Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 1, September 1998
Crossing Gender Boundaries in China: Nüshu Narratives

Anne E. McLaren
  1. The discovery of a corpus of manuscripts written in an unknown script (nüshu) by women for their sworn sisters in an isolated area of rural China is one of the most intriguing discoveries in the field of Chinese popular culture during the 1980s. The nüshu manuscripts were (re)discovered in an isolated community in Jiangyong county in Hunan province in 1983. In 1991 Xie Zhimin and others published Chinese translations of nüshu writings, thus making this unique corpus accessible to researchers in the China field.[1]    

  2. Use of the nüshu script is specific to Shangjiangxh and adjacent areas, a hilly, remote area in northern Jiangyong county. Jiangyong is on the southern tip of Hunan province, on the border with Guangxi in south China. The indigenous population comprised a range of different non-Chinese tribal groups. With the advent of Han Chinese colonisation from the sixth century onwards, the area became sinicised but a 'substratum' of indigenous practices remained. Amongst these were practices of delayed marriage, where the bride returned to her natal village, until the birth of her first child when she removed permanently. During this period she paid her husband occasional visits. Other shared customs between Han Chinese and minority groups include age-mate relationships (sworn sisterhoods and brotherhoods), boys' and girls' houses, and a rich oral and festival culture reflecting the strength of age-mate networks.[2] In minority (non-Chinese) groups women had a higher social status and considerable sexual freedom, a freedom which becomes reduced the greater the sinification of the region. The vibrant woman's culture of Shangjiangxh is by no means unique in China, a similar phenomenon is known in the Canton delta and elsewhere[3] but the invention of a specific script to transcribe this culture is unique to the Shangjiangxh region.

  4. The discovery of nüshu performers and their texts gives rise to all sorts of tantalising questions. In recent years scholars of late imperial China have come to speak of the 'integrated' nature of China during this period, of China as a 'single complex cultural system'[4] or of an 'integrated hierarchical social order'.[5] It has become a commonplace of scholarship in the field to speak of Chinese culture, in the broad sense, as one which was a shared system of values, a common socio-ethical framework based on Confucianism in which all, including illiterate men and women, participated in one way or another.[6] The vast country was united, so it appeared, in sharing one written script, a script which could be learnt in isolation from any particular regional spoken language, and which, according to common wisdom, was a vital agent of cultural coherence. It is thus with a sense of shock that scholars learn of a community of women who, in their determination to have a form of communication as their sole preserve, invented and passed down a script of their own devising which they called 'women's writing' (nüshu) as distinct from Chinese character script which they called 'men's writing'. It was in nüshu script that these otherwise illiterate women recorded in verse their stories, poems, correspondence and reflections about their world.

  5. Nüshu material, including letters and wedding congratulations, is invariably written in verse. The colloquial verse form, replete with what specialists in oral literature term 'formulae' (repeated set phrases within a metrical unit), is the same as that used in oral performance of shuochang oral arts (song-prose forms) and their written derivatives (changben). A considerable part of nüshu writings were in fact recorded as part of actual performance by women at women's festivals guniang jie, chuiliang jie and winter rest periods,[7] or on the eve of a bride's marriage.

  7. The nüshu corpus, considered as text and performance, belongs to storytelling arts common throughout China from imperial times to the present day. The great popularity of these oral art forms in China and the wealth of texts written in imitation of these genres crossed gender lines and most social classes. Nonetheless, within the broad audience for oral art forms, both in performance and as texts, there were particular sub-genres, which were performed predominantly by women for a female audience. The Ming chantefable, for example, was strongly associated with household performance from the fifteenth century onwards, although before that time it was primarily a marketplace performance akin to drama. It was performed in affluent homes of the Jiangnan region to an audience consisting mainly of those who lived in the inner chambers: women, servants and children. Its significance lay in its function as household performance.[8] In the later imperial period the same kind of oral art form was known as the lute ballad. As texts lute ballads were the 'Mills and Boon' of the era and were enjoyed mainly by women.[9] Literati of the Qing period (1644-1911) condemned the influence of the 'romantic' and 'immoral' lute ballads on their susceptible womenfolk. The drum ballad of the north, on the other hand, tended to be on martial themes and was particularly popular with a male audience.

  9. To date nüshu material and its female practitioners has been intensively studied by Chinese scholars in such fields as linguistics and ethnic minority studies[10] and by American anthropologists William Chiang and Cathy Silber.[11] Literary scholar, Liu Shouhua has introduced nüshu narrative stories[12] and in an article forthcoming in Modern China, I deal with tales of chastity and abduction in nüshu writings.[13] My own interest in nüshu springs from my earlier studies of chantefables from the Ming period (1368-1643).[14] In many ways the verse ballad (chantefables) of this period were the precursors of the kind of material encoded in nüshu script centuries later.

