‘Hidden Letters’ Review: Speaking Out When Speech Is Forbidden

In Violet Du Feng’s “Hidden Letters,” an elder says women “were only slaves to men” before the concept of gender equality was introduced by Mao’s Great Push Forward — and that was only 60 years ago. This graceful feature, which just made the Oscar documentary shortlist, provides an angle on which to consider how far women’s roles have — and haven’t — evolved in Chinese society since. 

That angle is the “secret script” of Nushu, a written form invented by and used for communication between women otherwise forbidden to read or write. Feng’s engaging film offers a gently questioning perspective on whether the issues this now-quaint private language addressed retain currency in today’s China, where economically driven progressive attitudes may as yet only superficially impact deep-seated cultural ones. “Letters” commenced a limited U.S. theatrical release on Dec. 9, launches on VOD Dec. 23 and has a PBS playdate slotted for May 22. 

Apparently largely confined to Jiangyong County in Hunan province, its period of origin unknown, Nushu remained such a successfully kept secret that it didn’t reach public awareness until the early 1980s. Symbols that looked like decorative nonsense to men were written on fans, handkerchiefs and other items likely to pass between women often living lives of servile isolation, confined to domestic quarters by convention and painfully bound feet. It was often the only way for them to express frustration and despair at “dire situations” they could not escape, as one observer here says. The furtive nature of their correspondence was underlined by the fact that the women usually destroyed any evidence of it. 

Feng stylistically evokes the quiet desperation of past lives with a frequent lyrical camera focus on details of the rural landscapes and cobwebbed village dwellings long abandoned. But she finds three present-day protagonists, all Nushu experts in their way. Hu Xin is the youngest among a handful of government-certified “inheritors” of the language and a guide at its dedicated museum in Jiangyong. The more cosmopolitan, Shanghai-based Simu Wu also carries that torch, as a singer (there are Nushu songs too) and calligrapher. Both these millennials absorb knowledge from He Yanxin, a grandmother who learned Nushu from her own grandmother, and attests that the form was “mostly about misery” — women covertly commiserating over their lot.

She casts a skeptical eye on the current attempts we glimpse to make Nushu into a kind of marketing fad, hawked via novelty consumer goods from men’s clothes to a cellphone translation app. Needless to say, she thinks such commercial exploitation has “nothing to do” with something “created to rebel.” Even when Nushu gets celebrated as a “cultural treasure,” we note that (for instance) at the glitzy opening of a “Nushu International Culture Exchange Center,” all the smiling officials onstage are men.

That somewhat absurd disconnect between affirmating message and everyday reality turns out to be echoed in the protagonists’ own lives, which on the surface appear models of hard-won independence. Hu Xin is a target of gossip for being a childless divorcée; we find out her ex-husband beat her, then left for a second wife when she failed to give him a son. He Yanxin likewise struggled against sexist bigotry as a widow raising children alone. Even the confident, prominent Simu Wu, whose fiancée is fully supportive of her career focus, worries whether a balance between profession and family is really possible in the long run. 

We hear some rather shockingly defeatist sentiments about gender roles from women who otherwise appear very “modern,” from one garrulous 30-something at a meeting citing men as the “heaven” women must remain below, to an older figure who shrugs, “As women we should feel blessed if men don’t scold or beat us.” Then there’s the male former Nushu museum chief who opens his mouth, and out drops a fossil: “Nushu is about obedience, acceptance and resilience. As long as women have these qualities, we’ll have a good society. But few women embody these values today.” Such ingrained attitudes are not condemned here — they simply illustrate how far this fast-changing society has yet to go in truly embracing its vaunted progress. 

One might ask for more historical background on Nushu, sketchy as the record is. “Hidden Letters” also sometimes feels a bit contrived in its situations, which eventually include bringing the three principal interviewees together. But its tacit emphasis isn’t so much explanatory, or vérité-style observation, as providing a meditative, finally upbeat pulse-taking of a sisterhood that stretches from an archaic writing form’s earliest days to the theoretically liberated women of China today. Feng’s elegantly crafted feature suggests they stand on the shoulders of those who persevered despite far fewer options, and whose strength should remain an inspiration. 

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