:
"Nowadays, it would be called empowering women. But back then, centuries ago, it was just a way for the sworn sisters of this rugged and tradition-laden Chinese countryside to share their hopes, their joys and their many sorrows. Only men learned to read and write Chinese, and bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband's homes. So somehow - scholars are unsure how, or exactly when - the women of this fertile valley in the southwestern corner of Hunan province developed their own way to communicate. It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend - and never, ever shared with the men and boys. So was born Nushu, or Women's Script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind." (Ellie Crystal, San Fran Gate - February 29, 2004)
This type of writing is thought to have originated when women chose to communicate with each other via the symbols they stitched in embroidery. Women strung symbols together into plaintive stories and did not so much read them aloud as sing them to their “sworn sisters,” their best friends. I believe it is Huan yi-Yang’s own voice that sings the blues of Nu Shu within Yue-Qing Yang’s documentary.
“For sister the attic, for brother the great hall and study” is one line from Nu Shu which could be found painted or stitched on fans and handkerchiefs, as well as books. So we can see why a man would not be a welcome audience to Nu Shu as it was a way for women to express their sorrows and complaints about their men. This was particularly true regarding the “Third Day Book.”
"Three days after the wedding, the adolescent bride would receive a "Third Day Book," a clothbound volume in which her sworn sisters and her mother would record their sorrow at losing a friend and daughter and express best wishes for happiness in the married life ahead. The first half-dozen pages contained these laments and hopes, written in nushu that the groom couldn't read. The rest were left blank for the bride to record her own feelings and experiences -- in nushu -- for what would become a treasured diary." (Ellie Crystal, San Fran Gate - February 29, 2004)
In the 1960’s the Chinese government became aware of Nu Shu, decided that Nu Shu was all about espionage, and that it must be destroyed. Thus, many Third Day Books and other Nu Shu writings were gathered together and burned, just like in a scene from Kurt Vonnegut’s futuristic story, “Fahrenheit 451.” Writers of Nu Shu were intimidated to stop writing. Both men and women mourned the loss of this secret language. Now there are only a handful of these Nu Shu documents that have survived and very few people know how to decipher them. It is very close to becoming a lost language thanks to the paranoia of the Chinese government.
“If we could lead our own lives, we would never leave each other,” is another line from Nu Shu. Even amidst the most stringent oppression, Nu Shu women were able to find comfort and warmth in this art form that they were able to share secretly with each other. I have no doubt that Nu Shu or something akin to it will one day rise again.