  11. In this paper I will not be primarily concerned with the origin of the script nor the nüshu community as such (for details, see above studies) but will further develop the hypothesis that nüshu culture is a striking example of what I have called elsewhere a 'woman's line of oral transmission' in China, that is, a body of typical stories and formulae performed by generations of women which reflected their construction of Confucian orthodoxies.[15]

  13. For the researcher, the value of nüshu material lies precisely in its gender-specificity, which allows us insight into what is unequivocally the women's culture of a community. Men played no role in the production or dissemination of nüshu writings and with few exceptions, professed to be unable to read it.[16] Of course the dissemination of nüshu in printed form in the 1980s[17] is the result of the efforts of male Chinese scholars, but this is the first male intervention in the nüshu corpus. The nüshu writings are thus a pristine example of something belonging solely to the women of one specific locality. This makes the material of unique relevance to an audience interested in investigating non-elite women in traditional China. Virtually all extant texts based on or imitative of oral genres popular with women passed through the hands of male publishers. This is true of the chantefables of the Ming period and the lute ballads of the Qing. It is thus probably impossible to positively identify any such material which has been passed down to us in unmediated fashion in female transmission. In the case of the nüshu, however, one can clearly talk of a specifically feminine line of oral and written transmission.

  15. If, as I believe, there are parallels between the nüshu and related metrical genres, such as the Ming chantefables, can one speak of a specific female culture transmitted in the formulae and traditional motifs of oral performance and textual derivatives? Can one discern formulae or lexical items which are gender specific? If gender-nuanced formulae and stock material can be adduced from nüshu then what additional insights does this offer into the often-quoted 'integral' nature of the Chinese cultural system during the late imperial period (usually defined as c.1550 to 1911)? Did oral arts and their texts popular amongst women seek to resist or accommodate the neo-Confucian values predominant in society at large?

  17. I have earlier raised these issues in a discussion of notions of widow chastity (that is, the traditional custom that widows do not remarry). Here I will draw on a wider range of case studies to demonstrate how nüshu women constructed their own interpretations of Confucian norms, interpretations which diverged from the orthodoxy and enlarged the sphere of the possible for nüshu women. First, however, it is necessary to examine notions of women's voices or a woman's 'sphere'.

  19. In recent years, US scholars have paid particular attention to Chinese women's writings and correspondence of the late imperial period and have noted how women's literacy and literary writings often emerge within the context of mother-daughter relationships or female networks. Since very few women were literate, these studies are necessarily an investigation of elite women and their literary activity. A symposium of papers published in Late Imperial China is exemplary in this regard. Speaking of elite women, Charlotte Furth notes in her 'Introduction' that it might be more correct to talk of 'separate spheres' for men and women in China instead of the more 'holistic' notion of 'women's culture'.[18] The idea of 'separate spheres' allows one to focus on

    1. the activities and creations of women which men have had no special interest in, whether women's activities, rituals, crafts, social networks or domestic skills and points to activities of women marked as legitimate in a social/cultural division of labor approved by a patriarchal or other male-dominated orthodoxy.[19]

  20. In the case of elite women, they spent much of their lives within the inner chambers and were thus physically segregated from the outer male sphere of influence. A recent western work by Daphne Span called Gendered Spaces considers the layout of living quarters in various situations ranging from western homes to a Mongolian yurt. Her main hypothesis is that 'women and men are spatially segregated in ways that reduce women's access to knowledge and thereby women's lower status relative to men's. 'Gendered spaces' separates women from knowledge used by men to produce and reproduce power and privilege'.[20]

  22. But were separate spheres necessarily repressive of women? Dorothy Ko put forward a counter-thesis in her contribution to the Symposium volume:

      Women had as much a stake in the traditional social and familial order as did men. In Ming-Qing households, the innermost realm of the private sphere was the prerogative of women. The woman's quarters, tucked away in inconspicuous corners of the gentry housing compound, were off limits even to adults in the family. In facilitating the development of her self-image and identity as a woman, this cloistering had a positive effect on women's culture.... Here educated women did not feel the need to challenge the age-old ideology prescribing functional separation between the two sexes.[21]
  24. Ko here is talking primarily of elite women but one could ask this same question of women of the subordinate classes. Nüshu women, for instance, lived also in sexually-segregated households. They bound their feet and did not work in the fields but spent their days in weaving, sewing, cooking and domestic duties. Women participated in a rich tradition of women's festivals and rituals and constructed their own voluntary networks, known as sworn sisterhoods, where nüshu script was a major medium of communication. In the case of Shangjiangxu women, a gender-specific culture clearly thrived in this segregated milieu.

