Cathy Silber

On a cold autumn day in 1988, I helped an old country widow in Hunan change her bed sheet. In her early eighties at the time, Yi Nianhua (1906-1991) was the best of the last writers of nüshu, a script used only by women. I was there to learn it, and about it, from her. We would sit together at the little table in her cramped kitchen, a bit warmer for the smoky fire, chickens squawking, kids stopping by to stare and proclaim, “American teacher, American teacher,” (as if this could still possibly be news months on end), and I would shine a flashlight on the page for her on all those gray days as we went through her writings line by line by line.

Probably a few centuries old, this women’s script represents local speech, the everyday speech of men and women alike. In rice-farming villages where most men and boys were illiterate in the standard Chinese script, girls and women enjoyed their own literacy and literature. Men couldn’t read or write nüshu, but they could understand most of it if they happened to hear it sung aloud, which is usually how it was read. Men could understand it, that is, if they bothered to pay attention to the business of women and girls in a fairly sex-segregated society in which men had plenty enough of their own business to occupy their attention.

Yi Nianhua had already given me a pile of her writings, which we had been reading and translating together, but when I changed her sheet, I discovered beneath her mattress writings I hadn’t seen before. I imagine them now among the texts that were tucked into her coffin, for her reading pleasure in the afterlife. (Stories were also delivered to the dead via the smoke they become when burned.) Written in ballpoint pen on cheap paper, one of them told this story:

Dressed in her holiday best, strolling by the riverside on the night of the Moon Festival, Miss Jin hawked and spat into the water. A demon goldfish gobbled up her phlegm and turned into the spit and image of the young lady herself. The fishy young lady had the gall to show up at Miss Jin’s fiancé’s study, banging and kicking and butting her head against the door.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, “What are you doing here at night?”

“I’ve come to watch you study,” she replied. One thing led to another, and she spent the night with him.

In fact, she spent seven nights in a row with him. When she left the eighth morning, he found her gold hairpin in the doorway, and started to have second thoughts about marrying her. He talked this over with his parents, and then went to tell her father he wanted to call off the wedding. “Cows and horses go back to the pen,” he pointed out, “but you can’t even keep your daughter home at night. She came to my place seven nights running. Marry her to somebody else. I don’t want her anymore.”

When Mr. Jin demanded an explanation from his daughter, she hotly denied everything. “I’m with Mother all day long, and I sleep in her bed every night. Besides, you know my brother and sister-in-law would have heard anyone going up or down the stairs. And if I get up to pee in the night, I always take a maid with me. I didn’t do it! There’s no way I could have!”

“He found your hairpin in his doorway. How do you explain that?” her father asked. She couldn’t explain it. The hairpin had been one of her betrothed’s engagement gifts to her. She had no idea how it could have ended up outside his study. She could only imagine some karmic foe was out to get her, and suggested they take the case to Judge Bao.

And so they did. Mr. Jin presented their brief, and Miss Jin protested her innocence. Her fiancé proffered the hairpin, along with his own account of the seven nights and following days. Then Judge Bao pulled out his magical mirror, which revealed the goldfish culprit. When they tried to capture it, it sucked the young man’s blood, and his face turned yellow, but otherwise everything turned out fine. Once again, the great Judge Bao had saved the day, and they all kowtowed in reverence and gratitude.


Yi Nianhua wrote this story down in nüshu, but she didn’t create the story. Versions have been circulating for centuries all over China in one form or another, including opera, and even a TV miniseries. It’s one of a multitude of popular stories well-known by the literate and illiterate, male and female, young and old, rich and poor alike, one tale in the considerable lore of the famous judge revered for his wisdom and fairness, (and, also, one tale of many featuring animal spirit-creatures capable of transforming themselves into beautiful young women who mess with men). Yi’s version of this story is also just one of many things written in this women’s script from the villages in and around Shangjiangxu Township in Jiangyong County in southwestern Hunan province.

The women’s script (nüshu) version of this tale differs widely from the standard Chinese script (hanzi) version that spawned it (see Appendix for translations of both). Thinking through the differences between the women’s script and standard Chinese versions of the story is a good way to understand the many contexts of nüshu—its place in Chinese literature, culture, and society. At the same time, thinking about these differences and the reasons for them will help raise the many questions about literacy and literature, gender and culture, that this book will answer, as it describes and explores in the following chapters the kinds of things girls and women wrote in nüshu and the meanings of this writing in their lives.

Read the two versions and many differences will jump out at you (though others get lost in translation). Focusing on the experience of the young scholar duped by the fish, the hanzi version is written in a language and style that requires a certain level of education to read—it makes heavy use of Classical Chinese, the formal written language far removed from everyday speech. The women’s script version­, like everything written in nüshu, uses the simple stock language of narrative verse, the popular ballads known as cihua, or chantefables. The nüshu version focuses on the experience of the young woman whose reputation has been ruined by the fish.

We know the version under Yi’s mattress appealed to a particular female audience with little or no education in standard Chinese literacy. Yi Nianhua laughed aloud as she taught me the story she knew so well she had it memorized. Sometimes other village women would gather to listen to Yi read and translate these stories with me, and that would be the end of my lesson for the day, because of course it was more fun for her to recite and discuss the stories with neighbors who already knew them, women who didn’t keep interrupting at all the good parts to ask questions about how to translate something into Mandarin. These stories were so popular, I discovered, that I could be sitting by myself at the table in the front room, studying with my tape recordings, and in no time draw a crowd of women who, passing by the open door, stopped in to listen. And I remember, years later, having photocopies made of Chinese translations of nüshu stories like this one at a small shop in the Jiangyong County seat, facing the initial reluctance of the proprietor to explain why they weren’t ready: his mother and her friends had borrowed the book and couldn’t give it up until they’d finished reading all the stories. They didn’t know any nüshu at all, they just wanted the book for the Chinese renditions of stories they loved, stories that you just didn’t hear anymore, stories you couldn’t buy anywhere, but that used to be available in cheap little woodblock-printed chapbooks called changben.

We can’t know with certainty who was reading the hanzi version—it didn’t turn up so conveniently on any one person’s bookshelf, under any one individual’s mattress. But even if we knew absolutely nothing about either the origins or audiences of either version, the differences between them suggest answers. Because of its language and the way it addresses itself to readers, “Goldfish” (the hanzi version) suggests an audience generally more likely to be male, likely to be more educated, more urbane, more advantaged by the system. For the same reasons, a version like “Carp” (the nüshu version) suggests an audience less likely to be exclusively male, likely to be less educated, less urbane, less advantaged by the system.i This is not to say that “Goldfish” was never read by girls and women, or that a version like “Carp” wasn’t enjoyed by boys and men, but rather simply that aspects of the stories do suggest their most likely audience. And in the absence of definite knowledge about the audiences and contexts of texts that come down to us, be they from pre-modern vernacular traditions in China, or indeed anywhere at all, we can only extract surmises about these things from the texts themselves. And then it is all too easy to take these surmises as fact and turn around and use them to explain the very texts from which they came. Fortunately, when scholars stumbled across nüshu in the early 1980s, the last few practitioners of the script and its traditions were still living and writing, and able to tell us many things about the ways and circumstances in which these popular narratives were written, transmitted, and appreciated. The study of nüshu thus offers a rare opportunity to understand popular literature in the contexts of its production and reception.

