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Review of  Gendered Words


Reviewer: Marina Ivanovic
Book Title: Gendered Words
Book Author: Fei-wen Liu
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Writing Systems
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 27.2534

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Review:
Reviews Editor: Robert Arthur Cote

SUMMARY

“Gendered Words: Sentiments and Expression in Changing Rural China” is an easy-to-read monograph, based on twenty years of research on women’s scripts (‘nüshu’) and women songs (‘nüge’) in rural Jianyong County in Hunan Province. The author, Fei-wen Liu, remarkably combines the exploration of women’s emotions and the patriarchal society surrounding the women, burdening them and inspiring to lament through a dialect known to women exclusively.

Chapter 1 “Discover and Encounter” elaborates about the history of ‘nüshu’, its purpose, and its practitioners. This women’s script was invented by women for women to have some form of inner communication among themselves, to support each other, and to celebrate female virtues. Exploring the male rejection of this script, the chapter focuses on the lack of insight men could obtain when it comes to understanding the script, praising the power of female communication once again. ‘Nüshu’ had its oral counterpart called ‘nüge’ – a unique singing variant of ‘nüshu’, accessible to both literate and illiterate women, becoming a universal female way of expressing feelings and bonding, regardless of literacy or social class.

Chapter 2 “Text and Practice” starts by explaining the way ‘nüshu’ was learned: women would first learn a song (‘nüge’), then how to read ‘nüshu’ graphs, and finally how to write. For writing ‘nüshu’, women would use paper, fans, or handkerchiefs. The rest of the chapter deals with six domains in which ‘nüshu’ and ‘nüge’ played an important role: sworn sisterhood, wedding performance, biographical laments, worship verses, narratives, and transcriptions of male-authored literature. The sworn sisterhood, or ‘jiebai’, is a local custom of women creating a sister like union among each other, sharing support and encouragement. ‘Nüshu’ enabled ‘jiebai’ sisters to continue their communication even after one - or both - of them would marry and leave their hometowns. During weddings, the bride would occasionally perform a type of ‘nüge’ called ‘küge’ (‘crying songs’) to express her sadness for leaving her family. A written wedding counterpart of ‘küge’ was ‘sanzhaoshu’ – a book prepared for the bride from her family, sent to her three days after the marriage. These books would contain congratulations, lamenting over the bride leaving her family and good wishes. The third domain belongs to the biographical laments used by women to relieve their frustration by singing or writing about their lives. Next is ‘worship verses’, writing prayers to two female deities, praying in the hope of being given male children. The domain of narrative ‘nüshu’ covered some extraordinary events that touched the women to the extent of writing a ‘nüshu’ or a ‘nüge’ version of them, the example being of a very popular ‘nüshu’/’nüge’ of an eighteen-year-old girl married to a three-year-old against her will. Finally, women using ‘nüshu’ as a way of transcribing and recording some old male songs and stories, enabling them to praise women power.

Chapter 2 ends with exploring the origins of ‘nüshu’. The story revolves around a concubine taken by an emperor who found a way of sending her letters and passing the court censors by inventing a new system of writing. The chapter’s end reveals that the book will resolve around for women born in different years with different cultural backgrounds: Tang Baozhen, He Yanxin, Hu Xinkui, and Hu Meiyue.


In Chapter 3 “Tang Baozhen: I Sing and Therefore I Am and Become”, the author presents the first among four crucial figures in the research of ‘nüshu’ and ‘nüge’. Tang Baozhen explains the importance of ‘nüshu’ for the women of her time; both literate and illiterate women found in ‘nüshu’ a sense of social belonging. This chapter also focuses on exploring the true importance of ‘nüshu’; women who weren’t able to write could still participate in social events or lament alone by singing ‘nüge’. Even though Tang Baozhen was not proficient in ‘nüshu’, with her sworn sister’s help, she turned her lamenting life story from ‘nüge’ to ‘nüshu’, contributing in that way to both forms of practicing this old craft.

Chapter 3 also explores the transcending power of ‘nüshu’; women could continue their communication even after they got married and moved to another town. This leads to another type of ‘nüshu’ being introduced: the wedding genre ‘nüshu’ called ‘sanzhaoshu’. This type of ‘nüshu’ was very useful for women at weddings to establish a new network in the sisterhood. ‘Sanzhaoshu’ was usually prepared by the bride’s family or ‘jiebai’ sisters, consisting of lamenting the bride’s departure, wishing her happiness and congratulating the bride’s in-laws.

