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This is part of a series on the supposed death of nushu, considered to be the only language in the world spoken exclusively by women.

Between academic, journalistic, and governmental forces, there’s a whole lot of power invested in positioning nushu as alive or dead, whichever suits at a particular moment. So what of that group without much external influence at all, users themselves?

Because, contrary to news reports, nushu users are very much still with us. Some of them are older women, like Yang, who learned nushu as girls. But a fair few are women who have only started to learn it recently. If nushu can be called dead, then, or on the verge of it, the definition of dead needs to leave current usage unacknowledged.

And if death is a matter of stagnation? The use of nushu is hardly limited to conventional modes or its original culture. An artist, Lo Yuen-yi, displayed nushu-infused work at Lingnan University in 2005, after nushu was widely termed dead. Moreover, nushu has never only been tied to its written form. There’s also long been a culture congruent with the written form, incorporating oral performances including chanting, singing, and reciting poetry. Variety, it’s the spice of still being alive.

A good part of the problem is an individualist narrative, because that’s what ties the death of language to the death of individuals or the decline of particular forms, like written ones. I’ll explore how individualism functions here more fully in the next installment of this series. For now: an intertextual approach can help us displace thie individualist narrative. It’s particularly useful given the collaborative nature of nushu culture, and also because most nushu stories cannot be identified by author. To privilege the written form or particular users, like Yang, is to deaden understanding of how nushu exists as a multi-stranded form.

That’s not to mention that many examples of the written form have been preserved, including letters, wedding books, prayers, stories, verses, and much more. Nushu is hardly lost if its history, and the the specific content of those letters and so forth, are still with us. Nushu is only dead, then, if the ways in which it functions culturally – intertwined through users, forms, and the ages – goes unperceived. It’s certainly perceived by the users themselves, even if they lack the social power to declare its continued use to wider society.

Texts and talking function in all matter of ways. It’s in seeking those out that one can acknowledge the social and cultural specificity of usage that renders nushu still alive.

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