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In today’s culture industry, few things sell like rediscovery. Arts institutions, under pressure to correct a galling history of discrimination, have responded with a flurry of exhibitions, books and films on ‘forgotten’ cultural figures and movements. This reversal of fortune, long overdue, nonetheless carries an unpleasant odour of opportunism – all too often, ‘rediscovery’ means having the complexities of your art and life flattened into a marketable brand, to be unthinkingly stamped on tote bags and Instagram stories.
Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing’s documentary Hidden Letters offers a sobering intervention into this dilemma. Its subject is Nushu, literally ‘women’s writing’, a now-endangered language, hundreds of years old, invented by the women of a rural county of southern China. Illegible to men, Nushu allowed women to communicate privately with each other amidst the suffocating miasma of patriarchy.
In the precarity and hustle of modern China, however, sincere exponents of the language are outnumbered by vulture-like marketeers eager to exploit Nushu – via branded belts, chopsticks and even a “high-end” line of potatoes – to make a quick buck. No image encapsulates this snuffing out of Nushu’s feminist spirit more brazenly than the ribbon-cutting ceremony at a Beijing Nushu centre, flanked by six middle-aged men.
It’s easy to condemn this vampiric brigade of bureaucrats and gatekeepers. But Feng and Zhao take a macroscopic view, wary of how the general public, heritage workers and even the film’s viewers might be complicit in Nushu’s commodification. “Our letters to the sisters […] were meant to share our sufferings secretly,” an older user of Nushu says. “Now it’s so public that everyone knows.” If Nushu was about hiding in plain sight, what might it mean to watch a film – that most voyeuristic of artforms – which renders its secrets visible?
Feng and Zhao’s answer, in a smartly subversive turn, is to sidestep the prurient, otherising gaze sometimes found in documentaries about China. Instead, Hidden Letters is patient and empathetic, dwelling in particular on the parallel lives of two Nushu practitioners, Hu Xin and Wu Simu. Hu and Wu begin in opposite positions: Hu, a survivor of an abusive marriage, finds solace in learning the language anew, while Wu, a newlywed, faces increasing pressure from her husband to drop her “hobby”.
But their paths converge in the escapist, liberatory joy offered by Nushu, and particularly in collaboration with other women who share their love for the language. Connection and conversation, then, offer a way out of the cynical panopticon of commercial rediscovery, and might lead us back to Nushu’s centuries-old promise of female solidarity in the face of oppression.
► Hidden Letters is screening at the Bertha DocHouse from tomorrow.