Chapter 4 “He Yanxin: Calling and Recalling the Sentiments of Nüshu” opens with the second most important ‘nüshu’ contributor for the author’s research. This highly prolific chapter follows the storyline of He Yanxin – the sworn sister of the author and a very prominent figure not only in exploring ‘nüshu’ scripts but in the author’s life as well. The introduction of the chapter reveals how the author and He Yanxin met and is followed by an extensive biography of He Yanxin, including her contact with ‘nüshu’ through her grandmother and her alienation from ‘nüshu’ after her grandmother’s death. It also describes the lack of connection with her mother and the terrible toll that lack took on the whole life of He Yanxin.

He Yanxin hid the real truth about her ‘nüshu’ skills from the author, believing that talking about it and practicing it again would remind her of her tough life and the death of her grandmother; therefore, running away from the sadness the past brings, He Yanxin concealed her true ‘nüshu’ potential. However, after the illness of He Yanxin’s husband, she found comfort in ‘nüshu’ again. Encouraged by a Japanese scholar, He Yanxin started writing down the scripts she remembered from her childhood and became a very important participant in the ‘nüshu’ scholar’s field research. He Yanxin continued writing ‘nüshu’ after she joined the research field, lamenting over the difficulties of her daily life - working at a farm and experiencing family issues. Through He Yanxin’s story, the real beauty of ‘nüshu’ can be seen: making ‘nüshu’ not only a way of expressing sorrow but a device that enables the practitioner to reflect on her/his past, as well. The chapter ends with an extensive 1200-word long biography of He Yanxin’s grandmother, written by He Yanxin herself, as a way of honoring the most important person from her childhood.

Chapter 5 “Hu Xinkui: Child Bride, Party Cadre, Housewife” gives insight into the life of Hu Xinkui, an illiterate child bride who rose to be the director of women’s affairs in Lima, Shangjiangxu. The beginning of the chapter introduces the ‘kuge’ ritual, or the bridal lamentation, through Hu Xinkui’s wedding ceremony. ‘Kuge’ would last for three consecutive days, and it would open with the ceremony of ‘kaisheng’, or “initiating the lamentation”. One of the ‘kuge’ songs from the chapter shows the variation of ‘kuge’, where the bride joins the lamentation, expressing her sorrow for leaving her home. Hu Xinkui also explains - through singing some ‘kuge’ songs - that ‘kuge’ is not something that can be taught or learned; it is rather something one feels through other people’s lamentation that prompts one to release the sadness through singing, as well.


In Chapter 6, “Hu Meiyue: Crossroads of Tradition and Modernity”, the story of the newer generations of ‘nüshu’ practitioners is explored. Hu Meiyue, the youngest among the four women presented in the book, represents the new generation, and the future, of the ‘nüshu’ practice. Hu Meiyue is not only a ‘nüshu’ practitioner, but a ‘nüshu’ chuanren (‘nüshu’ transmitter), as well. The title of the ‘nüshu’ chuanren became an official award given by the Jianyong Propaganda Office, reflecting the acknowledgement of the cultural significance ‘nüshu’ has finally obtained.

Hu Meiyue was exposed to ‘nüshu’ from a very young age, listening to her grandmother and her sworn sisters perform various ceremonial ‘nüshu’ songs. Over time, Hu Meiyue started participating in those events more and more, which lead to her developing a strong passion toward ‘nüge’, after which she started learning how to write ‘nüshu’. Here, Hu Meiyue elaborates on ‘nüge’ being undermined once the scholars discovered the script. There is a tendency to transcribe all ‘nüge’ songs, which, she says is “[silencing] the socially repressed and illiterate women who had long relied on oral performance to empower themselves.”

Hu Meiyue’s contribution to the modern practice of ‘nüshu’ is not only reflected in her recollection of the songs she’s learned, but also in writing new songs and teaching ‘nüshu’ to all those interested in learning it. Some of the songs she wrote, like “Origins of ‘nüshu’”, were written as an additional material for her teaching, where, through writing in ‘nüshu’, she not only shows the characters and the writing system but the social and historical background of the script as well.

The end of the chapter deals with authorities from the Jiangyong Propaganda Office taking over ‘nüshu’ and adapting it for the sake of “beautifying it”. The chapter addresses the question explored in the conclusion of Chapter 7: is it fair for ‘nüshu’ to become a script about happiness rather than lamentation? And: is ‘nüshu’ still a “women’s” script if it is used to transliterate the writings of the male elites? Chapter 7 focuses on female strength again and the liberation and independence women obtained by practicing ‘nüshu’ and ‘nüge’. Women were finally allowed to express their “true selves” without any constraints or social ranking conditioning. ‘Nüshu’ was a script by women for women. The chapter’s end contrasts two forms of wedding rituals: ‘sanzhaoshu’ and the bridal ‘nüge’. Both are forms of lamentation, performed at weddings and publicly; however, the oral variant is much stronger, being performed live and carrying an abundance of overwhelming emotions. The chapter’s ends remind the reader of all the sentiments ‘nüshu’ and ‘nüge’ originally carry: lament, pity, gratitude, criticism, bitterness, helplessness, doubt, and many others.

