Hidden Letters review – Chinese art of secret writing as refuge of female solidarity

Nushu is a traditional secret writing system used by women in Jiangyong county in China’s Hunan province: slender, diamond-shaped characters they used to vent their frustrations and record their inner lives. This haunting but slyly subversive documentary about three present-day nushu specialists uses the practice to examine women’s changing roles in a China modernising at breakneck speed – though the forces of resistance are evident in the numerous episodes of impressive mansplaining surrounding this female preserve.

A prize-winning nushu expert working at a Jiangyoung museum, Hu Xin frets about how the essence of the art is being watered down in dance-based presentations demanded by tourists. She believes it deals at heart in “misery” – and so looks up to wizened calligrapher He Yanxin, who raised her four children solo, as her inspiration. Hu has left her violent husband, but despite her high status in nushu, deems her own family-less existence a failure. Meanwhile, soprano singer and fellow nushu fanatic Wu Simu is preparing for marriage, but an uneasy look comes into her eye when her fiance dismisses her passion as a “hobby”.

The powers-that-be are alighting on nushu as a unique artform with wider commercial value in the push to promote Chinese culture – but always in sanitised form. We see nushu banners hanging in a sort of finishing school/Princess Camp for young girls. One spectacularly misjudged proposal is to use the writing to brand “high-end potatoes”. Even ordinary folk seem to struggle to define it in non-patriarchal terms. One visitor at a Macau tourist expo appreciates seeing the characters on men’s clothing: “It makes me feel women are taking care of men. And I like that message.”

Matters come to a head for Wu when her big-smiling beau tells her to forget nushu and ready herself for pregnancy. The plaintive song that follows (“White cloth wrapped around my feet / A handsome boy visits my home”) is withering in its commentary. He’s never seen again, and she chooses to pursue her craft and later unveils twin poems – one old, one of her own – that show the evolutionary possibility for nushu: making the cramped rebellious impulses of long-dead women echo with female solidarity and independence today. This is a deft act of historical revival.

• Hidden Letters is released at Bertha DocHouse on 2 December.