Language fans may find a lot to love in Violet Du Feng and Qing Zhao’s latest project, Hidden Letters. It was a perfect project to showcase at the 2022 Tribeca Festival. This is truly the best of what documentaries are meant to be: a deep dive into a subject, with parallels made to the present-day. This is a unique look into an ancient society, and how women have been innovators from the beginning of civilization itself.
Hidden Letters tells the story of Nushu, a secret language developed by Chinese women, and primarily written in delicate strokes with sharpened bamboo sticks dipped in ink. The documentary follows Hu Xin, a museum guide, and Simu, a passionate linguist and musician. Both are dedicated to the preservation of the Nushu language. It’s clear that while time may have marched on, women are too often left in situations not dissimilar from our sisters in previous generations.
The entire story chronicled here is a testament to the power of language to build identity and community. This is a language that has sustained generations of Chinese women in antiquity, in the midst of the societies in which they found themselves. The impact that this language continues to have on women in China today is clear. It has become a venue for connecting with history and sisterhood across generations.
Relatedly, there’s an important message in Hidden Letters about the important work that is language preservation. The greatest successes are with Hu Xin and Simu connecting with elders and listening to their stories and music first-hand. The capitalistic solution of selling courses to teach the Chinese people a language of their own leaves much to be desired, to say the least. It’s a comment on how our society has monetized literally everything, including the very languages we speak.
While discussing the historical and cultural importance of the Nushu language, Hidden Letters never loses sight of the stories it is trying to tell through Hu Xin and Simu. Rather than pandering to a western gaze, and portraying these women as damsels in distress and in need of saving, the filmmakers instead show their immense strength in fighting to preserve this language. Their personal situations only make their victories more poignant, and their losses more devastating.
While the spotlight remains squarely on the subjects of the story, Hidden Letters pans out and succeeds in making a cultural commentary on how Chinese women have persevered in the most devastating circumstances, and have relied on one another out of necessity. Again, by choosing not to center the western narrative, but allowing Chinese women to tell their own stories, the filmmakers succeed in presenting a story spanning generations that instils nothing but respect and admiration. The focus on the quiet moments of these women’s lives only amplifies all of the other voices across time.
Hidden Letters tells a captivating story with an endearing message of sisterhood. It’s a timely reminder of the necessity of language preservation when too many languages remain endangered. This story is a perfect example of how women remain the gatekeepers to language and culture across time. As inspiring as this story is, it’s equally a call to action. The best documentaries so often are.
Hidden Letters had its World Premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.