The book ends with three appendices that provide a unique insight into the position of women and female writing in China, finishing with a magnificent bridal lamentation. Appendix 1 portrays the image of widow women in rural China, where women were praised for controlling their sexuality, remaining single after the husband’s death, following their husbands in everything, and expressing no interest in having power. Appendix 2 depicts two types of female writing: ‘guixiu’ – the one used by the educated one and the now well-known ‘nüshu’ – used by peasants. Both types of letters were exchanged among women, making them a powerful tool to express support and empathy among the females. The difference between these two types of writing is that ‘guixiu’ was a creative form of writing, written to be read in book reading clubs founded by the female elite, whereas ‘nüshu’ never intended to become a part of a public domain but rather a tool for expressing women’s individual feelings. Appendix 3 closes the book with an example of a wedding lamentation in a form of a dialog performed originally by Tang Nianzhi and her niece, the bride, for her wedding.

EVALUATION

Overall, the book is an exceptionally compelling mélange of etymological, historical, and linguistic studies depicting women’s lives via their struggles, fears, insecurities, and strengths. The author exquisitely contrasts the four women belonging to different generations by narrating their stories about script that was taught through generations of women. The author has marvelously accomplished her goal of showing how ‘nüshu’ evidently helped women transcend geographical boundaries and empathize among each other, turning female vulnerability into strength. ‘Nüge’ - the oral version of ‘nüshu’ - proved once again to be the remedy for women who had nothing but their voice in silence, or among other women who were suffering from severe patriarchal oppression and derogation.

The extensive examples of the songs and scripts the author has collected over time and presented in the book give a unique insight into the mindsets of women at the time: their hardships and the strain the society put on them. The author provides very extensive biographies of all these women, allowing the reader to become fully emerged into the lives of these four women and discern the significance ‘nüshu’ had for each and every one of them and other women of their time.

Due to my personal preference, I would have liked to see more of the language potential itself explored in greater detail rather than the lives of ‘nüshu’ practitioners. It would be worth taking the study one step further to explore the history of the dying language: the roots, beginnings and development of ‘nüshu’.

To conclude, the book not only explores the origin and usage of the women’s scripts by the women, but it also raises some essential questions including the following: How can the natural archaic beauty of ‘nüshu’ be preserved now that it has been discovered by scholars and acknowledged for its cultural significance? How can the women’s script be saved from using it for transliterating male elite’s writings? And how does turning ‘nüshu’ to singing and writing about happiness rather than sadness threaten to demolish the traditional foundations generations of women have built on their tears?

REFERENCES

Cameron, Deborah (ed). 1998. “The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. 2nd edition.” New York and London: Routledge.

Chiang, William W. 1995. “We Two Know the Script: We have Become Good Friends”: Linguistic and Social Aspects of The Women's Script Literacy in Southern Hunan,
China. New York: University Press of America, Inc.

Coates, Jennifer. 1993. “Women, Men and Language: A Sociolinguistic Account of Gender Differences in Language. Second Edition.” London and New York: Longman.

Ettner, Charles. 2002. “In Chinese, men and women are equal - or - women and men are equal?” In: Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. Volume 2. Edited by Marlis Hellinger and Hadumod Bussmann. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub. Co. Pp. 29-55.

Fan, Carol C. 1996. “Language, gender and Chinese culture.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 10.1:95-114.

Farris, Catherine S. 1988. “Gender and grammar in Chinese: with implications for language universals.” Modern China 14.3:277-308.

Greenhalgh, Susan. 1977. “Bound feet, hobbled lives: women in old China.” Frontiers: Journal of Women's Studies 2.1:7-21.

Hong, Wei. 1997. “Gender differences in Chinese request patterns.” Journal of Chinese Linguistics 25.2:193-210.

Liu, Fei-wen. 1997. “Nüzi (Female Script), Nüshu (Female Literature), Nüge (Female Songs) and Peasant Women's De-Silencing of Themselves.” Jiangyong County, Hunan Province, China. Ph.D. dissertation, Syracuse University.

Silber, Cathy. 1995. “Women's writing from Hunan.” In: China for Women: Travel and Culture, edited by The Feminist Press Travel Series. New York: The Feminist Press. Pp. 13-19.

Zhao, Liming. 1998. ''Nüshu: Chinese women's characters.'' International Journal of the Sociology of Language 129:127-137.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Marina Ivanovic is an MA student at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. Her interests include Sociolinguistics, Psycholinguistics and Gender Studies.

Versions:
Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780190210403
Pages: 272
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