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.


4 Responses to “Writing From the Useless Branch”

  1. C. Prismon-Reed said

    Cathy –

    Thank you for your follow up on this topic.
    I have not yet had time to read your chapters here, but have read your contribution in Engendering China – Gilmartin et al/1994, which only whet my appetite for more information.

    I have also read See (Snow Flower) and WW Chiang, and a few online articles.

    Based on this research, I am eager to see your full work and would be happy to be a reading resource for you. I have my Masters in English (linguistics), am a poet with some exposure now to Chinese and Korean classical poetry, and a beginning calligrapher and bush-painting (Chinese kai-shu (hanzi) and Korean hangul). So my interest in nushu is from the tri-fold matrix of linguistics, poetry forms, and the act of actually writing in this script.

    Consequently, the visual presentations of actual compositions and the embroideries are of major interest – not just a translation into standard Chinese or English. (I have put my hand to do some translation into English, as Ezra Pound and others of the poetic mind have done before; but being able to share the mind of the women writers through writing as they did has a special appeal.)

    Of course I would be happy to establish an ongoing conversation if your time permits.

    • C. Prismon-Reed said

      Cathy – If you have tried to get word back to me, I am sorry I did not get it. I thought the last post would give you my email to use, but I am not really familiar with how these things work; my bad. Hope to hear from you through this one. //c

  2. Cathy Silber said

    C–thank you so much for reaching out, and I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I too am new to this blog thing, and am crazy busy, with, among other things, preparing a new paper about the script to present at a conference in Taiwan in late October. I would be delighted to hear your thoughts, but can’t promise a speedy response! best regards, Cathy

  3. c. prismon-reed said

    Thanks! –
    I have been trying to get info thru Lisa See but she is out of the loop now.

    What will be the best way to share ideas?

    I have a whole string with LS – I suppose I could download it to .doc and email an attachment. Not sure if this blog system takes them.

    Perhaps you have a gmail acct I can use…

    Would love to see a written copy of the paper when it’s done (or maybe you can find a State-side venue in LA (UCLA or USC Asian Studies perhaps).

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