  26. As we have seen, critics differ on the question of whether the 'gendered spaces' of men and women in imperial times served to separate and repress women or to nurture their identity and confidence. In a later study on elite women of seventeenth China, Dorothy Ko stresses the continuum of space which women inhabited between the inner and outer domains,[22] while still continuing to stress the existence of a 'woman's culture'. In this case she is using the influential definition of 'women's culture' by Gerda Lerna: 'the familial and friendship networks of women, their affective ties, their rituals'.[23] In her multifaceted presentation of the 'women's culture' of seventeenth-century Chinese women, Ko acknowledges that she is using the term virtually interchangeably with 'communities of women'. She distinguishes three main women's communities: domestic (based on female relatives), social (women in a neighbourhood) and public (groups of women who formed associations and published their work).[24]

  28. Nüshu women, by contrast, were not 'literary', as were the elite female circles of Jiangnan, in fact nüshu women were only rarely literate in Chinese script. The type of literature exchanged by these rural women of Shangjiangxh was transcribed in the formulaic stanzas of oral ballads, not in the refined allusions of classical Chinese poetry. These rural women who celebrated their sworn sisterhoods and corresponded in nüshu script belonged to 'women's communities' and engaged in a rich 'women's culture' at least as vibrant as that of the literate and literary women of Jiangnan.

  30. Nüshu 'women's culture' differs from 'literary women's culture', however, in significant respects. When Dorothy Ko's Jiangnan women created their own expressive culture they wrote within the confines of a language and literary genres constructed by men. Ko notes that they were sometimes grudgingly admitted into male circles 'as substitute or honorary men' and notes further: 'The fact that the Chinese literary tradition consisted almost entirely of writings by men meant that the woman writer had to be initiated into a world in which she had no rightful place and no distinct voice'.[25] For example a talented sixteen-year-old girl from Suzhou wrote a poetic eulogy to bound feet along conventional lines.[26] Furth observes that for elite women who composed poetry or correspondence in classical Chinese it is difficult to demarcate the point of 'separation' from the male sphere: 'as writers, women had to define themselves in terms of a long established canonical literary tradition'.[27]

  32. The implication is that women were thus circumscribed by the need to master and compose within a canon that embodied the male literati tradition. The same phenomenon has been noticed in the west. For example, Queen Elizabeth wrote sonnets about her own emotions in the cliched Petrarchan manner of her courtiers.[28] Furth concludes her discussion of elite women writers on a modest note. One can talk of 'women's voices' but possibly not a 'women's culture'. Whether these voices should be seen as an integral part of the literati class or as a marginalised and segregated component of it is open to contention.[29]

  34. Was this process of accommodation to dominant norms characteristic also of women's orally-transmitted culture and derivative texts? It is instructive to take the most obvious symbol of women's subordination (or erotic allure), foot-binding, as an example here. In Ming chantefables and nüshu stories I have not come across anything akin to a literary paean to the erotic allure of bound feet although it is common to list 'lotus feet' as one of the desirable attributes of the stereotypical beauty. As we have noted, nüshu practitioners did bind their feet and for this reason did not work in the fields, preferring a more confined existence inside their homes. If chantefables and nüshu narratives are any guide, these non-learned women did not value bound feet in the same way as Ko's literary women. On the contrary, in Ming chantefables and nüshu writings one commonly finds bound feet depicted as an impediment to the actions of women. In one Ming chantefable wife Zhang wants to go to Kaifeng to present a grievance to the good Judge Bao but finds it very hard going on her tiny feet. Fortunately the Wisdom Great White Star comes to her aid in the guise of a barrow seller of hogs heads. He simply places wife Zhang in the barrow and mounts the sky to fly her to Kaifeng.

    Wife Zhang, unable to walk to the courtroom of Judge Bao in her tiny bound feet, is borne through the air in a barrow by the Great White Gold (Venus) Star who is here disguised as a seller of hogs' heads.

    In the early years of the twentieth century, when reformers sought to liberate Chinese women from bound feet, the ballad and song were an obvious medium to propagate the new idea. Around 1905 a woman teacher in a girl's school composed and performed a song 'Setting free the feet' fang zu ge.[30]

  36. The oral culture of Chinese women is a neglected area of research and could potentially teach us much about how unlearned women constructed their world and interpreted Confucian norms. One can catch tantalising glimpses of the 'women's line of oral transmission' in the works of Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, who have mythologised and crafted latterday masterpieces from the yarns spun by their mothers and aunts. In Wild Swans, Jung Chang presents this anecdotal evidence of an oral 'woman's tradition' as related to her by her grandmother, then living in Harbin with a Manchurian husband:
      Every now and then she and her friends would put on an old Manchu performance for themselves, playing hand drums while they sang and danced. The tunes they played consisted of very simple, repetitive notes and rhythms, and the women made up the lyrics as they went along. The married women sang about their sex lives, and the virgins asked questions about sex. Being mostly illiterate, the women used this as a way to learn about the facts of life. Through their singing, they also talked to each other about their lives and their husbands, and passed on their gossip.. 

