Nüshu means women’s writing. During the 19th and 20th centuries it was used by peasant women as a secret script in a small region of Hunan province.
The script was exclusive to women and was never taught to men. The general public barely knew of it’s existence until the 1980s.
Knowledge of the script was passed down from mother to daughter, and although some men knew that it existed, they were unable to read it. The script was used from female relatives and friends to communicate in an intimate way during the time of a highly patriarchal society.
Sworn sister relationships would be established between pairs of girls who grew up together in the same village. This was known as the laotong relationship and was expected to last for a lifetime.
These married peasant women lived highly controlled lives, as they were mostly kept indoors doing household chores. The script helped them keep their laotong relationships alive, which was deeply cherished by all.
It only became known to the public when an old woman fainted in a train station. The script was brought to the attention of the police once they went through her belongings. The woman was in fact arrested for being a spy at first, since they were unable to recognize what was written.
The first man to master the script was Zhou Shuoyi, who published the first dictionary of the characters in 2003. The strokes of the script are comprised of arcs, vertical lines and arcs, and was written from top to bottom, just like traditional Chinese texts.
By the time scholars began to study the script in the 1980s, it was already on the verge of going extinct, with only about a dozen women left who could understand and write it. The last person to be proficient in the script passed away in 2004 at the age of 98.