Nushu in 2011
1. Welcoming Ms. He Yanxin to Tokyo
Seijou University and the Nushu Research Group invited Ms. He Yanxin (何艶新), the last transmitter of Nushu, to stay in Tokyo from the end of February to the beginning of March, 2011. We held lectures at six places in order to teach the audience about Nushu, Chinese women’s script, and to have Ms. He Yanxin demonstrate how Nushu is written. At some places, there were more applicants than the fixed number, so we regretfully could not accept them. I would like to apologize to those who were interested in Nushu but could not attend.
At the lectures, I spoke about what Nushu is and why it was born, its present state, and so on. Ms. He Yanxin demonstrated how to write a short poem in Nushu and sang it. The attendees watched with bated breath as she wrote the beautiful characters, projected on a screen. After finishing the poem, she sang the words while pointing to each of the characters, and the audience seemed deeply impressed by the emotion she conveyed with her deep singing voice.
Later, during the question and answer period, there were questions about the melodies of the songs that she sang, her days of learning Nushu, etc. At one lecture, there was a request for samples of Nushu characters derived from hieroglyphs or embroidery patterns. I showed samples to Ms. He Yanxin and she wrote them, which were then projected on the screen. This was far more effective than orally explaining what the characters looked like.
At another lecture, we sold square pieces of fancy paper with her poems written on them. They sold unexpectedly well, so I asked her to write more.
Ms. He Yanxin arrived at NaritaAirport on February 27, and she had a very tight schedule planned for her stay, filled with attending college study meetings and lectures. Thinking this would be the last chance to bring her to Japan, I had pleaded with her to endure such a difficult schedule. After her stay was finished, I was relieved when I saw her off at Narita. I am sure she was happy, too, being free from such a grueling schedule at last! I am proud that I was able to introduce the real form of Nushu script to Japan.
Four days later, a great earthquake hit eastern Japan (the Great East Japan Earthquake) that defied all expectations. The disaster produced a great amount of suffering, with countless people losing their lives and families. Furthermore, there are still no prospects of containing the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which has caused residents to evacuate their homes, and, as of last November, many of them have not yet found places to live. Under such circumstances, I was in no mood to do anything, including studying Nushu.
2. Visiting Jiangyong Prefecture (江永県)
However, I could not go on feeling hopeless forever, and so I finally decided to prepare a TV program in cooperation with Mainichi Broadcasting System in Osaka. I went to Jiangyong Prefecture together with their TV crew last July. I was exhausted after performing research and shooting under the fierce, midsummer heat.
This was my 15th time to visit the site of Nushu. Though it was only for a short time, during the intervals between shooting, I visited some villages to search for Nushu related materials. The villages I visited were those in which I had not been able to confirm who had a San Chao Shu (三朝書) at the last time I went for research.
One of them was Shang Jiangxu Zhen Hu Shui village (上江墟鎮湖水村). When I performed research as a student there in 1999, I heard that Ms. He Rendi（何仁娣） (72 at that time) had said, “I used to have a San Chao Shu, but my granddaughter took it away.” I have wanted to know more about the book since then, so at the entrance of the village, I asked someone if there was a woman called He Rendi（何仁娣）and they said yes. I was happy to hear she was still doing well there 12 years later. I was shown to her house, where a woman with broken teeth appeared from a back room across a dirt floor. When I asked if she was Ms. He Rendi, she replied yes. She looked bewildered when I asked her if she had a San Chao Shu. She replied, “Yes, I had one, but my granddaughter took it away.” I then asked, “where is your granddaughter living now?” She answered that she had gone to Taiwan. The conversation was done in the local language and Beijing dialect (北京語), through an interpreter who spoke the local language, so fortunately I was able to understand Ms. He Rendi even when she spoke loudly due to a bad ear. “Where in Taiwan is she living?” I asked her. She only replied with, “I don’t know.” Our conversation stopped there. She did remember the size of the San Chao Shu, and some of the characters written in it, but little progress as to its location, so I gave up on the matter and left her home.
On my way back, I found several old women chattering around the entrance of the village, and showed them a sample of a San Chao Shu, asking them at random, “does anyone know a booklet like this?” However, there was no affirmative response from anyone.
By chance, a small woman passed by, carrying two baskets containing dirt on a pole. As soon as she looked at the book, she said there was a similar one in her uncle’s house, and guided me to the house. Wondering whether it really existed, I followed her quickly.
