SECRET SCRIPT Volunteers Decode Mother-Daughter Language By Norma Libman Taipei, Taiwan - This is the ultimate in secret codes. For at least 200 years (some experts think it might be closer to 2,000), female villagers in the Hunan Province of China had their own secret written language that was passed on from mother to daughter, from older sister to younger, from friend to friend, according to Su Chien-ling, vice chairwoman of the Awakening Foundation, which worked to decipher the script. No one except the women knew about it until the 1950's when it was discovered, quite by accident, in Jiang Yung County in China's Hunan Province, Su says. At that time a woman trying to find her childhood home became lost. She had some directions written on paper, which she took to a police station and asked for help. No one could read one word of what was written on the paper. It resembled Mandarin Chinese, but it was not Chinese. The characters were more design-like than Chinese characters. None held any meaning for the people who looked at it. Despite the intriguing nature of this event and the slow unraveling of the story behind it as more examples of the script were found on fans, handkerchiefs, napkins and other items and used by women, not until 1982 did anyone try to translate the script into modern Chinese. At that point, Gong Zhe-bing, a male professor from Central Southern Ethnic Studies College in Wuban, China, attempted to interest other scholars in translating the writing. He even found three women who had been taught the mysterious language and could still write it. When he could find no interest in the project in China, Gong contacted the Awakening Foundation in Taipei, an activist group at the forefront of the growing women's movement in Taiwan. According Cheng Jhi-huei, a board member, the foundation was delighted to take on the work, and a group of 30 volunteers translated all the existing Nu Shu [women's script] into Mandarin in six months. Hu Chin-yun, a director of the Awakening Foundation, says, "Our volunteers enjoyed the work, becoming more excited every day by what they were finding in the text about the details of everyday life and the inner thoughts and feelings of women. We printed 1,000 copies of the book, Nu Shu [Women's New Knowledge Foundation, $40] in 1991. It was an important project for us. Now we are opening a bookstore, Fem Books, in Taiwan." The story behind the script is still not known completely and may never be because its inherent nature is one of secrecy. Over hundreds of years, the women devised the writing as a way to communicate with each other because few were sent to school or taught to read and write Mandarin, Su says. They sewed their stories into fans, scarves, handkerchiefs or napkins and sent them to each other to inform their friends of what was happening in their families, or purely to provide entertainment for their otherwise harsh or boring lives. "They put their wishes on fans and handkerchiefs and brought them to the temple to tell God their wishes," says Su, who teaches English at Ming Chuan College in Taipei. "When a friend would get married, her friend would send the Nu Shu as a wedding present and write her wishes about her marriage. Or if something bad happened, such as a family member got sick, they used the Nu Shu to send their condolences. In this way they kept their friendships even after they married." The men were largely unaware of the secret script. "They paid no attention at all," says Su. "The women were so unimportant to them. It never occurred to the men that their wives were doing anything but sewing. This fact, alone, demonstrates much about the low position of women in Chinese society historically. The idea that they were writing words and sending messages to each other just wouldn't occur to the men, most of whom led virtually separate lives [from the women]." Much of the Nu Shu has been lost over the years. According to Buddhist tradition, when a person died, most of the person's important possessions were burned so they could accompany the deceased to their next existence. For this reason the women often requested their Nu Shu be burned, Su says. Also, many Nu Shu embroidered items were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution of the early Communist era. The majority of the prose and poetry, including epic poems that told personal stories or retold well-known tales and myths, was lost. Still, some wonderful examples exist of the literature of women in China. There is one story a woman has written about her homesickness. She has married and gone to live with her husband's family, in the traditional manner, but she wants to return to her family home. She tells her husband: "Although I have had good times and good days in your home, I don't have anything to do. I have been here so long. I'm so restless. If I could I would step on a lily flower and go back. If you do love me you have to send me back." Then there is a beautiful retelling of an old Chinese tale that combines several familiar themes. Here a young woman dresses as a boy so she can go to school. She has to share a room and a bed with a fellow student, but she never takes her clothes off in front of him so he will not