Nüshu (simplified Chinese: 女书; traditional Chinese: 女書; pinyin: Nǚshū [ny˨˩˨ʂu˦]; lit. 'women's script') is a syllabic script derived from Chinese characters that was used exclusively among ethnic Yao women[3] in Jiangyong County in Hunan province of southern China before going extinct in the early 21st century.

"Nüshu" written in Nüshu
"Nüshu" written in Nüshu
Script type
Time period
c. 800[1] – 2004[2]
Direction top-to-bottom, right-to-left
RegionJiangyong County
LanguagesXiangnan Tuhua
Related scripts
Parent systems
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Nshu (499), ​Nüshu
Unicode alias

Nüshu is phonetic, with each of its approximately 600–700 characters representing a syllable. Nüshu works were a way for women to lament by communicating sorrows, commiserating over Chinese patriarchy, and establishing connections with an empathetic community. Typically a group of three or four young, non-related women would pledge friendship by writing letters and singing songs in Nüshu to each other.

It is not known when Nüshu came into being, but it seems to have reached its peak during the latter part of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). To preserve the script as an intangible cultural heritage, Chinese authorities established a Nüshu museum in 2002 and designated "Nüshu transmitters" starting in 2003. Fears that the features of the script are being distorted by the effort of marketing it for the tourist industry were highlighted by the 2022 documentary Hidden Letters.



Unlike standard written Chinese, which is logographic (each character represents a word or part of a word), Nüshu is phonetic, with each of its approximately 600–700 characters representing a syllable. This is about half the number required to represent all the syllables in Xiangnan Tuhua, as tonal distinctions are frequently ignored, making it "the most revolutionary and thorough simplification of Chinese characters ever attempted".[4] Zhou Shuoyi, described as the only male to have mastered the script, compiled a dictionary listing 1,800 variant characters and allographs.[5]

It has been suggested that Nüshu characters appear to be italic variant forms of Kaishu Chinese characters,[6] as can be seen in the name of the script, though some have been substantially modified to better fit embroidery patterns.[citation needed] The strokes of the characters are in the form of dots, horizontals, virgules, and arcs.[7] The script is traditionally written in vertical columns running from right to left, but in modern contexts it may be written in horizontal lines from left to right, just like modern-day Chinese. Unlike in standard Chinese, writing Nüshu script with very fine, almost threadlike, lines is seen as a mark of fine penmanship.

About half of Nüshu is modified Chinese characters used logographically.[dubiousdiscuss] In about 100, the entire character is adopted with little change apart from skewing the frame from square to rhomboid, sometimes reversing them (mirror image), and often reducing the number of strokes. Another hundred have been modified in their strokes, but are still easily recognizable, as is 'woman' above. About 200 have been greatly modified, but traces of the original Chinese character are still discernible.

The rest of the characters are phonetic. They are either modified characters, as above, or elements extracted from characters. There are used for 130 phonetic values, each used to write on average ten homophonous or nearly homophonous words, though there are allographs as well; women differed on which Chinese character they preferred for a particular phonetic value.[4]



Before 1949, Jiangyong County operated under an agrarian economy and women had to abide by patriarchal Confucian practices such as the Three Obediences. Women were confined to the home (through foot binding) and were assigned roles in housework and needlework instead of fieldwork, which allowed the practice of Nüshu to develop. Specifically, unmarried women, also known as "upstairs girls," oftentimes gathered in groups in upstairs chambers to embroider and sing. The practice of singing Nüge (women's song) allowed young women to learn Nüshu.[8][9]

Jie Bai


One of the key ways in which Nüshu was spread and continued was through Jie Bai, meaning sworn sisters. Jiebai created a sisterhood, allowing women to have companions. Unmarried girls often interacted with one another daily. Whether during group needlework, embroidering, or shoemaking, these girls worked together in an upstairs chamber. [10]It was typical that they slept there together as well. “This arrangement led to the building of more intimate bonds through conversation, signing, and playing”.[11] Their poems and songs “embody their testimony to sisterhood”.[10] Although the girls got older and married, separated from their sisters, their bond remained. It was common that this relationship remained even throughout the rest of their lives.

