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Rory DohertyI5.4.2023
Violet Du Feng Interview – Director of ‘Hidden Letters’
"The more that we actually project to the outside that we're strong and invincible, the more we're suppressing ourselves."

For women in feudal China, patriarchal oppression robbed them not only of a voice, but an ability to understand others. They couldn’t read, write, or socialize, meaning an entire sex of Chinese citizens lacked a sense of self and identity—instead having it taken from them by a regime that prioritized supplication. But for women in the Hunan province of Southern China, against all odds, an alternative was created: Nüshu, a hidden, secret language of poetry, song, and testimonies understood and written only by women. Communication became a form of liberation. 

Nowadays, the study and appreciation of Nüshu is at a record low; very few women practice the dying tongue and efforts to preserve its legacy are complicated by increasingly capitalist appropriations. Hidden Letters, Violet Du Feng’s documentary (co-directed by Qing Zhao) is less interested in mapping out the history of the language, choosing instead to focus on two women, Hu Xin and Wu Simu, some of Nüshu’s last few speakers, who reflect on the ways patriarchy still dominates their lives. Just as it was before, Nüshu is still a way of liberating the self. We spoke to Feng at the International Film Festival of St Andrews in Scotland about bridging the gap between an old language and contemporary issues.

Projektor: The film focuses on lots of different pockets of people, ones we’re really close to but also in moments where we look from the outside. What was the timeline of the film’s shooting process?

Feng: It took us about three years to film. We really needed time to spend with the characters to see the trajectory of how their lives changed. I started researching in July 2017, and I always knew that I wanted to focus on the younger, millennial generation. I spent some time with [Hu Xin], but at that point, she was a tour guide. It was a success story as without Nüshu she would have been a farmer—but I felt like there was something missing, because I was looking for parallel stories about what was going on with Nüshu and how that has impacted the characters’ lives today.

The reason I chose the millennial generation is because they’re at a crossroads of their lives, both professionally and personally. So for me to know how their lives unfold as young women in today’s China was what I was really interested in. The first conversation we had during the scouting, she talked about a lot of things, but at the end, she said, “I have some concern that one day I have to go back to my family and have to raise my son.” I started to feel something interesting and weird there. A couple months later, I called her back and said, “I want to come back and talk to her husband.” Then she started crying. She said, “He divorced me.” That was the moment that I knew.

How they created a safe space, in order for women to share their love, and to share their struggles and sufferings, that’s the starting point for everything.

Wu Simu’s story also mirrors and reflects Hu Xin’s. When did it become a dual narrative?

I knew I wanted two from the get go, one in the rural area, one in the metropolitan area—what they face is very different. I always knew it was going to be dual, I just didn’t know who my main character in the city was. The casting was very small; those who still practice Nüshu are minimal, almost non-existent. So when Hu Xin told me there was a girl in Shanghai who actually learned Nüshu from her, I got really interested. I started talking to [Simu] and a couple of things caught my attention: one is that she’s in a relationship, and secondly she has a very independent mind. She’s probably one of the only people I knew in Nüshu who’s not in it to exploit and co-opt it, but in it for pure passion and to have a dialogue with the past. 

Also, she’s constantly trying to figure out her identity as a woman. She’s in a group of young, female artists who use their artwork to express their gendered voices, especially in these exhibitions that they put together. All these things made me feel the importance of sisterhood, solidarity, and how we navigate around the patriarchal society.

A lot of times, the camera is in a space where women have no voice to speak up or to express their thoughts. What was it like being an observer to that?

To me, it’s important to show the full brunt of these women’s stories and to internalize their experiences of how they deal with these struggles. But at the same time, it’s important to show men’s reaction to Nüshu because that means their reaction to women today. So the camera is not enforcing that narrative, but observing that dynamic because it shows what our everyday life is. The only difference is, we have the camera. It’s important to capture the reactions of women that represent this kind of confinement. There’s so much about their expressions without any verbal reaction to men’s projections on Nüshu and women—that’s something I think is really precious to capture.

More than other languages, Nüshu requires a listener and a connection to resonate. Was making these connections in the modern day, creating a form of sisterhood, an appeal of making the film?

I think it’s more that what’s important is the connection between this ancient language and the audience itself. I actually don’t really care where commercialization has taken Nüshu because that’s out of our control. What’s most important is how people are still able to take the message of Nüshu, the legacy of it, and can still [have it] make an impact on their own lives, especially for women. That’s what I care about. These women created this language—under unbearable physical, intellectual, and political circumstances, they brilliantly think of an alternative feminism, a pre-feminist movement. How they created a safe space, in order for women to share their love, and to share their struggles and sufferings, that’s the starting point for everything. 

These women come together and can build solidarity, resilience, and move forward together. Think about it today: women still have to wear so many hats. Yes, there are so many role models of superwomen who can do everything, who are a powerhouse at work. But nobody says you shouldn’t be a mother, nobody says you shouldn’t be a good wife, nobody says raising a child is less of a woman’s role. I think that we’re suppressing ourselves deep down more in how much we’re struggling. The more that we actually project to the outside that we’re strong and invincible, the more we’re suppressing ourselves. That’s exactly where the power of Nüshu is: where do we have that safe space for us to really be honestly, authentically ourselves?

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