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Hidden Letters 2022

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Good Docs
Produced by Violet Du Feng, Mette Cheng Munthe-Kaas, Jean Tsien, and Su Kim
Directed by Violet Du Feng and Quing Zhao
Streaming, 86 mins

College - General Adult
China; Writing; Women’s History

Date Entered: 04/06/2023

Reviewed by Catherine Michael, Communications & Legal Studies Librarian, Ithaca College

When I agreed to review the film Hidden Letters, I understood that it would inform me about the secret Nüshu writing tradition. The film’s title refers to this unique art that began in the nineteenth century as a response to the oppression women felt with their roles within Chinese culture. Women formed a sisterhood of letters in which they would write, share, and chant about their oppressed situation in life. The process of writing and sharing their woes was therapeutic and helped transform suffering into art. What I wasn’t expecting was the story of how contemporary Chinese women adapt this tradition to present times and battle to keep it earnest and relevant. The film inspires the viewer to compare how women suffered in the past to how they suffer today.

By chance, I watched Hidden Letters the same evening it aired on PBS Independent Lens (27 March 2023). I was glad to learn that the documentary received national attention on this award-winning broadcast series that highlights independent documentary films. The film, superbly directed by Violet Du Feng and Quing Zhao, has already won, or has been nominated for, numerous awards (2022); it was shortlisted for the Oscars and nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival amongst others. The PBS website offers a “Filmmaker Q&A: Telling the Story of Keeping the Secret Nüshu Language Alive” (March 27, 2023) that can supplement this review; Craig Phillips interviews Violet Du Feng. It confirmed the themes I detected and filled in some blanks.

The writing tradition exudes the artistry and mystique of poetry. Like poetry, it is a personal reflection of one’s circumstance in a written format. Unlike poetry, it is intended to be secretive or hidden – a means for women to commiserate. Due to it being a secretive practice, it is often small and can appear on diverse objects such as clothing or fans as well as scrolls; it can be painted in calligraphy or carefully embroidered onto cloth providing an added dimension of artistic beauty. One great turning point in the history of Nüshu is that it transformed from an intensely private and personal practice to one that is public – and most astonishingly – a commercialized craft. Can it still be true to its definition and purpose in modern China? Does commodification harm the tradition rather than preserve it with its original intent?

Those questions are explored through the documentary’s main characters who personally grapple with adapting the medium to their times. The viewer follows two Nüshu composers: Hu Xin and Wu Simu. They live in different places: Hu Xin in a picturesque village of Jiangyong and Simu in the great metropolitan city of Shanghai. As learned in the PBS interview, Du Feng was introduced to Simu through Hu Xin. I anticipated that Hu Xin and Simu would meet on screen at some juncture (such as the scene where a small group of writers convened) but their stories are told in parallel. They are both devoted to Nüshu and we see them presented in different contexts.

Hu Xin is heralded as an expert composer and we see her in an official role at the Nüshu Museum explaining it, demonstrating it, attending events to promote it, but, most touchingly, continuing to learn about it herself through her mentor and friendship with He Yanxin. Yanxin is an elder who wrote and chanted Nüshu when it was still private, and women were tantamount to servants. Her marriage was arranged, and she spoke of how little autonomy she had in life. In one emotional scene, Hu Xin tears up chanting He Yanxin’s song to a friend. Her mentor kindly edits her works so she can improve her skill. Hu Xin struggles with a failed marriage, an abortion, and social and internal pressure to find a mate and have a child. Despite her success at work, she regards herself as a failure.

Simu has a seemingly perfect mate and is engaged to be married to him. Yet he has a specific picture of who she should be and how she should balance work and family that causes her angst. The arc of this relationship is documented. Her pursuit of independence is important to her, and her craft and her female ancestors give her strength and courage. In one scene she presents her Nüshu as a conversation with her ancestors. A hanging scroll of her writing is adjacent to the historical one and she replies to the past.

We also get to see, as both women present their writing in public, the reaction of men to them and their writing. They jest, they mansplain, they downplay, they market --- they don’t come across as supportive or interested. As portrayed, they don’t regard the internal feelings of women with any compassion or seriousness. It suggests that what is written can only be truly understood and appreciated by other women.

The documentary is beautifully shot. The landscapes and intimate photos capture the melancholy mood of the documentary and its characters. Kudos to cinematographers Tiebin Feng and Wei Gao. The music by Chad Cannon and Leona Lewis enhances the emotional impact of the story as well. The editing of the two intertwined stories is also clear and engaging.

The documentary reveals intimate conversations, emotions, and lives of Chinese women. I am amazed by the private conversations and relationships that were captured; it gives the documentary great depth and evokes sympathy in the viewer. Unlike some of the public relations events that seemed to undermine the tradition, the documentary publicly promotes Nüshu in an appropriate way. Perhaps the film itself could be considered a new form of Nüshu? It is a paradox that such private moments between women (such as Hu Xin chanting He Yanxin’s song to a friend) can be so publicly presented.

As the film reveals Nüshu through contemporary women, it should inspire viewers to learn more about the history of the script. The film is highly recommended to those interested in international cultures, women’s studies, writing, and Chinese history.

BFI London Film Festival, Official Selection 2022; Tribeca Festival, 2022 Official Selection; 2022 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, International Documentary Grand Jury Prize; 2022 Heartland International Film Festival, Grand Jury Prize, Documentary Feature; 2022 Bergen International Film Festival, Best Norwegian Documentary; Adelaide Film Festival, 2022 Documentary Competition; Docedge Film Festival, Official Selection 2022; Austin Asian American Film Festival, 2022 Documentary Feature Jury Winner

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