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On the menu tonight: Nu Shu, Foot-binding and Regret November 26, 2007

Posted by vsap in Blogroll, Uncategorized.

Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, is in the midst of a 20-city tour but she looked right at home as she discussed her recent book with 40 people at the Decatur Branch of the DeKalb County Library on Monday evening. In fact, this was the first visit to the Atlanta area for the 50-year-old journalist/novelist who is a native of Los Angeles.

Thin and pale with reddish brown hair, Ms. Sees’ appearance belies the fact that she is a third generation member of a large Chinese family whose patriarch was proclaimed as the ”godfather” of  Chinatown in Los Angeles. Although she didn’t come here to talk about her family, the subject is important to the discussion of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

The code broken

Nu Shu is the only gender-based secret coded language in history, Ms. See learned during her research. “I first heard of nu shu when I was reviewing a book on foot-binding for the Los Angeles Times. I became obsessed, really, and spent a lot of time on research, which usually quench an obsession. It made me want more,” she told her audience, speaking as if she were telling it to a friend.

She re-told the story of a Chinese woman who fainted in a train station in the 1960s, at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution. In her possession were papers which were thought to bear a secret code. The authorities believed her to be a spy and she was arrested. A number of scholars were brought in to break the code, and they did, discovering it was an ancient language and that the woman was no spy. Times being as they were, all the men brought in by the government to break the code were arrested and sent to labor camps or farms and the secret wasn’t revealed until much later.

Few nu shu writings, whether letters, fans or embroidery, still exist since they were usually burned upon the author’s death. This was done so the smoke from the burning nu shu would introduce her spirit to the gods in the afterlife. The words would then stay with her for eternity, according to legend.

Ultimately, Ms. See decided the only way to satisfy her curiosity was to travel to Yong Ming County (now called Jiangyong County) in the Hunan region of China, which she did in 2002.

“I was told I was only the second foreigner ever to travel to the region. I had a guide and an interpreter,” she said that even though she learned Mandarin and understood Cantonese the dialects in Jiangyong County changed from village to village, some less than a mile or two from each other. Also, the guide was invaluable in managing the transport.

“If you can, imagine a place with no airport, no train station, and no major river. The upside is that it is beautiful and pristine. The downside is there is no hot water, no locks on the hotel doors, and pig’s penis was on the menu.” Then she added, matter-of-factly, “It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s like chicken, only chewier.” This generated a splash of gasps and laughter from the predominately female crowd.

Sworn Sisterhood, “Old Sames” – the fabric of female friendship

Nu shu had its origins in the ancient custom of foot-binding, practiced for more than 1000 years in China. It is believed to have been developed in the Chinese upper class as a way for men to distinguish their wealth to their peers. While having a wife or wives with bound feet was impressive, more impressive would be for the wives and female servants to have bound feet. This custom was one of the few things a mother could “pass down” to her daughter since women and their accomplishments were systematically ignored. Research has revealed that 1-3% of women were literate at that time in China.

Foot-binding began with a girl at age seven and would continue until she was seventeen when she was selected for an arranged marriage. In addition to the torture of having foot bones broken over and over again to achieve an attractive size, the girls were relegated to upstairs rooms with one window. When they were married, usually to men form another village, they would spend their remaining days in a similar room in their husband’s house. “The suicide rate was quite high and the average lifespan [of a woman] was 38 years,” Ms. See found in her research. Foot-binding was outlawed in 1911 but the remote regions of Hunan didn’t hear about the prohibition until 1952.

As a comfort against such a rigid life, sworn sisterhoods and laotong (“old same”) traditions arose. Mothers helped their daughters form sworn sisterhoods that lasted from the time foot-binding began until their marriage. During this time they practiced nu shu, worked on diaries, and “three day wedding books”. The sisterhood dissolved at marriage. Laotong, or “old same” was a life-long contractual relationship between two girls who matched eight characteristics. This was the “emotional marriage,” the kind drawn against the unemotional marriage between men and women of the time; she was striving for in the characters of Snow Flower and Lily.

“What inspired me was no one expected them to show emotion or intellect, but through nu shu, they did,” Ms. See intimated to her audience, eyes misting, as if she were seated on the couch with them in their living room. Laotong allowed for “deep heart love” to develop. While Ms. See acknowledged there are many books written about women and relationships “not many novels by women are about friendship and deep heart love” she attempted to capture in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Unresolved regret

“All of us have a time in our lives when someone we love does something and we don’t want to acknowledge it. It happens more and more until we have a bad moment then there’s no easy way to fix it,” Ms. See explains to an audience of heads nodding in agreement. This regret is reflected in her characters and while she won’t say it depicted anything specific in her life or family, the elements are there.

It is present in the prologue to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan:

“I am old enough to know only too well my good and bad qualities, which were often one and the same. For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.” © Random House, 2005

Nu shu rising again

Recent news reports tell of a re-emergence of nu shu with government endorsement. “There is a large nu shu school complex and teachers. It is being recognized as a cultural treasure now and taught as we might teach folk dance or folk art in America,” Ms. See revealed. “It will be helpful to the Hunan region’s economy if it generates tourism since it is still very remote and disconnected from the mainstream of Chinese society.”

A secret coded language may no longer be needed for Chinese women today, but Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a stark reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and the desire to communicate our deepest emotions to another even at great risk.



1. Martine Saussure-Young - September 4, 2008

I am doing research about the Jiangyong Nushu. Nushu is a writing system, but you cannot say it is a language, the oral dialect used in Nushu is a local dialect of Jiangyong district, used in a poetic way. Men can also speak this dialect, though traditionnaly men didn’t write Nushu. The writing is only a female writing. Secret or not secret ? Written in the female groups only, but not secret. Coded ? Every writing system is a code.
Martine Saussure-Young, from Paris, France.

2. beapteply - November 1, 2008
3. Ilaria - February 7, 2011

Hi Martine,
I am doing research about Nushu as well for my thesis discussion in “Oriental and African Languages and Cultures” at Bologna University (Italy). The thesis title will be “Nushu : the language of the Hunan Peasant Women”. I am discussing it at the end of next month.
If you are interested, I would like to get in touch with you to exchange some point of view about this common argument.
I hope to come in touch with you.

All the Best,

Ilaria Gozzoli


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