Cathy Silber

When Yi Nianhua was fifteen years old, she was so afraid of ghosts she decided to become a nun. She had been reading sutras, and the more she read, the more frightened she grew. One day, her mouth went crooked from reading sutras, she said, which sent her into a frenzy of obeisances to Buddha and praying to the gods. All to no avail. It wasn’t until the next day, when her grandfather gave her some medicine made from the soap plant that her mouth returned to normal. Yi brought this up one day in the context of a conversation about temples and nuns; it reveals both her literacy level in hanzi—she was reading sutras, as well as the ways people could so easily combine religious beliefs and practices from a variety of traditions, an oft-mentioned aspect of Chinese popular religion. As her linguistic mind trafficked in both Mandarin and Jiangyongese, both hanzi and nüshu, Yi’s spiritual world contained both ghosts and Buddha, both Buddha and local goddesses, entities not equally conversant in both languages, not equally literate in both scripts.

Yi Nianhua had unusual access to literacy as a child. Both her parents came from educated families, and she grew up reading and writing both Chinese and nüshu. In Tangxia, the village where she was born on the sixth day of the first lunar month in 1906, she was the only girl to sit in on schooling for boys, and she laughed as she told me about learning to read from the rhymed primer, The Trimetrical Classic, reciting the opening lines from memory in her eighties. Her teachers were the man who taught her father as a boy, and, later, one of her father’s cousins, who would call on her and let her join in the group recitation along with the boys. Later, though she no longer sat in on classes, she continued reading on her own, turning to her maternal grandfather with her questions. She loved to read. In Chinese, she read a modern national textbook called Guowen keben and The Four Character Classic for Girls, which she later translated from memory into nüshu.1

This reading matter reflects the changing times of her childhood in the nineteen teens, when progressive and conservative social values clashed and neither held full sway. A school for girls had recently opened in the Jiangyong County seat, but Yi’s grandparents were uneasy at the thought of sending her, and few village girls attended. Yi’s father was a progressive scholar who derided bound feet and pierced ears, who pronounced before he died around 1910, when Yi was four years old, that some day girls would stop crippling their feet and putting rings through their flesh like oxen. He would not allow his daughters to bind their feet, and Yi explained on several occasions that if he had lived she never would have. She laughed aloud to quote her father as saying if you pierce your ears you might as well pierce your nose too. But as a girl, she chafed under his unreasonable refusal to allow her to be proper and fashionable; only servant girls had unbound feet; no one would want to marry a girl with big feet. Yi didn’t want anyone looking on her as a serving maid; she desperately wanted bound feet, and finally got her way: she bound her own feet when she was seven or eight years old.

When her father died in the sixth month of 1910, his mother (Yi’s paternal grandmother) received a condolence letter, written by a scribe in nüshu on a fan, from the mother of one of his classmates, who had died just three months earlier. The two young men had been classmates and friends since boyhood, as close as if they had been blood relatives, according to the letter. The grieving mother addresses the first part of her letter to the other grieving mother, and then turns to address the grieving wife, Yi Nianhua’s mother. When the letter arrived, they were too upset to notice, Yi told me. It was only later, when they had recovered somewhat from their grief, that Yi’s paternal grandmother found a scribe to write a reply for her.i

After her father died, her mother, He Guangci, took Yi and her younger sister with her to her own parents’ home in Baishui Village, where she was the oldest of five children: two sisters had married out, and two brothers now had wives of their own. It was an easy arrangement to reach: since she had no sons to carry on her husband’s family name, his parents lacked the usual incentive to hold on to her—her utility in raising their heir to adulthood. And she had parents and two brothers who could take her in, along with her two young daughters. This arrangement suggests that by 1910, the prestige value of keeping a chaste widow in the family wasn’t what it used to be.2 Yi lived in the home of her maternal grandparents until age thirteen or fourteen, when she returned to Tangxia to live with her paternal grandparents until she was married at seventeen. In Baishui, her maternal grandfather was a xiucai, a holder of the lowest of the three prestigious degrees earned in the intensely competitive imperial exam system. His house was filled with books: Tang dynasty poetry, Song dynasty lyrics, the histories and the classics, and, Yi recalled, in the same breath she announced that novels were not allowed (too morally lowbrow), novels like Creation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi) and Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng). Yi remembered her uncles and their wives fondly, for they took their sister, a twenty-eight-year-old widow with no sons and two daughters, into their home and were good to them. It was from one of these aunts that Yi learned nüshu when she was eight or nine years old,3 around the time she began learning embroidery, around the time she and her cousins were playing dress up with an old brass bridal headdress her grandmother let them have because it was of no other use now that the family had silver ones.

Girls learned nüshu from an older female relative, or their peers, or both. Yi said that when she was a girl, there were many women, some in every village, who could read and write the script. Her father’s cousin’s wife, mother’s brother’s wives, father’s female cousins, mother’s aunt and their laotong (see below) all wrote letters to each other.ii In the last generation of writers, the other two who lived into the time of encounter with researchers both learned in their teens. Gao Yinxian (1902-1990) learned at seventeen from her younger brother’s wife; five other girls learned along with her, and only one of them didn’t learn very well. Yang Huanyi (1909-2004), one of the girls in Gao Yinxian’s group, learned at fourteen from women in the villages of Getan and Xingfu; four hundred cash bought successful instruction in both reading and writing of a page of nüshu.iii He Yanxin (b. 1940) learned nüshu from her maternal grandmother in her mid-teens and later forgot nearly everything she’d learned; her knowledge of nüshu was resurrected by her reading of recently published nüshu anthologies, and now apparently she is writing again.4 The earliest work on nüshuiv contained reports on several villages, listing a few women in each and noting the extent of their literacy—had they ever learned to write? Could they read? What could they sing by heart? Those of us who followed up with this list were able to confirm or correct it. Yi Juannü (b. 1917), whose mother could write nüshu, learned to read but not write from her, but in 1988 had long since forgotten how. Yi Baoyin, who came from a poor family, could read but not write nüshu and taught it to her sworn sisters.v In 1986, Zhao Liming found many other women who could read or recite nüshu, some of whom once knew how to write but had since forgotten. Hu Sisi, born in 1919, could still read, and learned to read if not write nüshu with other girls her age; all four of her sisters knew how to write. Wu Yuzhu, in her late seventies at the time, had learned at twelve from an aunt, and at one point, she said, had written a full complement of nüshu, the one remaining volume of which she had given to her daughter. But in 1986 it was all she could do, with trembling hand, to write for Zhao a few crooked words, “Wu Yuzhu is useless.” Another, a Tongkou girl named Yu Meiyu (b. 1904) learned to write at 14, along with over ten other girls, she said, from none other than Yi Nianhua herself, who had just recently married into Tongkou, and charged no

