As the title cards that open Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing’s Hidden Letters explain, women in feudal China had little freedom. Subjected to cruel practices such as foot binding, they were forbidden from learning to read or write and often confined to their husband’s home where they were expected to sacrifice themselves in service of his family. As someone later describes it, Nushu was secretive script created by women to communicate with each other in acknowledgment of their shared suffering with tiny messages concealed in fans or handkerchiefs, yet even as contemporary women try to preserve it its messages are co-opted by male patriarchal authorities in an increasingly capitalistic society.
In fact, the documentary tells us little about the history of Nushu and its creation in part because its history is opaque in its nature as a tool of subversion. What we do learn is that Nushu was discovered only in 1983 and that little of it survives because women’s writings were often burned with them lest this only means of communication be exposed. One of the documentary’s two primary subjects, Hu Xin, runs a museum dedicated to Nushu in a small rural town and has formed a close relationship with one of its last living inheritors, He Yanxin, who talks with her openly of the miseries of her life as a woman and the lifeline Nushu once extended to help make them bearable. Nevertheless, she stresses that her Nushu was necessarily covert and unlike that of Xin whose Nushu is public and incorporates song and dance.
It may in a sense be surprising that Xin, who has dedicated her life to the secret writings of women oppressed by patriarchy, still holds fairly conservative views. She married a man she met at the museum but he was violent and finally forced her into a late term abortion after learning their child would be a girl. Now a divorcee, she is too embarrassed to attend a neighbour’s wedding in her hometown and continues to feel as if she has “failed” as a woman in not becoming a wife or mother with a happy family home. Even He Yanxin ironically points out that the Nushu women would attend a mountain shrine to pray for sons, though in any case you can understand why they would not want to bring a daughter into this world of cruel subjugation. “We were only slaves to men” Yanxin explains, recounting that she was not even allowed to look her brothers-in-law in the eye as she carried them water and was often uncertain which of them she was addressing.
We have to ask ourselves how much has really changed. Simu, the documentary’s second subject, is a woman with a more modern outlook yet drawn to the traditional. An opera singer by trade she lives a comfortable life in Shanghai and has found strength and inspiration in the existence of Nushu. As we meet her she is engaged to a man who first seems sympathetic, but expresses more conservative views on taking her home to meet his family. Getting her to drink a bitter tonic to encourage conception he then tells her that they shouldn’t have children right away because they need to buy a house so that his mother can stay with them when the baby’s born. She can continue with her opera career (it comes with several government perks related to housing and other subsidies), but he wants her to take another part-time job, dismisses Nushu as a “hobby”, and insists that she dedicate herself entirely to their family leaving her no time for anything for herself. As she looks askance at the camera for help, it’s plain that her situation is in reality little different from that of a feudal woman trapped in her husband’s home robbed both of identity and of fulfilment.
Simu eventually breaks off the engagement with the support of her comparatively progressive parents and especially of her mother, a doctor who recounts her own childhood in which her father, a coal miner, would not allow her sister to be educated. They were “liberated” by the Great Leap Forward’s false promise of “equality” which saw fit to acknowledge them as equal only when their productivity was required to be so. In any case, she believes society has in a sense devolved and that contemporary women face harder battles in a culture which once again judges them solely on their ability to bear children.
Disturbingly, the legacy of Nushu has itself been co-opted to enforce the very values that it rebelled against. The director of Xin’s museum, a man, claims that Nushu represents the virtues of true womanhood, obedience, acceptance, and resilience, that he feels have been lost in this modern society of independent women. Meanwhile, while Xin makes Nushu banners at a tourism convention her male bosses huddle round putting Nushu slogans on promotional knickknacks such as retractable chopsticks in the shape of nunchucks. They claim that Nushu must be monetised if it is to survive while robbing it of its soul, overruling a woman’s objection that naff tie ups with KFC are not the answer to this particular problem. At the opening ceremony for the Beijing Nushu Cultural Exchange Center there are only men onstage to unveil the plaque for some reason to theme of The Magnificent Seven.
Leaving the city to follow the guiding light of Nushu, Simu writes letters to her ancestors reassuring them that it’s better now than it was then. Women have agency over their marriages, foot binding has been banned, and they can live self-reliant lives of freedom and independence. Considering her experiences, Simu’s words might sound a little idealistic, not quite as it is but as she would like it to be. Yet as another woman puts it, perhaps the responsibility of the women of today is to live up to the legacy of Nushu and its spirit of rebellion in once and for all shaking free of oppressive feudalistic and patriarchal social codes.
Hidden Letters screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and is available to stream in the UK via BFI Player 14th to 23rd October.
Original trailer (English subtitles)