“Every time I get on the bus from Guilin to Jiangyong, I look out the window and think of the power of the yuánfèn 缘分 (“fateful coincidence”) that led me to feel at home in such a remote and unexplored place.”
Thus, began my “physical” journey to discover that corner of the world which, without knowing it, represented precisely that piece of the puzzle I had been looking for for some time. Jiangyong, and in particular the village of Puwei, represented a perfect combination of my love for China, for Chinese people and for its millenary culture: the sublimation of ideals that I have admired for years but which I have rarely found enclosed in one place.
My “spiritual” journey started in a university classroom, that place that we often consider only a container of abstract notions, that room from which we can’t wait to escape to give concreteness to the words of the study manuals. Thanks to the passionate stories about China that the Professor told us, it is precisely within those classes that I had the great fortune to be able to start traveling with the mind and fall in love with a country even before seeing it live. Moreover, it is precisely within those walls that I heard about nüshu 女书 for the first time, when my mind immediately decided that I should further explore that topic and that I would be passionate about it. And so it was.
“Nüshu: the writing that gave women a voice” was another great adventure, which, looking back, allowed me to reflect on many details of my experiences, to deepen the details of this splendid cultural phenomenon and to realize the beauty of many places and many people. The idea of this book was born about two years ago, when in summer 2018 I talked about nüshu with Professor Zhao Liming, inside her study at the Tsinghua University of Beijing: I immediately thought that those wonderful stories could not remain just for me.
WHAT IS NÜSHU?
Nüshu literally means “women’s writing” in Chinese. Its pronunciation is based on the local dialect of the villages located around the county of Jiangyong, in the province of Hunan, in southern China. The female characters are around 396, each of which corresponds to a syllable of the dialect. Unlike Chinese, therefore, these ideograms transcribe sounds, not meanings and to each of them correspond to many Chinese characters. Therefore, the importance of the context to understand its meaning is evident. It’s difficult to establish a precise date for the creation of nüshu (which most probably occurred around 1700) this issue on its own is the subject of constant debate among scholars. Female writing was certainly born in response to the patriarchal society of the time, which inevitably placed women in condition of submission. A fundamental aspect that led to the birth of this language is the fact that the girls could not attend school, therefore, to stay in touch with each other, especially once they got married, they invented their own system for communicating. Nüshu also represented a way to escape from the overwhelming everyday life, a parallel world in which women took refuge, where they could find understanding and where they could externalize their suffering in some way. It is no coincidence that, according to the legend, nüshu was created by a girl from the village of Jingtian who was chosen as emperor’s concubine. The woman was not well received in the court and loneliness, and nostalgia for her relatives led her to create a new writing, different from that of men, to give vent to their thoughts and make them reach their families.
Nüshu is “a language of women and for women” because it was from them that it was conceived and brought into the world. However, it is important to emphasize that the female language was never a secret script, rather it was men who were not interested in it because they thought that everything that was created by women was not something appreciable.
In fact, if we consider the very small places in which nüshu culture was born, lived and continues to be handed down, it is unthinkable that the male part of society had never noticed those rhomboid characters that covered the objects made by the ladies ; and it is impossible to believe that men had never heard the melodies that echoed in the alleys of the villages. Historical and social events have led to a great change in the importance attributed to the female writing: men became interested in nüshu, in the county they speak proudly of it as a symbol that characterizes their city and many of them are directly involved in promoting this phenomenon. And it is no coincidence that today, in the villages, as soon as women start singing, everyone stops to listen to them, including men: they do not do this out of duty or reverence, but because they are really captured by these beautiful sounds.
And it is precisely the songs that act as vectors of the most intimate, deep and confidential female feelings: they deal with every type of theme, from happy moments to the most disheartening ones.
PEOPLE: THE VITAL BREATH OF THE TRADITIONS
“The places of nüshu have taught me that you can be rich even without running water at home and that humility and goodness are the basis of every great person.”
Although the characters represent the most fascinating aspect of this culture, it is only by visiting and experiencing the villages that orbit around Jiangyong that one can realize a great truth: nüshu is not only a language, but a cultural phenomenon. In fact, its existence is closely linked to that of local traditions, popular festivities and local people.
In my book there are many characters who have lived and handed down nüshu: Chen Xinfeng and Hu Yanyu are certainly among the names that the reader will not be able to forget. The great welcome they give me every time in their home in the village of Puwei, has allowed me to get to the heart of their culture, to perceive how it is lived nowadays, to listen to many stories, to register the colors , the sounds and gestures of what is not just a language, but much, much more. The two – mother and daughter – retain the typical traits of women who over three centuries ago had the strength to create a world parallel to the one that was destroying them. It is difficult to express in words the goodness that characterizes them, but it is their complicity that most impresses anyone who observes them while intoning the nüshu songs or when, delicately, they trace the ideograms -symbols of female resilience.
They always welcome me very warmly in their home in the village of Puwei, and thanks to them I was able to get to the very heart of the nüshu culture, seeing how this culture is experienced today; I also listened to many stories, I recorded many colors, sounds and gestures of what is not only a language, but much more. The two ladies- mother and daughter – have the same traits typical of women who over three centuries ago had the strength to create a world parallel to the one that was destroying them. It is difficult to put into words the goodness that characterizes the two women, but it is their complicity that most astonishes anyone who observes them while intoning the nüshu songs or when, delicately, they trace the ideograms that are the symbol of female resilience.
A friend once told me that “we are born in a place, but in the course of life we find our places of the heart where we know we can always return”. I believe I have found mine, what I miss every time I’m not there.