Nüshu: the secret language of women in ancient China

Imagine that you are an upper class Chinese woman living in a rural Chinese province in the 1600s. You live an isolated life. Your feet were bound from childhood, so that you could not wander or engage with people outside your household. You spend your time in the north room of a house, where you embroider all day, and are kept isolated from others. You have no formal education, and it seems difficult to communicate with other women, and perhaps it is impossible to have any private communication. What do you do?

If you were a member of one group of Chinese women, you would create your own secret script, which could only be read by other women. We will never know the names of these innovators, but they created their own literary world with an invented writing system, Nüshu. As many scholars have noted, this may be the only script in the world that was intended only for women.

What is most remarkable to me about this language is not only that it existed, but also that it has endured. Indeed, a new documentary called Hidden Letters, directed by a Chinese woman named Violet Feng, which describes how people are now trying to revive this language. In addition, there is a wonderful wonderful podcast episode by Rebecca Kanthor for the World, in which you can hear how Nüshu (which means women’s book) has been appropriated by other actors, who now use it to teach women how to behave according to traditional etiquette. It has even appeared in a KFC commercial- really! But the enduring legacy of this script is its memory of how it created a shared community of women using text written not only in letters, but also on personal objects such as scarves.

If you are interested to learn more, you can also listen to Lazlo Montgomery’s history of this secret writing on the Chinese History Podcast. Or if you are curious to read a novel on the topic, Lisa See has a new book based on this history titled Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. This website for the the book says: “A language kept a secret for a thousand years forms the backdrop for an unforgettable novel of two Chinese women whose friendship and love sustains them through their lives.”

What’s interesting to me that new secret writings continually appear. Today in China people try to evade censors on WeChat by using codes for certain key words, often by relying pinyin that has been shortened to just a couple of key letters. Women have developed their own shorthand for key words (such as husband) to try to keep some conversations confidential. Other Chinese people choose to speak in their home villages’ local dialects when making video calls on WeChat (and talk very quickly) in the hope of evading censors. In some ways this is not dissimilar from what young people do with their texts in Europe or the United States, as emojis and acronyms convey new -often sexual- meanings.

The last known native writer of this women’s language, Yang Huanyi, died in central China in 2004, when she was perhaps 98 years old. She was a graceful and fluid writer, who published a book of prose and poems the year of her death. At this point the writing system was at least four centuries old, although some argue that it is based on a far older writing system, as the article at the link above suggests: “Some experts presume that the language is related to inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells of the Yin Ruins from more than 3,000 years ago, but no conclusions have been reached as to when the language originated.” If so, how long did this unusual women’s writing system truly exist?

What is also remarkable is that hundreds of examples of this writing survive. The texts were not meant to outlive the reader, as this article also described: “Nushu manuscripts are extremely rare because, according to the local custom, they were supposed to be burnt or buried with the dear departed in sacrifice.” So this ancient writing system, which was designed to be ephemeral, has been adapted into a new Chinese world, where it now appears in places as diverse as pop culture and scholarship.

I want to learn it.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

Italy, language learning and travel

One of my favorite things in life is language learning, which for me entails studying both Portuguese and Chinese. I don’t think that I am naturally good at languages; I just enjoy studying them. I have no ambitions to become a polyglot. I think that studying Chinese in particular will take me the rest of my life. I currently have five one hour language study sessions a week, which is how I distract myself from all the responsibilities and challenges of my work and daily life.

I think that we are living in the golden age of language learning. There are more tools to study a language than ever before. And with online platforms like Preply and iTalki it’s easier than it has ever been before to study a language. No longer do you have to find the one Portuguese speaker in your town. You can create an immersive experience with language tutors, YouTube or BiliBili. Of course, everyone learns differently, and for many people the structure of a regular class is both familiar and helpful. I’ve just posted an interview with Dr. Kathi Ketcheson on my podcast, Dispatch 7. We talked about how she came to fall in love with Italian, her experiences teaching Italian in community education, why language learning matters, and how her language study and her travels in Italy are connected. If you are curious to hear her interview, you can listen to it here.

