Women who de-silence themselves: Male-illegible literature (Nushu) and female-specific songs (Nuge) in Jiangyong County, Hunan Province, China

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan S. Wadley


women writers, performance, writing

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Women in China were traditionally uneducated and illiterate and, as a result, writing history became exclusively preserved for men. If women, particularly the peasant class, were able to write, would they produce a "herstory" different from men's "history?" Oral tradition has long been women's predominant "weapon" for self-expression and mutual communication. What if women enjoyed some writing tool as men did, would they "write" their herstory in a different way than they "orally" perform it? This dissertation investigates these questions by exploring male-illegible female literature, nushu, and female-specific songs, nuge, used by women in Jiangyong County, Hunan Province, China.

The main theme of this dissertation is to examine how women as "the weak of society" use "the weapon of the weak" to empower themselves as individuals, to socialize themselves into groups, and to de-silence themselves. Approached from performance- and context-centered as well as textual analyses, this research intends to uncover women's voices in terms of how Chinese peasant women conceptualize their lives, (re)construct their identities, and strategically negotiate with the social reality that constrains them. It also explores two largely unexplored inquiries: how women's "herstory" differs and complements men's "history" in terms of textual structure, historiography, and epistemology; and how women's written literature is different from, and interacts with, their oral folklore in terms of function and expressive power.


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