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Literacy, Gender, and Class: Nüshu and Sisterhood Communities In Southern Rural Hunan

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In this article, I investigate how peasant women in Jiangyong County of southern Hunan defined and practiced a female-specific written script known as nüshu ('female writing'). With an emphasis on sisterhood relationships, I explore how women employed nüshu to construct meaning, experience autonomy, and acknowledge the androcentric impositions made upon them, which in turn highlights the dual nature of nüshu literacy. On the one hand, nüshu empowered women by allowing them to expand female connections beyond the confines of male-derived familial ties and village boundaries; on the other hand, it embodied Jiangyong peasant women's frustration over their failure to sustain such connections after marriage. To contrast nüshu with the gentry women's literary communities in the Lower Yangzi region during late imperial China, this research demonstrates how literacy dynamically interacts with the social forces of gender and class. Whereas female literati's social networks were able to expand and be sustained and even succeeded in penetrating male scholarly circles, nüshu sisterhood communities often failed to survive in face of the challenges set by village exogamy, mainly due to the lack of male support and to Jiangyong's rural context.


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