discover her secret. Eventually, though, he learns the truth and they fall in love, but their families will not let them marry. He dies from longing for her, and she commits suicide at his grave. Then, the story goes, the grave opens and two butterflies fly out, and those two butterflies are the young lovers. Nu Shu script has provided great insight into the lives of Chinese women, ancient and modern, Su says. Also, she says, it has awakened an interest in Taiwan in women's studies at the university level. The Awakening Foundation is exploring the possibility of distributing copies of the Nu Shu book to libraries, and there has been some interest on the part of German and Japanese publishers in translating the text into those languages. This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Norma Libman is a freelance journalist who publishes articles in newspapers nationwide. © 1994 Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No portion of this article may be republished without the express written permission of the author TOP OF PAGE
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Should the Jews Return to Spain? By Norma Libman In 1492, following hundreds of years of escalating anti-Jewish violence on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain formally expelled its Jews. Along with the Muslim population and anyone else who was not Christian (i.e. witches, gypsies), Jews were given the choice of converting to Christianity, leaving the land they loved, or risking death if they stayed. In the year 1000 there had been approximately a million Jews, a million Muslims and a million Christians in the area. By 1492, seventy-five percent of the Jews were already gone, either by death, conversion or actually leaving for other places. Of the remaining quarter of a million or so, probably about half went to Portugal as a result of the Edict of Expulsion. They were invited to Portugal by King Manuel, but four years later all those who accepted that invitation were forcibly converted to Christianity by the king. He committed this act in exchange for the hand of the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. And so, ultimately, the Inquisition found its way to Portugal. Most of the rest of the Jews in Spain chose conversion, either sincerely or, more likely in many cases, professing a conversion to Christianity while clinging to Judaism in secret. For the Muslims it was considerably easier. Islam had spread quite widely in the world by then and they had many places, ranging from Northern Africa to Indonesia, where they could safely make new homes. But for the Crypto-Jews, those who converted but decided to remain Jewish in secret, choices were more limited. Still, within fifty years new possibilities were opening up in the New World and many found their way to North and South America. For those who wound up in Mexico and what later became the United States Southwest, they were merely travelling to New Spain, not even leaving the mother country officially, but getting far away from the headquarters of the Inquisition. Which is not to say that they found safety. By the seventeenth century the Inquisition had moved over to the New World and trials and autos-de-fe took place in Mexico City, pushing more people farther north to join their co-religionists who had already made their way up to what would eventually become New Mexico and other parts of the United States. Now, suddenly, Spain has offered citizenship to anyone who can prove they are a descendant of Jews expelled in the fifteenth century. (Portugal has made the same offer and Germany has made a similar overture to Jews and their descendants who left that country during World War II to escape the Holocaust.) Why would Spain do such a thing now? And why would any Jews take them up on the offer? First, why are they offering a short-cut to Spanish citizenship? Suddenly, in a time of growing anti-Semitism in Spain and the rest of the world, the Spanish government wants to bring more Jews into the country. In an article for the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews (Vol. 6, Summer 2014) Jonatas D. Dasilva points out that there are only 12,000 Jews in Spain, which has a population of 42 million, and suggests that low number may reflect the fact that various recent surveys show Spain to be very anti-Semitic. For example, he says, “a report about European anti- Semitism published by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League says that 54 percent of Spaniards believe that ‘Jews have too much power in international markets.’” Some believe that Spain’s offer of citizenship is more about economics than a desire to right a wrong or to enrich the culture of their nation. This would be a great irony since the expulsion, too, was more about money than religion. While Isabella’s concern for saving souls was apparently sincere, Ferdinand and the Spanish government were more interested in keeping the coffers filled in order to support Spain’s operations as a super power. When New Christians were discovered to be practicing Judaism in secret they were tried for heresy, generally convicted if they didn’t die in jail first, and their property confiscated. If they chose