Female-specific language to be revealed

March 15, 2004

CHANGSHA, March 15 (Xinhuanet) -- China's archive keepers said Monday that they would reveal the mysterious Nushu, probably the world's only female specific language, to the public at an exhibition scheduled for late April. Nushu, a language that was incomprehensible to men, was used exclusively by women in central Hunan province and some areas in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, said Liu Gening,head of the provincial archive. The language was used widely in the three adjacent counties of Jiangyong, Daoxian and Jianghua, but was on the verge of extinction today for lack of use, he said. "Only elderly women in some rural areas still use it now."

To preserve the language, Liu and his colleagues have collectedhandkerchiefs, aprons, scarves and handbags embroidered with Nushucharacters, manuscripts written on paper or fans, and calligraphicworks by Zhou Shuoyi, the first man to learn the language in China. "We have collected 303 pieces of heritage bearing the rare language during five trips to Yongjiang county, birthplace of the female language, over the past year," said Liu. "The oldest of them dates back to the late Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s, and the most recent pieces were from the 1960s or 1970s." All these pieces would be presented to visitors during the forthcoming exhibition, he said. "We have translated all the textsinto standard Mandarin so that the visitors would know what they are about."

The gracefully-written rhombic Nushu characters are structured by just four kinds of strokes, including dot, horizontal, virgule and arc, and can be spoken in dialect to describe women's misfortunes and inner feelings. Nushu manuscripts are extremely rare because according to the local custom, they were supposed to be burnt or buried with the dead in sacrifice. The language, which was among the first to enter the national list of ancient cultural heritage, has aroused attention from worldwide scholars and at least 100 manuscripts are abroad, according to the archive keepers in the province.

Last year, Zhou Shuoyi, a 79-year-old retiree who worked at the Cultural Bureau in Jiangyong county, compiled a dictionary of Nushu language, after half a century of study. The dictionary, which contains all the 1,800 ancient charactersof the language, has complete stylistic rules and layout with pronunciation, glossary and grammar and is arranged in international phonetic symbol order.

Each Nushu character is followed by phonetic notation, notes and paraphrase and a corresponding Chinese character and example sentences.