During the years she lived in Baishui, Yi wrote many nüshu texts for girls who didn’t know how, including letters and prayers (which are actually simply letters to goddesses). Girls and women would bring their letters to goddesses to temples during temple fairs. They would burn paper money and incense and then read their letters (written on paper, cloth, fans, and even in cloth-bound books) before the statues of goddesses addressed by the names Gupo and Niangniang (mother figures both). Other women and girls would gather around to listen, perhaps waiting their turn to offer a letter of their own. Longyan Temple in Dao County celebrated its temple fair on the first day of the second month, and Huashan Temple in Jiangyong celebrated its on the tenth day of the fifth month. These highlights of local entertainment lasted five to seven days, and included festivities such as opera performance (in the Qiju tradition, from Qiyang County, in which both women and men played women’s parts). When the temple fair was over, temple workers would gather the nüshu texts left there and burn them, turning them to smoke as a way of delivering them to the spirits.

One day, an illiterate girl from Longtian Village asked Yi Nianhua to write for her a letter to the local goddess Niangniang at Longyan Temple. He Yanse, orphaned and alone, was praying to die, to be taken in by the gods. Yi Nianhua reproduced from memory decades later the letter she wrote for He.5 This same letter exists in all kinds of shorter versions, oral and written. The temple fairs became one site of nüshu transmission. People could pick up texts by listening, by copying, or by actually walking off with them. The writer or subject of a prayer, in this case He Yanse herself, could be another source of transmission, who could recite from memory even if she could not write her own letter. Yi Nianhua, the scribe of the letter, could act as a third source, passing on the letter in oral and written forms over a period of decades. Gao Yinxian’s version of this prayer doesn’t mention He Yanse’s name or the reason she wants to die, suggesting either that the text reached her orally (if she had had a written version, wouldn’t she have simply copied it?) or that she had heard or read it so long ago that it only floated through her mind as a disconnected snippet.6 But the version sung into a tape recorder by an illiterate woman in the village of Heyuan does mention these specifics; the villages of Baishui (Yi’s home at the time), Longtian (home of the orphan girl), and Heyuan are relatively close.vii Whether the singer in Heyuan knew of He Yanse, Yi’s text (or at least its import) reached her orally.

All versions convey the sorrow of the orphan girl, for whom life holds so little promise that she prays to die. We can imagine He Yanse and Yi Nianhua sitting side by side, up in the loft, a shaft of sunlight spread over the wide pine planks of the floor, He telling her story to Yi, Yi helping her craft it into lines of verse, putting it down on the page. The story is a familiar one, and so resonant with Yi’s own later experience that it makes sense that it should be one of the many pieces she wrote for others that she cared to reproduce decades later. He Yanse’s mother had no one to turn to when she lost her husband, not even a son, upon whom, if she could only manage to raise him up, she could rely in her old age. Instead she had a daughter, a “useless girl” unable to fill that role. When her mother died too, He Yanse was truly alone, “no tree for shade” before her, “no mountain to lean on” behind her. “Sitting alone upstairs with no one to share my feelings with, I write to you, worthy goddess,” the prayer reads,

I just hope Niangniang will love and care for me

If you have the power, please come and take me

Please take my life and take me in.

My surname is He, a desolate girl by the name of Yanse

I am sure I want Niangniang to take me

Life is good for you goddesses, and I want to join you,

Like living in the cave of the immortals,

With the opera stage out front blocking the landscape

And the green mountains out back, so lush and lovely

With younger elder sisters to your left

And the sound of flutes wafting by the cave of the immortals

And incense burned to you, year after year

And all the thousands of people who worship you.

I have no other purpose in coming to make obeisance to you,

With incense and paper money I pay my gratitude to you.

Niangniang, you are so truly effective

You have protected thousands upon thousands of people:

Countless numbers have sought sons from you,

Thousands have prayed for wealth to you,

Plus all those thousands who prayed to you for government posts.

Niangniang, your powers have protected thousands

People have prayed to you for office, and gotten it,

And when they become high officials, they come to thank you.

Those who prayed to you for sons and bore sons came to tell you the good news.

And those who prayed for wealth and now have money also pay their thanks.

Everybody always says how effective you spirits are,

You have taken care of the people for ages.

When people are sick they come to make vows,

In exchange for being protected from illness.

And when they are cured, they come to kowtow in thanks.

With incense and paper money and candles they thank the gods.

There but for fate could have gone Yi Nianhua herself. Both girls had lost their fathers; both had widowed mothers with no sons upon whom to place their hopes. Yet Yi spoke of her own childhood as a happy one, tarnished only by the memory of her mother’s hardships as a widow, (a memory quite likely filtered retrospectively through the pain of her own experience of the hardships of widowhood.) At least Yi had a mother, and a mother with parents and brothers to support her, at that. It wouldn’t be until she repeated her mother’s own experience–– as a widow of twenty-eight with two young daughters and no sons–– that Yi would experience first-hand the hardships of having no one to turn to. In the meantime, her youth was also spent writing and reading nüshu of a much happier sort.


