Writing From the Useless Branch
June 25, 2011
Some of you know that I spent a number of years researching and writing about nüshu, the Chinese women’s script, an effort that became my doctoral dissertation at the Univ. of Michigan, informed Lisa See’s novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and–lo these many years later–still has not emerged as my own book. I still can’t say when I will finish the book (though I’m still saying when, not if); other things have become more important to me.
But, anticipating some further interest in nüshu and in particular laotong relationships with the upcoming release of the movie Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I’ve decided to post part of the book here. It’s called (for now) Writing From the Useless Branch: Women’s Script and Women’s Lives in Rural China. It’s based on fieldwork I did in Jiangyong County in 1988-89, with two of the last surviving writers of nüshu, Yi Nianhua and Gao Yinxian. This work became the basis of my dissertation, which in turn became raw material for the book. Follow-up fieldwork in the summer of 2000 turned up some important new findings, which may not appear anywhere except in this book yet to emerge.
For people interested in learning more about nüshu and the laotong relationship that informs Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I’m posting here the first and second chapters of my book, along with their appendices (basically, translations of texts referenced in or related to the chapter). If you’d like to tell me how to more elegantly link those pages here, I’d appreciate it. The first chapter is an introduction to the women’s script (as well as the rest of the book). The second chapter is about girlhood, and describes and discusses girlhood relationships, including laotong. You may be interested in comparing this research with the novel and the movie. I am very interested in feedback, especially anything that will improve this work. Feel free to comment. Please observe standard conventions regarding intellectual property: I’m happy for you to read and share this as long as you acknowledge my authorship. Please include the following in your citation: Cathy Silber, Writing From the Useless Branch, Chapter whatever, link, date.
Here’s a progress report on the book: Four full chapters are essentially complete (though I could change my mind about them–probably they are unacceptably pedantic or annoyingly academic). Appendices to accompany these chapters plus a fifth are fairly complete but need some polishing. The fifth chapter is only barely begun; the sixth, concluding, chapter exists in thought-form only. Some of the footnotes throughout are rusty. The bibliography needs a lot of work. Others have written about nüshu since I stopped paying much attention, and I’ll want to gather up, read, incorporate if relevant and cite that work.