When I run series about women in history, it’s usually about individuals, like Alice Mitchell or Sara Baartman. This time, however, I want to talk about the eliding of the history of a group of women, a group from the southern part of China’s Hunan province. These women are users of nushu, popularly known as the only language in the world thought to be exclusively spoken by women, but also a script and part of a culture of oral performance.
So, famous and celebrated, right? Well, kind of. An elderly woman named Yang Huanyi, widely considered to be nushu’s last speaker, died in 2004, and nushu is broadly thought to have died with her. This is curious as there are, well, still people using nushu. It’s also curious because such a conclusion asks you to accept the idea of language death, one presently in great focus in Western academic circles, and it also asks you to accept that a language can die with an individual. And we’ve also got to ask who is invested in declaring nushu dead, and why the fact that people are still using it doesn’t seem to matter to the wider world. To declare nushu dead seems to be to declare powerful external social forces the ultimate arbiters of what nushu users’ culture can be, and if it can be. So why the investment in declaring a women’s culture dead?
In this series, I’m going to take you through the trifecta of social forces declaring themselves such arbiters. In the Western academic realm, as I’ve mentioned, explorations into nushu’s history are shaped by the current great interest in language death. English language journalism has also played into the language death trend, largely prioritising governmental sources over speaker ones. And whether the Chinese government, in a given instance, declares nushu dead or not has been variable, depending on cultural and tourism policy. And where do nushu users themselves fit into all this?
I hope will you get something out of this series, not least companionship in my interest in women’s and Chinese history!