Just as important, nüshu is very much a local tradition, practiced only in one small part of Hunan, written in a language spoken and understood only in that place. Chinese literature is full of such local-language traditions, and yet they have not been as well studied or understood as literature written in Mandarin.ii Our understanding of what Chinese literature is has been skewed by a focus on Mandarin works; nüshu allows us to explore the relationship between a local language and literature and the predominate tradition. Furthermore, we know that many local cultures of the Han ethnic majority, particularly in southern China, have been formed over centuries in complicated relationships with different ethnic groups; study of such local Han cultures, of which nüshu is a perfect example, challenges and helps revise our understanding of Chinese culture. And finally, we know that women’s voices, and especially common women’s voices, have been muted in many times and places, in oral cultures and literate ones both, all over the world; nüshu may have come to the attention of outsiders because an exclusively female textual tradition, written in a script known only to women and girls, is so rare, if not unique. But by paying attention to it, by learning about these women’s lives, we can form questions, insights, and frameworks that will help us come to understand more about women’s lives and culture in other parts of China.

Nüshu gives us a window onto popular culture in rural China in the late 19th and 20th centuries; a lens through which to view the language, literature, and culture of one particular locality, and the ways gender and ethnicity are meaningful to understanding them; and an instance of women’s expressive culture that will allow us to ponder questions of gender, literacy, and society more broadly.

But when I first began to study nüshu, my ideas of its importance had a different weight and focus. The moment I first learned of the women’s script, I imagined it as a secret threat to male power. I imagined the women of Jiangyong writing scathing critiques of Confucian patriarchy, critiques so subversive that the script in which they were written must have been a closely guarded secret. Over the years, I have found that many others have imagined similar things about nüshu. Robin Morgan, for instance, writes “women used the script to record their hidden emotions and to communicate with one another surreptitiously….[T]his female language was an underground code—an act of rebellion in conception, an utterance of rebellion in content.”iii An editor at Ms. Magazine once fabricated the notion that women were beaten for writing in nüshu, inserted this claim into an article I wrote for the magazine, and then argued that I had no evidence that this didn’t happen when I told her I had no evidence that it did. But these were the very notions that motivated me to study nüshu in the first place, and I have found that people’s first impressions of the women’s script are so similar that they bear some examination in their own right, for they are based in related assumptions about script, literacy, gender, power and exclusion that this book will help revise.

First are the assumptions that writing is above all a tool, an inherently powerful one at that, and that women’s use of script in traditional China was always forbidden, and thus in and of itself transgressive. If script is a powerful tool, gendered male in prescription and practice, then women using script have taken a male power tool into their own hands. Nüshu is found inspiring, then, because it represents a case of women using power tools. The inspiration builds because the tables get turned in the bargain: women aren’t just sharing the use of a male power tool, they aren’t letting men use it at all. Men couldn’t read it. Men couldn’t write it. Men were excluded.

Is script an inherently powerful tool? We tend to think so, because what comes readily to mind when we think of literacy are dominant literacies like English, or hanzi, the standard Chinese script. We think so, because writing is perhaps uniquely capable of conferring value upon itself and insisting upon its own powers. We think so, because whole civilizations rely on thinking so. But our understanding of the powers of literacy comes largely from the knowledge we acquire and accept in the course of becoming literate ourselves. And our impressions of the powers of literacy come largely from our knowledge of and experience with dominant literacies such as English or hanzi.iv Part of the problem can be resolved by noticing a distinction between writing and literacy. Writing—the act or product of rendering language (any sign or system of signs) material, can certainly be understood as a tool, like the memory aid of the list, or the message transmission of a letter. But we learn to read and write via the content of writing, via a certain content as opposed to some other content, and the processes of what we call the acquisition of literacy, or the practice of literacy, or being literate, are not at all the same as simply taking a tool off a shelf, using it to do a job, and putting it back again. How powerful are literate sixth graders? What are they writing? Who is reading what they write? Writing can be understood as a tool, even a powerful tool, and literacy too can serve functions, even powerful ones. But the powers we associate with literacy come far less from the technology of rendering language material than from the social and cultural conventions of writing—who writes, who writes what, who reads it, who cares.

The powers of a dominant literacy like hanzi are legendary. For our purposes here, it is enough to say that hanzi has long been among the most powerful of instruments used to define and enforce the division of Chinese society into two gendered domains, one more highly valued than the other. By codifying principles of social hierarchy, and assigning itself to the upper tier, writing further accrues and maintains power by dint of the level of exclusion it wields. The inherent level of difficulty of a script operates as one kind of exclusion. The enforcement of rules governing script use (who, what, when, where) acts as another. These two kinds of exclusion tend to reinforce each other.

In traditional China, hanzi was highly exclusionary both in its inherent degree of difficulty and by virtue of its use to perpetuate its own prestige and to enforce an ideology that restricted the propriety of its use. Given the standard account of the oppression of women in traditional China, it is easy to assume that literacy was always off-limits for women, and that women who wrote were rebels. Yet women, though maybe not many relative to men, probably always used hanzi. Women’s use of the Chinese script is attested as early as the first century B.C.E., and from then on the amount of preserved writing by women––entertainers and consorts, elite wives and daughters, nuns––gradually increases through the centuries. By the sixteenth century, a number of gentry women were writing poetry, criticism, and letters. Thousands and thousands of women were writing poetry and essays and letters in Qing times (1644-1911).v

Studies of the history of women’s literacy and literature (in the standard Chinese script) in Chinavi have shown us that it is not accurate to think of every woman who put brush to page as a rebel braving incredible odds. While it is certainly true that males, by virtue of their gender alone, always had far greater chances of acquiring literacy than females, and that in many times and venues, female literacy was unthinkable, it is also true that in certain times and venues, women’s use of hanzi was not only appropriate but expected. But the question to ask about literacy and power isn’t simply whether or not people have access to literacy, because literacy is not simply a tool, and not the same tool in every hand.

