one woman’s writing in ‘symbolic code’

A 70-year-old woman in Tainan, Taiwan, who can read relatively few Chinese characters has reportedly come up with her own “symbolic code” for writing the words to songs. I’d love to see it. Unfortunately, however, she is “afraid others might laugh” and so covers all her writing with white-out once she has memorized the song.

Tainan great-grandmother Lin Li Yuda, 70, wanted to learn some songs, but unfortunately she could not read. But she was determined to do so anyway, and now, eight years later, she has memorized over 100 songs and can flawlessly recall the words to even the longest of folk songs, which can run to 1700 words or more.

Lin worked as a laborer in the construction industry before retiring, carrying bricks and cement. Even this tough labor could not bow her. Eight years ago, she began to weaken, and decided to retire. She now works as a volunteer at the Nanhua Community. Lin heard that singing was good for exercising the abdomen and had other health benefits, so she began to learn songs from other elderly people.

Lin was illiterate, however, and the songbooks her teachers passed out were incomprehensible to her. She could only follow the sounds the others made. But Lin was not ready to give up. She thought long and hard, and came up with an idea: she would learn to write the songs down.

After she began, the whole world was Lin’s singing teacher. Now, whenever she has a moment, she grabs her songbook and asks people to recite the words to her one by one. At her age, her memory is not as good as it used to be, and sometimes she has to ask about a word several times. Lin says that at the beginning, she felt embarrassed about her shortcomings, but everyone was very patient with her, and willingly repeated the lyrics again and again until she learned them.

By relying only on learning from others, however, Lin was unable to remember the songs. So Lin took to making notes beside the words using her own “symbolic code.” Quite often, a song sheet of Lin’s will be a forest of red symbols. When she has learned the song, Lin quickly covers her notes with white-out, because, she says shamefacedly, she is “afraid others might laugh.”

Over the past eight years, Lin has memorized over 100 songs, and knows each one practically word for word….

The most difficult thing for Lin is songs with foreign words in them. One song, “The Butterfly Maid of Nagasaki,” has the Japanese phrase “chocho san” in it, and this nearly tripped Lin up. She says that the person who taught her the song had to repeat it many times before she mastered it. In fact, even Lin’s great-grandson, who is now in primary school, can act as her teacher. When she meets a character she doesn’t know, she rushes to ask someone so that she can make a note….

source: Illiterate great-grandmother memorizes songs using unique symbols, Taiwan Headlines translation of a story from United Daily News, February 23, 2006

One thought on “one woman’s writing in ‘symbolic code’

  1. Interesting story. This reminds me of press coverage a few years ago on “Grandma Toh (Zhuó)” (???). Like Lin, she was not well-versed in Chinese characters, but unlike her she had acquired knowledge of Taiwanese romanization through her church and was thus able to write down hundreds of poems she composed. In spite of this achievement some mainstream media portrayed her as an “illiterate”. Whether or not Lin’s use of her symbols would qualify her as literate remains to be seen.

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