Nu Shu is a Chinese syllabary which was devised by women in the Hunan province of China. Women were discouraged from learning to read and write, and in response, they developed their own method of communication. The syllabary was kept secret from men, and used in a variety of communications and works of art. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese women were encouraged to learn along with the men, and the use of Nu Shu began to die out. In 2004, the last proficient user of the language died at the age of 98.
While Nu Shu and conventional Chinese writing are obviously related, the two systems are very different. Nu Shu is exclusively a syllabary, with each character representing a specific sound. It is also written in an italicized style, and very fine lines are valued, as opposed to the thicker brush strokes of traditional Chinese. Viewed side by side, Nu Shu looks like an elongated, delicate version of Chinese script.
Women wrote letters to each other in Nu Shu, and also used their syllabary in embroidery and works of art. Novels and poems for distribution among women only were composed in Nu Shu, and women also used their secret writing technique to pass knowledge between each other. Chapbooks with useful information for women only were often given to women on the occasion of marriage or childbirth, and this information was passed down through multiple generations.
Nu Shu attracted attention in the West when it was featured in several novels about Chinese women in the early 2000s. Western novelists were very intrigued by the idea of a secret and ancient method of writing which could be used to communicate information securely. In fact, documents written in Nu Shu were sometimes used to accuse women of being spies, since male investigators could not read the text, and they assumed that it was a secret code designed for a sinister purpose.
While the Chinese government initially suppressed the use of Nu Shu during the Cultural Revolution, in the 1990s, the government began to realize that this secret syllabary was a cultural treasure. Rather than allowing the use of Nu Shu to die out, the government has attempted to preserve it with written records, and it has encouraged scholars to study Nu Shu so that the syllabary can be passed on to future generations. The attempts to preserve Nu Shu will also ensure that documents written in this secret language can be read in the future, which may be useful for historians.