Nushu Script and Birds


Printed, it looks like tracks made from a bird. Uttered, it was sung aloud. The comparisons between Nushu, an ancient Chinese script for women, and birds are easy to draw. And in her book When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams uses the text to help describe how women used this secret language to express themselves.  


“Using her own accomplishments and struggles, Williams describes what it means to have a voice—a female voice. She also relates that meaning through haunting fables from past centuries and interprets artistic works. The Nushu script, for instance, is a secret written language, used by women from the Jiangyong area of China’s Hunan Province, with characters that resemble birds’ footprints in snow. The language, dating back to 1600–1100 B.C., originated from a female society that worshiped birds, and serves as an example, Williams notes, of how women have long written in code to protect and empower themselves,” I write in the review of the book in the September-October issue.


Studies of the script describe how women used to get together and sing their autobiographical stories, demonstrating how they portrayed their own identities, writes one scholar. One could conclude that birds, with their chirps, warbles, and trills, are doing the same. 

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