He Jinghua opens a faded notebook bound with cotton thread. Inside, lyrics written in a spidery script run down the page, incomprehensible to the average Mandarin speaker. In her wheelchair, which she’s used since a stroke left her paralyzed two years ago, the 84-year-old begins to sing.
As the mournful sounds escape her lips, tears stream down her weathered face. Her mind goes back 22 years to when she lost her youngest son in a road accident. “These books contain my sorrow,” He Jinghua tells Sixth Tone. She gestures to a collection of similar handbound notebooks in pink, green, and ocher, where she faithfully records her life in nüshu, a script that is only used by women.
Distorting tradition is worse than losing it.
In remote Jiangyong County, the script has been passed down from mother to daughter, elder to younger, for hundreds of years. To get to the downtown area of the county hidden in the hills, visitors must drive some three hours from Guilin, the nearest major city in neighboring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. When they arrive, they’re greeted by a street of nondescript shops, including a takeaway outlet with a storefront mimicking the KFC logo.