It is one of China’s disappearing languages and has a long tradition of singing. US-based Chinese composer Tan Dun travelled to the remote area of Jiangyong county over a 12-year period, to collect the stories and songs passed down over generations.
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“In the sex-segregated world of traditional China, girls and women did not have the same access to literacy as boys and men, and most people—male or female—were illiterate. However, throughout China’s history there were always women who could read and write, and by late Imperial times, women’s poetry became a matter of considerable family pride in elite circles. Reforms of the early 20th century, which popularized education and promulgated a writing style reflective of speech (baihuawen) to replace the arcane literary style (wenyanwen), increased literacy rates for both males and females. It is not known when or how Nüshu came into being, but—because it is clearly based in the standard Chinese script, hanzi—Nüshu could not have been created before standardization of hanzi (circa 900). Many of the simplifications found in Nüshu had been in informal use in standard Chinese since the Song and Yuan dynasty (13th – 14th century). It seems to have reached its peak during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).
Though a local educated worker at the Jiangyong Cultural Office (Zhou Shuoyi) had collected, studied and translated many Nüshu texts into standard Chinese, he was unable to draw outside attention to the script until a report was submitted to the central government on this subject in 1983.
During the latter part of the 20th century, owing more to wider social, cultural and political changes than the narrow fact of greater access to hanzi literacy, younger girls and women stopped learning Nüshu, and it began falling into disuse, as older users died. The script was suppressed by the Japanese during their invasion of China in the 1930s-40s, because they feared that the Chinese could use it to send secret messages, and also during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The last original writers of the script died in the 1990s (the last one in 2004). It is no longer customary for women to learn Nüshu, and literacy in Nüshu is now limited to a few scholars who learned it from the last women who were literate in it. However, after Yang Yueqing made a documentary about Nüshu, the government of the People’s Republic of China started to popularize the effort to preserve the increasingly endangered script, and some younger women are beginning to learn it.”