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

The nushu system, still practised in China, reveals a long history of women’s frustrations and the solace this art provides

Hu Xin writing Nushu in Hidden Letters.
Hu Xin writing nushu in Hidden Letters. Photograph: Feng Tiebing

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”.

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