      My grandmother loved these gatherings, and would often practice for them at home. She would sit on the kang shaking the hand drum with her left hand and singing to the beat, composing the lyrics as she went along.[31]
  37. What Jung Chang is describing is a case of orally-transmitted culture passed down by generations of women in a relatively unmediated way. This passage is also very revelatory of the characteristics of orally-transmitted culture in general, which is the next topic to be examined here. The rhythms and rhymes are very simple and repetitive for easy comprehension, recitation and memorisation.

  39. Scholars of oral literature have investigated the main 'technology' of oral culture (as a form of communication different from the manuscript or printed text.[32] Folk oral performance is extempore and related to a particular context (eg.women seated around a kang [a heated bed] in winter. The performer relies on a formula that is repeated units, which the community imbibes unconsciously from constant listening to ballads from earliest childhood. Textual derivatives from Chinese oral genres have been found to be highly formulaic, usually in hemistich form (ie half a line). In the case of nüshu, 'formulae' can frequently be of two full lines in length, eg.

        When a partner seeks me it is easy as finding water in the mountainside,
        But when I seek a partner, it is as difficult as finding a cool breeze in mid-summer.

    Another example:
        Once I lived in the home of my parents (inner chambers)
        In tears I married away from home, my heart as if cut with a knife.
  41. Jung Chang's grandmother enjoyed the raunchy songs which used a treasurehouse of formulaic sayings to convey women's lore about love, sex and marriage. In other words the shared ballads transmitted what was considered significant in that community. Scholars of oral literature and of orally-transmitted Greek epics have noted that in pristine oral cultures (cultures without writing), epic verse was one of the main 'technologies' for the transmission of the 'cultural lore' of the civilisation. Epic verse fulfilled an 'encyclopaedic function' in encapsulating in memorable formulaic units items of cultural knowledge, from abstract notions of governance to everyday items of shipping technology.[33] Oral culture provided a way of transmitting what Fentress and Wickham term a 'social memory', that is 'a memory attached to a membership of social groups of one kind or another'.[34] In oral cultures key events and norms are transmitted in ways which are concrete rather than abstract, sequential rather than causal and conventional rather than original.[35]

  43. In societies with writing and a print culture, like that of China, the role of oral culture is more 'interstitial' in nature in the words of Jack Goody. This refers to the process of marginalisation as prestigious written culture takes over the key items of knowledge in a society: the histories, the sacred stories and the philosophical classics. Myth, legend, the folktale and the epic continue to flourish amongst the unlettered but are scorned by the elite.[36]

  45. Goody's insight is apposite for the Chinese situation as well. As writing and print culture steadily came to dominate Chinese culture at all levels in the late imperial period, the status accorded orally-transmitted narratives and songs and even the scope and content of this material gradually narrowed and was to a greater or lesser extent influenced by the dominant print culture. Nüshu material, at any rate, deals not with epic heroes and affairs of state but with the private 'interstices' of life. As is inevitable in a civilisation dominated by the written word, nüshu also shows the influence of classical Chinese culture, albeit in a muted form. For example, some of the simplest and most-loved Chinese quatrain-style poems in classical Chinese have been translated directly into nüshu: Li Bai's 'Quietly Thinking at Night' and Wang Zhihuan's 'Mounting Crane Tower' (pp.1699-1770). As well there is a nüshu rendition of The Woman's Classic (Nh`er jing), an anonymous work passed down through the centuries consisting of simple rhymed lines. The Woman's Classic encapsulates a strictly Neo-Confucian code of decorum for women:

        The four-syllabic Women's Classic
        Will teach you wisdom.
        Young girls, to behave as [good] women,
        Do not leave the inner chamber,
        When you smile do not show your teeth
        When you sit do not incline your body,
        Be soft and careful in what you say,
        Never raise your voice
        Comb your hair smartly
        And put effort into washing and starching
        Do not apply rouge
        Keep yourself fresh and pure
        Learn how to use the needle and weave,
        Be diligent in your endeavours
        Learn paper cutting and sewing hemp
        Masters all the [female] crafts
        Sleep at nightfall and rise at dawn
        When you retire to bed bind your feet
        Arrange your attire with care
        Before you leave the bedroom.
        Make the fire in the hearth
        And keep warm tea at the ready,
        As for your father and uncles,
        Respect them with due etiquette
        When you carry them plates and offer them tea,
        In passing and fetching do not be too intimate
        Treat your husband as your superior
        Take care to respect him well (pp. 1693-7).
  47. Texts like the above tend to put into question the notion that nüshu and other women's oral art forms operated as a distinct line of transmission outside the dominant ideology. Clearly there is no indivisible divide between written/elite culture and oral/popular culture nor between male/female culture. Nonetheless, there is scope for divergency of transmission of cultural norms and values and this divergency could be gender-based to an extent which needs to be determined. In this paper I will examine two nüshu narratives which treat a popular fantasy of traditional tales in China: the woman who becomes a man, either through Buddhist transcendence or through cross-dressing.


