China’s secret female-only language

“To give each other hope, they created a script that men did not understand.” A woman in the new documentary feature Hidden Letters describes Nushu – a secret language invented 400 years ago in China’s Hunan Province, to help peasants in secluded villages deal with conditions in which their feet were bound and they were confined to their chamber rooms. Initially scrawled on the ground with wok ashes using tree branches, the script was later written on folding fans or embroidered on handkerchiefs, and evolved into poetry.

“It’s a history that most Chinese are not familiar with,” says filmmaker Violet du Feng. “In literature, there’s very few records of women’s lives and existence and experiences, and I didn’t grow up to know any of those – I knew nothing about Nushu, and I felt like I should have.”

Yet women today are finding inspiration in the language, as Du Feng reveals in her new documentary Hidden Letters. “Nushu is a space that allows women to confide in each other, to be vulnerable with each other, to share our struggles and challenges, and to come together and then have a space to build our own sisterhood.”

While Nushu is being preserved as a cultural artefact, it meant much more to its practitioners – and its role is still important today. “To us, it’s art,” a museum guide says in Hidden Letters. “Not to them. It was created to rebel.”

Video by Harriet Constable; co-produced by Fiona Macdonald.

Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *