Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 2, May 1999
Endo Orie

Chūgoku no onnamoji
[Chinese Women's Script]

Tokyo: Sanichi Shobo, 1997, 175 pp.
ISBN 4-380-96240-7

reviewed by
Anne McLaren & Shibuya Iwane

  1. This volume by Endo Orie is a welcome addition to the growing body of works in the extraordinary script known as Women's Script or nüshu which is used by peasant women in remote villages in Jiangyong county, Hunan province in China. Women's script, as it is known to its practitioners, is a phonetic script quite distinct from Chinese character script. It comprises about seven hundred graphs representing the sounds of Jiangyong dialect (also known as Xiangnan tuhua). Women's script came to international attention only in the early 1990s, after its (re) discovery by Chinese ethnographers in the 1980s. Very few practitioners remain. Endo expresses deep concern that Women's Script will vanish from active use before the phenomenon has been thoroughly investigated.
  2. Endo Orie, a professor in the Department of Literature of Bunkyō daigaku is an accomplished scholar in Japanese language and language education with a research interest in gender differentiation in language. The Women's Script of China first came to her notice in 1992 when she came across an introductory article in Japanese. Subsequently she wrote to Zhao Liming, the female linguistics scholar based at Beijing's Qinghua University, who has made a very significant contribution to Women's Script study. With Zhao's assistance she made four trips to Jiangyong from around 1993-1995. Her book is based on first-hand observations of the area together with interviews with women practitioners, their families and local ethnographers. Additionally she includes a lot of Women's Script material in Japanese translation, including some autobiographies that give a graphic account of Japanese atrocities in the area during WWII.The book is enriched by many photos, diagrams and maps of the region.
  3. Endo is not a sinologist and is apparently unaware of western scholarship such as the substantial studies by anthropologists William Chiang and Cathy Silber. Her book is written in a clear and accessible style for the general public in Japan, where it deserves a wide readership, not least for its poignant renditions of Women's Script material exposing the suffering of Jiangyong women under Japanese occupation. But Chūgoku no onnamoji has much to interest anyone with an interest in women's oral and material culture and is of relevance to those interested women's studies generally, linguistics, Chinese history and anthropology.
  4. The book is divided into six main chapters as follows: The discovery of Women's Script, Jiangyong region and the transmission of Women's Script, How Women learnt Women's Script, The Origin of Women's Script, Styles of Women's Script and Content of Women's Script material. The major strength of Endo's research is the lengthy interviews she conducted many with practitioners and local ethnographers not included in other accounts. From her detailed reports of these individuals, one can glean further insights into the practice and function of this remarkable script. Zhou Shouyi, for example, is a rare example of a local man who took an interest in Women's Script. He first came across examples of the script in his father's diary. His father, a school teacher, had written down examples given to him by his sister, who had married into a region of Jiangyong where Women's Script was in circulation. Zhou explains that it was customary for brides from educated households at the time of marriage to take with them some poems containing counsel for brides on appropriate behaviour in their new homes. In this case, Zhou's aunt had recited the poems to the women in her new village and they had in turn recorded this in Women's Script. This gives us an insight into how items from Han culture were translated into Women's Script and how the script was introduced to women marrying into the area.
  5. Endo also travelled to a number of villages not surveyed by Zhao Liming and discovered practitioners and evidence of the past circulation of this script in areas beyond the area usually considered as the site of Women's Script (that is, the Shangjiangxu region). In these cases, women from Shangjiangxu who married outside their own region brought material in Women's Script to outlying areas. She also noticed the influence of local architecture on the types of communities that nurtured Women's Script. In this remote region, houses were crowded together at the foothills of mountains. Individual houses are divided by a maze of tiny paths. Apparently this was part of defensive arrangements against bandit gangs that used to rampage in the area. Houses had two storeys and the top floor was devoted to women's work. She notes that this top room (referred to often in Women's Script material) has a lattice window facing the street. One could speculate on how this sort of architecture aided women's participation in their community and bonding with other women. In Han Chinese culture generally women were confined to the 'side chambers' of the house, which in affluent households would be entirely enclosed by a wall. The Jiangyong arrangement allowed for a greater sense of intimacy with the community as a whole and provided a focal point for women's work and oral performance. It was also the place where bonds of sisterhood were forged and celebrated.