This sworn sisterhood was a huge part of Nüshu as girls made sisterhood pacts, writing nüshu letters and songs to one another. As they approached marriage, they wrote Nüshu wedding texts, also known as sanshaoshu, to the bride. Even after marriage, they kept in touch through letters.[10]

Su Kelian


Su kelian also known as “lamenting the miserable” is a genre of writing that “gave voice to Jiangyong peasant women’s existence as vulnerable beings." To combat the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness, they turned to writing poetry. [11] These feelings were often the subject of the poems written by the Nüshu women. By creating Nüshu, they were now able to communicate their emotions. Expressing their feelings through folk stories, songs, prayers, and more, gave women an outlet. The poems and songs are “filled with examples of women’s hardships and misfortune."[11]



It is not known when Nüshu came into being. The difficulty in dating Nüshu is due to local customs of burning or burying Nüshu texts with their owners and the difficulty in textiles and paper surviving in humid environments.[8][9] However, many of the simplifications found in Nüshu had been in informal use in standard Chinese since the Song and Yuan dynasty (13th–14th century). It seems to have reached its peak during the latter part of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911).[4]

Though a local educated worker at the Jiangyong Cultural Office (Zhou Shuoyi) had collected, studied and translated many Nüshu texts into standard Chinese, he was unable to draw outside attention to the script until a report was submitted to the central government on this subject in 1983.[citation needed]

During the latter part of the 20th century, owing more to wider social, cultural and political changes than the narrow fact of greater access to hanzi literacy, younger girls and women stopped learning Nüshu, and it began falling into disuse, as older users died. The script was suppressed by the Japanese during their invasion of China in the 1930s-40s, because they feared that the Chinese could use it to send secret messages,[citation needed] and also during China's Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).[citation needed]

It is no longer customary for women to learn Nüshu, and literacy in Nüshu is now limited to a few scholars who learned it from the last women who were literate in it. However, after Yang Yueqing made a documentary about Nüshu, the government of the People's Republic of China started to popularize the effort to preserve the increasingly endangered script, and some younger women are beginning to learn it.

In the 21st century

Nüshu Garden school, July 2005

Yang Huanyi, an inhabitant of Jiangyong county, Hunan province, and the last person proficient in this writing system, died on September 20, 2004, age 98.[12][13]

To preserve Nüshu as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, a Nüshu museum was established in 2002 and "Nüshu transmitters" were created in 2003.[8]

The language and locale have attracted foreign investment building up infrastructure at possible tourist sites and a $209,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to build a Nüshu museum scheduled to open in 2007.[14] However, with the line of transmission now broken, there are fears that the features of the script are being distorted by the effort of marketing it for the tourist industry.[15]

The title of a Nüshu transmitter is given to someone who is proficient in Nüshu writing and singing and needlework, knowledgeable on local customs, practices civil virtues, and loyal to the Center for Nüshu Cultural and Research Administration. They are paid a monthly stipend of 100 RMB (as of 2010) in exchange for creating Nüshu works for the government and providing free copies of Nüshu works to local authorities. While recent academic interest in Nüshu has allowed for efforts in its preservation, it comes with the loss of women's agency over the presentation of their Nüshu works and their inability to directly control who the audience is.[8]

Chinese composer Tan Dun has created a multimedia symphony entitled Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women for harp, orchestra, and 13 microfilms. Tan Dun spent five years conducting field research in Hunan Province, documenting on film the various songs the women use to communicate. Those songs become a third dimension to his symphony, and are projected alongside the orchestra and harp soloist.

Lisa See describes the use of Nüshu among 19th-century women in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Since Nüshu was oftentimes practiced in the private sphere, patriarchal ideas prevented it from being acknowledged in the public domain. These ideas deemed Nüshu irrelevant in the public world due to its perceived importance only being relevant in personal contexts while also asserting that culture in the public sphere was dominated by men. Contemporary artists have attempted to commemorate Nüshu through its "translation." Yuen-yi Lo, a Hong Kong/Macau artist, uses drawings as a way to critique the modern separation between writing and drawing and translate the cultural practice of Nüshu into a visual art practice by and for women. Hong Kong based choreographer Helen Lai uses dance as a medium to critique the patriarchal media representation of Nüshu. She suggests that Nüshu is an innovative art form despite the media portrayal of it being a "secret."[9]