Shawn Smallman 2022

What the United States could learn from France about regional transit

I am very grateful to Magwyer Grimes -a senior studying international studies and economics- for this guest post:

I’ve recently had the chance to study abroad in Lyon, France for the 2021-22 academic school year and by far the most common question that I receive from Americans and French people alike is: what is the biggest cultural difference between the United States and France? Much to their dismay, and instead of talking about the language or the cuisine, I always point to the difference in transportation systems. Upon hearing this, their eyes usually start to glaze over because it sounds like such a minute difference but, in fact, it touches every aspect of daily French and American life. I found myself looking forward to catching a train to Paris or even simply using the metro to get to work. A stark contrast from the dreaded car commute to work or the overhyped 5-hour road trip to Seattle.  

In the United States, the decision to travel between cities or regions essentially boils down to a choice between the plane or the automobile. Both of which are less than ideal in terms of ecological and socioeconomic impacts. Ecologically, planes are an environmental disaster, with one average long-haul flight producing more emissions per passenger than an average person produces in an entire year in dozens of countries. Socioeconomically, someone without a car in the United States is functionally excluded from larger labor markets and, to a large extent, having a social life as many cities lack even basic public transit. 

Well, I hear you ask, what about Amtrak? Don’t they operate interregional routes across the United States? Amtrak does indeed operate many interregional passenger rail routes across the United States, but these routes are often plagued by high ticket prices, slow operating speeds, frequent service delays and maintenance issues resulting from decades of disinvestment. On several occasions, I’ve had the chance to take the Oregon Amtrak route from Portland to Salem which, in theory, should be a simple one-hour train ride in a straight line with few complications. Every time that I’ve taken it, however, I’ve been left sitting in the train for an extra hour or two due to maintenance issues. What’s more, the ticket price generally exceeds the price that gas would be for an alternate one-hour car ride.

In France, the Amtrak interregional equivalent is called the RER, the Réseau Express Régional (English: Regional Express Network). The RER operates more daily trains than Amtrak and at a fraction of the cost for the consumer. Depending on the region, one could expect to pay around 4 or 5 euros for a one-hour interregional train that comes at all hours of the day. A quick search on Amtrak’s website, however, shows that the Portland to Salem route has only three trains running the entirety of tomorrow, Friday June 25th, with ticket prices ranging from $17 to $45. 

The United States is also severely underdeveloped in terms of high-speed rail services. There is currently only one high-speed route in the United States and that is along the Northeast Corridor connecting Boston, New York City, and Washington D.C. with 13 other intermediate stops depending on the train schedule. It is telling, however, that this corridor is the busiest passenger rail line in the United States and highly successful with over 260 million trips made on the Northeast Corridor each year and a comfortable profit margin on Amtrak’s Acela Express route which runs the fastest trains in Amtrak’s portfolio. 

It’s clear that when provided with safe, affordable, and fast regional transit options, Americans have no apprehensions about taking advantage of these services. But decades of neglect and weak levels of investment in passenger rail have left much of America with the glorified highway system as their only option. However, recent developments give us reasons to be hopeful. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in late 2021 allocates a historic $66 billion over 5 years to upgrading the nation’s surface rail infrastructure. This alone won’t be sufficient in bringing the nation’s passenger rail up to par with that of other developed nations, but it’s a noticeable indication that things are changing in a nation previously known for its addiction to endless highway expansion. Lastly, new developments in states as diverse as California and Texas demonstrate the interest in high-speed passenger rail is growing. It will be up to us to maintain the pressure on our elected officials to ensure that these kinds of projects are encouraged and not killed off to maintain the preeminence of the interstate highway system. 

The long retreat from the coasts

In a sense, human history since the end of the ice age has been the story of one long retreat from the ocean. I sometimes wonder if this is not why stories of floods are not so common in many cultures globally. Of course, flooding is a common human experience. But vast amounts of territory have been lost globally, from Beringia in the north Pacific, to the lost region of Doggerland between the United Kingdom and Denmark. This is why fishermen can pull harpoons out of the ocean near the Dogger Bank in the North Sea.

