女書 (Nüshu, literally “women’s writing”) is a writing system that was created in secrecy and used exclusively by women in the remote Jiangyong county of Hunan province. Passed down from generation to generation, Nüshu allowed the women to express themselves and was the only means of communicating with other women of their social group. It is not known when or how Nüshu originated but it is based on the standard Chinese script. It reached its peak during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and fell into decline during the second half of the 20th century when younger girls and women stopped learning Nüshu due to greater literacy and educational access. Yang Huangy, the last of the original writer of this script died in 2004, but efforts have been made by the Chinese government to preserve the endangered script and set up programs to teach younger women.
Nüshu is phonetic, unlike the standard written Chinese. Each of its approximately 600-700 characters represents a syllable and are an italic variant form of Chinese characters, with some modified to better fit embroidery patterns. As in traditional Chinese writing, the script is written from top to bottom, and when horizontal, from right to left. A large number of Nüshu works took form as songs, cloth-bound booklets created by 結拜姊妹 (“sworn sisters”) and mothers, and given to their counterparts upon marriage, poems and lyrics. These would be handwoven into belts and straps or embroidered onto clothing.