Nüshu, Laotong, and Gemaecce

The other day, I was pondering how two characters in a new story I’m working on might communicate secretly with each other through an exchange of notes. It occurred to me that they might use a women’s script. I knew that there was a real women’s script derived from Chinese characters, so I looked it up again. It’s nüshu (女書), and it was used by women in Jiangyong County in Hunan Province.


Nüshu text (Source)

In the course of reading the Wikipedia page on nüshu, I came across the concept of laotong (老同). In the nüshu article, laotong are described as “sworn sisters.” On the Wikipedia page for laotong, it’s described as a formal relationship/bond between two women, established in childhood or even before birth and meant to endure for a lifetime. Like nüshu, the custom of laotong is from Hunan Province. I was immediately struck by the practice, and particularly by its resemblance to the concept of gemaecce that Nicola Griffith developed for her novel Hild. In Hild, which is set in Anglo-Saxon England, a girl is formally paired with a gemaecce, another girl who will be her friend/companion for life. As far as I know, there is no evidence that women in Anglo-Saxon England actually had gemaecce, but laotong are real. So much story fodder here!

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