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Yang Huanyi

October 6, 2004

Yang Huanyi, Last User of a Secret Code, Dies


Yang Huanyi, the last woman to communicate secretly with others in a rare script used exclusively by women, died Sept. 20 in her home in Hunan Province, China. She was believed to be in her late 90's.

The New China News Agency reported her death, saying estimates of her age ranged from 95 to 98.

The script, Nushu, represents the language spoken in Jiangyong Prefecture in the rolling hills of southern Hunan Province. Women, who were denied education for many centuries in China, used it to share feminine feelings, including fears about arranged marriages, husbands and, of course, mothers-in-law.

"By writing, so much suffering disappears," Ms. Yang said in an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly in 1996.

The news agency called Ms. Yang the "last practitioner" of Nushu.

However, Orie Endo, a language professor at Bunkyo University in Tokyo and a leading scholar of the writing system, said in an e-mail message that at least two other women knew and still used some Nushu. She said Ms. Yang was important because she was the last woman to use Nushu to communicate with other women under an oath of secrecy, the ancient way.

One of the women she said was conversant with the script is He Yanxin, who learned it from her grandmother. The other, He Jinhua, who like He Yanxin is in her 60's, began to teach herself to write Nushu in 1997.

Laura Miller, a professor of linguistic anthropology at Loyola University in Chicago, said in an e-mail message that she had heard reports that other anthropologists working in China had found other women who continued to use Nushu.

But its disappearance may be inevitable. In 2002, Time magazine included Nushu in the 50 percent of the world's 6,000 languages that might be extinct by 2050. An academic record is being preserved by scholars, some of them men. Also, the Chinese government supports the collection and study of Nushu script, partly to encourage tourism in the small part of Hunan Province where it was historically used. Nushu, which means "female writing," contains at least 1,800 characters, each representing a spoken syllable, not an idea, as is the case for much of Chinese calligraphy, which has at least 50,000 characters. A script specific to one sex is rare among the world's languages, and popular writers have called Nushu "the witch's script" and the "first language of women's liberation."

Men once used the script but lost interest, not least because they were educated in Mandarin, Dr. Miller wrote in February on a Web site,

Women were not educated, and gathered at homes to make shoes or embroider. Though in early Chinese history, the penalty for creating languages was death, women quietly developed a code for their secret sorority.

"What started as a simple way to express themselves became a chronicle of their private anguish," Zhao Liming, a Nushu specialist at Qinghua University in Beijing, said in an interview with The South China Post.

Men, who always understood spoken Nushu, derided the written form as "ant characters" or "mosquito scrawls," the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in June. Professor Zhao said the belief was that "anything to do with women was inferior, insignificant."

A principal function of the script was for communication among women who called themselves "sworn sisters." Writing in verse on handkerchiefs, fans and elsewhere, they often used Nushu's vocabulary of more than 20,000 words to communicate about marriage as a tragic event. Hardbound booklets conveying deep anxieties about marriage were common wedding gifts in the region.

Chinese scholars began studying Nushu in the mid-1950's, but the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 prohibited its use as a leftover of feudalism. In the early 1980's, academics rediscovered it and the dozen old women who still used it. Yang Huanyi was born in a village in Hunan in 1909, Dr. Endo and at least one other source said. At 10, she began learning Nushu from a woman whose feet had been bound in the traditional fashion and could not find work. In the lessons, the teacher wrote a strip of characters, as Ms. Yang watched. The woman sang as she wrote, and Ms. Yang sang the same songs when she studied by herself.

Once Ms. Yang mastered Nushu, she, too, wrote for others, but charged only for marriage booklets. She married, but her husband died two years later after he was bitten by a snake. She then married a gambler who ran up big debts. They had eight children before he died.

Her family responsibilities and the deaths of her sworn sisters ended Ms. Yang's writing until 1990, when a scholar urged her to resume.

Ms. Yang is survived by two sons and a daughter, The South China Morning Post reported.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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