Nushu: the Secret Language of Women

The Chinese woman was educated exclusively for marriage, confined in the house and condemned to illiteracy. In order to communicate with each other they invented a secret language that they embroidered on clothes, fans and handkerchiefs, containing messages that passed as ornamental elements to the profane eye.


In the third century, in the province of Huan, women invented and developed a secret language, forbidden to men. It served to communicate between them and has been transmitted from generation to generation until almost our days. They embroidered it on clothes, fans and handkerchiefs, containing messages. Each letter of the nushu alphabet is basically a flower, so they passed as ornamental elements to the profane eye.

For millennia, women in China have been considered one more property of the husband. Women were prohibited from education, and with it learning to read and write the official language. A tradition more than “complemented” with the bandage of the feet from girls to acquire the shape of a goat’s hoof, in such a way that they could not walk long distances alone. The Chinese woman was educated exclusively for marriage, and when this took place, they were confined to the house of their in-laws, condemned to illiteracy and domestic confinement.

They also created what became known as the Book of the Third Day. A blank notebook that was given to the newly married women, three days after the wedding, where they used the nushu to express their feelings and their desires. Yang Huanyi is the name of the last woman who knew nushu. It belonged to the last generation that needed to learn it. Faced with their despair, their daughters, like many other women in China today who regularly attended school, did not want to learn it.

Yang Huanyi

Yang was born in the province of Huan. His father was a village doctor and Yang learned from him and his grandmother some of the practices of Chinese medicine. And he also learned nushu. He learned it from seven old women, who in turn learned it from seven other old women each.

He was married at the age of 22 years by marriage arranged by his parents, according to tradition. Her husband was bitten by a snake after three months of marriage and died. Yang remarried at two years, although he was not very lucky. Her second husband was an inveterate gambler who spent family income, disappeared from the house for long periods and then had to pay off debts to the farm animals that Yang raised and cared for. He had eight children from his marriage, although only three survived.

The secrets of nushu

He was an employee of the Jiangyong Cultural Department who accidentally discovered the existence of nushu. In the 80s of the 20th century, the discovery of a language that could have been kept secret for more than 1,700 years became public. The academic community did not believe. Scholars do not yet agree with the age and origins of the language. Some argue that it is thousands of years old, while others believe that it can not be more than several hundred years old.

Nushu is a syllabic language. Each sign represents a different sound unit in the local dialect. His strokes are fine, like threads or strands, and elongated lines. There are four types: points, horizontal lines, vertical and arc-shaped lines. It was written in columns, from top to bottom. The nushu characters appear to be a rhomboidal variant derived from Chinese square characters.

A lost language

In 1995 Yang Huanyi was invited to participate in the conference of the United Nations for Women held in Beijing, where she delivered her letters, poems and songs for study. He died shortly thereafter, in 2004, at the age of 98, taking with him the secret of a language that shows that human beings usually find, in the face of adverse circumstances, a way of expressing their emotions. According to Zhao Liming, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, nushu is not just a script, but represents the whole traditional Chinese female culture.

When older women felt that the end was near, they often asked family members to put some of their writing in their coffins and burn the other pieces of their work. Thus, most of a woman’s work was buried with her, with which the writings were lost forever. Considered as animals for thousands of years, these women found a way to secretly evoke the song of freedom of caged birds.

“It was like a bolt of sun lightning that made women’s lives more pleasurable. It is a culture of sunlight that allows women to speak with their own voices and fight male chauvinism.”

-Zhao Liming-