On a spring day in 1920, when she was fourteen years old, Yi Nianhua disobeyed her grandfather. Up in the loft, with brush and ink, first she drew intricate blossoms across the top border of a blank fan. Beneath them, she wrote a letter in verse to a girl she’d never met. Yi was writing to propose a relationship with this girl that would mean sleepovers at her house; Yi’s grandfather refused his permission because he was worried about his granddaughter’s safety. Sixty years later Yi could still write from memory the girl’s reply, which regretfully declined the proposal because her own parents didn’t approve. “You are, of course, an educated daughter from a good family, and everything you wrote makes my heart beautiful,” it said,

But my lowly family just can’t compare with yours.

I have to obey my parents,

Though if it was up to me, with all my heart I’d come visit you,

And the two of us would share our feelings for each other.

My heart is so red hot to make this bond with you,

I even dream about visiting you.7

In her first formal occasion to express herself in nüshu, Yi was writing to ask this girl to be her laotong. Also called tongnian and laogeng,8laotong, literally, old same (old as in old friend), was a common social arrangement in the nüshu area, a relationship established between children of the same age and sex from different families in different villages. Formalized same-sex relationships called laogeng are well-known in China; the matching of children in relationships meant to be solid and long-lasting is found particularly among ethnic minorities in southern China such as the Zhuang, Bouyei, and Yao, as well as their Han neighbors in northern and southeastern Guizhou who assimilated their customs.viiiLaotong relationships are one aspect of local culture in the nüshu area that suggests a history of non-Han influence.9

No one could count on their babies surviving to adulthood, and parents who were told by a fortune teller that their child’s horoscope was deficient or inauspicious would want to do everything they could to help the child “put in roots,” roots deep enough to ensure survival. Parents would anchor their child more firmly to this world by connecting him or her to another child, another family. Children with especially weak horoscopes or poor health might be matched to two or three laotong.

For boys and girls, children and grownups, laotong in the nüshu culture area was another kind of relative—a relationship defined and recognized by a name and by commonly shared expectations of mutual caring and aid in times of trouble. Jiangyongese contains terms for such relations as elder brother’s laotong, younger brother’s laotong, elder sister’s laotong, younger sister’s laotong (the same term refers to the wife of one’s younger brother’s laotong), elder brother’s laotong‘s wife, elder sister’s laotong‘s husband, and younger sister’s laotong‘s husband.ix These terms suggest the extent to which laotong relationships were threaded through the social fabric in the nüshu area––as a form of kinship. As the local saying puts it, “Laogeng is the most important relative in the world.”x Furthermore, laotong letters sometimes invoke the notion of kinship to describe the relationship, in lines like “we make our bond on the basis of qin10 and “make the bond of one family,”xi though we also see the family metaphor used to describe the closeness of classmates, in the condolence letters sent and received by Yi Nianhua’s paternal grandmother. Some women described the relationship by comparing visiting laotong to visiting relatives. One mentioned a prohibition against marriage between members of families related by laotong, because a laotong was like a relative, though another woman claimed that such a marriage would be possible in theory, but embarrassing in practice, because a girl had already seen the brother of her laotong, and maybe even eaten a meal at the same table.xii

In this wider context, laotong relationships take on a special cast when conducted through nüshu literacy; in turn, the laotong relationships of girls that were conducted without nüshu literacy may well have taken on the luster of the greater prestige associated with the matches of literate girls, who would generate and perpetuate this prestige in writing well known by the literate and illiterate alike. (Here again, we can see how the prestige associated with literacy is created and spread by the written word itself.) Of course there must have been differences between the ideals of this relationship described in laotong texts (oral and written) and the ways laotong relationships were actually formed and conducted. Certainly, discrepancies between the ideals and actual practices of girls’ laotong relationships might also be explained by the economic and social status of their families and whether or not the girls were literate in nüshu. Then again, perhaps the most important factor in deciding whether or not a girl had a laotong was her parents’ concern about helping her strengthen her roots in the world.

Since we always discussed laotong in the context of texts by or about them, Yi Nianhua based her description and explanation of laotong relationships upon matches made with nüshu letters. As a particular nüshu genre, with its own strong conventions, these letters incorporated the understandings and expectations of the laotong match, shared by society at large, into the desires and ideals of girls. At the same time, the conventions of these letters shaped an understanding of the match particular to girls who participated in nüshu literacy. I say “participated in” as a reminder that a girl didn’t necessarily need to know how to write or even read nüshu herself in order to be subject to its effects; she could also participate through a scribe, or even as a recipient of a letter someone else would read aloud for her.

In Yi Nianhua’s literacy-based account, ideal laotong came from families of similar social and economic standing, preferably with the same number and sex distribution of elder and younger siblings, in the same birth order. Ideally, the two girls were the same height, and had the same size feet, and one could be no prettier than the other. Yi mentioned a song about a girl with a pockmarked face and big feet, who was rejected as laotong material on these grounds. Yi likened the matching of laotong to the matching of husband and wife. She said, “The good ones matched with the good ones, the ugly with the ugly, the smart ones with the smart, just like matching husband and wife. You didn’t want ugly ones, or stupid ones.” Gao Shupi, who formed five different laotong relationships without letters in nüshu, said, “I was very selective. I agreed to the match only in cases of very pretty and proper girls. I didn’t accept others…. Afterwards, we wore the same clothing, and the same earrings and shoes.”xiii

Prospective laotong were strangers to each other, and their match was either facilitated by an intermediary, or made in cases of in utero marriage engagements when both babies turned out to be of the same sex. The laotong matchmaker was most often an older female relative—the wife of the father’s younger brother,xiv or a woman who had married into the village of one prospective “same” from the village of the other. In one case, though, fathers who were classmates suggested a laotong match for their daughters, who met and decided to accept it.xv In another case, the same-age daughters of Gao Shupi and a close friend who lived in her village (Tianguangdong ) became laotong.xvi

Parents had to approve of the match, but girls could always decline or even later terminate a match. A woman in Xinzai Village sings a song about a laotong “divorce.” Yi Juannü, who learned to read but not write nüshu from her mother, gave two accounts of her experience with laotong. In August of 1988, she told me that her mother had written a letter for her proposing a match, but that the girl had turned her down on the grounds that she didn’t feel worthy enough; after that, Yi never initiated another match. A few years later, Yi told Benedikta Dorer that she had terminated her laotong relationship after a few meetings because of the girl’s poor conduct and hygiene.xvii One might attribute the conflict between these accounts to failing memory, or reconcile it by imagining that Yi felt that the girl who turned her down was merely using her own alleged unworthiness as an excuse for rejecting her, and that Yi assuaged her wounded pride by creating the more tolerable memory of being the one to find the other girl beneath her.