To my surprise, the house she showed me was Ms. He Rendi’s（何仁娣), which I had just visited. She had been referring to the same booklet that Ms. He Rendi（何仁娣）had indicated. In the end, its whereabouts remained unknown, but it was proved by a third person that a San Chao Shu had existed in the village.
Next, I visited Feng Tian village (鳳田) in Huan Gjia Ling Xiang (黄甲嶺郷), where there had been Nushu transmitters who could read and write the script. According to an information source, a person called Wang Shankui (王善奎), the father of a person called Wang Guixin(王桂新), had owned a San Chao Shu. I asked a villager about these two persons at the entrance of the village, but he said there were no such people in the village. All other persons I asked replied no, as well. Helplessly, I walked into the village and asked every elderly villager I met if they knew about San Chao Shu, while showing a sample. Finally, I found a woman who appeared in her 60’s looking out from her house, and I asked her the same question. She said, “Once I was asked to buy a San Chao Shu owned by a resident of another house in this village. She said that because my house faces the main road, if anyone comes to buy it I could sell it for a higher price, but since I could not afford to buy it, I declined her request. I think she has it even now, because I’ve never heard of anyone looking for it.” I said, “Where is that house? Please take me there.” At that time, a woman in her 60’s with her hair neatly fixed passed by, and she said, “The residents in that house went to Guangdong (広東), but their whereabouts are unknown. Shall I try to find their telephone number in Guangdong?” I said, “Can you find it soon? I have to go back to Japan the day after tomorrow.” She said, “I’m afraid not. When I retrieve it, I will inform you.” I said to the woman, “I appreciate your kindness” and left the village. I said to the deputy PR manager who was with me, “If she could get in touch with the people in Guangdong, we might be able to locate that San Chao Shu. If by any chance it is found, please have it bought to your prefecture.”
Thirdly, I visited Cheng xia jing village (滕下井村) in the same district (郷). I had been informed that the mother of sisters Lu Jingse (廬静色) and Lu Zhenzhu (廬珍珠) kept a San Chao Shu, so I tried to find their house. I asked some villagers, but they replied that they knew of no such persons. I decided to call on the village chief, and he told me about the house of Lu Zhenzhu, so I visited there. She said, “I don’t have a San Chao Shu. My mother didn’t either. I can’t write the script, and neither can my mother.” Then, she added, “However, she often sang Nushu poems. She knew many poems. She sang for a Japanese woman and received money for it.” I replied, “Oh, that may have been me. What is your mother’s name?” She answered, “It is Yang Xixi (楊細細).” I said, “Oh, I remember her. I asked her to sing. She asked me how much money I would pay for one song.” I recalled having been disconcerted by the question. When I had my students survey the village, they told me that they also listened to her songs. The fact that she could sing Nushu poems was probably mistakenly interpreted as “she has a San Chao Shu.” Thus, the information about the booklet was resolved.
In such a small circle of acquaintances, if any information about a San Chao Shu is discovered, it will eventually reach me. Though I believe it is unlikely that any new information will come out in the future, I still hold out hope for that chance.
This time, after visiting the villages, I felt that the memory of Nushu had almost completely disappeared from the villagers. If I was able to meet someone beforehand who had information, I could then try to obtain further information, but unfortunately I did not meet any such person. At present, when I enter a village and ask the residents about Nushu, their responses are quite different from when I had visited in the past. Since 1993, I have been visiting these villages to try and trace the villagers’ memories of Nushu. In the past, there have been villagers who knew someone who had Nushu materials, or someone who had been able to write Nushu or had seen someone writing the script. However, this time I could find no clue as to obtaining information about Nushu, even when I asked elderly women. When I visited the village some years ago and showed a sample of a San Chao Shu to some local women, there was a discernible change in the expression of those who saw the booklet. This time, however, even though I showed the sample to most of the women villagers I met, they looked at it with an expressionless gaze.
I visited a village called Xing tian (荊田村), where a legendary woman who had created Nushu came from. I happened to meet a woman in her 60’s along the way, who said she could write Nushu and had a San Chao Shu. I was very surprised to find that there was still such a woman, and practically leaped with joy. She showed me to her house.
She showed me a book that looked like a textbook edited by Zhao Liming (趙麗明). She said she was learning Nushu from the book. She also showed me a San Chao Shu made by her, following the design of her mother’s handmade one. The booklet was similar in size to such booklets made by ancient women, finely made and bound according to the ancient method. The characters written in the booklet were faltering, revealing that the writer was in the process of learning them. I asked her why she started learning how to write Nushu, and she replied that three years before, she was asked by a tourist why she could not write the script even though she lived in this village. She therefore determined to master writing the script, and made such great progress that she was also teaching students from the neighboring village.
