WITH WORK-WORN fingers, a hunched Yang Huanyi etches wispy characters onto a sheet of blue cloth. Her delicate strokes resemble those used to write standard Chinese, but what appears is something quite different. Elongated and narrow, the characters belong to a single-sex writing system found only in a series of villages in southwest Hunan province. At 95 years old, Yang is the last accomplished reader and writer of nushu. Nushu, meaning 'female writing', is a script preserved over hundreds of years by Chinese women living in the remote region of Hunan, says Professor Zhao Liming, a nushu expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who has spent more than a decade learning about this mysterious script, created by women from the countryside as a means to communicate with each other. In the backwater villages that make up the township of Shangjiangxu in Hunan's Jiangyong county, about 300km northwest of Guangzhou, women endured a social status inferior to men, a situation that existed across feudal China. Learning to read and write was a privilege reserved only for males. Women, many of them with feet bound, were confined to the female domain of kitchen, backyard and bedroom. Faced with social isolation, yet spurred by the need to interact with each other and articulate their innermost thoughts and heartaches, the women invented a writing system of their own. On the outset, nushu - the exact age of which is unknown - looks similar to traditional Chinese script resembling ideograms, and reading from right to left. But from there, nushu breaks away from nanshu, or 'male writing'. The female script is ladylike, resembling embroidered stitches. The characters are slimmer and diamond-shaped with curved edges. Traditional Chinese uses about 5,000 characters. Nushu practitioners relied on only 500 to 600 basic characters. These were based on phonetic sounds, rather than an expression of ideas like in standard Chinese. These phonemes are similar to some dialects heard in Hunan. Only women knew how to read and write this script. Mothers handed it down to daughters, never to sons. 'It wasn't that women deliberately excluded men from learning nushu,' says Zhao. 'But the men, who had a chance to go to school, had no need to learn nushu, and no interest in it. It was seen as a woman's thing - and anything to do with women was inferior, insignificant.' For those who used it, nushu was often an expression of suffering. 'What started as a simple way to express themselves became a chronicle of their private anguish,' says Zhao. Powerless and voiceless, the women had little freedom or choice in life. They suffered arranged - and often loveless - marriages, in which they were expected to be servile to their in-laws and obedient to their husbands, on whom they were dependant. When their husbands passed away, the women were often forced by poverty to remarry. One source of their sorrow was to outlive their children, husbands and loved ones - as was the case for Yang. Her farmer husband, who she married at age 21, died just three months into the union from a poisonous snakebite. She remarried two years later, but her new husband was a gambler. 'We were always in debt,' says Yang, who had eight children, of which only three - two boys and a girl - survived. She outlived them also. 'We were very poor. Life was hard, full of disappointments,' says the grande dame in the region's Cheng Guan Tuhua dialect. 'Some sad things, words alone cannot express fully. So we women wrote it down. Using nushu, we were able to convey our grief and pain to fellow sisters, to make our misery more bearable.' Yang began to learn nushu at age 14. 'I learnt it while working alongside the older women as they cooked, cleaned and sewed,' she says. Nushu became the glue that cemented lifelong friendships among the women. When a daughter was married off, her mother and close female friends would present the bride with a wedding gift her husband would never be able to share - a handmade, cloth-bound diary written in nushu. In it, they expressed their sorrow at losing her and their well wishes for her new life as wife and mother. Half-filled, the rest of the diary was meant for her to inscribe her own experiences. For many, it became a cherished journal they kept close throughout life. But, as it was buried with them when they died, the script slowly disappeared with its guardians. Not everything written in nushu was bleak. Poems, teachings by Chinese philosophers and words of encouragement were weaved in nushu onto private items - from handkerchiefs, paper-and-bamboo fans, to the cloth-belts used by mothers to strap their babies to them. Knowing the script was a status symbol among the village women. Those versed in it were considered junzi nu, or 'scholar lady'. Being cultivated in nushu increased a woman's value for marriage. Despite nushu's resonance in women's lives, it was largely ignored, misused and misunderstood by men. In the 1950s, the pretty script caught the eye of county cultural officials - but only as decorative couplets to usher in the Lunar New Year. Later, a linguistic researcher Li Zhengguang alerted Beijing of its existence, but before he could present his findings, cultural revolutionary fervour consumed China. Mystified by nushu, Red Guards suspected it was a secret code used by counter-revolutionaries. They raided villages and burned diaries and personal items decorated with the script. By 1980s, less than 10 women from Jiangyong region, including Yang, could read and write the script. With the younger generation of girls now going to school and the older generation dying out, nushu was almost lost for good - until county officials recognised that it could be marketed to draw tourists into their marginalised region. Last year, a museum and a school were set up in Shangjiangxu's Pumei village to teach, among other subjects, nushu to young females aspiring to be nushu guides. Hu Meiyue, a teacher at the school, says enrolment has grown steadily due to the perceived marketability of nushu. However, nushu scholars such as Zhao worry that this unique script will fall victim to the fickle - and possibly destructive - wave of commerce. 'The challenge is: what can we do to preserve nushu's authenticity, so that what lives on is the real thing?' asks Zhao. Villagers have been quick to cash in on renewed interest in nushu. Touts wielding fake diaries scrawled with pseudo-nushu characters have flooded Hunan's once quiet Shangjiangxu valley. Competition is also heating up between provinces hungry for a share of nushu's tourism potential. In Hubei province - Hunan's more prosperous northern neighbour - local officials have recreated a nushu village to rival the original one in Hunan. Several students, who attended nushu classes in Hunan, have been hired to work in this village, says Zhao. But how many authentic practitioners remain? 'China's got just one-and-a-half left,' says Zhao. She regards Yang as the sole custodian of nushu. The 'half' is 64-year-old He Yanxin, who learnt nushu from her maternal grandmother when she was 10 years old. But prior to recent fascination with the script, He had not used nushu for 50 years. 'Knowing something like nushu is more than just the ability to read and write it; it's a mirror of life,' says Zhao. 'In the past, nushu was the sum of a woman's experience from puberty to death. For our females today, that experience is forever lost.'