  6. Endo, together with other scholars, sees Women's Script as an intrinsic part of the environment which nurtured the emergence of sworn sisterhoods. English-speaking readers will be familiar with this aspect of Jiangyong society from Cathy Silber's work. Girls could swear oaths of sisterhood from the age of ten. They toiled on women's work with sworn sisters (weaving, sewing and embroidery), celebrated special women's festivals together and farewelled sisters on their marriage and departure to another village. Women's Script was written on fans, handkerchiefs and paper. It could be used as an invitation to be a sworn sister, to express sorrow at parting on the occasion of a wedding and for recitation in front of female cultic figures in local temples. As many scholars have noted, Women's Script is composed mostly in verse and deals with the expression of grievance and sorrow at women's lot in life. Through the medium of Women's Script women forged bonds of sympathy and consolation.
  7. Endo provides information on the little-known cultic uses of Women's Script, particularly the cult centring on the two Tan sisters, who met their deaths in mysterious circumstances and were subsequently worshipped as immortals. She gives us an example of a typical prayer written at the women's temple (niangniang miao): 'Please have mercy on me/ Please transform me into a man.' She also illuminates the gendered nature of festivals in this region. The Bull-fighting festival, for instance, was derived from the Yao ethnic group, the indigenous people of this region. It was a male festival which excluded women but the women used to meet at this time and conduct their own festival. Ultimately, as the area underwent sinicisation, the bull-fighting gradually ceased but the women's festival, where Women's Script narratives and songs were performed, continued until recent decades.
  8. The section on wedding rituals will be of particular interest to many readers. According to Endo, the sworn sisters of the bride help prepare the dowry in the months leading up to the wedding. On the days before the bride's departure, there is an elaborate performance involving a band, comic skits and women's songs using Women's Script material. This ceremony takes place before the family altar and the ancestral tablets. This is a rare example of the use of Women's Script material in a public performance before a mixed audience.
  9. Endo conducted lengthy interviews with the few surviving practitioners and provides translations of much autobiographical material composed in Women's Script. This material provide an invaluable insight into the everyday lives of Jiangyong women. It appears that in the twentieth century certain aspects of the practice of Women's Script came to imitate Han educational practices generally. For example, in her old age, Yi Nianhua taught the script to about twenty women in a classroom. Another elderly practitioner, Yang Huanxuan, actually paid money to be taught Women's Script during the early part of the twentieth century. Another woman served as a sort of Women's Script scribe who could compose customised 'Third Day Wedding Celebrations' for a fee. Prior to the introduction of these practices, Women's Script would have been taught in much more intimate settings, such as the in the upper room while sewing or weaving or in the shade of a tree. One such example given is that of He Yanxin, who was taught by her grandmother. The latter would sing a phrase while writing it on her palm or with a twig in the earth. He Yanxin has left us an account of this learning experience, translated into Japanese by Endo: 'I often saw my grandmother cry [as she wrote]/ I would weep together with her/ I asked her why she cried so much/ She said I knew not of her pain.'
  10. With regard to the issue of why Women's Script developed in this region but not elsewhere in China, Endo summarises the argument of Zhao Liming who notes the isolation of the region, the strong bonds of sisterhood, possible Yao influence and so on. She also adds that the indifference of men towards these activities and the lack of any attempt to suppress them was also an important factor. One could add to this that there is evidence that men regarded Women's Script in a positive light and superior practitioners were regarded as women of talent.
  11. The most controversial issue is the question of the origin of the script. Endo surveys the various theories put forward by Chinese scholars and dismisses the notion of derivation from oracle bone script or from the scripts of China's ethnic minorities. In line with the view of her mentor, Zhao Liming, she argues that the script was most likely derived from Chinese character script. Endo herself believes it was invented by one or more women literate in Chinese character script, possibly several hundred years ago.
  12. Endo has chosen to end her book with a powerful account by Yi Nianhua of the Japanese occupation of Jiangyong county. In this lengthy autobiographical narrative, Yi Nianhua records the atrocities of the era, including the capture of a woman called Zhou by the Japanese, her rape in front of her brother and the futile attempt of the brother to throw bricks at the attackers. The account goes on to describe how the brother is tied to a bench and set alight. Zhou's mutilated body was found later by the villagers; her breasts had been cut off and placed on a stone monument. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic way to demonstrate the sheer emotional power of the Women's Script repertoire, which although composed in simple formulaic verse, can encompass even themes of this magnitude.
  13. In conclusion, Endo Orie's book is directed at a general Japanese readership and does not contain exact details of her methodology and field trips, nor a bibliography. Nonetheless, her book has much to offer both the specialist and the general reader. She has made an illuminating contribution to our understanding of Women's Script culture and her book should be translated into English to reach a wider audience.

    Other Nüshu Websites

    Anne McLaren's paper, 'Crossing Gender Boundaries in China: Nüshu Narratives,' in the Inaugural Issue 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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