It has been customary to construe the saying, “a woman is virtuous only if untalented,” so familiar in accounts of women’s lives in traditional China, as a dictum against women’s use of script. This saying appeared in the seventeenth century, as more and more writing by women was being published. It represents one view in contemporary debates about women’s education and roles.vii But this saying was never intended as an indictment of women’s acquisition or use of literacy per se. As Dorothy Ko puts it, “The propriety of women’s education was never challenged.”viii “Few parties to the debate [in the eighteenth century] disputed the idea that women ought to be educated. The argument focused rather on the question of what, precisely, women ought to learn, and why,” Susan Mann explains.ix By the seventeenth century, it was generally accepted that gentry women needed to be learned in order to educate their children. The potential for transgression occurred when women’s literacy threatened to cross the bounds of nei (inner) into wai (outer), by violating the “classical injunction that ‘women’s words should not pass beyond the inner chambers’ (nei yan buchu men wai).”x

The gendered terms nei and wai have usually been understood as marking a relative distinction between domestic and public spheres. Charlotte Furth makes the useful suggestion that “the shifting boundaries between public and private remained gendered not around a domestic versus a sphere of public affairs of state, but around seclusion/invisibility versus publicity in the sense of being known.” Furth explains that “[f]or a woman’s writings to be seen or known was for her to be perceived sexually by outsiders. The Chinese woman who was published and read by an impersonal public of readers unknown to her occupied a space more like that of a Muslim woman who walks the city street without a veil.”xi Thus we see that questions about the power (or threat, or danger) of women’s literacy cannot be adequately addressed simply by noting the fact that women wrote.

What would the moralists who so strenuously objected to the proliferation of published female poets in late imperial China have made of nüshu, had they known about it? As arbiters of the proper moral cultivation of women, they might have been anxious about their own inability to control the content of what women wrote in nüshu. But they probably would have liked the idea that writing from the inner chambers would forever remain within its proper female domain, never to be gazed upon by men outside.

The fact that these moralists never knew about nüshu is instructive in its own right. Precisely because it was an exclusively female script, nüshu never transgressed the ideological boundary between inner and outer. Scholars, myself among them, have scoured the gazetteers and genealogies from the nüshu area without turning up a single mention of nüshu, let alone any Confucian hackles raised over its existence.1 And local men in more recent times, most of them illiterate in any script, have expressed no objections over nüshu to scholars curious about male attitudes toward the exclusively female script in their midst.

Nüshu was a proper, even prestigious, female activity. It was “secret” in the sense that men weren’t “allowed” to know it, but, because it was an activity gendered female, men were not exactly clamoring to be let in on this secret, just as they were not storming the lofts demanding to learn embroidery. A secret, by nature, is exclusionary, but what does exclusion mean to those who have no desire to be included? Secrets, or any type of exclusion, never float free from social relationships, relationships that always entail a distribution of power. When power is distributed unequally in a social relation, the impact of exclusion depends on which side is exercising it. Thus the exclusion associated with nüshu cannot be equated in the abstract with the exclusion associated with hanzi.

The inspiration many find in the idea of an exclusively female script and the expectation that nüshu writers must have been rebels braving incredible odds are also born of a widely shared tendency to romanticize resistance and cast the oppression of women in specific times and places with a single mold. Lila Abu-Lughod addresses the “tendency to romanticize resistance, to read all forms of resistance as signs of the ineffectiveness of systems of power and of the resilience and creativity of the human spirit in its refusal to be dominated.”xii She also echoes the concern of much feminist scholarship not to “misattribute to [women who resist] forms of consciousness or politics that are not part of their experience–something like a feminist consciousness or feminist politics.”xiii

Indeed, many scholars have pointed out the way researchers have tended to read their own struggles and concerns into the lives of the people they study, and measure their lives and deeds against their own standards of feminism, oppression, or resistance. This dynamic, which Chandra Mohanty calls “discursive colonization,” is seen most clearly in the writing of “Western” scholars about “Third World” women, but it is also common in the work of urban or upper class scholars about rural or lower class women of their own culture.xiv In the case of studies of women, discursive colonization represents “the third world woman” as more oppressed and more victimized than the enlightened, liberated feminist who writes about her. Exactly the same dynamic is at play whether the cultural other is represented as downtrodden victim or courageous heroine. But this dynamic is not only found in feminist writing. Certainly whole library shelves are filled with it, and it’s easy to see why. Our first instincts about understanding others always come from the way we understand ourselves.

In this case, the desire to view nüshu as a covert and dangerous instance of women wresting power tools from male hands, rather than as a proper female activity which men admired but had little interest in themselves, is born of an orientation to the world so pervasive and persistent that even though many people recognize it, all of us need to be reminded of it from time to time, precisely because it is so pervasive and persistent. This is the uncritical acceptance of the values culturally ascribed to gendered practices, an attitude that Marilyn Strathern has called the “denigration of domesticity.”xv Work outside the home is more valuable and important than work inside the home. Why? Written literature is more important than oral literature. Why? Why do hammers and drills seem more powerful than ladles and looms? In many cultures, practices gendered female—things women do that men do not––are for that very reason considered less valuable, less important. (Take the rearing of children, for instance). To believe, even unwittingly, that nüshu is only important to the extent that it is not just a regular female activity serves only to entrench more deeply the very cultural attitudes that feminist scholarship seeks to interrogate and dispel.

This is not to repudiate questions about resistance in nüshu, but simply to begin to address the way we might come to understand it. If literacy isn’t simply a tool, if writing isn’t inherently powerful, if the anxieties expressed in Chinese debates about women writing weren’t provoked by the fact of their literacy per se, if local men viewed this female literacy as a talent and a virtue and not a call to arms, we can’t base evaluations about the rebelliousness of nüshu women in the fact of their literacy. Nor, as we shall see, will it serve to simply comb what they wrote for powerful or rebellious statements. Rest assured, this discussion does not reduce entirely to the commonplace claim that we must read literature in context. Rather, the question becomes, how?

Nüshu as Chinese Popular Culture

Merely summarized in English above, Yi Nianhua’s rendition of the goldfish caper comes in colloquial verse, the form of all nüshu texts. Several other stories starring Judge Bao exist in this common form for popular narrative, notably those dated to the 1470s and discovered in 1967 in a tomb near Shanghai, thought until recently to belong to an official’s wife.2 Though only one of the Judge Bao stories found in the tomb is written entirely in narrative verse (the others also include sections of prose), Yi’s version sufficiently resembles the verse of many of these in style and content that the bounds of credulity are not far stretched to imagine that the story of the goldfish might well have once been part of the collection found in the tomb, or something quite like it.

The discovery of those texts in the tomb was big news, exciting as much for what they could reveal about the development of their genre as for what might be gleaned about their audience from knowledge or surmise about the occupant of the tomb. If these crudely printed and illustrated texts were buried with an official’s wife, then we might conclude that she (and others like her) enjoyed them in her lifetime, whether reading them herself or listening to them read aloud. We find out what we can about the woman and her circumstances and deduce the sort of readership the stories in her tomb must have enjoyed, in efforts to understand more about the transmission and appreciation of forms of popular culture in Chinese history, a history that records far less than we’d like about the lives and habits of most people. But it turns out that the tomb in question may not have belonged to the wife after all; it’s just as likely that the tomb was her husband’s, the minor official himself.xvi Now what do we surmise about the audience for those texts? Similar questions trouble the study of much of traditional popular literature in China. For many of the texts we have, we simply don’t know enough about who wrote them and read or heard them. Too often, when we study their contents, we can only speculate about their contexts. Too often internal textual evidence is the only available basis from which to form suppositions about authorship, audience, and reading practices, suppositions that in turn are all too easily invoked to explain the very texts from which they were derived. This is precisely what I have done in my reading of “Goldfish” (the hanzi version).

