Nushu – A Secret Language – IELTS Academic Reading Passage

A. It is sometimes said that men and women communicate in different languages. For hundreds of years in the Jiangyong County of Hunan Province, China, this was quite literally the case. Sometime between 400 and 1,000 years ago, women defied the patriarchal norms of the time that forbade them to read or write and conceived of Nu shu — literally, ‘ women’s language ’ — a secretive script and language of their own. Through building informal networks of ‘sworn sisters’ who committed themselves to teaching the language only to other women, and by using it artistically in ways that could be passed off as artwork (such as writing characters on a decorative fan), Nushu was able to grow and spread without attracting too much suspicion.

B. Nushu has many orthographical distinctions from the standard Chinese script. Whereas standard Chinese has large, bold strokes that look as if they might have been shaped with a thick permanent marker pen, Nushu characters are thin, slanted and have a slightly ‘scratchy’ appearance that bears more similarity to calligraphy. Whereas standard Chinese is logographic, with characters that represent words and meanings, Nushu is completely phonetic — each character represents a sound; the meaning must be acquired from the context of what is being said. Users of Nushu developed coded meanings for various words and phrases, but it is likely that only a tiny fraction of these will ever be known. Many secrets of Nushu have gone to the grave.

C. Nushu was developed as a way to allow women to communicate with one another in confidence. To some extent, this demand came from a desire for privacy, and Nushu allowed women a forum for personal written communication in a society that was dominated by a male-orientated social culture. There was also a practical element to the rise of Nushu, however: until the mid 20th century, women were rarely encouraged to become literate in the standard Chinese script. Nushu provided a practical and easy-to-learn alternative. Women who were separated from their families and friends by marriage could, therefore, send ‘letters’ to each other. Unlike traditional correspondence, however, Nushu characters were painted or embroidered onto everyday items like fans, pillowcases, and handkerchiefs and embodied in ‘artwork’ in order to avoid making men suspicious.

D. After the Chinese Revolution, more women were encouraged to become literate in the standard Chinese script, and much of the need for a special form of women’s communication was dampened. When the Red Guard discovered the script in the 1960s, they thought it to be a code used for espionage. Upon learning that it was a secret women’s language, they were suspicious and fearful. Numerous letters, weavings, embroideries, and other artefacts were destroyed, and women were forbidden to practise Nushu customs. As a consequence, the generational chains of linguistic transmission were broken up, and the language ceased being passed down through sworn sisters. There is no longer anyone alive who has learnt Nushu in this traditional manner; Yang Huanyi, the last proficient user of the language, died on September 20, 2004, in her late 90s.

E. In recent years, however, popular and scholarly interest in Nushu has blossomed. The Ford Foundation granted US$209,000 to build a Nushu Museum that houses artefacts such as audio recordings, manuscripts, and articles, some of which date back over 100 years. The investment from Hong Kong SAR is also being used to build infrastructure at potential tourist sites in Hunan, and some schools in the area have begun instruction in the language. Incidentally, the use of Nushu is also a theme in Lisa See’s historical novel. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which has since been adapted for film.

Questions 1-5
Reading Passage 1 has five sections, A-E. Choose the correct heading for each section from the list of headings below.

1 Section A
2 Section B
3 Section C
4 Section D
5 Section E

List of headings
i Financial costs
ii Decline and disuse
iii Birth and development
iv Political uses of Nushu
v The social role of Nushu
vi Last of the Nushu speakers
vii Characteristics of written Nushu
viii Revival and contemporary interest

Questions 6-7
Choose TWO letters, A-E. Write your answers in boxes 6-7 on your answer sheet.

Why was there a need for Nushu? Which TWO reasons are given in the text?

A It provided new artistic opportunities for female artisans.
B It was a way for uneducated women to read and write.
C Not enough women were taking an interest in literature.
D It was a way for women to correspond without men knowing.
E It helped women believe in themselves and their abilities.

Questions 8-13
Do the following statements agree with the information given in Reading Passage 1? In boxes 8-13 on your answer sheet, write

TRUE                               if the statement is true
FALSE                             if the statement is false
NOT GIVEN                  if the information is not given in the passage

8 The post-Revolution government did not want women to read or write in any language.
9 At first, the Red Guard thought Nushu might be a tool for spies.
10 Women could be punished with the death penalty for using Nushu.
11 The customary way of learning Nushu has died out
12 There is a lot of money to be made out of public interest in Nushu.
13 Nushu is now being openly taught.

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