CHANGSHA, Sept. 23 (Xinhuanet) -- China's last inheritress of the
mysterious Nushu language, probably the world's only female-specific language,
died at her central China home earlier this week. She was in her 90s.
Yang Huanyi learned to read and write the language as a little
girl. Chinese linguists say her death has put an end to a 400-year-old tradition
in which women shared their innermost feelings with female friends through a set
of codes that were incomprehensible to men.
Yang was born in Jiangyong County, where many people believe the language
originated. Before her marriage, she used to exchangeletters in Nushu with Gao
Yinxian, the eldest of the seven sworn sisters in the county who were the most
authoritative speakers andwriters of the female-only language.
Though Yang herself did not join the sworn sisters, she did spend three
years with them to learn the language, and became its only surviving inheritress
by the end of the 1990s, after all the seven sisters had passed away.
Since then she had been dubbed "living fossil of the women-specific
language" by linguists.
Until her death on September 20, it remained a mystery as to how old Yang
was. During an interview with Xinhua in the summer of2002, she said she was 94.
Authorities in her hometown, however, said she was 98 when she died. Zhao
Liming, a specialist with Qinghua University, said Yang was born in 1909.
It is often hard to tell the actual age of elderly Chinese people because
many are accustomed to giving their "nominal age," which is one to two years
ahead of the actual age. A baby's "nominal age" is considered to be one year old
at birth and becomestwo at the beginning of the very next year.
Yang was invited to Beijing in 1995 to attend the United Nations Fourth
World Conference on Women. The letters, poems and prose she wrote were collected
and compiled by linguists of the Beijing-based Qinghua University into a book
that was published early this year.
Though some linguists are working hard to learn the female language,
experts say Yang was more authoritative and her writing was more standard,
original and unaffected by Putonghua, or standard Chinese or Han language, in
which she was totally illiterate.
None of Yang's children and grandchildren inherited her proficiency in the
unique language. The gracefully-written rhombicNushu characters are structured
by just four kinds of strokes, including dot, horizontal, virgule and arc, and
can be spoken in dialect to describe women's misfortunes and inner feelings.
Some experts presume that the language is related to inscriptions on animal
bones and tortoise shells of the Yin Ruins from more than 3,000 years ago, but
no conclusions have been reached as to when the language originated.
Besides the central Hunan Province, the language was also used in some
areas of southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Nushu manuscripts are extremely rare because, according to the local
custom, they were supposed to be burnt or buried with the dear departed in
The language, among the first to enter the national list of China's ancient
cultural heritage, has aroused keen attention fromworldwide scholars. At least
100 surviving manuscripts are abroad,according to archive keepers in Hunan
China has stepped up preservation of the language since the 1990s amid
assiduous efforts to better protect the country's traditional culture in a
The Hunan provincial archives have collected handkerchiefs, aprons, scarves
and handbags embroidered with Nushu characters, manuscripts written on paper or
fans, and calligraphic works.
"We have collected 303 artifacts bearing the rare language during five
trips to Yongjiang County, birthplace of the female language, over the past
year," said Liu Gening, head of the provincial archives. "The oldest of them
dates back to the late Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s, and the most recent
pieces are from the 1960s or 1970s."
Among their collections are calligraphic works by Zhou Shuoyi, a retiree in
Jiangyong County who is believed to be the first man to learn the language in
China. Zhou, after half a century of study, compiled a dictionary of Nushu last
year at the age of 79.
The dictionary, which contains all the 1,800 ancient charactersof the
language, has complete stylistic rules and a layout with pronunciation, glossary
and grammar and is arranged in international phonetic symbol order. Each Nushu
character is followed by phonetic notation, notes, a corresponding Chinese
character and example sentences. Enditem