The Nüshu script was used during the late Imperial period (1550-1911) in the Jiangyong region of the Hunan province, China. The script is famous for being the only known writing system to have been invented and used exclusively by women. The word Nüshu literally means 'women's writing'. It was used for writing the Yang Zhuang language. (This language is also called 'Dong' or 'Tuhua'; the latter is a perjorative Han term implying a degenerate form of some superior language.)
During the Imperial period, women were not given access to education, and as a result, were largely illiterate. Their work centered around the home, and their social interactions tended to be with other women, which led to lifelong bonds of friendship, called LaoTang or 'sworn sisterhood'. Groups of 'sisters' would regularly gather at one another's houses, and it is thought that this is how the script was disseminated. It is not known who created the script, or whether it was created by a single woman or a group. There is some debate as to whether Nüshu was borne of oppression from men and deliberately kept secret from them, or whether the men of that region simply were not interested in the affairs of women, but in any case, there have been very few men who became literate in the script.
Nüshu was used to exchange letters, to write stories, songs, poetry and laments, to embroider mottos onto clothing, and for "third day missives" - booklets given to new brides containing well-wishes and advice for their marriage. Texts tended to be written in verse form. The content of Nüshu texts centered, as would be expected, around women's day-to-day lives, interactions, and thoughts. Stories often contained a moral; more rarely, they were written in a coarse comic style that may only have been acceptable for women to use when male company was not present.
Between 1,800 and 2,000 characters are attested in Nüshu texts. There is some debate as to whether these all constitute unique characters or whether some are stylistic variants of others. Characters appear to have been based on simplified, italic forms of Chinese characters. The script is largely syllabic; that is, each character represents a phonetic syllable. Many words in the language are monosyllabic, so can be written with a single character. This has led to the idea that the script is logographic, but the characters are largely syllographs because they contain only phonetic, not semantic content. They can be used to represent multiple homophonous words, irrespective of meaning. Some characters, however, are logographs; they represent particular concepts. These characters carry semantic, as opposed to phonetic, content so cannot be used to write homophonous words having different meanings.
Nüshu characters are written using four types of stroke; dot, horizontal line, oblique slash, and arc. The script can be written in vertical columns from top to bottom, or in horizontal lines from left to right.
With the advent of women's education in China in the 20th century, the need for an exclusive script diminished. In addition, it was suppressed by the occupying Japanese during the 1930s and 40s, and by the Red Guard during the 1960s. As a result, use has declined rapidly within the last century, and women no longer learn the script from their mothers and friends in the traditional manner. However, media attention since the 1980s has revived interest in the script, and there are some efforts to formally teach the script to girls in school.