Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Religious Studies


James Benn


Nüshu, or "Women's Script" is a system of writing indigenous to a small group of village women in Jiangyong County, Hunan Province, China. Used exclusively by and for these women, the script was developed in order to write down their oral traditions that may have included songs, prayers, stories and biographies. However, since being discovered by Chinese and Western researchers, nüshu has been rapidly brought out of this Chinese village locale. At present, the script has become an object of fascination for diverse audiences all over the world. It has been both the topic of popular media presentations and publications as well as the topic of major academic research projects published in Engli$h, German, Chinese and Japanese. Resultantly, nüshu has played host to a number of modern explanations and interpretations - all of which attempt to explain I the "how" and the "why" of an exclusively female script developed by supposedly illiterate women. Invariably, the development of this script has been seen as a sign that I women reacted against a male-dominated social order through the creation of language. However, in this thesis, I seek to give a divergent interpretation. In trying to appreciate nüshu on its own terms, I will situate the phenomenon within the dynamic world of Chinese popular religion. In so doing, I will examine popular trends in religious and moral culture that were contemporaneous with nüshu and I will analyze the relationship between the individual and the written word vis-a.-vis popular religious orthodoxy. As a result, 1. will question many of our assumptions about the nature of women's oppression in China and hopefully open nüshu up to new and diverse methods of analysis.

McMaster University Library

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