Ever had the sneaking suspicion that women speak in different tongues? If you were a Hunanese peasant woman in 20-century China, there was a kernel of truth to the old joke. Inside a hilly, remote village of Jiangyong County, unschooled women and girls developed a mysterious system of writing called Nüshu to express their innermost thoughts and passed around favorite songs, prayers, traditional tales, birthday letters and wedding congratulations to each other in coded script.
The communications were hidden in plain sight from the men, who largely disregarded Nüshu — which means “women’s writing” in Chinese — as frivolous, not bothering to learn a word.
Similar female scripts arose in Japan and Korea too, but only Nüshu bore a certain mystique. When women died, they had their favorite works burned or buried with them. So we don’t know exactly when Nüshu began, but we know that women were using the script around 200 years ago, when girls weren’t expected to go to school and long before they received any formal education.
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