Laotong matches were usually suggested to girls when they were eight or nine years old, according to Yi Nianhua, though she didn’t write her own laotong proposal letter until fourteen. When a match was proposed to a girl, she generally liked the idea, and would write a letter in nüshu on a fan to her prospective same, asking her to make the match. If the girl could not write herself, she could ask someone else to write the letter for her.

If the recipient was willing to make the match, she wrote (or had written) her acceptance on a fan sent to her same. This exchange of fans, along with gifts of a pair of shoes, candy, and tobacco, took place in the fifth or sixth lunar month, after agreement to the match had been reached by word of mouth. When the match was set, the girls would arrange to meet, perhaps at a temple fair, or a Dragon Boat Festival celebration, and one would spend a few days in the home of the other, the first of many such visits back and forth. Sames slept in the same bed on these visits. They brought no change of clothes with them; they wore each other’s.

These visits, generally spent up in the loft doing needlework and talking together, could last from a few days to a few weeks, though their frequency seems to have varied. The two of Dorer’s informants who learned nüshu with their laotong were the only ones who told her they had frequent contact with their laotong. Girls did not set out on foot alone for these visits; they were accompanied by an adult woman. In one case, she was the laotong matchmaker, in another, an older, poor woman hired by the girl’s parents for a small fee.xviii Holidays were frequently the occasion for these visits.

Yi Nianhua first described laotong to me by saying “back then, everybody did it,” and suggested that she had too. Later, when we were reading together the reply she received from the girl to whom she had written that day in 1920, she explained the circumstances of the letter––the real reason the girl’s parents would not let her make the match, and the reason Yi’s grandfather had forbidden her to propose a match in the first place. In 1919 a girl from Lianhuazai Village was visiting her same in the village of Tianguangdong. The elder brother of the Tianguangdong girl told his schoolmates about the visiting girl. They broke in at night, carried her off to the mountain, and raped her. After that, parents put a stop to their daughters’ overnight visits, and this is the explanation Yi gave for her grandfather’s refusal to let her make a laotong match at all. Yi went ahead and wrote an invitation letter on the sly, but the recipient wrote back in reluctant refusal, explaining that her parents had forbidden her to make the match. Roughly four years later, Yi wrote an invitation for an illiterate girl in her natal village of Tangxia who wanted to make a match with a girl in Ganyi (who replied on a fan), so it appears that this crackdown did not wipe out the practice entirely. Indeed, it seems to have had little effect on the five of Dorer’s informants, born between 1909 and 1919, who made laotong matches.

Laotong in Writing

While laotong letters tell us far more about the ideals of the match than any actual lived relationship, they did shape the meanings of laotong for both the women who taught girls how invitation and reply letters ought to be written and the girls themselves. Because the letters are performative­­––that is, they don’t simply describe the relationship, they enact it––they offer to girls a speaking position that crafts and shapes their experience of a relationship they have yet to actually experience. In other words, by stepping into the “I” and “you” positions conventionally provided by these texts, girls became participants in a social relationship they didn’t yet know from any other experience than participating in these written claims about what the relationship is, or would be, like. In this sense, language is shaping experience; textual subjects produce social subjects. Perhaps expressing in writing delight at forming the match is to feel that delight. Certainly, to say one is making the match is to make the match.

This matters because, like all nüshu, these letters are written in highly formulaic verse––they read like a string of clichés. A very long and repetitive string. Clichés, conventions— ritual of any sort— always raise the question, if the motions to be gone through are so set, what sort of inner experience does going through those motions create? It’s especially important here because the laotong letter offers one of the first, if not the first, occasion for self-expression in nüshu literacy. By writing herself into the “I” of a laotong letter, by speaking and thus acting through the literacy, a girl is indoctrinated in the particular knowledge the literacy bears, and, at the same time, reproducing and perpetuating that knowledge. Of course, this is basically what happens when one writes oneself into the “I” of any native-language literacy; we’re all just going through the motions of our words to the extent that all of language is convention, just a string of clichés, more or less. When we read these laotong letters and, struck by how clichéd they seem, ask what the girls who wrote and read them were feeling, we have to remember that all of those set phrases were exactly what the girls wanted and needed to say, because they knew exactly what they meant. Their meanings lie not in the words themselves, but in the shared understandings of them in community of writers and readers, this literacy community.

In late 1988, I gave Yi Nianhua and Gao Yinxian five blank fans apiece, and asked them to write whatever would customarily belong on a fan. Because Yi had told me that laotong letters were written on fans, I also asked them to show me what a typical laotong letter was like, even though I had already seen a few in Yi’s other writings. Yi and Gao both devoted two of their fans to laotong letters. Yi had told me earlier that the laotong fan’s top border was adorned with a row of exquisitely drawn flowers (whereas other genres on fans dispensed with this decor). Accordingly, Yi’s fans have the requisite border (one has two birds near the end of the row of flowers); one of Gao’s borders is strictly floral, and the other contains birds and what look like insects but might be dragons. Below the floral border, lines of nushu verse vertically fill each fan column. On the two fans written by Yi Nianhua, each column contains a single heptasyllabic line; on the two fans written by Gao Yinxian, sections of pentasyllabic lines alternate with sections of heptasyllabic lines, with each column containing ten to thirteen characters. The backs of Yi Nianhua’s fans are adorned with a pentagon shape in the center, filled with flowers; one contains a single bird (probably phoenix or hen) and the other contains a matching, facing pair of what look like insects but, again, might be dragons. Gao Yinxian adorned the backs of her fans with eight heptasyllabic lines each; these are ditties about singing with sisters and not part of the text of the letter on the other side.