The Nüshu script is used to write a distinct local Chinese variety known as Xiangnan Tuhua that is spoken by the Sinicized Yao people of the Xiao River and Yongming River region of northern Jiangyong County, Hunan.[16] This dialect, which differs enough from those of other parts of Hunan that there is little mutual intelligibility, is known to its speakers as [tifɯə] "Dong language". It is written only in the Nüshu script.[17] There are differing opinions on the classification of Xiangnan Tuhua, as it has features of several different Chinese varieties. Some scholars classify it under Xiang Chinese or Pinghua and other scholars consider it a hybrid dialect.[16] In addition to speaking Tuhua, most local people in Jiangyong are bilingual in the Hunan dialect of Southwestern Mandarin, which they use for communication with people from outside the area where Tuhua is spoken, as well as for some formal occasions.[16][18] If Hunan Southwestern Mandarin is written, then it is always written using standard Chinese characters and not with the Nüshu script.[18]

Jiangyong County has a mixed population of Han Chinese and Yao people, but Nüshu is used only to write the local Chinese dialect (Xiangnan Tuhua, 湘南土話), and there are no known examples of the script being used to write the local Yao language.[19]



Nüshu works were a way for women to lament by communicating sorrows and establishing connections with an empathetic community.[8] Women who created this strong bond were known as “sworn sisters” and were typically a group of three or four young, non-related women who would pledge friendship by writing letters and singing songs in Nüshu to each other. While being forced to remain subservient to the males in their families, the sworn sisters would find solace in each other's company.[20]

A large number of the Nüshu works were "third day missives" (三朝书; 三朝書; sānzhāoshū). They were cloth-bound booklets created by laotong, "sworn sisters" (结拜姊妹; 結拜姊妹; jiébàizǐmèi) and mothers and given to their counterpart "sworn sisters" or daughters upon their marriage. They wrote down songs in Nüshu, which were delivered on the third day after the young woman's marriage. This way, they expressed their emotions hopes for the happiness of the young woman who had left the village to be married and their sorrow for being parted from her.[21]

Other works, including poems and lyrics, were handwoven into belts and straps or embroidered onto everyday items and clothing. Other types of Nüshu works included ballads, autobiographies, biographies, and prayers.[9]

In Unicode


Nüshu is included in the Unicode Standard under the name "Nushu" (because Unicode character names, block names, and script names can only use ASCII letters). 396 Nüshu letters were added to the Nushu block as part of Unicode version 10.0, which was released in June 2017. An iteration mark for Nüshu, U+16FE1 𖿡 NUSHU ITERATION MARK, is in the Ideographic Symbols and Punctuation block.[22]

The Unicode block for Nüshu is U+1B170–U+1B2FF:

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+1B17x 𛅰 𛅱 𛅲 𛅳 𛅴 𛅵 𛅶 𛅷 𛅸 𛅹 𛅺 𛅻 𛅼 𛅽 𛅾 𛅿
U+1B18x 𛆀 𛆁 𛆂 𛆃 𛆄 𛆅 𛆆 𛆇 𛆈 𛆉 𛆊 𛆋 𛆌 𛆍 𛆎 𛆏
U+1B19x 𛆐 𛆑 𛆒 𛆓 𛆔 𛆕 𛆖 𛆗 𛆘 𛆙 𛆚 𛆛 𛆜 𛆝 𛆞 𛆟
U+1B1Ax 𛆠 𛆡 𛆢 𛆣 𛆤 𛆥 𛆦 𛆧 𛆨 𛆩 𛆪 𛆫 𛆬 𛆭 𛆮 𛆯
U+1B1Bx 𛆰 𛆱 𛆲 𛆳 𛆴 𛆵 𛆶 𛆷 𛆸 𛆹 𛆺 𛆻 𛆼 𛆽 𛆾 𛆿
U+1B1Cx 𛇀 𛇁 𛇂 𛇃 𛇄 𛇅 𛇆 𛇇 𛇈 𛇉 𛇊 𛇋 𛇌 𛇍 𛇎 𛇏
U+1B1Dx 𛇐 𛇑 𛇒 𛇓 𛇔 𛇕 𛇖 𛇗 𛇘 𛇙 𛇚 𛇛 𛇜 𛇝 𛇞 𛇟
U+1B1Ex 𛇠 𛇡 𛇢 𛇣 𛇤 𛇥 𛇦 𛇧 𛇨 𛇩 𛇪 𛇫 𛇬 𛇭 𛇮 𛇯
U+1B1Fx 𛇰 𛇱 𛇲 𛇳 𛇴 𛇵 𛇶 𛇷 𛇸 𛇹 𛇺 𛇻 𛇼 𛇽 𛇾 𛇿
U+1B20x 𛈀 𛈁 𛈂 𛈃 𛈄 𛈅 𛈆 𛈇 𛈈 𛈉 𛈊 𛈋 𛈌 𛈍 𛈎 𛈏
U+1B21x 𛈐 𛈑 𛈒 𛈓 𛈔 𛈕 𛈖 𛈗 𛈘 𛈙 𛈚 𛈛 𛈜 𛈝 𛈞 𛈟
U+1B22x 𛈠 𛈡 𛈢 𛈣 𛈤 𛈥 𛈦 𛈧 𛈨 𛈩 𛈪 𛈫 𛈬 𛈭 𛈮 𛈯
U+1B23x 𛈰 𛈱 𛈲 𛈳 𛈴 𛈵 𛈶 𛈷 𛈸 𛈹 𛈺 𛈻 𛈼 𛈽 𛈾 𛈿
U+1B24x 𛉀 𛉁 𛉂 𛉃 𛉄 𛉅 𛉆 𛉇 𛉈 𛉉 𛉊 𛉋 𛉌 𛉍 𛉎 𛉏
U+1B25x 𛉐 𛉑 𛉒 𛉓 𛉔 𛉕 𛉖 𛉗 𛉘 𛉙 𛉚 𛉛 𛉜 𛉝 𛉞 𛉟
U+1B26x 𛉠 𛉡 𛉢 𛉣 𛉤 𛉥 𛉦 𛉧 𛉨 𛉩 𛉪 𛉫 𛉬 𛉭 𛉮 𛉯
U+1B27x 𛉰 𛉱 𛉲 𛉳 𛉴 𛉵 𛉶 𛉷 𛉸 𛉹 𛉺 𛉻 𛉼 𛉽 𛉾 𛉿
U+1B28x 𛊀 𛊁 𛊂 𛊃 𛊄 𛊅 𛊆 𛊇 𛊈 𛊉 𛊊 𛊋 𛊌 𛊍 𛊎 𛊏
U+1B29x 𛊐 𛊑 𛊒 𛊓 𛊔 𛊕 𛊖 𛊗 𛊘 𛊙 𛊚 𛊛 𛊜 𛊝 𛊞 𛊟
U+1B2Ax 𛊠 𛊡 𛊢 𛊣 𛊤 𛊥 𛊦 𛊧 𛊨 𛊩 𛊪 𛊫 𛊬 𛊭 𛊮 𛊯
U+1B2Bx 𛊰 𛊱 𛊲 𛊳 𛊴 𛊵 𛊶 𛊷 𛊸 𛊹 𛊺 𛊻 𛊼 𛊽 𛊾 𛊿
U+1B2Cx 𛋀 𛋁 𛋂 𛋃 𛋄 𛋅 𛋆 𛋇 𛋈 𛋉 𛋊 𛋋 𛋌 𛋍 𛋎 𛋏
U+1B2Dx 𛋐 𛋑 𛋒 𛋓 𛋔 𛋕 𛋖 𛋗 𛋘 𛋙 𛋚 𛋛 𛋜 𛋝 𛋞 𛋟
U+1B2Ex 𛋠 𛋡 𛋢 𛋣 𛋤 𛋥 𛋦 𛋧 𛋨 𛋩 𛋪 𛋫 𛋬 𛋭 𛋮 𛋯
U+1B2Fx 𛋰 𛋱 𛋲 𛋳 𛋴 𛋵 𛋶 𛋷 𛋸 𛋹 𛋺 𛋻
1.^ As of Unicode version 15.1
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