But in the case of Yi’s version of the goldfish story—and the whole nüshu corpus—we know more than usual: about the women and girls writing and reading and singing from memory these texts, about the communities in which they lived and the circumstances of their lives, and about the particular social occasions and practices associated with textual activity. We know these were Han (China’s ethnic majority) women and girls, whose language and culture bear traces of non-Han heritage. We know that—their literacy aside—the ideological, social, and material conditions of their lives were not so dramatically different from the conditions of women’s lives in other parts of the rural South. While we still may wonder about where some nüshu stories (and genres) might have come from in the very beginning, we can be quite sure where they ended up, and we know much more about how they actually operated in people’s everyday lives. Though much of nüshu history is still a mystery, we know more than is usually the case in the study of Chinese popular culture about nüshu practice. By exploring the particular textual practices of one local literacy community, the following chapters offer a model for reading and understanding vernacular traditions about which less is known.

The women’s script is phonetic, written to be read aloud, actually chanted or sung aloud to the same repeating melody. Nüshu is written in verse, in lines of seven characters each, or sometimes five, and these lines are filled with stock expressions; they are highly conventionalized. The meaning of the stock lines depends upon the shared knowledge of the literacy community, the community of writers and readers and listeners. The words on the page indicate or refer to or tap into a wealth of contextual knowledge and experience that everybody shares. This kind of literature is easy to memorize, and, in fact, even in the heyday of this literacy, it’s likely that many more girls and women could recite texts from memory than could read them from the page, and more could read than could write.

For these reasons, a nüshu “text” is not one unique thing. It can exist tangibly on paper (or other surfaces, such as cloth or fans) and in memory. It can exist in many times and places and versions at once, and still be the same thing. The instability lies in the fact that nüshu is at once both an oral and written tradition. To the extent that the description “oral-formulaic” calls attention to features of oral narrative found in written narrative, it certainly applies to the nüshu tradition. But to the extent that “oral-formulaic” suggests a particular temporal relation between the oral and the written––that the oral precedes the written and that the “features” of oral narrative in written narrative are really traces of a prior oral tradition––then we can no longer be so sure. The oral and the written co-exist in the nüshu tradition. We cannot assume that the oral preceded the written in the nüshu case simply because it is probably true that speech preceded writing in human history, or that speech precedes writing in the development of individual humans, or that a lot of the spoken gets written down, or that oral traditions can become written ones. We do not know about the origins of the nüshu script, and we do not know that a prior oral tradition came at some point to be written in nüshu. We must take care to distinguish between processes of writing that capture and arrange mental speech and prior texts on an external surface, developmental processes in literacy acquisition, and historical processes in the ways language can become expressive traditions, oral as well as written. Even if we could know that in the case of nüshu, an oral tradition preceded the written one, by the time the written was off the ground and running, it would inevitably inform and shape the oral. For the time of the texts we have, in the lives of the writers and readers and listeners and rememberers and reciters of nüshu texts in the late 19th and 20th centuries, nüshu is an oral-and-written, an oral-written tradition.

Imagine the ways that can play out. A text might start off in writing. Literate and illiterate people hear it sung (chanted) aloud, as nüshu texts usually are. Someone literate might ask to make a hand copy for herself, which she might take home (maybe she lives in another village) and sing aloud to others. Someone illiterate, even several someones illiterate, might hear the text so many times they know it by heart, and sing it for others, some of whom might memorize it (however perfectly or imperfectly), some of whom might be literate and write it down. In any of these courses of transmission, the text is changing to some degree, different versions are emerging, which, over time, might become quite different, as they rely upon the vagaries of memory and transmission, yet the “text” is still the same text.

A nüshu text is easy to create and remember and recite from memory in the same way a limerick or ballad is. Aside from rhythm and rhyme, limericks and ballads are easy because they rely upon conventional formulations such as, “There was an old X from Y,” a convention which in form and content immediately evokes in readers or listeners quite specific expectations for what will follow. Nüshu texts rely upon conventions in the same way. For instance, Yi’s version of the goldfish caper starts off with a stock opening standard to popular Chinese narrative verse (omitted from the summary in English prose at the beginning of this chapter, precisely because it is a convention English readers do not share and thus don’t know how or what to expect from it).

Imagine yourself belonging in a small group of women or girls, chanting or listening to a nüshu text. You know just what to expect in matters of narrative form and conventions. As with the limerick or ballad, the form of a nüshu text, lines of verse of equal length, stays the same. Each line contains seven syllables, seven characters, generating its own particular rhythm. The lines form couplets, and sometimes a rhyme scheme applies. (Less often we find texts in pentasyllabic lines, or other variations.) The rhythm and sense of these lines break the same way each time, with the main break after the fourth word, and a smaller one after the second, an effect impossible to reproduce both exactly and fluently in polysyllabic English. Nonetheless, imagine the following excerpt making complete sense and sounding not like baby talk but completely natural. Also imagine that every couplet rhymes, though this is not strictly the case in Yi’s original.

Gold fish de mon had big gall,

Head butt feet kick hands pound door.

Young man heard it bang bang bang,

So he cracked door see who’s there.

“I am Jin clan’s young Miss Jin

See you day night read book stuff.”

Brought her in room sit in chair,

Young man start speak said these things:

“You to book room have what goal,

What for night time to book room?”

Young Miss said back to young man,

“I come watch you read book stuff.

Day time read verse gets good job,

Night time read verse makes huge din.”

Young man said back to young miss,

“Young miss hear me say these things.

Night time verse book gets good job,

Day time verse book too much noise.”

Sat till dawn time night so still,

Young miss got up to go home.

Young man got up to say bye,

Saw her to door she was gone.

This is the form of most nüshu texts. The regularity of length and rhythm of each line conform to the expected and familiar; they are not monotonous to a nüshu audience the way they might be to an English reader. Nüshu audiences know to expect lines of dialogue unattributed to a particular speaker amidst lines of narration. And they expect a degree of content repetition that English readers probably find excessive. It would be just as strange to the nüshu audience to find their texts in prose as it would be for American readers of Harlequin romances or detective stories to suddenly find them rendered in verse. In fact, verse of seven-syllable lines is one of the most expected forms of narrative throughout the Chinese popular tradition.