The best way to get a sense of these letters is to read through a few; the appendix contains two sets of invitation and reply letters, one written by Yi Nianhua, the other by Gao Yinxian. Certain themes and sentiments then emerge as conventions, the things one is supposed to say in a laotong letter, and we can read these conventions as a reflection of the shared ideals of the relationship within the nüshu community. The following description of the letters is based upon the four representative examples written by Yi and Gao, along with five other letters.xix

The letters describe the laotong relationship as an exclusive couple, through repeated use of pair metaphors and both implicit and explicit analogies to marriage. They portray the relationship as long lasting and intimate and fun, based in fidelity and great emotional attachment and mutual high regard. All the letters (even the reluctant refusal) convey a sense of how glad their writers are to make the match, and how much pleasure they expect it to bring. They speak of pleasure taken in whispering and embroidering together upstairs. Full of high praise for their recipient and often descriptions of send and recipient’s family composition, the letters portray the relationship as one that meets parental approval and confers social worth upon girls lucky enough to have made such a good match, envied by all.

One of the most common metaphors used to describe the laotong relationship in these letters is a pair of mandarin ducks, which, in Han culture, most often connotes a happily married couple.11 As the match that gives meaning to the whole idea of match, the marriage match provides these letters plenty of ways to talk about the laotong match. We read of matches made in heaven, or destined in a former life. One letter mentions the need to match horoscopes, a prerequisite for a betrothal. In addition to symbols of pairs or couples, the letters also contain mirror images of a pair of girls: two girls looking at their reflection–– in the mirror while combing and dressing, or in the water while crossing a bridge. This use of mirror images underscores expectations of sameness and pairing.

Many expressions of life-long togetherness appear in these letters, sometimes linked with expressions of deep attachment and inseparability. In other nüshu texts, a common metaphor for a girl’s marriage is the transplant of a flower; in laotong letters we see plants that stay put:

hyacinth bean and papaya:

long vines, deep roots.

palm trees inside the garden walls,

with deep roots, stand a thousand years.xx

Bridges, rivers, and sea also represent the strength and length and depth of the laotong relationship, as in lines like “a bridge over the long river, we’ll walk [to and fro] forever, as ever-flowing as the river, as deep as the sea,”xxi which, Yi Nianhua explained , means “the farther you go, the deeper it gets.”

The great sense of intimacy conveyed in these letters is presented as an already established fact, often linked with the notion of inseparability, as in lines like “the two of us as a couple, not a step apart.”xxii Every letter describes time spent together upstairs in embroidery and intimate conversation. One letter describes the closeness of the match this way: “when washing our hands, the two of us use the same basin of water.”xxiii We might expect that the guest would wash first in fresh water and her host would then use the same water, indicating enough closeness to share her same’s dirt, as she would with a sibling, but also the conservation of the female water-hauling labor for the household, thus marking a same as one of the fold.

The letters teem with effusive praise for their recipient, in both positive and self-deprecatory comparative terms. In addition to prizing qualities like intelligence, literacy, and beauty in a same, these letters make frequent mention of the reputation of her family. Common are expressions like “of the intelligent, you count as one”xxiv and “I’ve heard from afar of the girl who can write in your worthy home, all along a proper family, educated people.”xxv Writers frequently substitute specifics like “my home/family” (jia), “my crude writing” (cuwen), and “my protocol” (liyi) into the common comparative formula “everything about me hardly compares with you.”xxvi Such praise for a same helps attest to the value of the match being made, which every letter describes as enviable, in lines like “people all around look on in envy.”xxvii

Most letters refer to their writer’s parents, indicating that they too are pleased with the match, in lines like “[our] parents are really glad”xxviii and “[our] parents’ rules are good.”xxix Near the end of some letters comes mention of the family composition of both sender and recipient, noting the death of a parent or a dearth of brothers in terms of worry and woe at home. Some letters explicitly address their recipient’s mother, asking her not to make fun of the writer’s effort. One letter, whose sender’s mother was widowed, ends with the line “[I’ll] have you come here and make my mother happy.”xxx Indeed, most letters contain invitations to visit.

Written after agreement to the match had been reached orally, through the services of the laotong matchmaker, with parental approval, even blessing, yet before the girls had ever met, these letters clearly have far more to say about the social expectations of the laotong match than any such actual pair. It is difficult to gain a sense of how close these relationships may have been in practice. Dorer reports that all of the women she spoke with considered the relationship important, and that they (and their parents) were glad about having their laotong as companions whose visits were a happy occasion.xxxi Yi Nianhua became quite animated when we read together the laotong letters she wrote, and seemed to me to make no distinction between the expectations conveyed in letters and the emotional quality of laotong matches. But she never had a laotong. I got a similar impression from Gao Yinxian and Tang Baozhen (her sworn sister and nearly constant companion, who lived right next door). They seemed to be sharing some secret nostalgic delight over Gao’s laotong letters when I tried to ask about their meaning line by line. Of course, they might have been laughing over my ludicrous questions. Gao would usually claim an inability to explain further, and then insist upon the meaning of a line by adamantly repeating it and laughing or bursting into song.

Most songs about laotong portray the relationship in emotional terms similar to those used by girls who had yet to experience it in their letters to each other. Attachment is conveyed both in terms of the joys of togetherness as well as in the pain of loss. A story about a girl’s death describes the devotion and grief of her laotong in explicit terms.12 Another tale, one of the most widely known nüshu texts, volunteered by several women presented with (or clamoring for) a chance to sing songs they knew into a tape recorder, and written in nüshu by both Yi Nianhua and GaoYinxian, describes the anguish of an official’s daughter separated from her laotong by her father’s move to another government posting.

The sun shines early on the bridge rail

The father cares for his court, the daughter for her dear

The father cares for his court and the people,

The daughter cares for her good dear in Yongming.13

Talked with her dear to the edge of the sky,

Played, played, all the way to white clouds.

But on white clouds, officials fought

Two officials fought at court

So my father packed up to go back home

And we cried till our tears flowed.

We joined at eleven,

Were together nine years till twenty,

And never a cross word between us.

First I thank her mother,

Next I thank her sister in law for her kindness,

Third I thank her little sister.

