Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China (Yue-Qing Yang 1999)

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 59 min

Format: Color, VHS/DVD

Nu Shu, which translates literally to women’s writing, is a unique language that was developed surreptitiously in Jianyong county in Hunan province. This secret language of Jianyong’s local women has attracted much attention, as its creation can be seen as an incredible act of defiance and rebellion against the patriarchal nature of feudal China. As Yue-Qing Yang investigates the phenomenon in Hunan, she obtains access to first-hand testimony of the effects of female oppression and subordination condoned by society, along with evidence of the outlet that Nu Shu, a language exclusive to women, provided for Jianyong’s mother’s and daughters.

Within Yue-Qing Yang’s interviews with the local women, we are shown gripping images of bound feet and stories of domestic abuse which become reminders of women’s lower class status and even more so, their physical subjugation. The women of Jianyong speak candidly of their frustrations with the nature of marriage and wifehood within their society. Thus, the documentary depicts the women’s resounding response to the binding of their freedom. The film details the development of Nu Shu, demonstrating how the women used the domestic mediums which were available to them and transformed the arts of simple sewing and craft into a written language. Nu Shu was unrecognizable to men and because it was viewed as a bastardized version of Chinese, it was allowed to slip by unnoticed. Thus, empowered by its low status, Nu Shu enabled the creation of a community of “sworn sisters” and refuge among the women. Nu Shu also became a gift that would be bestowed from one generation of woman to another. Thus, the film traces the history of Nu Shu and its passage among women, as well as the ways in which Nu Shu and the “sworn sisters” became an essential source of freedom, a means for finding support, as well as an alleviating medium for a community of the oppressed women of Jianyong.

Though many Nu Shu documents were shown to have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and the lineage of this heirloom has very much diminished, the study and understanding of the characters from what primary documents do still exist is research that is ongoing. However, the last proficient user of Nu Shu in Jianyong, Yang Huanyi, died on September 20th, 2004.

Further reading:

Overview of Nu Shu:


Comparison of Nu Shu and Chinese characters :

More on Nu Shu

McLaren, Anne E. 1996. “Women’s Voices and Textuality: Chastity and Abduction in Chinese NüShu Writing,” Modern China 22.4: 382-416.

Silber, Cathy L. 1994. “From Daughter to Daughter-in-law in the Women’s Script of Southern Hunan.” Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State: 47-68.

Performing the Border

Running Time: 42 min

color, video
Distributor: Women Make Movies


Performing the Border explores a world along the Mexico/US border by presenting an inside look at pervasive maquiladoras, US-implemented factories, in Juarez, Mexico, “the city that produces.” One activist in the documentary describes the border as the result of an unequal power relationship between two nations. Ursula Biemann gives a public voice to the women who live and work in the area through interviews with factory workers, prostitutes, activists, and journalists. She uses experimental documentary methods that include sound image disjunction, scripted voiceover, found footage, scrolling text, and split screens.

The film brings a personal view to industrial work that and forces awareness to the labor that goes into ordinary products, bought in the US, like lingerie and microchips. Biemann’s focus, however, remains on a deeper issue instigated by the use of women along the border. She points out that the gendered use of women as merely part of the machinery forces the fragmentation of the female body into a simple unit of production. This dissociates the women from their bodies, resulting in a gendered dehumanization and transforms a person into a “marketable good.” The younger women are most degraded by the maquiladoras, poverty, and devaluation of female voice. Ultimately, Biemann documents, dehumanizing the women results in their victimization in violent serial murders. The women in the documentary are clearly the backbones of their society, as the hope, sustainers of commerce and mothers of the future generation. In Performing the Border, Biemann encourages them to speak their truths and through their eloquence, reveals the gender disparities corrupt industrialization creates.

Other works by Ursula Biemann:
Remote Sensing (2006)
Writing Desire (2001)

Ch. 7: Videographies of Navigating Geobodies, Transnational feminism in film and media
by Katarzyna Marciniak, Anikó Imre, and Áine O’Healy

Journey Shared: Ursula Biemann’s Been There and Back Back to Nowhere in Transnational Spaces
by Berelowitz, Jo-Anne


Written by Madrianne Wong
November, 2008

Black, Bold and Beautiful (Dir: Nadine Valcin, 1999)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 40 min

Format: Color, VHS

Black, Bold and Beautiful depicts a relationship that few films venture to explore: the relationship between black women and their hair. The multitude of styles and their social implications are discussed in this riveting documentary. Valcin, through six different women of varying ages, illustrates the effects hair can have on the lives of black women. Using interviews, narration, and personal pictures and videos, Valcin manages to beautifully tell the histories and struggles of black women and their hair. Social and racial, as well as private and familial issues are explored, and in the process Valcin is able to “comb” through to the root of the problem. Far more than a mere accessory, some women find their hair defines them, while others refuse to fall into society’s expectations of them. The six women interviewed, all falling between 16 and 60 years old, had very different experiences with their hair, but could agree on one thing: it is a large and important part of them.

While some chose to go “natural” and others to “relax” their hair, the social aspects of the choices can not be ignored. Because society tells women that straight hair is beautiful, black women straighten and perm their hair. This social pressure, which all the women recognize and discuss, is the main reason women struggle constantly with their hair. This struggle, which not only occurs within, but amongst mothers and daughters, can greatly affect relationships. Auna, one of the women in Black, Bold, and Beautiful, attested to the difficulties that hair caused between she and her mother.

This is a beautiful and personal film. It wonderfully introduces issues and questions the effects of society’s perception of beauty.


“Amazing that a documentary about hair can say so much about politics, race and culture.”
Antonia Zerbisias
The Toronto Star

” An entertaining and informative primer on the do’s and don’ts of Black hair….Filmmaker Nadine Valcin runs her comb through some of the tangled dilemmas surrounding Black hairstyles.”
Starweek Magazine