How do the nüshu versions of this story relate to this tradition? How did “The Carp Spirit” end up being written in nüshu by Yi Nianhua? The outside source for the story is most surely an old fashioned woodprint chapbook of the sort peddled for pennies village to village by itinerant vendors and sold at temple fairs and on town streets. In Yi Nianhua’s younger days, these chapbooks were probably available as close as the county seat; in the late 1980s they were still available in the district capital, seven hours away by bus.3 (See illustration.) Easy reads, chapbooks like these have been a staple of popular entertainment in China for centuries, related historically to the texts found in the tomb of the minor official or his wife. They can amount to several hundred lines, beginning with a stock opening and wrapping up with an ending just as familiar as the beginning, all telling a story most everybody knows and loves, and loves to read or hear again.

Yi Nianhua was literate enough in standard Chinese to have been able to translate directly from such a chapbook into nüshu. But in this case, I think she didn’t, because her version is only 170 lines long, compared to the 534 lines of a chapbook of another Judge Bao story, “Tale of the Third Daughter,” which I bought on the street of Yongzhou in the late eighties, or the 812 lines of the nüshu version of the same story written in Gao Yinxian’s hand, originally translated by Hu Cizhu.xvii (Along with Yi Nianhua, Gao Yinxian and Hu Cizhu were two of the most prolific of the last surviving nüshu writers.)

We know Hu Cizhu translated some of these chapbooks into nüshu, and, in fact, she and Yi Nianhua translated one of them together. But whether Yi Nianhua herself, Yi and Hu together, or another nüshu writer entirely, someone older than Yi or Hu, or before their time altogether, translated this text into nüshu originally, or whether it never existed in written translation at all, and became a nüshu text by virtue of someone having heard it aloud and written it down to the best of her memory, the text surely departs from the chapbook, and the nüshu versions we have also differ from one other. Yi’s mattress version is the longest and most complete. Gao Yinxian’s versionxviii runs a mere 88 lines, substitutes for the stock chapbook opening that Yi uses an opening more consistent with local convention, and omits the stock ending as well. In fact, the absence of these conventions is probably what led Xie Zhimin to include this version in the “narratives” section of his anthology rather than the chapbook (changben) section. Zhao Liming offers in her anthology another version of 116 lines penned by Yi Nianhua, which omits some of the repetition of her mattress version (repetition also omitted from the English summary above). Yet all of these versions are the same nüshu text. And so are the versions that may have existed in the memories of other women. Thus, I use the word “text” in this book to capture both the sense of oralness-and-writtenness and to disavow the uniqueness of any one rendition or instance of what amounts to the “same thing.” (Patrick Hanan calls the stuff of this sameness the “stuff material” or “material.”xix) Within the nüshu corpus, we find a microcosm of the questions about transmission and interrelations of texts that trouble and motivate much of the study of traditional Chinese popular culture.

In the 1980s, when scholars began to study nüshu, they worked with its last two known writers, Yi Nianhua (1906-1991) and Gao Yinxian (1902-1990). In the early 1990s, another writer, Yang Huanyi (1909-2004) turned up; though her writing was neither as prolific nor as coherent as Yi’s or Gao’s, Yang was the last survivor of the last generation of women who learned nüshu as girls from their peers or elders. Nüshu literacy is no longer practiced today as a continuing tradition; it has become instead a local curiosity with incipient tourist value. Gao Yinxian’s village of Puwei, for instance, now sports a sign in nüshu designating it “Nüshu Village,” and recent reports indicate that the national government has allocated 9 million yuan to the “preservation” of the script.xx

In the 1980s,Yi Nianhua and Gao Yinxian were the only known surviving writers. In the early 1980s, many nüshu texts had survived the Cultural Revolution destruction, tucked away in attics. Many, many more had survived in the memories of these writers and other women. When researchers first approached them in the early 1980s, they were reluctant to write, for fear of political reprisals. They had to be persuaded that times had changed. By 1988-89, when I did most of the fieldwork that informs this book, Yi Nianhua and Gao Yinxian had written out many texts from memory and both were still writing new ones as well, including letters to and songs about contact with scholars and reporters. Yi and Gao and other women could tell us about the social practices within which the traditional texts were written and read, but society had changed. When I studied with Yi and Gao, the whole corpus of nüshu texts was not fully available to me. Shortly thereafter, three anthologies of nüshu texts and their hanzi (standard Chinese script) translations were published. Gao Yinxian and Yi Nianhua are credited as the authors of one anthology of their work and other writers’. The two most useful anthologies are Zhongguo nüshu jicheng (Collection of Chinese Nüshu) by Zhao Liming, and Jiangyong “nüshuzhi mi (The Puzzle of Nüshu in Jiangyong) by Xie Zhimin. Because they are so important, these latter two anthologies will be cited in this book as simply Zhao and Xie, respectively. There is a high degree of overlap in the contents of these anthologies and with the texts I translated with Yi Nianhua and Gao Yinxian. A few of the texts I worked on with them do not appear in any of the anthologies. Many texts that now appear in the anthologies I never saw in the field. The translations in these anthologies are reliable to varying degrees; I make informed use of them in my treatment of nüshu literature, and I supplement my knowledge of the texts I read first-hand with this greater number of texts now available.4

While we know more than usual about nüshu, this is less than we’d like, because by the time scholars discovered it in the early 1980s, its practice was already dying out. The earliest flurry of activity in the study of nüshu involved rounding up texts and translating them into Chinese, and then asking questions, primarily of Yi Nianhua and Gao Yinxian, but also of other old women, some of whom could read a bit, and many more of whom could sing texts from memory. But the most important thing was to find out what these texts said before the only women who could read them died. And so even though I and others asked many questions about nüshu use, about the occasions and methods and meanings of nüshu practices, we couldn’t witness all of these practices. Times had already changed. Whatever we know about nüshu practices during the time of its thriving literacy community, we learned from what people told us about the ways they remembered them. By the year 2000, only women in their nineties had any real familiarity with these practices in their younger days. So this book studies nüshu texts as practices in contexts that no longer exist except in memory, and memories and records of memories.

Still, in studying nüshu literature with what we do know of the contexts of its production and reception, in the contexts of its practice, we come to understand not just more about the production and reception of Chinese popular literature (who was producing or reproducing what, what ended up where, among whom, even if we do not know exactly how), but also about the way literature works in social practice and as social practice, the way acts and behaviors involving putting words on paper, doing things with written texts (beyond simply “reading” them), are social acts and behaviors. In studying nüshu this way, this book explores not simply how people lived with literature, but how they understood themselves and their lives, and the ways their social and textual traditions both expressed and shaped the ways they understood themselves.

