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"It offered solace and an outlet in its silent form of rebellion" - Exploring Nüshu in Hidden Letters

Friday 29 September 2023, by Asma Ibrahim

Violet Du Feng’s film tells the story of two Chinese women trying to balance their lives as independent women in modern China while confronting the traditional identity that defines but also oppresses them.

Nüshu (女书), literally ‘women script’, is described as a secret language developed by women in Jiangyong Prefecture in China to communicate with each other. At one point as an undergraduate, I came across Nüshu while reading on the intersection between gender and literature in East Asia. The story of a language created as an act of rebellion against a society that treated them poorly drew me in, but I didn’t come across it again until Hidden Letters.

Violet Feng’s Hidden Letters is a documentary that focuses on the modern manifestation of Nüshu and its treatment as a commodity. In doing so, it unwittingly reveals and comments on the challenges women face in modern day China.

Nowadays, Nüshu is a hobby, a commodity, and a performance. It is a remnant of history that has been preserved but in a way that was utterly unforeseen by its creators and participants. What was once a private form of communication subtly appearing on handkerchiefs and fans, domestic items easily passed between women, is now public, preserved in museums and public displays. It is noted in the documentary that Nüshu literature was rare as women were often buried with all of their writings. Its ‘discovery’ has only been recent, as late as the 1980s.

Three women are at the forefront of the film. They share a deep interest in Nüshu albeit in different ways. Hu Xin receives various awards for her mastery over the language, and acts as a guide at the museum. Simu is a singer and calligrapher of Nüshu, and both look up to He Yanxin, the last of her generation that practised Nüshu. UNESCO notes it as the world’s only language created and used exclusively by women - it is a language that is gendered in its existence.

This background knowledge makes the interactions of men with Nüshu very bizarre. There is a scene where a man talks about the necessity of commercialising Nüshu for its survival, and we are subjected to awkward scenes that reveal what this might mean. Singing to a crowd or performing is fairly standard, but there is a bizarre scene where a male developer proudly brandishes a phone that can translate Mandarin into Nüshu. Charging $300 for the phone, the crowd quickly starts to criticise it. There are more instances when a man complains about the size of Nüshu calligraphy (which is deliberately small), and another who comments that obedience, one of the qualities of Nüshu, is lacking in many women nowadays. The irony of these moments cannot be overstated, the spirit of Nüshu is utterly misunderstood by the various men that interact with it. No longer a secret, a series of men have waltzed in to make various decisions concerning Nüshu that do very little to honour its meaning.

It is only in the intimate and peaceful conversations with He Yanxin that we are reminded of the essence of Nüshu. Nüshu provided solidarity and sisterhood, it allowed women to voice their pain and suffering without fear of discovery. It offered solace and an outlet in its silent form of rebellion.

There is a scene in the documentary that will remain with me for some time. Simu is engaged and discusses life plans with her fiancé. His priority is for them to work as much as possible so they can buy a home. There is a moment when Simu questions her fiancé about what time she will have to actually practice Nüshu. The response of her fiancé is that her hobby isn’t comparable to a real job. While Simu does not confront him on this point, there is a clear look of deep unease and dissatisfaction with this response. He adds that his mother worked in the day and then did house chores in the evenings, with the clear implication that Simu should work like his mother did without complaint. For a documentary that focuses on a language borne out of gendered oppression, the deliberate inclusion of this scene is to remind us that the past might not be as distant as we might assume.

The film is playing at Fragments Festival.

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