The documentary Hidden Letters, directed by Violet Du Feng, digs deep into Nushu, a traditional secret writing system used by women in Jiangyong County in China’s Hunan province. For thousands of years, Nushu has been a unique script used exclusively by local women. It is somewhat like calligraphy in that the figures are written with a brush and ink. Originally used in poems and songs, it not only provided women with a coping mechanism against the patriarchal hardships experienced before 1949 but gave them hope and allowed them to leave a legacy for future generations. The last descendant fluent in Nushu may have died in 2000, but efforts have been made to prolong its history.
Focusing on two women in particular — Hu Xin and Wu Simu — the film explores how female millennials they have embraced Nushu into their lives and and their struggles within the still-prevailing patriarchal views of Chinese society. Xin is a tour guide at Jiangyong’s Nushu Museum and is a recognized practitioner of Nushu. Meanwhile, Simu is an soprano living in Shanghai who is engaged but aspires to be more than a traditional housewife.
Struggles against inherent and overt male chauvinism are evident in certain scenes, one of which shows Hu Xin’s discomfort with being surrounded by male visitors. The men may seem courteous but their subtly mockery of Nushu’s secretive nature and their flirty behavior hint at why the language was created so long ago. In addition, she feels that she has failed as a woman because she is both divorced and childless despite being one of the youngest interpreters of this rare language, showing how much family and status are prioritized over personal and professional achievements among women. And, yes mansplaining is heard with abundance.
Simu’s initially supportive fiance tries to push her into focusing on family life, more specifically, taking care of their potential children and her in-laws – all the while dismissing her Nushu due to its lack of financial benefit, and dismissing the practice as a hobby and not a passion, although the art is something he knows that Simu cares deeply about. Their conversation makes uneasy viewing but reflects how the still extant patriarchy in modern China seemingly encourages old-fashioned sexist views towards unmarried, childless women.
According to some of the male participants in Feng’s documentary, an effective way to promote the language is to market it through phone programs and fans. Unfortunately, this strategy would cheapen the value of the language, especially when beautifully decorated fans are promoted with buckets of KFC. Such commercial promotions of the language cause Nushu to not only lose its secretive nature but devalues the empowering message of the language’s history – so it is slowly no longer about the suffering of sisters but more about quaintness and touristy trinkets.