In the booklet, the characters were written with bold strokes and strong lines, using a thick brush. The ancient characters were small, thin, and timid. I had never seen any Nushu characters written in bold strokes. I was brought to the realization that the quality of written characters was changing.
visited the house of Ms. He Yanxin (何艶新), I was surprised to find that the nearby
road had been paved over. Formerly, it was so muddy that when it rained,
it caused cars to stall. Even in the
farm villages of Jiangyong Prefecture (江永県), roads were improved so that cars could
pass through without trouble. In time, even farmers would be able to afford
cars, and the gap in quality of life would be gradually reduced. If so, the
lives and feelings of women would change from the old days. As a result, the
memory of Nushu would disappear from the village with increasing speed.
[He Yanxin and Dr. Endo on the big, new road built in He Yuan village ]
Nushu is a rare cultural heritage left by Chinese women. I had hoped that the script would stay in the people’s memories for as long as possible. There are several transmitters, women in their 20’s to 70’s, who have been officially approved by the prefecture, which has granted them some subsidies. All of them can write the script well, and make copies of ancient San Chao Shu and songs that have been passed down from ancient times. At public events, they write characters in red ink on signboards and large characters like calligraphy on hanging scrolls. However, this is quite different from how women in the old times used Nushu as a means of communication for complaining about their pain and sorrow. Thus, the function of the script has changed greatly from old times. At present, women try to learn the script for the purpose of preserving it as a traditional, local culture form, and also as a source of profit.
the original Nushu and the Nushu written for the sake of earning money must be
kept separated from one another. There should be a distinction made between
traditional Nushu and the new one. We must hold firmly onto what the original
Nushu stood for, and the kind of style and character it possessed. This is of
primary importance. Currently, women are writing new characters in old San Chao
Shu, which mixes up the old and new characters. Such acts that disregard the
preservation of history should be avoided at all costs.
3. TV Broadcasting, etc.
On the night of September 18, Mainichi Broadcasting System televised a documentary program titled, “The Chinese Women’s Script for Writing Sorrow.” As the program has not yet been broadcasted in Tokyo, the number of viewers is limited. It is a large-scale program that introduces Nushu to Japan. The program has a number of scenes related to Nushu, such as the process of transmitting Nushu, a reporter visiting Niangniang Shrine (娘々廟), where women in old times used to gather, and an interview with Ms. He Yanxin about introducing the relationship between Nushu and songs. I also appeared in one of the scenes, talking about the value and meaning of this script. The program captured many different scenes, so that sometimes they were blurred, which was rather regrettable. However, this was the first time for a Japanese TV broadcasting company to seriously tackle the matter of probing into the essence of Chinese women’s script. I am very pleased that the program was useful as a good introduction and recording of Nushu.
On October 27 and 28, a symposium titled, “Rediscovering Nushu” was held under the sponsorship of 民族院民族研究所in Taiwan. Unfortunately, I could not attend it because it overlapped with an international symposium held by the University of Venice in Italy, which I had been scheduled to present at since the previous May. I heard that it was a success, so I am looking forward to reading a report about it. Four days before leaving for Venice, I unexpectedly received an e-mail from a graduate student in Rome. She asked me for materials related to anti-Japan songs, because she was planning on writing a doctoral thesis on Nushu by using them. I replied that I would give her some materials and advice if she could come to Venice. Surprisingly, she actually came all the way to Venice from Rome by plane. She said there were no books on Nushu in Italian libraries. She had majored in Chinese, so she wanted literature in Chinese. She asked me various questions about parts she had not understood after reading Chinese research papers. She also asked several questions about Nushu: why I said He Yanxin is the last transmitter, whether Nushu is a secret script or not as an Italian newspaper had reported, why the script exists in that area, whether it might be in other areas, how many transmitters there are at present, and so on.
In early November, I also received an e-mail from a student in the foreign language department at Pisa University in Italy, saying that she would earnestly like to study Chinese and write a short essay on Nushu, which she found to be a wonderful script for Chinese women. Having read an Italian newspaper article last year saying that Yang Huanyi (陽煥宜), the last transmitter of Nushu, had died, she asked me whether or not she was really the last transmitter and if the script was on the verge of disappearing.
I am very glad to learn that the number of people around the world who have interest in Nushu is gradually increasing. Even if Nushu itself is destined to vanish someday, I would like the truth about Nushu to continue being spoken.