With global warming, this process is continuing. Some of my favorite places will be lost to the waters, such as south Florida. Entire cities are being moved to make way for this process. In some areas, such as China, the challenges are immense. But how can this transition be managed. Canada’s Hakai Institute has one of my favorite online journals, which focuses on marine issues. I strongly recommend one recent piece, ”Letting the Sea Have its Way,” which details the story of how Britain is abandoning some oceanside land. By allowing this terrain to return to the marsh that it once was, the nation gains environmental benefits, while also increasing local resiliency against flooding. This text itself is a selection from a forthcoming book by Erica Gies, ”Water Always Wins.” Based on this selection, this book will certainly be on my reading list.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

How to follow the War in Ukraine

Like everyone, I’m following the war in Ukraine. There are many great websites to keep up to date on military events there, such as the Oryx blog and the Institute for the Study of War. But there is also a new site, which provides a daily war map, an interactive map, and videos. It’s called Ukraine Map, Daily Ukraine War Reports, and it’s a useful new resource to follow events.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

The strange and addictive global geography game

Years ago I used to teach my ”Introduction to International Studies” class online with a custom-built geography quiz. Students had to learn a list of approximately 60 countries, as well as some basic geographical features. Although this sounds quite simple to build, in practice the instructional designer that I worked with found it really hard to keep the system functioning.

Fast forward a decade, and there a plethora of such platforms freely available. But the most fun way to learn global geography is probably Globle. Much like Wordle, there is only a single game to play a day. In this case, you need to learn the identify of a mystery country. You start by guessing a country for which you know the location. The first information that you will get is how close this country’s border is to the mystery country. And then you keep guessing successive countries. You can see a ranking of your countries by how close they are to your target country. This may sound a little complicated, but after you’ve played it a couple of times it’s second nature. And if it sounds too easy, in my experience it’s not at all.

This is a really fun tool- enjoy!

Shawn Smallman, 2022

Online summer class: “The US and the World”

This summer I will be teaching a fully online, core class. This is a “no-cost” class, in which all of the resources are available as links, mostly to videos and articles available through the PSU library. There is no final exam. If you want to better understand everything from China’s relationship with the United States, to current tensions between Russia and the United States over the invasion of Ukraine, this is the course for you.

What should you know about NATO?

I’ve been on sabbatical for the last year, and was fortunate enough to spend the fall in Lisbon and Coimbra, where i was studying the 1918 influenza pandemic in Macau. When I was packing to travel to Portugal the last thing to go in my suitcase was supposed to be my microphone, so that I could do my podcast. But when the time came there wasn’t room, and I decided to take a break. That time away turned into a more than six month hiatus, but I’m happy to say that I’ve returned to podcasting.

To start season two, I was fortunate enough to talk with Peter Olson, who is not only an old friend, but also the former legal advisor to the Secretary General of NATO. You can hear his thoughts on NATO here. Next I’ll have an interview with someone who teaches Italian, who will talk not only about language learning and Italian, but also Italy itself. I’m also hoping to have an interview with a particular virologist soon, who can share some interesting thoughts on the origins of COVID. Please stay tuned.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine

There are a plethora of sources available to cover the conflict in Ukraine, but I think that two in particular are worth noting. First, the Oryx blog uses open source intelligence to track hardware losses. It’s based in the Netherlands, and is so effective that I have the feeling that even governments rely upon it. The blog also covers issues such as which European nations are donating equipment to Ukraine. If you are interested in objective information about Russian losses, or equipment donations, this is the source for you.

This conflict has also seen an unprecedented information war, one which Ukraine has certainly been winning. In my opinion, the best analysis of open source intelligence is Bellingcat. This blog provides critical thinking and research related to digital issues, but in the case of Ukraine it also provides key data on military events. If you only want to follow a couple of blogs to learn more about the conflict, these are the top two that I would suggest.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

Photo by Chuanchai Pundej on Unsplash

Bananas, wine and the collapse of complex societies

Photo by Alistair Smailes on Unsplash

With the current fighting in Ukraine, and sanctions on Russia, some nations are facing the real possibility of food shortages next year. Ukraine is an agricultural powerhouse, which produces a high percentage of some global crops, in particular wheat. Of course, there have been global shortages throughout the pandemic. The rising price of gas -before the invasion of Ukraine- had already created series social and economic issues from Brazil to Europe. Still, no commodity may be as fundamental as food.