We sit together on a bench and ache at parting

My hand grasps the doorway;

I cannot bear to go through.

My foot steps on the cobblestones,

I cannot bear to go.

All the sisters come out to see me off,

Send me off to the river bank.

My left foot steps upon the boat,

My right hand grasps the punt pole.

With each pole, the boat departs one thousand li,

I cry and call out but she cannot hear.

Seven layers of sleeves soaked through with tears

That ten days of south wind cannot blow dry.

For three days I do not eat from mother’s bowl,

For four days I do not take the spindle and basket.

Father asks me what is wrong.

I’m mad because my dear and I cannot be together.

You want your dear, that’s easy enough,

We’ll hire a sedan chair and bring her here.xxxii

It is probably not a coincidence to find more writing about officials’ daughters than about the daughters of commoners. At the least this reflects a general interest in the doings of the elite. In addition to what these tales might suggest about discrepancies between the ideals and the reality of laotong relationships, they also provide an opportunity to explore the relationship between history and fiction, between news and narrative, in the creation and transmission (in oral and written versions) of nüshu texts. Though the story about the Pujia academic’s daughter was probably first created shortly after the events it narrates took place (1875-1908), it is not told in the personal voice of anyone cast as especially close to the events in question, even though women of Yi Nianhua’s mother’s (b. 1882) generation, but certainly her grandmother’s, would surely have known about them. (Remember, Yi Nianhua’s grandmother was married to a xiucai and her mother was a xiucai‘s daughter.) Yi Nianhua’s rendition of the story retains the first names of the people involved (even the doctor) and the names of the villages where they lived, yet she had no personal, or even second-hand, knowledge of these people. The sense of relative social proximity of the people and events in this story to its transmitters and audiences, in light of its ever-increasing temporal distance from them, suggests, in the initial creation of this text, the kind of over-familiarity one might use in discussing or gossiping about celebrities—such a confidence in the interest value of the story one is telling that no authentication of the reliability of the narrator’s knowledge is needed. Though not at all salacious, the narrative displays (and creates in its audience) an inordinate interest in the rupture of emotional bonds (in this case, by death) that resembles the sensibilities of both tabloid and tearjerker. This nearly morbid preoccupation with the loss of girlhood companions, a fascination bordering upon an erotics of loss, becomes important in the next chapter.

In contrast, the story of the official’s daughter separated from her laotong shows no real social proximity between the narrator of the first eight lines and transmitters and audience, and greater temporal distance than the Pujia tale. Only the county name of Yongming remains to authenticate the story as local, and the father and daughter have become story-book characters as opposed to real people known to whoever first created the text. Even when the narrative switches to the first person voice of the daughter herself, she remains a character, of interest to a nüshu audience not so much because she lost her laotong as because she was an official’s daughter who lost her laotong. Similarly, the nüshu text about a servant girl who was raped on the road far away from home retained its transmission value not simply because of prurient interest in dangers for a woman of being on the road alone, but because the narrator/victim had been a servant acquired for his new daughter-in-law by a famously wealthy man from Taochuan named Zhu Zhoushan, before he sold her off into marriage in a village where nüshu was used (Tianguangdong in Dao County).

Yet if nüshu texts can codify and thus perpetuate particular social values by recording and transmitting events in the lives of the social elite as sources of interest and even emulation, they can also regulate and proscribe behavior recorded and transmitted as an equally fascinating source of condemnation. In the following song, once a letter from a girl to her laotong, the speaker responds to accusations of impropriety by lodging a few of her own. While the precise circumstances that produced this text are no longer known, standards of closeness, propriety, and social worth codified in other nüshu texts about laotong are emphasized here by glaring failure to achieve them. Girls who achieve these standards, and women who achieved them when they were girls, are called fang or fangxiangnü; Yi Nianhua explained fangxiangnü as “girls who liked to have laotong.”

I’m sitting upstairs reading your letter

You say I’m against you.

Which little slavey said so?

What gossipy little wench?

Hey, slut,

Come on over and let’s have this out.

Since I got your letter

I’ve been so mad my insides are churning

You’re not thinking straight

You’re the one who’s making things up

If you truly have grounds against me,

I’ll rip out my heart and bare it to heaven.

I am a proper girl upstairs

You can rest assured on that score.

If you’re the one with such high standards

Aren’t you a little ashamed by all your gallivanting about?

I can’t believe someone so close to me would send such an insulting letter,

But as long as no one blames me, I don’t care.

Still, the more I think about it, the madder I get,

Because you’re no shining star yourself

Your acting against me this way—

I’m very upset about it.

When I stayed over at your house a few days

I saw how you behave.

I was upset all the way home,

And couldn’t sleep for nights on end.

I don’t believe what everybody’s saying––

When the water clears the rocks will emerge.

If you really had grounds for what you’re saying,

Then everything everybody’s saying would be true.

I never said a word about the decorum at your house

And yet you go around saying I shouldn’t have.

On the sixth your letter and candies arrived

And I’ve written to others to tell them.

I have uncles and great uncles

And an elder brother’s wife, who was a fang14

My great aunt was a fang when she was a girl

She was second to none.

My own mother was a fang too,

And she’s seen most everything.

Take a look at the full moon on the sixteenth:

It brings everything to light.

Only one star goes with the moon

You can’t have any old star going with the moon.

And only one person matches with a sister

You can’t just match up any old way you please.

There are plenty of fang in this world,

And the bad ones are just as well known as the good.xxxiii

This letter—and its transmission beyond the parties involved––confirms the ideals of the laotong relationship conventionalized in the letters written to propose and accept a match. We can’t tell from the letter exactly what the girl addressed here has done wrong: apparently she has insulted and offended the writer by accusing her of slinging insults herself. Proper girls, well-matched laotong, do not insult one another, that much is clear. And if they do, they are not well-matched.

We see in this letter (and the letter that we imagine provoked it) the way literacy maintains and enforces not just shared community values but its own rules of use—letters shouldn’t be insulting, even as it violates those same values and rules by slinging insults.

