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Last Inheritrix of Single Sex Language Dies

China's last inheritrix of the Nushu language, probably the world's only single-sex writing system, died at her Pumei Village home in central China on September 20. She was in her 90s.

Yang Huanyi, a member of the Yao ethnic minority, learned to read and write the language as a little girl. Linguists say her death has put an end to a tradition that is at least 400 years old 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, Hunan Province, where many people believe the language originated. When she was young, she used to exchange letters in Nushu with Gao Yinxian, the eldest of the seven sworn sisters in the county who were the most authoritative speakers and writers of Nushu.

Although Yang herself did not join the sworn sisters, she spent years learning the language from them and became its only surviving inheritrix by the end of the 1990s, when the last of the seven sisters passed away.

There is some uncertainty as to precisely how old Yang was. During an interview with Xinhua in the summer of 2002, she said she was 94. Authorities in her hometown, however, said she was 98 when she died. She was certainly well ensconced in her 90s.

Yang was invited to Beijing in 1995 to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Linguists at the prestigious Tsinghua University compiled the letters, poems and prose she wrote into a book that was published early this year.

Although a number of linguists have studied Nushu extensively, they themselves say that Yang was more authoritative and her writing was more standard, original and unaffected by Putonghua (standard Chinese), in which she was totally illiterate. Many of these scholars were taught the language by Yang herself -- and several of them are men.

None of Yang's children or grandchildren inherited her proficiency in the language.

Some experts hypothesize 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.

Because in ancient times only men learned to read and write standard Chinese characters, it appears that at some point in this corner of Hunan Province, the women developed their own form of written communication. It was handed down from generation to generation and shared among friends and --in the local tradition -- sworn sisters, but never shared with men.

The language was also used in some areas of southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

In appearance Nushu vaguely resembles Chinese characters, although stretched and simplified. But the symbols represent the sounds of the local dialect rather than concepts, as is the case with the ideographic Chinese written language. The symbols were written from top to bottom in columns that were read from right to left, as was ancient Chinese.

Nushu also has a spoken form, but apparently one that was predominantly used in song.

The writing system, among the first to enter the national list of China's ancient cultural heritage, has drawn keen attention from scholars worldwide. At least 100 surviving manuscripts are being studied abroad, according to archivists in Hunan Province.

China has stepped up preservation of the Nushu since the 1990s as part of its effort to improve protection of the country's traditional culture. In 2002, a special protection zone for the language was established in Jiangyong County, and more than 600,000 yuan (US$80,000) were invested in a school and museum in Pumei Village last year.

The Hunan provincial archives have collected more than 300 artifacts, including handkerchiefs, aprons, scarves and handbags embroidered with Nushu characters and manuscripts written on paper or fans. The oldest of the items dates back to the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

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, finished compiling a dictionary of Nushu last year.

(China.org.cn, Xinhua News Agency September 24, 2004)

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