The Guardian has a wonderful article, “Our Food System isn’t ready for the climate crisis,” which looks at how global societies have become increasingly reliant on a declining number of crops. In turn, there has been a dramatic reduction in the genetic diversity of the crops that we do use. Plant varieties may be selected less for their ability to evade disease than their ability to be shipped large distance without rotting. As a result, our entire food web has become less resilient at the same time that we face the greatest challenge in modern history, the dramatic impact of climate change.

There are some scholars who suggest that one of the factors that led to the Bronze Age collapse around 1172 BC (and the end of an earlier period of globalization) was the loss of tin supply routes from Afghanistan, which made it difficult to produce bronze. As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, if China enters lockdown, car manufacturers in Germany can’t get their chips. As the Financial Times reported in a recent podcast, the world has a critical shortage of some key metals.

One of my favorite books is Joseph Tainter’s, the Collapse of Complex Societies. The work combines both archaeology and a systems perspective to look at how civilizations collapse. Tainter’s argument is that societies tend to become increasingly complex in order to address problems, but that with time this complexity often carries increasing costs while delivering marginal returns. When the costs of complexity begin to exceed its advantages, societies can suddenly become simpler, less hierarchical, more rural and smaller. In other words, they collapse.

I think many people have been aware for a long time how vulnerable aspects of modern society are to all kinds of shocks. But the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a fascination with the supply underpinnings of our global economy. The podcast “Ship happens” has become an unexpected hit, which is unusual for a podcast that focuses on logistical issues and the global supply chain. But I think that if there was just one global area to focus on it should be food, even more than energy. You can work remotely, dress more warmly, or take a bus to reduce your energy consumption. But it’s hard for most urban dwellers to produce much of their own food.

When I moved into my new apartment in Portland this year there was a bottle of wine waiting for me on the counter. It was a 2020 pinot noir from an Oregon winery. While I appreciated the gift, it was almost undrinkable because forest fires in California and Oregon that year had given the grapes a powerfully smoky taste. Whites or a pinot blanc were unaffected, because they lose their skins during the wine making process. But red wines that year tasted like smoke. Besides the impact of fires, the climate in Oregon is changing, which will impact wineries throughout the state. Last fall I spent six weeks in Portugal, which has a long history growing wine in a warmer and dryer climate, using grape varietals that have emerged over the course of more than two millennia. Why don’t wine producers in Oregon adopt these varieties? There are a plethora of options, which would be well-suited to future climate scenarios in the state. But they take time to grow, so that if we are going to experiment with this option, these varieties need to planted now. Ten years ago would have been better, and twenty years ago even better yet.

To the best of my knowledge, only one vintner in Oregon is experimenting with Portuguese, Spanish, Italian or Greek varietals. I think that Abacela may be the leader in the industry (many thanks to Stephen Frenkel for this information). Brazil has made real advances in wine production in the last thirty years, but you would never know it outside the country itself. Wine snobs would probably not even try wine produced in the tropics. Instead, with wine, bananas, avocados and potatoes, we usually still rely on the same old options that we did a generation or two ago. But climate change is coming. If the pandemic and Ukrainian invasion rock our current supply chains, what will happen when global warming seriously impacts food production? We need to rethink which crops we rely on, which varietals we use, and how we supply food on a global level.

References

Lakhani, Nina, Alvin Chang, Rita Liu, and Andrew Witherspoon. “Our Food System Isn’t Ready for the Climate Crisis.” The Guardian. April 14, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/food/ng-interactive/2022/apr/14/climate-crisis-food-systems-not-ready-biodiversity.

Tainter. (1988). The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge University Press.

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