Nüshu as Local Culture

Because these social and textual practices are those of girls and women who lived in rice-farming villages in one relatively isolated part of southwestern Hunan in the early decades of the twentieth century, the study of nüshu gives us an opportunity to learn about lives least documented in the historical record: not just lives of common people, but the lives of common girls and women especially. Studying their lives through their social practices (texts themselves, textual activities, and activities not involving texts) contributes to an understanding-in-progress of rural life in southern China, where so many social arrangements have differed or varied from those considered standard or dominant that scholars increasingly wonder just what counts as standard anymore.xxi

In the area of nüshu use (what I will call the nüshu culture area), marriage residence customs (when a wife takes up permanent residence in her husband’s home), as well as customary ways of making and understanding social relationships outside the family, depart from the standard, but resemble social arrangements elsewhere in the South of both Han (the ethnic majority) and many different non-Han peoples. Questions of ethnicity have a long and complicated history in China, perhaps especially in the South, a history that is still being written and rewritten by several different interested groups (the people themselves, their local and national governments, scholars of various ethnic and academic backgrounds). We can understand culture in the nüshu area as the result of successive waves of Han immigrants from the north settling and intermarrying among people or peoples whose non-Han ethnicity remains to be determined. A description of the social practices and arrangements in the nüshu culture area, where the people are Han (but in some cases have successfully claimed otherwise), contributes to this understanding-in-progress of ethnicity in southern China.xxii

Nüshu literature represents one particular instance of China’s many local literatures and cultures. In the same way that we attempt to situate local social practices within the wider context of the understanding-in-progress of Chinese society, we must come to understand this local literature, all local literatures, as an integral part of what we understand Chinese literature to be.xxiii Nüshu literature attracts our attention because it is written in a unique script, used only by women and girls. But many localities in China, with their own spoken languages, languages other than Mandarin, enjoy their own local literatures. In the case of local written literatures, to the extent that writing can simply be understood as “visible speech”xxiv (it is not this simple), the standard Chinese script is inadequate, because local languages contain many words for which no standard Chinese characters exist at all, or for which local meanings or connotations of particular characters diverge from those of spoken and written Mandarin. Writers of these non-Mandarin languages invent new characters to represent these words, or use standard characters in new ways. In the case of oral literatures, the problem of the inadequacy of the standard Chinese script arises in attempts to transcribe or translate them. The difficult relationship between the standard Chinese script and the various different languages spoken in China is not simply a matter of speakers of different Chinese languages pronouncing the same character differently.

The mother tongue spoken in the nüshu culture area, the language spoken by everyone born and reared there, is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin and all other major Chinese languages. The surest sign of non-Han heritage in nüshu culture, this spoken language shows traces (in phonology, lexicon, and grammar) of one or more non-Han languages. This local language, which I will call here Jiangyongese (Jiangyongese is to Jiangyong County as Cantonese is to Canton—or, to really bring home the difficulties, Chinese is to China), is spoken in an area larger than the known area of nüshu use. However, the boundaries of this language area are imprecise, because linguists have yet to fully survey and describe the local languages and their relationships to one another in this part of China.xxv For our purposes, the point is that Jiangyongese is the spoken language that the nüshu script represents, and the nüshu script is a way to write Jiangyongese.xxvi Nüshu literature, in return, is Jiangyongese literature.

Speech and Writing

Although nüshu is written Jiangyongese, the nüshu script is not necessarily the only way to write Jiangyongese. One might try to use the standard Chinese script to do it, imagining the matter to be no more complicated than dealing with the Jiangyongese words for which no standard Chinese characters exist, or the Chinese characters that have quite different meanings or connotations in Jiangyongese. In fact, in practical terms, anyone from Jiangyong who knows the standard Chinese script has acquired it via knowledge of a language other than Jiangyongese, so that writing Jiangyongese in the Chinese script will involve some degree of translation rather than mere transcription. Technically speaking (that is, ignoring for the sake of argument social, cultural, and political realities), Jiangyongese speakers, if they wished, could adapt the Chinese script to and for the language they speak, and, over time, eventually, “the Jiangyongese people” could become literate in Jiangyongese. (But that very process of adaptation would also entail subjecting spoken Jiangyongese to the influences of written Chinese; this adaption of script to speech is thus more accurately understood as a process of mutual accommodation between script and speech.) For that matter, one could also adapt the Roman alphabet to represent the sounds of Jiangyongese, or use the International Phonetic Alphabet, or create a new notation system for the purpose. Indeed, as any history of writing shows, many scripts have been borrowed from one language to write another. In fact, it is very likely that the nüshu script represents a case of Jiangyongese speakers adapting a Chinese script to write Jiangyongese.5

Script and Literacy

Though nüshu is written Jiangyongese, no one has ever tried to use nüshu to transcribe a conversation in Jiangyongese, to design a rocket ship or a web page, to write a diary recording the minutiae of daily events, or a study of the local economy, or a novel, or a newspaper, or a grocery list. In this light, a distinction between script and literacy becomes apparent and necessary. As we have seen, to the extent that scripts can make speech visible by transcribing it, we might understand script as a tool with certain powers and capacities. With script, language can achieve greater duration and portability than speech. But this use of script as mere language tool never happens in isolation.6 Script really only exists in actual use, in actual writing. The understanding of script as a tool designed to render speech visible, to record spoken language, rests upon an understanding of language itself as merely a tool, a system, designed to express or communicate pre-formed and pre-existing thoughts. In this understanding of language, it becomes merely a transportation method, moving packaged contents from sender to receiver, from one location to another. But this understanding of language fails to take into account the ways that thoughts are already formed in language, rather than outside or before it. V.N. Voloshinov claims that “it is not experience that organizes expression, but the other way around––expression organizes experience,”xxvii but this is just the other side of the same coin. The problem is the problem of meta-cognition, of the human animal thinking about itself and talking about itself; categories like language and experience are nowhere so separate or separable as they are in studies of language and experience. If speech is not a mere means of transporting content, then, to the extent that we form our understanding of what writing is on the basis of what speech is, neither is script necessarily a mere means of transporting speech, or, by extension, a mere means of transporting content. Whatever has become the so-called content has done so only via the so-called vehicle. The transportation itself makes the “content” what it is. The human experience that language is thought to express happens in and through language.

Just as speech is more than the transmission of prepackaged contents from one person to another, script is more than a means to transcribe speech. Even as the nüshu script does “write down” Jiangyongese, this writing only ever happens in actual contexts—by real people, on real occasions. Thus the nüshu script, indeed, any script, does not exist as a tool on a shelf; it exists only in actual texts, which are produced in and through actual practices. The writing of actual nüshu texts, produced by and in actual social practices, that is, social life conducted in language, not before or outside it—this is nüshu literacy. We might say, then, that script is to langue as literacy is to parole.xxviii

(This distinction between script and literacy helps refine the assumptions behind those common first impressions of the women’s script as an instance of women using power tools. It is all too easy to confuse the powerful capacities of script with the social and political powers of literacy. The latter will necessarily vary with the social and political powers of the people who use and control that literacy. The powers of literacy practiced by people whose social and political power is limited will suffer similar limitations.)

