Hu Xin and He Yan Xin as seen in the film "Hidden Letters"

These women are trying to preserve an ancient Chinese language invented as a secret code

Hundreds of years ago, women in China weren’t allowed an education and spent their days locked in rooms, embroidering and making crafts. They came up with a new language that men couldn't understand — Nüshu — and wrote it onto handmade fans to communicate with each other. A filmmaker is now trying to raise awareness to preserve it before it is lost.

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Hu Xin and He Yan Xin as seen in the film "Hidden Letters," directed by Violet Feng.

Courtesy of Feng Tiebing

Hundreds of years ago, Chinese women in the rural Hunan Province came up with Nüshu, a language that men could not understand. They needed a way to communicate with each other in a society that kept them largely invisible.

Back then, it was common for Chinese women’s feet to be bound, making it almost impossible for them to walk freely by themselves. They weren’t even allowed an education. And they spent their days locked in their rooms, embroidering and making crafts. So, women wrote this new language — Nüshu — onto handmade fans.

Hu Xin as seen in the film "Hidden Letters"

Hu Xin as seen in the film "Hidden Letters," directed by Violet Feng.

Credit:

Courtesy of Feng Tiebing

Film director Violet Feng said she only learned about Nüshu as an adult.

"Throughout the years, because of this secret language, women built this beautiful underground sisterhood."

Violet Feng, director of "Hidden Letters" film

“They created this secret language andthey would write poems and songs,” she said. “And throughout the years, because of this secret language, women built this beautiful underground sisterhood and shared their dignity and hope between themselves.”

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Nüshu is considered the only written script in the world for and by women and has been named an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

The language has survived to this day, passed down from generation to generation. But it’s now in danger of going extinct.

Today, there are only a handful of women left who can read and write it. So, Feng decided to film the lives of two women — one in rural China and one in Shanghai — who are trying to preserve it.

“I wanted to follow the younger generation because they’re the ones that are at the crossroads, dealing with navigating their identity within the context of where China is.”

Violet Feng, director of "Hidden Letters" film

“I wanted to follow the younger generation because they’re the ones that are at the crossroads, dealing with navigating their identity within the context of where China is,” she said.

Her film, “Hidden Letters,” premiered on Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Feng said what interested her about the ancient Nüshu language was how it might relate to the lives of Chinese women today.

“Every woman's personal experience in their daily struggles is political,” she said. “We're always, always struggling between the social expectations, between our traditional values. And we want to be our individual identities. And that dilemma and struggle is in every woman, including myself.”

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Simu as seen in the film "Hidden Letters"

Simu as seen in the film "Hidden Letters," directed by Violet Feng.

Credit:

Courtesy of Feng Tiebing

Speaking about those struggles is not always welcome. And women’s bodies are on the frontlines.

The Chinese government has abandoned its one-child policy, and now allows couples to have up to three children, in the hopes of boosting China’s birth rate. But more and more young Chinese women are rejecting the path of marriage and children altogether.

“There's still not yet a support system for women, you know, legally and socially and emotionally to help us, to fulfill those kinds of expectations,” Feng said.

Feng added that the Nüshu language gave women in feudal China some agency.

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“The power of it, even back then, is very much the Chinese way of feminism. It's not about throwing away the system or changing the system and having protests, which was completely impossible at the time. But they found a different way and they found a different approach.”

Today though, Nüshu is being used in ways that are at odds with its original purpose. In one scene in the film, a so-called “princess school” uses Nüshu to teach young girls etiquette wrapped in traditional Chinese values.

“You begin to see workshops to kind of reintroduce how women should behave, how to be elegant, how to be obedient and all of those things,” Feng said.

“People are using Nüshu to help women be all of those things, which is totally the opposite of what it was before.”

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Today in China, Nüshu is also being commodified for economic gains. Government officials have discussed how they can build local tourism around the language. And entrepreneurs have used it to market their products —  including a KFC ad featuring Nüshu.

In the film, the women who care the most about the language struggle with how to preserve its authenticity. But filmmaker Violet Feng said, in the end, that saving the language itself is not as important as preserving that supportive space for the kind of sisterhood that Nüshu helped to create.

“To me, Nüshu is not just a language. It is art. It is a voice embedded in that art.”

Violet Feng, director of "Hidden Letters" film

“To me, Nüshu is not just a language. It is art. It is a voice embedded in that art,” she said. “And in that sense, as long as we carry the legacy of it, as long as it lives in the heart of every woman, I don't think it will ever die.”