Documentary filmmaking uses its own unspoken, indirect language. We notice how much the camera observes or intrudes on real-life situations, or how moments of intimacy and alienation are contrasted on either side of a cut—these are designed to wordlessly communicate something to the viewer. We note the differences between subjects who have been asked to act like the camera isn’t trained on them and those who have to make upsetting testimonies into the lens, each choice loaded with a rich sense of empathy. It’s what makes Violet Du Feng’s Hidden Letters, a study of the secret script Chinese women developed to pen poetry and communicate under patriarchal oppression, so resonant. The documentary form primes us to understand the subtle power of non-verbal language.
Nüshu is a dying language, preserved largely in museums and art galleries. However, Hidden Letters argues this is not because the exclusively-female script has lost its relevance, but because a commercial, patriarchal society is intentionally suffocating its growth. We watch in frustration as self-assured men diminish the appeal of something undeniably radical, as women supporters of Nüshu struggle to speak for its strengths. We even see chauvinistic advancements and bullying comments made against Nüshu calligraphers by gaggles of businessmen, officials, and fathers.
This treatment is not isolated to just Nüshu; it’s a symptom of a culture that sees anything courageously female as subversive, undecipherable, and of narrow interest. How can this be relevant, Nüshu’s bastions are asked, if it’s not commercial? Even today, China’s male population cannot connect with a language that was designed for them to never understand.
This broader context of Nüshu today is the backdrop to Feng’s main narrative: a study of how the language intersects with modern life, focusing on two millennial speakers. Hu Xin is a tour guide whose recent divorce from an abusive spouse means she’s deep in the process of confronting Nüshu’s relevance for modern life; Wu Simu is a young woman whose visits to her fiancé’s family reveal the entrenched gender expectations she is going to commit herself to. Instead of sorting through the recorded history of the language, Feng uses Nüshu as a lens to study connections between past and present, and ultimately as a tool used to elevate oneself from the punishing effects of patriarchal society.
As remarked by He Yanxin, one of Nüshu’s last native speakers, very little poetry or song has been written about husbands; Nüshu savours the bonds between women, sisterhood found in a shared struggle. Hu Xin spends time with He Yanxin in her sparsely populated neighbourhood, a village of imposing, densely plotted homes that feel both like tombstones of female oppression and sites where sisterly solidarity was fostered. With only Feng and her co-director cousin Zhao Qing behind the camera during these scenes, there’s a potent female intimacy that’s been extended towards the audience—a deep contrast with the scenes populated by men, where the documentarians feel at odds with the gendered dynamics on display.
Nüshu’s greatest asset is not in commercialisation, but in the ways it allows women to recalibrate the ways they see themselves.
Hu Xin reflects on the complicated responsibilities of speaking Nüshu today, confessing out of her older friend’s earshot the anxiety-inducing burden of continuing such a legacy. Yanxin, as well, speaks of her friend to the camera, worried for Hu Xin’s wellbeing in a gentle, caring manner. Even though they grew close through Nüshu, you get the sense these anxieties wouldn’t germinate as much as they have if the language had enjoyed a more full-bodied and encouraging reception in broader society. Even though they’ve found each other, they are feeling the effects of systematised isolation.
We see Simu undergo substantial change during the film: halfway through we learn she has split with her fiancé (a welcome development after we watch him boss her around during a family visit). Simu is suddenly forced to reflect on not just her relationships and career, but where she sits in history. She voices a desire to engage in a conversation between past and present after rejecting a future where she’d be assimilated into another man’s family. The women who spoke Nüshu engaged in a radical rethinking of what roles they were prescribed; against all odds, out of impossible circumstances, something beautiful and lasting was forged. It’s a high standard of female ingenuity to meet, especially in a modern world disinterested in archiving the ways women have resisted institutional harm.
As the film nears its end, there are telltale signs that cultivating a national interest in Nüshu may be a lost cause: the tech entrepreneurs making Nüshu-language phones are judged as exploitative, and the widest branding campaign the language gets is with KFC. Instead of lamenting its acceptance by commercial culture, Feng turns her attention to more meaningful ideas: Nüshu’s greatest asset is not in commercialisation, but in the ways it allows women to recalibrate the ways they see themselves, the patriarchal world around them, and the connections they share with other women. To ask “how do we make people care about this?” is to ask a distinctly male-framed question. As a curator at a Nüshu gallery explains, the question should be, “How can we live up to Nüshu?”
We watch Simu guide a tour through an exhibition of Nüshu art and calligraphy, calling their attention to two side-by-side scrolls. The first dates from years before, penned by a native speaker of Nüshu; the second is by Simu, crafted in response to the original text. She’s found a way to speak with the past.
To fund education and programs on Nüshu’s history and importance would be a welcome but limited way to engage with the stories of female sisterhood from China’s past. The more rewarding work comes from challenging the judgements and expectations that women project onto themselves, the ones that make them conform to a patriarchal regime. Through Nüshu, an alternative perspective is offered, one created out of a determination and creativity that remains powerful to this day. If it’s internalised—if it reconditions how women see the world—then the language will never really die.
Hidden Letters was screened at SANDS – International Film Festival of St Andrews. Read our exclusive interview with director Violet Du Feng here.
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