Sworn Sisters (Jiebai zimei)

If belonging to one or more laotong relationships helped a girl strengthen her roots to the world, and conferred a certain prestige at least among nüshu girls, being a part of a sworn sisterhood as a girl was a very practical affair. While laotong relationships between girls could be formed and conducted with or without writing in nüshu, the sworn sisterhoods of girls were always formed without writing. The first nüshu genre to offer a sworn sister a subject position as a sworn sister would not come until the first wedding of their group, and the ways girls described themselves and their relationship as sworn sisters in these wedding texts differed little from what laotong and even sisters and cousins wrote to each other. Older women formed sworn sisterhoods with letters in nüshu, but the interests of their letters and relationships naturally differed substantially from those of unmarried girls.15

Yang Huanyi, the last surviving original writer of nüshu (who also formed a laotong relationship when she was six) described the sworn sisterhood she joined in 1914. It contained four girls, including two biological sisters surnamed Gao. From eldest to youngest, the members of this sisterhood were Gao Zhenyi (age 7), Yang Huanyi (age 6), Gao Jixian (age 5), and Yang Luanluan (also 5). Joining a sisterhood required the contribution of a certain amount of unhusked rice, and thus implicit parental involvement. In Yang’s sisterhood, each member contributed 25 jin, and the store of 100 jin was lent out at fifty percent interest annually; when necessary, the girls went as a group to collect. With the money they earned in interest, they could buy the things they needed for the holidays, or, if someone’s family had an urgent need for money, everyone would agree to let her have first crack at the earnings. A girl’s contribution of rice was returned to her at the time of her wedding, and when everyone had married off, the sisterhood was dissolved.xxxiv

Three of the nine women who spoke with Benedikta Dorer, Hu Sisi, Yang Huanyi, and Yi Baoyin, participated in a sworn sisterhood; a fourth, Deng Jingyue, did so without ever calling it by that name. These groups were formed of friends and acquaintances at the girls’ own initiative, and the only official requirement for joining was the contribution of rice. The two youngest of the nine, born in 1938 and 1939, told her they did not form sworn sisterhoods because there was no spare rice after 1949.

Hu Sisi (who also had two laotong) formed a sisterhood when she was ten, with one girl about the same age and four slightly younger ones. Each girl contributed 50 jin of rice, which was stored at Hu’s. At the marriage of each girl, her portion of rice was sold and the proceeds were used to buy gifts for her. The sisterhood was dissolved when the last portion was sold. In the village of Jinjiang, Deng Jingyue, at fifteen or sixteen, and four friends each contributed 50 jin of rice and lent it out at the rate of fifty percent. Though sworn sisterhoods were common in her village, Deng’s rice group was never called a sworn sisterhood. Deng couldn’t come up with a reason why; she also mentioned that she had relationships similar to sworn sisterhood with other girls who were too poor to contribute rice. Yi Baoyin, who came from a poor family, had no laotong but formed a sworn sisterhood of four girls the same age or younger when she was seventeen or eighteen. All lived in the same village, and all were too poor to pool rice. These girls just agreed to form a sworn sisterhood.

The women she spoke with told Dorer that the fact of their sworn sisterhoods barely affected the ways they visited and spent time together. Before and after they formed the sisterhood, they spent a lot of time together and sometimes had slumber parties. These girls considered themselves good friends; indeed, it appears they chose each other for the sisterhood on the basis of friendship. Only one woman, Yang Huanyi, said that affection wasn’t important––all that mattered was the rice.

All the women mentioned needlework as the focus of their gatherings. Only when Dorer asked them explicitly about the role of nüshu did some of them reply that they had sometimes sung nüshu texts. Only three of the women had any degree of nüshu literacy, and we know little about the literacy of their sworn sisters. Yang Huanyi started learning to read and write at fourteen; Hu Sisi learned with her laotong (whether both writing and reading or only reading is unclear); and Yi Baoyin, who could read but not write, taught her sworn sisters to read.

Sworn sisterhoods and laotong were two distinct kinds of social relationships available to girls in nüshu culture, relationships with different requirements, connotations, values, and functions, quite in addition to their very different engagement with nüshu literacy. Yi Nianhua never mentioned being part of a sworn sisterhood as a girl, and indeed it seems richer girls wouldn’t really need to bother with pooling, lending, and collecting interest on rice for spending money.

Peer Groups and Loft Culture

Girls as children and through adolescence in most cultures, and certainly in a culture practicing any degree of sex segregation, tend to make friends with each other, hang out together, and go through their particular experiences together; some friends are closer than others. In the nüshu culture area, peer groups of girls were formed by a combination of “kin” and “non-kin” ties––sisters, cousins, laotong, sworn sisters, and when they became teenagers, these girls would face the successive weddings of their members together as a group. In traditional Chinese society, girls marry out, girls marry away from their own family into the family of their husband. This is perhaps the most critical effect of the gender system on the lives of those born female, perhaps as the central defining feature of what it meant to be a girl in traditional China. It has been customary to understand this transition primarily in terms of a daughter’s loss of membership in her natal family, as if her social being was constituted solely on the basis of her family relationships. The study of nüshu helps remind us that in traditional rural China, a girl’s meaningful connections to others—her social identity— extended beyond the strict bounds of kinship, whether or not her non-kin relationships were ever formalized. Another way to think about it is to wonder just what kinship is, after all.xxxv

In the nshu area, as we have seen, girls had available to them ways to formalize their extrafamilial peer relationships. Some did, some didn’t. Some relationships were probably close, some were probably mere formalities. For some, nüshu literacy was a factor in formalizing ties, or a shared activity, yet it was not necessary to make the laotong match, and it was never used to form a sworn sisterhood. Embroidering upstairs in the loft was the activity all girls shared, whatever they called their relationships with those by their side. Thus we can glimpse how literate and non-literate social practices co-existed and interrelated in the nüshu area. Perhaps we can also see in these social formations the co-existence of practices whose origins probably like in Han (jiebaizimei) and non-Han (laotong) traditions.

