China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
This paper examines the symbolic pattern of Nüshu, the Women’s Script and its visual and imaginary metamorphosis via multifarious media—handcraft, music, dance, fiction, and film. Nüshu is a phonetic writing system that women of the northern Jiangyong County in Hunan used to transcribe the local Chinese variety known as Xiangnan Tuhua. Its syllabary comprises hundreds of italic written symbols that have derived from Chinese characters. Originally deployed as an encrypted script for women’s self-expression and emotional transaction, Nüshu was often written on feminine handcrafts like fans and handkerchiefs, to be gifted among female confidants. The materiality of the medium has largely shaped the symbolic pattern of Nüshu as succinct and stylistic. Allegedly, the pattern also mimics the gaits and gestures of a graceful and slender female figure. Nüshu scripts are fraught with loose rhymes and musical rhythms so that historically they were performed in citation and singing. The musicality and performativity of Nüshu are distilled and dramatized by contemporary artists such as Tan Dun and Li Haining in their works, which re-imagine the women’s script and re-evoke the female utopia through music and dance. Lisa See’s novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and its cinematic adaptation further orientalizes and iconizes Nüshu as a gendered Chinese script that empowers women to transgress social boundaries and to express homoerotic desire. I argue that, despite layers of mystification, the cultural origin and historical metamorphosis of Nüshu have configured an imagined literary realm for women’s social mobility and political agency.