Friday, January 12, 2007

History of Writing

The book for this week combines my two great loves - history and writing.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is set in nineteenth century China and is told from the perspective of Lily, a peasant girl from the remote Hunan county. Lily becomes a laotong ("old same") with Snow Flower, a very metropolitan girl by comparison, and by tradition the two are bound together in a life-long friendship. The story follows the girls as they grow into women - which includes footbinding and arranged marriage, motherhood and loss.

While the story itself is compelling and at time heart wrenching (it amazes me the pain that women endured to have their feet bound), it is the little know nu shu that I found fascinating. Nu shu was a secret Chinese writing form, believed to have been invented by an emporer's concubine to speak truthfully about the lonliness that surrounded her to her family at home. It grew into a method for women to find consolation from each other and was hidden in embroidery, weaving, and in paintings on fans. The author shares how she discovered and researched this remarkable language, long with great photos, on her website and also provides a sample chapter.

I know it sounds strange - but in many ways, thinking about nu shu made me think about the IM language that we all complain about showing up in our student writing. Chinese women were forbidden from using the written language of men and in a desperate need to communicate with family and friends, invented a code that they ingeniously hid within "women's work." Kids aren't forbidden from writing - but they have invented a language to find their sense of self and to keep things away from parents and teachers. We've all heard the stories about the trouble with social networking and parents everywhere seem to be afraid of IM'ing - but if we took a step back, perhaps we'd find that it's not so bad to have them writing in their own "language" (once in a while.)

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