See also



  1. ^ Ferrari, Pisana (17 November 2022). "New film celebrates Nüshu, China's secret, female-only language from feudal times. Is it still relevant to women today?". cApStAn. Retrieved 10 January 2024. Nüshu is a writing system created and used exclusively by women which originated in China's remote Jiangyong county, in southern China, most likely around the 9th century.
  2. ^ Martin, Douglas (6 October 2004). "Yang Huanyi, Last User of a Secret Code, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 January 2024.
  3. ^ "The forbidden tongue". TheGuardian.com. 22 September 2005.
  4. ^ a b c Zhao Liming, "The Women's Script of Jiangyong". In Jie Tao, Bijun Zheng, Shirley L. Mow, eds, Holding up half the sky: Chinese women past, present, and future, Feminist Press, 2004, pp. 39–52. ISBN 978-1-55861-465-9
  5. ^ "Last inheritress of China's female-specific languages dies". News.xinhuanet.com. 23 September 2004. Archived from the original on 4 November 2012. Retrieved 3 October 2012.
  6. ^ Proposal text, slides), 2007-9-17
  7. ^ [citation needed]
  8. ^ a b c d e Liu, Fei-wen (2 January 2017). "PRACTICE AND CULTURAL POLITICS OF "WOMEN'S SCRIPT": nüshu as an endangered heritage in contemporary china". Angelaki. 22 (1): 231–246. doi:10.1080/0969725X.2017.1286008. ISSN 0969-725X. S2CID 152043482.
  9. ^ a b c d Foster, Nicola (2 October 2019). "Translating Nüshu: Drawing Nüshu, Dancing Nüshu". Art in Translation. 11 (4): 393–416. doi:10.1080/17561310.2019.1690294. ISSN 1756-1310. S2CID 219095974.
  10. ^ a b c Liu, Fei-Wen (1 January 2004). "Literacy, Gender, and Class: Nüshu and Sisterhood Communities In Southern Rural Hunan". NAN NÜ. 6 (2): 241–282. doi:10.1163/1568526042530427. ISSN 1387-6805.
  11. ^ a b c Liu, Fei-Wen (2004). "From Being to Becoming: Nüshu and Sentiments in a Chinese Rural Community". American Ethnologist. 31 (3): 422–439. ISSN 0094-0496.
  12. ^ "Language dies with woman". London: Observer.guardian.co.uk. 26 September 2004. Retrieved 3 October 2012.
  13. ^ Jon Watts (22 September 2005). "Jon Watts, The forbidden tongue, The Guardian 23 September 2005". Guardian. London. Retrieved 3 October 2012.
  14. ^ "Ford Gift to Fund Nushu Language Museum". www.china.org.cn. Retrieved 8 September 2022.
  15. ^ Hoad, Phil (30 November 2022). "Hidden Letters review – Chinese art of secret writing as refuge of female solidarity". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 February 2024.
  16. ^ a b c Zhao 2006, p. 162
  17. ^ Chiang 1995, p. 20
  18. ^ a b Chiang 1995, p. 22
  19. ^ Zhao 2006, p. 247
  20. ^ "Nushu: The secret language only women know". www.bbc.com. Retrieved 22 March 2024.
  21. ^ A language by women, for women, Washington Post, Feb 24, 2004
  22. ^ "Unicode 10.0.0". Unicode Consortium. 20 June 2017. Retrieved 21 June 2017.


  • Zhao, Liming 赵丽明 (2006). Nǚshū yòngzì bǐjiào 女书用字比较 [Comparison of the characters used to write Nüshu] (in Chinese). Zhishi Chanquan Chubanshe. ISBN 978-7-80198-261-2.
  • Chiang, William Wei (1995). We two know the script; we have become good friends. University Press of America. ISBN 978-0-7618-0013-2.
  • Van Esch (2017). Nǚshū (Women's script). In Rint Sybesma, Wolfgang Behr, Yueguo Gu, Zev Handel, C.-T. James Huang & James Myers (eds.), Encyclopedia of Chinese language and linguistics, vol. III, 262–267. Leiden: Brill.
  • Wilt L. Idema. Heroines of Jiangyong: Chinese Narrative Ballads in Women's Script. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009). ISBN 9780295988412