But regardless of the distinctions between them, laotong and jiebaizimei relationships were not formed in isolation from each other or other social relationships, kin or non-kin. We can expect that groups of girls spending time with each other on a day-to-day basis would include various combinations of biological sisters and cousins, sworn sisters, and, from time to time, somebody’s visiting laotong, not to mention other girls with whom no such formalized relationship existed. Emotional attachments within these social circles had more to do with the real people involved than with dicta abstracted from normative accounts of these relationships or the texts produced by them.

Groups of girls close in age began preparing for marriage in a variety of ways in adolescence. At the very least, it was on their minds. By their mid-teens, if not earlier, all that needlework they were doing together upstairs was wedding preparation. They faced their weddings as a group. Marriage, even when tempered by a delay in taking up residence in her husband’s home, would mark a turning point in her peer relationships just as much as it would in a girl’s relationships with (other) members of her family. Indeed, a girl’s wedding would call the endurability of every single one of her relationships into question. The nüshu corpus has plenty to say about this. In fact, on no other subject is it more vociferous.


1 See the appendix for the Four Character Classic for Girls, and chapter 4 for further discussion of it.

2 Local gazetteers prescribe social ideals for women widowed young: virtues of the chaste widow included not simply her refusal to remarry and her active efforts to suppress her sexuality, but also her filial duty to serve her husband’s family in every way (Liu 2001: 1059-1060). Pai lou—memorial arches to chaste widows—stood in the nüshu area until their destruction during the Cultural Revolution.

3 She told me she learned when she was eight or nine, she told Chiang ten (144) and Zhao (19) says she learned at fourteen.

4Fei-wen Liu told me (e-mail, July 6, 1995) that when she was doing fieldwork in the village of Heyuan in 1994 for her dissertation on nüshu, she worked closely with He Yanxin, who asked to borrow her copy of Zhao’s anthology so she could “make a copy of these stories, so I can read them when distressed.” Liu made photocopies of some of the changben renditions for her. This explains Zhao Liming’s report touting He Yanxin as a “natural nüshu tradition bearer.”

5 See appendix for the whole letter.

6 In fact, much of Gao Yinxian’s writing shows this incompleteness or incoherence; a good many of the texts she was writing by the time outsiders discovered nüshu in the 1980s were but snatches or fragments, sometimes those from disparate sources thrown together into a single work.

7 See appendix for the whole letter.

8 The most common term for same-age, same-sex friendships throughout China is laogeng, which in Jiangyong usually refers to the same-age relationships of males (Zhao 1995: 39). Yi Nianhua used the term tongnian interchangeably with laotong in both speech and writing; the far more common use of the term tongnian (same year) in traditional Chinese culture, from Tang times on, is to refer to men who took or passed the civil service exams in the same year.

9In their general discussion of age mate relationships, both Zhao (1995:39-40) and Chiang (19-20, 97, 101) insufficiently distinguish between laotong and sworn sisterhoods, and between the effect of nüshu literacy or illiteracy upon these relationships and the ways they were locally understood.

10 But it is difficult to know which aspects of the polysemous term qin (closeness, dearness, kin relation) are indicated here, or indeed, what the people of the nüshu area have in mind when they use this term. This line appears in a letter to the daughter of the writer’s mother’s brother, but it also appears in other letters that contain no such mention of a “kin” relationship. The line can be found at Zhao 1992: 409.

11While a pair of mandarin ducks connotes a happily married couple, it also refers to a pair of close brothers. The allusion comes from a poem attributed to the Han general Su Wu, bidding farewell to his brother: “We used to be as close as mandarin ducks, now we drift as far apart as the Shen and Shang stars.” I am grateful to Dorothy Ko (personal communication, December 30, 1993) for pointing this out.

12 See appendix for “Four Laotong in Pujia.”

13 What is now Jiangyong County was formed in 1955 from the addition to the historical Yongming fu of several districts from what is now Jianghua County.


15 For the wedding writing of girlhood sworn sisters, see chapter three. For the sworn sisterhood practices of older

i Condolence letter, Silber II: 161; reply letter Silber III: 9, Zhao: 830.

ii Xie, 1859.

iii Zhao, 19.

iv Gong

v Dorer, 89.

vi Zhao, 20-21.

vii Shorter versions can be found in Zhao 528-529.

viii Shang, 17-18.

ix Xie, 1868-1869.

x Tianxia laogeng diyi qin. See Xie 1991: 1875.

xi Zhao 1992: 420.

xii Dorer, 85-86.

xiii Dorer, 83.

xiv Dorer, 82.

xv Ibid.

xvi Dorer, 99.

xvii Dorer, 83-84.

xviii Dorer, 84.

xix The first set of letters, by Yi Nianhua, does not appear in any of the anthologies, but in Silber II:13-20. Of the second set, by Gao Yinxian, the invitation appears in Silber IV:34-39, and also, in a close version, in Zhao 1992:420-421; the reply appears in Silber IV:7-13, and also, in close versions, in Zhao 1992:418-420, and Xie 1991:473-483. Of the remaining five letters, two were penned by Yi Nianhua, and appear in Silber II:89 and Zhao 1992:415, and Silber I:1 and Zhao 1992:409. One was penned by Gao Yinxian, and appears in Zhao 1992:421. One was garnered and edited by Zhou Shuoqi and appears in Zhao 1992:436. The last, not entirely clear, was penned by Yang Huanyi and appears in Zhao 1992:448.

xxZhao 1992:418.

xxiSilber II:16

xxii Zhao 1992:422

xxiiiZhao 1992:449


xxvSilber II:15

xxvi Zhao 1992:410

xxvii Zhao 1992:419

xxviii Zhao 1992:422

xxix Zhao 1992:419

xxx Zhao 1992:409

xxxi Dorer, 85.

xxxii This is Yi Nianhua’s version; Silber I:111-112 and Zhao 1992:493-494. Gao Yinxian’s version appears in Xie 1991:615-622.

xxxiii Zhao, 846.

xxxiv Zhao 1995: 46-47, Dorer 1993: 87. All of the following information about the women Dorer interviewed comes from her 1993 thesis.



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