In the mountainous Jiangyong county in Central China’s Hunan province, Hu Xin is busy receiving the crew of a popular reality TV show. The team has come to find out more about Nüshu, a writing system that can look like symbols to a first-time viewer.

Hu, a 29-year-old local, writes the rare characters. “I want to promote Nüshu and pass it onto the younger generations,” she says. “There are many touching stories behind the characters.”

Nüshu, which literally means “female script”, is derived from regular Chinese characters that were once used by the female residents of Jiangyong.

This slimmer and seemingly italicised variant of standard written Chinese is often called “the world’s only surviving characters exclusively for women”. It was made a national intangible cultural heritage in 2006.

In olden days, Nüshu was taught by elderly women to girls at home because female children weren’t allowed to attend formal school. During gatherings in villages, women used the characters to write poems or song lyrics to express their emotions that were hidden from men.

Hu first came in contact with Nüshu at age eight. She painstakingly practised the handwriting through her school years and is now one of the youngest among seven registered inheritors of the writing form. Her works have been exhibited in public, including at the Shanghai Expo in 2010.

“It needs patience to explore the writing system’s cultural meaning,” she says.

Zhao Liming, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who has studied Nüshu for more than 30 years, is considered to be China’s top scholar in this field.

“The Nüshu script was everywhere in the local communities,” she says. “Some were in books. Some were written on folding fans or stitched in clothing. More were just in scattered papers.”

Zhao explains that unlike the standard written Chinese, in which each character is a part of a word, each character in Nüshu represents a syllable. She once categorised more than 220,000 words, and found only 396 characters were commonly used.

“But these are enough to convey people’s emotions,” Zhao says. The earliest known artefact in the Nüshu script was a 1850s coin. Though its history may date longer, its origin is unknown.

In an ongoing project hosted by Zhao, a phone app is being designed by Talkmate, a Beijing-based online language education platform, to teach Nüshu to more people.

Hu is also helping with the standard writing of the characters. The first edition of the app is scheduled to be released during the first Beijing International Language and Culture Expo in September.

Zhao expects the app to present a true image of Nüshu for the public after myths about it have spread. For example, people often misjudge the characters as “symbols of some secret cult”.

She says Nüshu is not exclusive to any ethnic group as Jiangyong has a mixed population. Though many old poems written in Nüshu were women’s autobiographies to talk about their difficulties in life, the professor says she didn’t find suicidal thoughts expressed by the writers.

“The words were full of encouragement and positive energy, and showed an uncommon open mindedness among the women at the time,” she says.

She says Nüshu shows a sisterhood instead of the brotherhood usually referred to in Chinese culture. She considers it misleading that some novels and films have hinted at homosexuality while presenting the writing form.

“It created an atmosphere like the salon culture of the West,” she says. “When women gathered to sing together, the courtyards became their classroom and a place to chat.”

Ji Xianlin, the late historian and linguist, once said that Nüshu is a feminist symbol.

“It’s a unique writing system created by talented women who were deprived of the right to education,” he wrote in an article. “It has significance in various fields like linguistics, anthropology, sociology and literature, and represents Chinese people’s strong spirit.”

Zhou Youguang, another late linguist, also said: “Nüshu was an early-stage women’s liberation tool.”

Zhao, the Tsinghua professor, attributed the revival of the characters to modern society’s advocacy of self-expression.

“After public education was established and women got the right to attend school, Nüshu lost its functionality,” Zhao says. “However, feminist ideas are getting more emphasis today.”

The last living “natural inheritor of Nüshu”, described by Zhao, is 77 years old. Younger generation practitioners like Hu learned the writing system in school.

“It’s not a natural inheritance because people’s lifestyles are now thoroughly different,” the professor says. “However, new methods are a must to keep it from disappearing.”

According to Hu, Nüshu classes have been set up in Jiangyong, where the relevant music and folklore are taught as well. Some men have started to learn the writing form.

“We used to worry about Nüshu dying, but now we worry its original face will be lost,” Zhao says. “The modern adaption is inevitable to save cultures from fading away but regulations are needed.” – China Daily/Asia News Network/Wang Kaihao