    Crossing Gender Boundaries

  49. The two stories discussed here are known in various forms in mainstream Han Chinese culture, but in the nüshu narratives they have been appropriated in a woman's line of oral transmission which reinterprets orthodox norms.

  51. The story of Wife Wang (Wangshi nh) (pp.1362-1490) provides a striking demonstration of perceptions of male and female 'pollution' and of how one virtuous wife manages to 'save' her husband and family and transcend the world to a Buddhist nirvana. But in order to do this she has to change her gender. Wife Wang is a woman of exemplary Buddhist piety. She does not eat fish or meat and recites the sutras for hours every day, especially the Diamond Sutra. She is given in an arranged marriage by her unsympathetic parents to a butcher, the lowest category of occupations in the Buddhist canon. She constantly begs her husband not to slaughter animals and warns him of retribution in the world to come. The butcher gives a pointed justification of his activities: his family has been butchers for generations and he must earn his living in order to buy land:

      You recite the Diamond Sutra and you will be favoured
      I will slaughter pigs and sheep and suffer for the crime.' (Lines 47-8).
  53. In any case there is pollution everywhere; when men sleep naked they cause offence, when women put on oil and powder this too is a sin. Both boys and girls commit sins; if you pour water in a ditch you make the God of the Eaves dirty, if you pour it on the rice fields you taint the moon and stars, if you pour it beneath the bed then the spirit of the earth is unhappy. He itemises a long list of everyday activities which cause offence to one or another deity, for example, in the first month if you draw water at the river you offend the Dragon King of the Seas (lines 83-4). The wife responds that her guilt is great because she shares a dwelling and a bed with a butcher. He tests her knowledge of the Diamond Sutra and finds she is word perfect. He then agrees to allow her to remain celibate while still living in the same residence. Wife Wang takes a room of her own, puts on religious clothes and spends her days in ritual devotion. Meanwhile the King of the Underworld sends out spirits to seek out the virtuous in the world of mankind. They spot Wife Wang and bid her come to the Underworld to read the Diamond Sutra. She knows this means she must now die and begs to live until her children are mature. When they refuse she stoically washes herself ritually and farewells her family. She bids her husband take another wife and tells her children to obey the second wife. Once the farewells are finished she falls down and dies, to the astonishment of the husband. Her funeral is described and also the progress of her soul through the torments of the Underworld. She overcomes all tribulations with the force of her great virtue. The King of the Underworld informs her that her life will be cut short because she left out nine words in her recitation of the Diamond Sutra. However, as reward for her piety, he allows her to return to the world as a baby boy. She is born into the home of an official and her real name is imprinted on his/her foot.

  55. Her life as a man is an exemplary one which very few could achieve in traditional China. She excels at her studies and attains the rank of Principal Graduate. However, she/he is unwilling to retain the position of a man and tells the Emperor his/her true story, begging to retain to his/her native village. Wife Wang is allowed to return home in official costume where she reveals the writing on her foot and declares she is really his wife. She declares she no longer wishes to be a Principal Graduate but simply to be his wife. The family opens her tomb and at that moment the Jade Emperor emerges and allows the entire family to transcend this world to the Buddhist nirvana.

  57. The unequivocal moral of this story is that a woman who attains the highest peak of morality and pious devotion can be the medium of salvation for her 'polluted' husband and indeed, her entire family. In this story the traditional view of innate female inferiority is overturned; a strong woman protagonist constructs a woman-centred view of Buddhist soteriology which relies on female virtue. In this gender-crossing, women demonstrate they are as intelligent and talented as their male counterparts, but they nonetheless do not wish to become men and wish for nothing other than a return to wifely duties.

  59. The story of Wife Wang is a didactic Buddhist tale. The next nüshu narrative discussed here is entirely different in style. It is composed in a coarse comic vein reminiscent of medieval fabliau tales or the ribaldry and wit of Rabelais. The nüshu narrative contains a rendition of the well-known story of maiden, Zhu Yingtai, who wants to get an education. To the horror of her family she runs away, dresses up as a young male scholar and goes to school in a nearby town. In imperial China only young men had opportunities of this kind. The extract translated below, shows how maid Zhu, as a young scholar, becomes best buddies with a young man, Liang Shanbo, who does not realise that his handsome companion is actually a woman. The episode where she sleeps with him on the same couch while preserving her virginity is the centre-piece of the story, which ends in the tragic death of both. Salacious episodes of this kind were very popular in renditions of this story but embarrass twentieth-century scholars. For example, Zeng Yongyi, leading Taiwanese scholar, has dismissed these uncouth elements which besmirch the 'honesty and virtue' of the male lover, Liang Shanbo.[37]

  61. The following episode takes place after Zhu Yingtai has met Liang Shanbo. The couple travel together to the big city of Hangzhou where they make their way to the Hall of Confucius and make their obeisances to the teachers as their 'parents'. By day they sit next to each other on the bench and by night they share a common bed and coverlet.