In the same way that nüshu texts are oral-and-written, or oral-written, neither is the nüshu script either strictly the same as, or strictly separable from, Jiangyongese. While acknowledging that the relationship between the written and oral in this case (and others) can be understood as “fluid,”xxix and that a continuum ranging between them may in some instances prove a helpful construct, I want to emphasize the continual simultaneous co-existence of the two in a way that insists on the priority of neither, while allowing for the possibilities inherent in the ways the spoken and the written mutually shape and constitute one another. Over time, the spoken can become written; the written can also become spoken (which can become written, and so on). More important though, at any given time, what is spoken and what is written co-exist in people’s minds.

Nüshu literacy is the actual writing and reading, singing and listening, of particular texts on particular occasions. Being literate, in nüshu, or in any other script for that matter, is not simply a matter of knowing how to make or interpret certain marks; being literate means understanding, participating in, and perpetuating the shared knowledge and the shared expectations of the who, what, where, when, how, and why of the writing. Literacy entails inculcation in the content and ideology of a textual tradition; if script is a tool, literacy is a practice. This book studies nüshu as practice.


In the context of these wider concerns, this book, which grows and departs from my doctoral dissertation, interests itself first and foremost in what girls and women actually wrote in nüshu, and in the meanings of nüshu texts and practices in their lives. I draw upon several hundred texts now translated into Chinese, my own knowledge and experience studying and translating many of them in 1988-89 with Yi Nianhua and Gao Yinxian, as well as what I have learned, in the eighties and in the summer of 2000, from others in the nüshu culture area, and from Zhou Shuoqi (now retired from the Jiangyong County Bureau of Culture, whose interest in nüshu dates from adolescence, and who studied nüshu in the 1950s and again from the early 1980s on). I also rely upon conversations and correspondence with, and the published work of, other scholars who have made substantial contributions to the study of nü

The focus of this book is the lives of the girls and women in the nüshu culture area—how they lived, what they wrote and read and sung and heard, and the ways their textual practices informed and shaped their lives. Unfortunately, this book will not delve into some of the other most interesting questions about nüshu: how and why did it originate and decline? Why this particular part of China? No one knows for sure how, why, or where the script originated, but claims of great antiquity for the script are almost surely wrong. The earliest instance of nüshu in the record comes minted on a coin from the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taipings that probably dates to the mid-late 1850s.xxxi Of course the script is older than that, but probably only by a century or so. As for the decline of the script over the last several decades, it is commonly understood to be a result of the sweeping social and political changes wrought by the 1949 revolution and subsequent state campaigns, but I think it began earlier. Several women born in the nineteen-teens who had learned how to read and write as girls had long since stopped by the time they were visited by researchers in the 1980s, at a time when the discovery of nüshu was so recent that the focus of all inquiry was on the remaining writers and their works. We wondered more about origins than decline, and none of us asked the women who had learned to read and write as girls when or why they stopped. Many women born later could chant nüshu texts from memory, many women alive today can still sing the old songs. But anyone reading or writing nüshu today is doing so with the help or motivation of outside knowledge or interest. The decline and demise of the tradition is certainly a matter worthy of further study. I suspect the reasons will be found to lie in the ways the modernist ideas of the New Culture Movement (also known as the May Fourth Movement) took hold and played out in nüshu villages. I suspect that the answer will not reduce to the simple claim that now that girls had access to primacy school education and literacy in standard Chinese, they had no need for nüshu.

This book has two starting points: texts and lives. In bringing them together, I confront again and again the problem of knowing both more than usual and less than enough: the texts were written and read in social contexts of the past, yet of course that past still lived on in the memories of the last generation of the nüshu community, and a great many of the texts we have were also produced and consumed in changing and new contexts as well, as the last writers and readers and rememberers lived on through those changes, their isolation from each other growing by sheer dint of their numbers ever dwindling, and, by the time scholars arrived on the scene in the 1980s, their relationships strained by their competition for attention from those scholars, and, sad to say, the competition of some these scholars with each other for their attention, and their writings. Compared to what we may know in general terms about texts and lives in the heyday of nüshu culture, a heyday that is nonetheless in some sense entirely imaginary, impossible to locate in time, what we actually know with a greater degree of specificity and certainty, we only really know about a few nüshu writers: Yi Nianhua (1906-1991), Gao Yinxian (1902-1990), Yang Huanyi (1909-2004). From what they, and others, have told us, we know about another great writer, Hu Cizhu (d. 1976). Through Yi and Gao, and others, we were introduced to some of their sworn sisters, notably Tang Baozhen (d. early 1990s) and He Xijing.

Given this situation, the following chapters will combine generalizations about the imaginary heyday, based upon the accounts of a relatively small number of people, with descriptions of the particular lives of an even smaller number of people. Because Yi Nianhua is the best of the last writers, the writer I studied with daily and thus the writer I know best, my main informant about nüshu texts and practices, the following chapters will devote considerable attention to her. Though in many ways her life is quite unusual, extraordinary even, and thus resistant to generalization, her lengthy autobiography, the letters she wrote and received, some letters her mother wrote and received, the autobiographies she wrote for other women, in addition to all the narratives and songs created and recorded in her hand, make her a rare and wonderful focus for a book about nüshu texts and lives.

In bringing nüshu texts and lives together, we have texts of several genres and we have lives of several stages, from girlhood through old age. Written and recited, sent and received, in particular contexts for specific occasions, nüshu texts can first be classified as either created by local women (hereafter, “local”) or brought into nüshu (by translation or other more indirect rendering) from the outside (hereafter “imported”). Local texts include various kinds of letters (to form friendships and sworn sisterhoods, to convey congratulations and condolences to a bride upon her wedding, or birthday greetings, or condolences upon a relative’s death, or to admonish someone for improper behavior), prayers (actually, letters to goddesses), autobiographies and biographies, wedding laments, narratives of local events, and songs and ditties. Imported texts include stories—like “The Carp Spirit”––narratives well-known throughout China, rendered in, or translated into nüshu, as well as some didactic pieces and a few Tang poems.

Certain nüshu texts are first written and used at a particular time of life, and also address that stage of life: letters girls wrote to establish friendships, letters to brides, prayers for sons, the autobiographies of old women. Many nüshu texts, particularly narratives of local events and stories popular throughout China (like the goldfish caper), concern themselves with particular life events or stages—a great many dwell upon anxieties surrounding marriage, or the proper behavior of young wives, for instance––or they might concern themselves with many stages of life, but be written and used at different times throughout life. The following chapters each treat a key life stage: girlhood, the years surrounding the wedding, wifehood and motherhood, and old age and widowhood. Chapter two shows girlhood idealized as a happy time in friendship letters between girls, and the ways girls formed peer groups with and without writing. Chapter three studies the writings to brides that express more condolence than congratulations, wedding laments that express reluctance to leave home to marry, and other discourses of wedding resistance in tandem with narratives about the unseemliness of overeager brides, to show how reluctance and resistance to wed are in fact proper behavior for brides. Chapter four explores texts written during and about the early years of wifehood and motherhood, reading conflicts of loyalty in the random assemblage of the few texts written by local women at this stage of life (showing attachment to natal parents and complaints about bad husbands and in-laws) against the fuller presence of imported narratives concerned primarily with a wife’s fidelity to her absent husband. Chapter five turns to older women and autobiographical writing, revisiting some of the same conflicts of the previous chapter from the perspective of the mother-in-law. Each chapter is supplemented by an appendix of translations of the complete texts discussed or excerpted within it, as well as more examples of relevant texts.

