A rebellion with no end

GENDER / The unique written language made as a vent for Chinese women who were not allowed to read or write.

To make visible the invisible. An impossible task yet an essential element of the magic of cinema ever since its’ early times of experiments with vision and flickering images. In an even more direct sense, this was also an initial drive of the documentary cinema, dedicated, in particular, to bring into view parts of reality that would otherwise remain hidden and making the unknown known. All this comes to mind when one watches the new film by the acclaimed director and producer Violet Du Feng. Produced with participation of producers from Independent Lens to ARTE, from Sundance to Norwegian Film Institute, the film won awards at practically every festival that screened it. No wonder.

Hidden Letters brings to light an epochal discovery of a language completely unknown to contemporaries, or historians, to this day. It was the language developed by women in China to communicate secretly with each other. As the opening of the film states, «For centuries, women here had their feet bound and were confined to their chamber rooms. To give each other hope, they created a script that men did not understand. It was called Nüshu.» Recently, the knowledge about this particular language has gradually started coming to light. Hidden Letters will remain amongst the most precious of its sources. It has a clear and concise structure, yet it presents its topic in a sensitive and emotionally engaging way. A treatise and a poem at the same time. It transmits the information by making known, almost tangibly, the suffering and the injustice this language was born from.

Hidden Letters Violet Du Feng
Hidden Letters, a film by Violet Du Feng

The invisible bond

Nüshu, like any language, is part of power relations. To use the bitter words from the film again, «For thousands of years, women in China were born to obey their fathers, husbands, and sons. Forbidden to read and write, their voices were silenced. Most left no record of their lives.» Nüshu was not exempt from this, and the women who developed and cultivated it through centuries did not leave many traces. We can only imagine what they have been talking about. The film creates plenty of space for this. It shows the meaning this secret language had for women in the past through the protagonist of this film. Brilliant, exceptional women who dedicated their lives to preserving the Nüshu in its written form, spoken word, and songs. Women facing the impossible demand to carry the burdens of professional and family life simultaneously. Constrained, as were their sisters in the past, to live with lesser dreams, beautifully pictured in this Nüshu song, «A man dreams to conquer the world. Does a woman dream any less?»

It transmits the information by making known, almost tangibly, the suffering and the injustice this language was born from.

Wu Simu is a Shanghai music teacher and a student of Nüshu who learns that after the marriage, her boyfriend expects her to drop her interest in Nüshu and work two jobs so that they can buy a house for his mother. Hu Xin, the lead protagonist, is a Nüshu museum guide and one of seven «inheritors» of the language who aborted a baby girl because her ex-husband wanted a son, a beautiful divorcee who feels she failed as a woman. And then there is He Yanxin, the last traditionally trained Nüshu practitioner. A woman who understands the full meaning of the language also keeps alive, regardless of her age, the spirit of rebellion and self-respect she is transmitting to her younger colleague. Not many traces were left about the content created in Nüshu. Still, the knowledge about its role as a bond that enabled women to connect and support each other is vividly presented by the ties that grow between the protagonists throughout Hidden Letters.

Hidden Letters Violet Du Feng
Hidden Letters, a film by Violet Du Feng

Ruthless power

There is, however, an image of another, completely different bond that I can’t get out of my mind ever since I saw this film. It is the image of bonded female feet from the black and white photos, documenting the Chinese custom of breaking and tightly binding the feet of young girls to change their shape and size. A part of this brutal, cruel grip is also present in the contemporary reception of Nüshu in China, and the film makes this well visible too. For example, when interviewed for the film, the former director of Nüshu museum, a man, claimed that Nüshu is about obedience acceptance and resilience. He also complained that few women embody these values nowadays. But also by showing that at the opening of a Nüshu museum, the stage was full of men. By the shots of their smiling faces as they drink and congratulate each other. The presentation of a cell phone in Nüshu, the use of Nüshu for the promotion of an international fast food chain. In the demands that Nüshu is commercialised and in claims that «if made commercially viable, it will have a huge social impact.» The men who consider themselves in charge of the hidden language used by victims of their repression are obviously both ignorant and arrogant. But this only makes the brutality of the repression that contributed to the need for Nüshu even worse. The legendary feminist Gloria Steinem called Hidden Letters «A deep and wonderful rebellion.» A rebellion that is not at all over yet.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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