      At night time Yingtai slept in full attire,
      Before mounting the bed she did not takeoff her gown,
      It was then Shanbo suspected who she really was,
      He thought Yingtai must be a girl.
      'If you're not someone's precious daughter,
      How come you're unwilling to shed your clothes?
      If you're my friend take off your clothes tonight,
      What's wrong with sleeping in the nude?'
      Yingtai replied to Shanbo,
      'Older brother, listen to what I have to say,
      My parents know how to tailor clothes
      And they have made this gown for me.
      There are twenty-four strands on the vest,
      And they used twelve pairs of willow silk needles.'
      In the evening she wore her clothes till the fifth watch,
      And from the fifth watch until day light,
      On the morn she washed her clothes.
      The next day she rose early to recite her books,
      [That evening she said]
      'If you wish me to strip off my clothes,
      Then place four bowls of cold water all around me,
      If any drops of water should spill in the night,
      Then you will get forty strokes of the rod,
      As well the other students will beat you,
      Then won't you be utterly terrified!'
      Shanbo was so frightened by this
      He didn't dare turn his head till daybreak.
      She slept till midnight when she had to pee,
      Yingtai stayed where she was and did not leave the room.
      She said these words to Shanbo,
      'Brother, listen to what I have to say,
      People of learning revere Heaven and Earth,
      Above are the sun, moon and the Three Constellations,
      In daytime immortals and deities pass over,
      At night time the stars and planets shine in the firmament,
      If you stand up to pee, you're just like horses and oxen,
      But those who squat low are true lads of Heaven.'
      When Yingtai made her toilet and washed her face,
      Soap in hand she rubbed her breasts,
      Exposing a fine pair of 'fragrant milkies',
      A pair of milk-smooth boobs, white as frost,
      Yingtai then said to Shanbo,
      Brother, listen to what I have to say,
      If you have big breasts this is a sign of good fortune,
      It's a sign of ill-luck to lack a fine bosom.
      At this Liang Shanbo was convinced,
      In agreement was he so they continued on together.
  63. Scholars have noticed that in renditions of this popular story, the audience has always been more interested in the sheer mechanics of how a young woman managed to pass herself off as a young man than the rest of the story. For these audiences the core element of the tale is precisely the story of how at school they shared a room together and the same bed. This was often the longest scene in the story and included many juicy details beloved of the audience. For example, the 'young man' in question insisted that a bowl of water should be placed in the middle of the bed and neither one could spill it or a fine would be imposed. The maiden's careful attempt to avoid displaying her female shape is elaborated with loving detail. When the same story was told at elite level, however, the story was refashioned to demonstrate maiden Zhu's 'proper conduct' in preserving her virginity.[38] In the early twentieth century, under the influence of western feminist movements, Zhu Yingtai was reimagined as a heroine who stood up to the harsh restrictions of traditional propriety (lijiao).

  65. The nüshu rendition given above, with its wealth of comic detail about the maiden's 'milky breasts' parallels the raunchy renditions observed in Chinese villages in the 1920s. It is a wildly comic piece which in tongue-in-cheek fashion celebrates women's urination by giving it a form of (sham) ideological significance: women do not stand up like the beasts of the field but bend low to earth, here given metaphysical significance as the yin component of Heaven, the yang principle.

  67. This reminds us that even a natural act such as urination has the potential for varying social constructions. Camille Paglia notes that the ancient Egyptians were scoffed at in later ages for 'urinating like women'. Paglia herself is guilty of an unreflective presentation of a view of urination, which is not so much 'natural' as 'male constructed'.

      Concentration and projection are remarkably demonstrated by urination, one of male anatomy's most efficient compartmentalizations. Freud thinks primitive man preened himself on his ability to put out a fire with a stream of urine.... Male urination really is a kind of accomplishment, an arc of transcendence. A woman merely waters the ground she stands on....[39]
  69. In contrast to the Freud/Paglia interpretation, in nüshu, heroine Zhu Yingtai cleverly convinces Liang Shanbo that those who squat to urinate on the ground are 'true lads of Heaven', whereas those who 'stand to pee' are just like beasts of burden. This is surely intended as a hilarious tongue-in-cheek comment, one of the ribald crudities comments so distasteful to those Chinese scholars who like to herald the nationalistic importance of popular culture. This note of mockery does not detract from the specifically pro-woman construction of urination presented here.

