Writers: Violet Du Feng and John Fairbrother
Director: Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing
Violet Du Feng’s documentary Hidden Letters is a sensitive, but subversive, exploration of Nushu, an ancient, secret language used by women in Southern China.
Living under centuries of oppression, women devised a unique language to communicate with each other. The calligraphy – beautiful, diamond-shaped characters – is painted onto fans and handkerchiefs to avoid suspicion. There are Nushu songs, but they reveal in translation lives of misery and trauma. Nushu was a vital, connecting thread for generations of women who had no power, no agency.
We are introduced to Hu Xin, a prize-winning expert on Nushu. She works as a museum guide, proudly showing visitors these rare artefacts, but she worries that the history of Nushu could be easily neglected and forgotten. Du Feng also features Simu Wu, a soprano who specialises in Nushu music. She has studied the language for years, and what it teaches us about the intrinsic value of women’s lives. Simu is due to get married, and while her fiancé seems sweet at first, he calls Simu’s dedication to Nushu a “hobby”. He also tries to give her Chinese herbs to “prepare” her body for pregnancy. Hidden Letters examines not only the past, but how misogyny has drip-fed into the 21st century.
Nushu’s survival is very much at a tipping point, and Hu Xin’s frustrations are well founded. She interviews a local woman, He Yanxin, who talks about being taught Nushu by her own grandmother. She emphasises the lineage of Nushu, its origins in isolation and hardship. In a juxtaposing scene, they are invited to the launch of a cell phone that translates Mandarin into Nushu. Their blank, unimpressed faces say it all
Du Feng’s directorial style coolly observes, but it is in the editing of her footage that a sense of anger, at centuries of women’s oppression, starts to build. In a scene that could almost be scripted, Hu Xin sits in a meeting with investors keen to build on the Nushu ‘brand’. Ignoring Hu Xin’s suggestion that the history of Nushu should be taught in schools, the ideas men instead propose that the value of the name should be “exploited” (their words); ideally collaborating with even bigger brands. Nushu selling lipstick, or even more ludicrously, potatoes. Du Feng’s camera rests on Hu Xin, who cannot quite believe what she is hearing.
The commercialisation of this intensely private language is symptomatic of a deeper malaise within Chinese culture. The young women speak hopefully of better lives; they have access to education, they can make their own money. But as we see Simu’s spirit bend to her fiancé’s will, the pressure to conform (marriage, babies) is still there. Hu Xin has become an international authority on Nushu, but considers her single, child-free life a failure. The desire to move away from the roots of Nushu and make it something safer, more palatable to the masses, is deeply troubling. As the film ends, Du Feng doesn’t provide reassurance, only more questions. The fate of Nushu hangs in the balance.
Hidden Letters is screening at the Fragments Film Festival 2023.