Imagine a special writing script that only women know how to use. If that sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, think again. Nüshu was a women-only script in 19th-century China, and researchers are still attempting to figure out where it came from.
Nüshu comes from the county of Jiangyong in Hunan Province in China. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a small group of women used the script to write autobiographies, poetry, stories, and letters to one another. The graceful, phonetic alphabet of Nüshu was passed down from mother to daughter.
“Out of the thousands of scripts that are gender-specific to men, here we have one that we know is gender-specific to women,” researcher Cathy Silber explained to Atlas Obscura. Silber, professor at Skidmore College in New York, has been studying Nüshu since the ’80s.
While the idea of a ~secret women’s script~ is definitely sensational, Silber says that men were well aware of the script and could understand what it said if it was read aloud. “Men were not exactly clamoring to be let in on this ‘secret,’ just as they were not storming the lofts demanding to learn embroidery,” Silber said. “Even though it wasn’t a secret, it was for all practical purposes used exclusively by women.”
Still, in a nation where women were historically denied access to literacy, Nüshu stands out. It allowed women to tell their own stories in their own words, giving modern researchers a rare peek into the lives of everyday Chinese women in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It’s still not clear where the script first came from. The most popular theory is that it was a retaliation to women’s exclusion from education.
The last known woman to know how to write Nüshu died in 2004. Experts have attempted to revive it by teaching classes, but it may soon be extinct.
In the 21st century, women in China may not need a special script of their own anymore. But the idea is just as intriguing and fascinating as ever.