  71. A larger study would compare the passages where Zhu deceives Liang into believing she is really a man in a range of genres in Han culture. Suffice it to say that crude and bawdy passages occur in drum ballads and similar genres extant from the late imperial period.[40] Certainly both men and women enjoyed this tale. The issue here is one of specific interpretation within one community. Do the nüshu or women's orally-transmitted arts in general present this tale with inventive appropriations and recreations of the familiar material? The attempt by nüshu performers and composers to relate women's urination to the cosmological principles of Heaven and Earth (and implicitly to yin and yang, the female and male principles respectively, is a crucial point. Jacques Revel, in his discussion of the world-upside down motif so common to the European carnival tradition, notes that male-female cross-dressing is not necessarily 'an image of protest'. The female wearing trousers beating the hen-pecked husband is presented as an item in a catalogue of natural absurdities: 'sexual inversion is portrayed alongside natural inversions (the sea changing places with the sky; the sun shining at night; things being shown upside down; lambs chasing wolves)'.[41] Revel concludes that these inversions instead of subverting the social order confirm it by their very absurdity: inversion of the social order is thus 'unthinkable'.

  73. The contrast here with nüshu and, I believe, other orally-transmitted material, is that they can indeed present the 'unthinkable'. One could find examples in Ming chantefables that present an explicitly feminine understanding of cosmological principles at odds with the male-dominant one of orthodoxy. For example, in Ming fifteenth-century chantefable of country boy, Xue Rengui, who departs to fight for the emperor, his wife Liu Jinding farewells from him with these words:

      Liu Jinding bowed to him and spoke at length,
      She advised her husband with words of reassurance
      Heaven belongs to yang and Earth to yin, thus they meet and match,
      In the world of man people are born when men and women marry,
      King Pan Gu divided all beneath Heaven and dynasties followed,
      The Three Monarchs and Five Emperors reigned in succession.
    She then goes on to recall their early life of poverty and warns him of the perils of his journey and his duties to her:

      Now you leave to join the army, be careful in the world outside,
      Do not lust after flowers or be besotted with wine, do not fall in love,
      If you pluck flowers, get drunk with wine and sleep midst flower buds and willows
      Then in secret someone will come and murder you.
      If you cast me off, young as I am, I will spend my days alone.
      Respect me and I will respect you, we will love each other as husband and wife.
    ('Xue Rengui zheng Liao gushi')
  75. In the fifteenth-century chantefable the reference to cosmological principles here reflects a particularly popular interpretation of the heavenly-ordained significance of marriage. The stress on the complementarity of yin and yang had been superseded by the tenth century if not sooner by the idea of hierarchy along the lines of 'Heaven (male) is high and Earth (female) is low'.[42] Bold wifely injunctions of this sort are entirely absent in other renditions of the tale of Xue Rengui in popular literature of the Ming period.

  77. In this study I have put the view that the nüshu corpus offer fascinating insights into the culture of one particular community of women in twentieth-century China. Although the script is unique, nüshu material is a striking example of a vibrant women's line of transmission which can be traced back five centuries to chantefables performed to female audiences. Unlearned women clearly had a 'technology of the word' or line of oral transmission (in the influential notion of Walter Ong) which allowed them to create, transmit and preserve in written form a gender-specific tradition which diverged significantly from elite culture generally, including the culture of elite women. Although some nüshu material transmits traditional Confucian norms (for example, women's instructional texts) other sub-genres such as narratives allow scope for the active manipulation of Confucian notions of fixed gender roles. The richness and sheer divergency of nüshu material puts into question any monolithic constructions of China in the late imperial period as 'integrated' within one Confucian orthodoxy. In later studies much more attention will need to be paid to how particular communities, such as the women of Shangjiangxh, actively inherited, transmitted and recreated traditions which paralleled but did not always coincide with elite orthodoxies.


    [1] Xie Zhimin, Jiangyong `nüshu' zhi mi, Henan Renmin chubanshe, 3 Vols., 1991.

    [2] Chiang, William Wei, 'We Two Know the Script: We have become good friends: linguistic and social aspects of the women's script literacy in southern Hunan', Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1991; Cathy Silber, 'From daughter to daughter-in-law in the women's script of southern Hunan', in Christina K. Gilmartin et al, (eds), Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 47-68.

    [3] Marjorie Topley, 'Marriage Resistance in Rural Kwangtung', in Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke, (eds), Women in Chinese Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975; Janice Stockard, Daughters of the Canton Delta: Marriage Patterns and Economic Change in South China, 1860-1930, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989; Rubie Watson, 'Girls, Houses and Working Women: Expressive Culture in the Pearl River Delta, 1900-1941', in Maria Jaschok & Suzanne Miers, (eds), Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude and Escape, London: Zed Books, 1994, pp. 25-44.

    [4] David Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan & Evelyn S. Rawski, (eds), 'Introduction', in Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, Berkeley: University of California, 1985, p. xiii.

