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How a Secret-But-Not-So-Secret Code Let Women in China Share Hardships

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: a secret language of women.

RS: There's a new American novel called "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." This work of historical fiction is set in a remote part of 19th-century China. It describes the difficult life women endured, starting in childhood. Their feet were tightly bound to keep them small, a traditional Chinese notion of beauty. A young woman could expect an arranged marriage at 17.

AA: The novel describes a real-life secret code that women developed perhaps a thousand years ago. Author Lisa See recently discussed nu shu, or "women's writing," with VOA's Doug Bernard on Talk to America.

LISA SEE: "These were women who lived in almost total seclusion from the time that they had their feet bound until they died. And so their only, or their principal means of communication to each other, was through this secret writing. But, in fact, it was a kind of open secret, in the sense that women incorporated nu shu into their embroidery, into their weaving.

"Sometimes men even wore it, but they didn't know what it meant. Interestingly enough, the men in this area tended to be illiterate themselves. So the fact that the women had their own written language, it didn't really bother them that much. They saw it as something beneath them. It was something that just women did."

DOUG BERNARD: "What were these women saying to each other in nu shu?"

LISA SEE: "They wrote letters, autobiographies, songs, stories. There are a few histories that still exist. But mainly these women wrote about the hardship of their lives, the difficulties of moving out into their husbands' homes, sight unseen, and being parted from their natal families and the loneliness and homesickness they felt being separated from their families and not being able to see them again. The difficulties they had with their mothers-in-law, that was a very standard kind of writing that almost had a formalized language to it."

DOUG BERNARD: "How was the code to nu shu broken? How and when was it broken?"

LISA SEE: "An old woman fainted in a rural Chinese train station in China in the mid-1960's, and the police went through her belongings and found these pieces of paper with what looked to be a secret code written on them. And because it was, at that time, the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, she was detained on suspicion of being a spy. And the authorities brought in various scholars and cryptographers and linguists to break the code, which of course they did eventually.

"Again, this was during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and so those scholars who had come in and broken the code and had discovered the language were promptly arrested and sent to labor camps and farm camps. And they didn't really re-emerge until the mid-1980's, which is when they once again started up their study of nu shu, and the knowledge of the language began to filter through China and eventually out to the rest of the world."

DOUG BERNARD: "Last question for you, Miss See: Is it still spoken, and who speaks it, where's nu shu spoken?"

LISA SEE: "Well, it's a phonetic version of the local dialect, so it's really just a written language. If you read it out loud, whoever was in the room would understand it, because it is the local dialect. It comes from Jiangyong County which is in southwestern Hunan province. And the language had just about died out especially after the Cultural Revolution because those women who did practice the language were publicly humiliated, punished.

"Now the Chinese government has reversed its position. They aren't recognizing it as a national ethnic language. However, they do want to preserve it as a cultural treasure. And so when I was there a couple of years ago, the Chinese government was building a large school complex where young women and girls can come to learn the language, the writing system.

"But today they're learning it in the way that you would learn how to make a basket or you would learn how to do a folk dance. It will no longer have that same impact on their lives. Because now if they want to talk to someone, they can go out on the street and talk to their friends, or they can make a call on their cell phone."

AA: Lisa See is author of the novel "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." And that's Wordmaster for this week.

RS: Our e-mail address is And our programs are on the Internet at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.