Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Margaret Mead ’18: Her Words (short)

In the poor and remote Jiangyong prefecture of southern China, they are mostly okay with Lisa See’s depiction of their culture in her novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but they are not so hot about Wayne Wang’s film adaptation. They cite various inaccuracies (as well as a possible but not very pronounced lesbian subtext), but the fact one of the main characters was portrayed by a Korean actress probably did not help much either. Regardless, the book and film brought considerable attention to the secret form of writing practiced by local women kept otherwise illiterate by the customs of the time. This new interest is quite the double-edged sword judging from Jing Liu’s informative short doc, Her Words, which screens as a selection of the 2018 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

During the first half of Words, we meet Yanxin of He Yuan village, the oldest living Nushu writer—that would be Nushu in its original form. Sadly, her Laotong “sworn sisters” all died relatively young, leaving her little use for the secret language handed down by Chinese women for centuries, up until the post-1949 era. At that point, girls were finally allowed to attend school (but they were also sent into the fields to work).

Yanxin still does not think much of Nushu, except as a reminder of all her suffering. Nevertheless, a steady stream of academics regularly pestered her for their research. After the release of Snow Flower in China, there was a mini-boom in Nushu related tourism. Unfortunately, various levels of government started butting in. The authentic Nushu songs and poems were deemed too sad and depressing, so new melodies were commissioned to liven them up.

The Chinese Communist regime is not known for its respect for local cultures, but the cosmetic surgery they are trying to perform on Nushu is Orwellian in the extreme. The whole point of Nushu was to give a voice and an outlet to women suffering from ill-treatment in loveless arranged marriages. Bastardizing their voices and their means of expression is frankly despicable. It also seems utterly pointless and misguided even from a pure propaganda standpoint, because in this case, the CP can honestly claim to have provided educational opportunities for young women like the Nushu writers—at least until they turned schools into a sick joke during the Cultural Revolution.

As a film, Her Words is largely a straight work of reportage, but Jing Liu does a very nice job conveying a sense of Yanxin’s village and the surrounding environment. Viewers will feel like they visited He Yuan themselves after watching it. Her talking head experts also quite cogently explain the controversies surrounding the current Nushu industry, as it might be called. This is a thoughtful and balanced film that ought to be seen by a wide audience. Highly recommended for anyone interested in traditional forms of Chinese culture, Her Words screens this Friday (10/19), with Ciao Babylon, as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.