to leave Spain to escape forced conversion or death they had to sell their property or businesses for whatever they could get in a hurry, generally at a great loss. And when they left Spain if they were owed money, either privately or by the government, those debts were erased, leaving the Jewish lender impoverished and the borrower free of debt. Now Spain is suffering the same economic problems as the rest of Europe and much of the world. While they speak of the richness these new citizens will add to their culture, it is also true that offering an easy road to citizenship to some Jews will not only bring in cash, but will surely result in new start-up businesses of all sorts throughout the nation. The offer does not require that the individual give up citizenship in his or her native country. This is a departure from earlier Spanish law and indicates how important they must feel it is to acquire these new citizens. And what is the appeal of this offer to Sephardic Jews, descendants of the forced converts, the expelled, the murdered? Fernando Peinado writes in, July 18, 2014, that the Spanish government expects most of the applications for citizenship to come from Israel, “where crowds have lined up outside the Spanish Embassy and consulate to request information.” He also says that many Sephardic Jews in Miami and New York “have directed queries to organizations like the American Jewish Committee, which the Spanish government consulted during the drafting of the bill.” Clearly there is an interest and some of it is about a cultural attachment to Spain that exists for some people despite the horrible things that happened to their ancestors there. Author and lecturer, Daniel Diaz-Huerta says, “My interest in pursuing Spanish citizenship under the recent legislation that allows dual citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews is really quite simple: I wish to honor my faith and ancestors . . . my Spanish/Hebrew heritage.” Chip Espinoza, and educator and consultant, echoes this sentiment. “My grandfather always told us we came from Spain,” he says. “He instilled a love of Spain in us. Even my eight-year-old daughter, who never knew her great-grandfather, has an affinity for Spain.” Getting Spanish citizenship would be “a closing of the loop,” he says. But, again, some of it is economic. Spanish citizenship confers membership in the European Union and all the privileges that go with it, from the ability to live and work in any member country, to a passport that can sometimes get one through a European airport more quickly than can an American passport. It is not necessarily the case that those who acquire Spanish citizenship would actually live there. Israelis, however, are currently suffering from issues of extreme high cost of living and some might feel they would benefit from actually moving to Spain and enjoying a more financially comfortable life. It is also worth noting that there have been a number of reports of difficulties in applying for this supposed easy gift of citizenship. In a two-part article in the January 31 and February 21, 2014 issues of Forward Josh Nathan-Kazis detailed his attempts to get Spanish citizenship and the many roadblocks he encountered, possibly because the Spanish government is still working out the criteria for citizenship. Descendants of Conversos can trace their ancestry through Inquisition and Church records, which were meticulously kept. Nathan-Kazis went to Spain with a variety of documents proving his Spanish heritage and was told by Maria Royo of the Spanish Jewish Federation that “This is just a piece of paper.” At that point he knew, says Nathan-Kazis, that “this was going to be harder than I thought.” Espinoza has also encountered difficulties. “There is a language proficiency test,” he says. “It is a little ambiguous as to what they want. It is still a discussion.” Clearly the dust has not entirely settled on this issue. Sephardic Rabbi Marc D. Angel, in a June 29, 2014 issue of The Times of Israel, calls his reaction to the new Spanish policy as mixed. “On the one hand,” he says, “reconciliation is a good thing, even after five or more centuries. On the other hand, is this particular policy a real act of reconciliation or is it rather only a gesture that will appeal to few Sephardim in an attempt to soothe the Spanish conscience?” His answer to this question is that if atonement is what Spain wants “it needs to correspond directly with the nature of the sin.” This, he says, is hatred of the Jews and Judaism. And the atonement must be a commitment to fight anti-Semitism and eliminate religious and ethnic fanaticism. “Spain needs to be outspoken in its opposition to religious fanaticism wherever it manifests itself,” he says. “. . . how wonderful it would be if Spain would be a world leader in helping Sephardim – and all the Jewish people – to live in a world free of anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism and anti- Zionism. That would be Spain’s great gift to humanity for our generation and the generations to come.” © 2015 Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No portion of this article may be republished without the express written permission of the author TOP OF PAGE