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.
Journalists are also pushing the death narrative around nushu – at least, they routinely are in reportage I’ve been able to access in English. That’s a limited sample, admittedly, but it’s a sample that works well for our purposes. That’s because English language sources have fed into each other in a limiting way, in a way that perpetuates the death narrative.
But let’s back up a bit. Western academics are not the only ones shoring up their own critical authority by downplaying that of nushu users. The thing about journalism, in the English speaking West at any rate, is that it routinely relies on tropes for its angles, dulling the specificities of a particular story. In the case of nushu, such journalists have largely jumped on the academic bandwagon and continued the language death narrative. There tends to be a relegation of nushu to ‘a time in China when most females were illiterate and considered the property of men,’ to quote the LA Times obituary for Yang Huanyi. This relegation does not only erase the contemporaneity of nushu’s use, it continues the very silencing and social powerlessness of nushu’s users it highlights. It’s the difference between highlighting misogyny and helping along with making women a voiceless monolith.
There’s another trope on which articles about nushu have tended to rely: the battle of the sexes. I’ve seen a number of articles which use for their angle the male scholars who have ‘embarked on a sweeping research project to analyse the writing and preserve it’ (that’s from a 1991 San Francisco Chronicle article by Andrew Quinn called “A Secret Language for Women”). Downplaying the preservation performed by female scholars and users, this angle sets up a gendered rivalry of claims to knowledge about nushu. If there’s ever an appropriate place for the battle of the sexes shock tactic, so common in Western journalism, this is not it.
The thing is that nushu is not, has never been, a secret women’s language that the mighty academics and journalists are only newly making accessible to men. Men have always been able to understand spoken nushu; they historically elected not to use the written form because they considered it inferior to hanzi characters. The gendering of nushu use has never been defined by power over the circulation of knowledge but by practice.
The strength of the shock tactic requires social privileging of media trends rather than a critical engagement with information sources beyond the boundaries and conventions of the media itself. And that’s where English language reportage on nushu gets really troubling. The obituaries I’ve read for Yang and nushu are remarkably similar in structure and content, and heavily rely on reportage from Xinhua, the Chinese government news agency. Articles like the LA Times one linked above emphasise Xinhua and scholarly sources and give little space to nushu quotes and user opinions. That’s pretty troubling considering the nature of what they’re reporting. With women’s sources given limited power and transmission, the journalists themselves create the language death they report. Only a few journalists, notably Jon Watts and Huang Lisha in The Guardian‘s 2005 ‘The forbidden tongue‘, challenge the death narrative by seeking interviews with ‘the women still using’ nushu.
It is in rendering nushu secret and its users silent that Western journalists construct it as dead.