School Trip to Explore the Secret Script Nüshu: A History Written by Chinese Women

Have you ever thought about the gender of words?

In Jiangyong, Hunan, there is a set of long-standing mysterious characters.

They are only used among women, and only women can understand them. It is this set of mysterious characters that allows us to glimpse into the real lives and spiritual world of ancient Chinese rural women.

It is the only surviving gendered script in the world, known as Jiangyong Nüshu (Women’s Script).

Recently, we brought a group of students here to engage in in-depth conversations with the inheritors, learn the unique and delicate women’s script, and experience the continuation of women’s writing in the historical corners.

Discover the Beauty of Nüshu

At the first stop of exploring Jiangyong Nüshu, we arrived at the Jiangyong Nüshu Ecological Museum. Here, the students have the opportunity to deeply understand the origins and unique customs of the women’s script.

Are you curious about what the students are writing? That is the women’s script research manual that we specifically prepared. This is the ‘Inquiring’ learning method that Pinky mentioned in the video. With the questions in the manual, we guide the students to explore the stories behind the women’s script on their own.

In fact, much of the mystery of the women’s script comes from the fact that its origin has not yet been verified. There are several different stories surrounding the invention of the women’s script, all of which carry the color of folklore. What we can be sure of, however, is that this is an ancient script that has been passed down for a long time and is only used by women.

From the appearance of the characters, we can easily feel the unique beauty of the women’s script. Its script is graceful and slender, with a right-leaning and left-leaning posture, forming a slanted rhombus shape. According to Professor Zhao Liming’s verification, over 95% of the characters in the women’s script are derived from square characters.

However, when we see the graceful and distinctive beauty of the women’s script that is completely different from traditional Chinese characters, we can better appreciate the unique artistic creativity and innovative spirit it contains.

Once you have seen Jiangyong Nüshu, you cannot bear to witness its disappearance. Regardless of its cultural and historical value, the sheer aesthetic pleasure alone makes it truly deserving of being a precious cultural heritage. Due to this unique value, the women’s script has not only been recognized as a national intangible cultural heritage but also its 396 basic characters have been included in the international coding standard character set.

In the Nüshu Museum, we also glimpse the unique spiritual pursuits of the women behind the women’s script. We are all familiar with the ‘Four Treasures of the Study’ representing the refined taste of ancient Chinese literati – the brush, ink, paper, and inkstone. However, in Jiangyong, despite limited resources, the women here have their own ‘Four Treasures’: a twig ground to make a ‘brush’, ink made from mixing potash with water as ‘ink’, rough paper, folding fans, or handkerchiefs serving as ‘paper’, with the women writing the women’s script characters on their knees instead of a desk.

In an era when female literacy and education rates were low, through the women’s script, we witness many women persisting in using this creative script to write their own sorrows and joys, and to chant stories exclusive to them with their intimate ‘Lao Tong’ (local term for sisters in Jiangyong). To understand the women’s script, one must learn how to write it.

At the ‘Women’s Script School’ on Puwei Island, we followed teacher Hu Mei Yue, a women’s script inheritor, to study the elegant women’s script calligraphy. The creator of this women’s script artwork, Gao Yin Xian, is actually Teacher Hu’s grandmother. The students diligently learn to write their names in the women’s script, following suit with great care.

The beauty of women’s script is inseparable from women’s embroidery. Many women’s scripts are embroidered on women’s handkerchiefs and sashes.

Therefore, we also had the students experience women’s script embroidery, allowing them to feel how women at that time expressed their rich emotions stitch by stitch through the unique form of female labor.

It is worth mentioning that this trip to Jiangyong for the students was not just about completing the experiential activity. They also had a special task: creating a vlog of their journey through Jiangyong Nüshu. We look forward to seeing their perceptions and reflections on Jiangyong Women’s Script through the students’ lenses.

Therefore, we also provided the students with the opportunity to interview three women’s script inheritors. Through in-depth conversations with the inheritors, the students had the chance to hear how the Nüshu shaped their spiritual world, discuss the contribution of the Nüshu to gender equality and sustainable development goals, and explore how to better pass on such profound and meaningful topics related to Nüshu.

Experience Jiangyong Culture

The land nurtures its people. To understand Jiangyong nüshu, one must delve into Jiangyong, the birthplace of the Nüshu culture.

Jiangyong is located in the Wuling Mountain region and is home to not only the Han ethnic group but also the Yao ethnic group. Therefore, there is a belief that the birth of the women’s script in Jiangyong was also influenced by the nourishment of minority ethnic customs.

During ages when most women were confined by feudal etiquette, the blended culture among the diverse ethnic groups in Jiangyong allowed the women here to construct their own spiritual sanctuary outside of the male-dominated discourse through the bonds between women.

We hiked in the Yao ethnic origin area of Jiangyong, the Qianjiadong Mountain, where students personally experienced making Jiangyong’s distinctive cuisine. In the evening, they also participated in local folk activities. All these experiences provided rich material for the students’ vlogs.

Nüshu Heritage: Our Cultural Treasure

Sadly, such a unique and beautiful women’s script is facing the threat of extinction.

Firstly, the characteristic of “people die, books are burned” unique to the Nüshu means that there are already limited materials available for research. Secondly, with the changes of time, the social environment and culture that the Nüshu once represented have become history, leading to the gradual forgetting of this script.

Therefore, we hope that by leading students to experience and document their journey, more people can learn about the world’s unique Nüshu born in Jiangyong, Hunan. They can witness female writing that existed in ancient Chinese rural areas and discover this unique and vivid chapter of women’s history.

Just as Pinky mentioned at the end of the video, as long as the Nüshu continues to be seen, maintaining its authenticity while being infused with new vitality, the immense cultural, historical, anthropological, and other valuable values carried by the Nüshu will become a cultural treasure for the whole world.

At our school trip to china to explore the secret script of nushu. The Jiangyong Nüshu script is a unique and mysterious form of writing used exclusively by women in Jiangyong, Hunan. It offers a rare glimpse into the lives and thoughts of ancient Chinese rural women, showcasing their creativity, resilience, and spiritual world. Passed down for generations, the Nüshu script is a testament to the strength and ingenuity of women in preserving their cultural heritage. Despite facing extinction, efforts to document and preserve the Nüshu script continue, ensuring that this valuable cultural treasure is not forgotten. Discover the beauty of Nushu with our educational travel to china.

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