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Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China (Yue-Qing Yang 1999)

Filmmaker:
Year:
Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 59 min

Format: Color, VHS/DVD

Nu Shu, which translates literally to women’s writing, is a unique language that was developed surreptitiously in Jianyong county in Hunan province. This secret language of Jianyong’s local women has attracted much attention, as its creation can be seen as an incredible act of defiance and rebellion against the patriarchal nature of feudal China. As Yue-Qing Yang investigates the phenomenon in Hunan, she obtains access to first-hand testimony of the effects of female oppression and subordination condoned by society, along with evidence of the outlet that Nu Shu, a language exclusive to women, provided for Jianyong’s mother’s and daughters.

Within Yue-Qing Yang’s interviews with the local women, we are shown gripping images of bound feet and stories of domestic abuse which become reminders of women’s lower class status and even more so, their physical subjugation. The women of Jianyong speak candidly of their frustrations with the nature of marriage and wifehood within their society. Thus, the documentary depicts the women’s resounding response to the binding of their freedom. The film details the development of Nu Shu, demonstrating how the women used the domestic mediums which were available to them and transformed the arts of simple sewing and craft into a written language. Nu Shu was unrecognizable to men and because it was viewed as a bastardized version of Chinese, it was allowed to slip by unnoticed. Thus, empowered by its low status, Nu Shu enabled the creation of a community of “sworn sisters” and refuge among the women. Nu Shu also became a gift that would be bestowed from one generation of woman to another. Thus, the film traces the history of Nu Shu and its passage among women, as well as the ways in which Nu Shu and the “sworn sisters” became an essential source of freedom, a means for finding support, as well as an alleviating medium for a community of the oppressed women of Jianyong.

Though many Nu Shu documents were shown to have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and the lineage of this heirloom has very much diminished, the study and understanding of the characters from what primary documents do still exist is research that is ongoing. However, the last proficient user of Nu Shu in Jianyong, Yang Huanyi, died on September 20th, 2004.

Further reading:

Overview of Nu Shu: http://www.ubs-translations.org/tt/past_issues/tic_talk_61_2005/

Controversy: http://bjyouth.ynet.com/article.jsp?oid=2372830

Comparison of Nu Shu and Chinese characters : http://www.omniglot.com/writing/nushu.htm

More on Nu Shu

McLaren, Anne E. 1996. “Women’s Voices and Textuality: Chastity and Abduction in Chinese NüShu Writing,” Modern China 22.4: 382-416.

Silber, Cathy L. 1994. “From Daughter to Daughter-in-law in the Women’s Script of Southern Hunan.” Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State: 47-68.