Reading both within and across genres, each chapter discusses and draws upon nüshu genres particular to each time of life, as well as texts of different genres that address that same time of life. To understand girls and nüshu literacy, for instance, Chapter Two examines writings by girls and about girls and considers as well what girls read. Reading within genres, we can understand the particular occasions in which they are produced and practiced, and we can come to know their conventions and recognize departures from them. The letters of girlhood, for instance, can show us much about girls, and the ways girls understood themselves, but because these letters are sent and received in a specific context, it would be a mistake to imagine that they purport to offer a full view of how girls understood themselves. By also reading across genres, by bringing into the discussion texts from other genres that have something to say about being a girl, we can begin to develop a fuller account of girlhood in nüshu. To return to the question of literacy and power, we see that we were asking all the wrong questions: it’s not about power, it’s not about resistance, it’s about how a girl becomes herself and knows herself in and through discursive practices, and what these practices can show us, looking on from the outside at as much as we can see, what it was like to be a daughter, sister, friend, bride, wife, daughter-in-law, mother, widow, each of those and more, in the rural south of China in the twentieth century.

Even so, just because these people have written about their lives, of course we can’t expect to discover all views on a matter in writing. First of all, (as scholars who work with texts can all too easily forget) the textual world is not the whole world. And even within the world of texts, what we have in writing was written down only because it was the “done thing,” the thing to do.xxxii As with any literacy, convention and occasion call for certain kinds of expression in nüshu. I would hate to have anyone assume to understand me and my life by looking only at the things I’ve written, even though I participate quite fully in my English literacy, and my literacy grants me quite a wide range of expressive options. Some things everybody knows, and there is no call to write them down. Some things everybody knows, but they get written down and in a particular way when genre and occasion call for it. Texts themselves take on multiple readings, as the following chapters will show. Some views reside between the lines; some simply go unexpressed because that too is the thing to do, and some, to be thorough, are not even conscious to begin with. In bringing together texts and lives to explore the ways women and girls in the nüshu culture area became and understood themselves, this book also sets and recognizes limits upon what is knowable in what we read in texts about lives.

Certainly nüshu writers themselves would agree with this approach. They would want me to tell you that even though they refer to girls in one particular nüshu genre as “the useless branch” of the family, because girls marry away and don’t carry on their father’s family line, they wouldn’t want you to think that they only considered themselves useless. In their “writing to the world” they have much more to say for themselves than that.

1 The earliest such mention does not come until the 1930s.

2 Anne McLaren (1990) argues that we can’t necessarily know the tomb was the wife’s. The texts found in the tomb include one play and 11, 12, 13, or 16 (Zhao, McLaren, Roy, Hegel and Idema, respectively) narratives, of which 8 (Hegel, Idema) are Judge Bao stories. The form of these narratives is called shuochang cihua(spoken and sung verse narrative), chantefable, or prosimetric literature, because all but one of those found in the tomb include sections of both prose and verse; the other one, like Yi’s as well as countless later works, contains no prose. The (illustrated) texts from the tomb have been reprinted in Ming chenghua shuochang cihua congkan. See McLaren 1998 for a complete study of this genre.

3 Zhou Shuoqi, retired from the Jiangyong County Office of Cultural Affairs, is sure he once owned a chapbook of this story, but is presently unable to find it.

4I refer to my own “anthologies” as Silber I-IV. These are paginated notebooks of my hand copies of nüshu texts with line-by-line translations, cross referenced to the original texts in my possession and my tapes of Yi Nianhua’s or Gao Yinxian’s recitation of these texts.

5 Just because nüshu characters resemble Chinese characters does not mean, of course, that nüshu is derived from Chinese. Visual resemblance alone could just as easily provide the basis for arguing the Chinese script is derived from the nüshu script. Some scholars make an unconvincing argument that places nüshu very early in the history of writing in China, based on perceived resemblances between patterns of marks in nüshu characters and patterns of marks in other early Chinese scripts or notation systems. John DeFrancis (1991) shows how ludicrous this reasoning can be by comparing the identical markings found on ancient Chinese pottery and the notation system used by American proofreaders.

6 Except, perhaps, in linguistic studies that attempt to isolate script as a discrete linguistic phenomenon for the purpose of understanding its properties, an isolation that nonetheless establishes a context of its own.

i Cf Johnson 1985.

ii Mair

iii Morgan, 276. See also Silber 1992, Tian Xudong, and Liang Yao.

iv Street 1985.

v Anthologies of translations of women’s writings: Rexroth and Ling Chung, Sun-Chang and Saussy, Idema and Grant.

vi All the women writer studies: Robertson, Mann, Ko, Idema and Grant, Widmer ed. Vol, special issue of Late Imperial China 1992.

vii Ko, “Pursuing Talent”

viii Ko, “Pursuing Talent” 10

ix “Learned Women,” 27-28.

xMann, “Women,” 1

xi Furth, 6.

xii “Romance,” 42.

xiii 47.

xiv Mohanty

xv Marilyn Strathern has called this the “denigration of domesticity” (13).

xvi McLaren (1990)

xvii Published in both Zhao, p. 691 and Xie p. 1557.

xviii Published in Xie, 710.

xix Hanan, 1981, p. 19.

xx Agence France Presse, April 2002.

xxi Silber 1994, Freedman forthcoming, Gladney, Judd.

xxii William Chiang (1995, 95 ff.) posits a “South China cultural complex.” See also Sankar, Stockard, Siu 1990.

xxiiiMair 1992

xxiv The phrase comes from De Francis 1989.

xxv The most complete study of Jiangyongese is Huang 1993 and—her book.

xxvi For a description of the technical aspects of the script, see Chiang 1995.

xxvii Voloshinov, 85.

xxviii Saussure.

xxix cf. Finnegan

xxx Zhao Liming (Tsinghua University, Beijing), Xie Zhimin (Zhongnan Minzu Xueyuan, Wuhan), Gong Zhebing (also of Zhongnan Minzu Xueyuan), William Wei Chiang (Ph.D. in anthropology, Yale University), Fei-wen Liu (Academia Sinica, Ph.D. in anthropology, Syracuse University), and Benedikta Dorer (M.A. thesis, Vienna). In a narrower yet obviously important vein, both Anne McLaren (Senior Lecturer, Department of Asian Studies, La Trobe University, Melbourne) and Wilt Idema (Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, Harvard) have written about those nüshu narratives also found in the Chinese popular tradition.

xxxi Zhao Liming newspaper article on coin.

xxxii Bourdieu 1990, 18.


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