    [5] Daniel Overmyer, 'Attitudes toward the ruler and state in Chinese popular religious literature: sixteenth and seventeenth century pao-chhan', Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44:2 (1984) 359.

    [6] Kwang-Ching Liu, (ed.), Orthodoxy in Late Imperial China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. See particularly Liu's Introduction, 'Socioethics as orthodoxy: a perspective', pp. 53-102.

    [7] Xie, Jiangyong, Vol. 3, p. 1860.

    [8] Anne E. McLaren, 'The Discovery of Chinese Chantefable Narratives from the Fifteenth-century: a reassessment of their likely audience', Ming Studies, 29 (1990) 1-30; Anne E. McLaren, 'Household Performances and Ritual in Popular Texts from Ming China', Proceedings of the 15th International Symposium on Asian Studies Conference, Hong Kong: Center for Asian Studies, 1995, pp. 155-64.

    [9] Zheng Zhenduo, Zhongguo suwenxue shi, 1938, reprint Taiwan: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1978, pp. 352-83.

    [10] 0 Zhao Liming & Gong Zhebing, Nüshu-yige jing ren de faxian, Wuhan: Huadong shifan daxue press, 1990; Xie, Jiangyong.

    [11] Chiang, 'We Two Know the Script'; Silber, 'From daughter to daughter-in-law'.

    [12] Liu Shouhua, 'Hunan Jiangyong `nüshu*zhong de minjian xushi wenxue', Minjian wenxue luntan, 1:13-17, translated by Liu Shouhua and Hu Xiaoshen, 'Folk Narrative Literature in Chinese Nüshu: an Amazing Discovery', Asian Folklore Studies, 53 (1994) 307-8.

    [13] Anne McLaren, 'Women's Voices and Textuality: Chastity and Abduction in Chinese Nüshu Writing', Modern China, forthcoming.

    [14] McLaren, 'The Discovery of Chinese Chantefable Narratives' and McLaren, 'Household Performances and Ritual in Popular Texts from Ming China'.

    [15] McLaren, 'Women's Voices'.

    [16] Zhao and Gong, Nüshu, p. 9; Xie, Jiangyong, Vol. 3, p. 1859.

    [17] Charlotte Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture in Late Imperial China: Editor's Introduction', Late Imperial China, 13:1 (June 1992) 1-2.

    [18] Charlotte Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture in Late Imperial China: Editor's Introduction', Late Imperial China, 13:1 (June 1992):1-2.

    [19] Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture in Late Imperial China: Editor's Introduction', Late Imperial China, 13:1 (June 1992): 2.

    [20] Daphne Span, Gendered Spaces, Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Pess, 1992.

    [21] Dorothy Ko, 'Pursuing Talent and Virtue: Education and Women's Culture in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century China', Late Imperial China, 13:1 (June 1992): 9-39.

    [22] Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994, p. 13.

    [23] Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, p. 14.

    [24] Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, pp. 15-6.

    [25] Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, p. 18.

    [26] Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, pp. 167-8.

    [27] Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture', p. 2.

    [28] K.Ruthven, Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 125.

    [29] Furth, 'Poetry and Women's Culture', p. 2.

    [30] Qin Shourong, 'Jindai Wuxi diqu shi xin xiaodiao de lishi gongneng', Zhongguo minjian wenhua, 4 (1991) 164.

    [31] Jung Chang, Wild Swans, London: Harper Collins, 1992, pp. 75-6.

    [32] Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word, London & New York: Methuen, 1982.

    [33] Eric Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and its Cultural Consequences, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.

    [34] J.Fentress & C. Wickham, Social Memory, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, p. 1.

    [35] Fentress and Wickham, Social Memory, p. 57.

    [36] Jack Goody, The Interface Between the Written and the Oral, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. xiv-xv.

    [37] Zeng Yongyi, Shuo su wenxue, Taipei: Lianjing chubanshe, 1980, p. 125.

    [38] Hung Chang-tai, Going to the People: Chinese Intellectuals and Folk Literature, Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 1985.

    [39] Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Neferti to Emily Dickinson, Yale University and Penguin Books, 1991, pp. 20-1.

    [40] Lu Gong, Liang Zhu gushi shuochang ji, Shanghai: Guji chubanshe, 1985.

    [41] Jacques Revel, 'Masculine and Feminine: the Historiographical Use of Sexual Roles', 1984, in M. Perrot, (ed.) Writing Women's History, trans. F. Pheasant, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, p. 99.

    [42] Liu, 'Socioethics', pp. 5-102.

    Other Nüshu Websites.

    Anne McLaren and Shibuya Iwane's review of Endo Orie's text Chūgoku no onnamoji
    [Chinese Women's Script], in Issue 2 of Intersections.

    Orie Endo's Nüshu website

    An excellent annotated bibliography on female literacy, reading and writing in China, as well as Nüshu, can be found on Barend J. ter Haar's website.



This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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