Interviews with Chinese Women Writers

By Nicky Harman, published

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Most readers nowadays, asked to name a contemporary Chinese writer, could manage at least one. But the odds are that it will be a man. In these interviews, we explore how Chinese women authors from mainland China see themselves and their status.

In recent decades in mainland China, there have been vast improvements in standards of living and personal freedoms (to choose one's higher education and career, and to travel, for instance) and a small number of women writers have flourished. For instance, the current head of the China Writers Association, Tie Ning, is a woman. However, women writers still appear to lag far behind their male counterparts in other respects. Only nine of forty-three winners of the Mao Dun Literary Prize were women between 1982 and 2015; as were only twenty-seven of 228 Lu Xun Prize awards (various categories) between 1995 and 2017. And far fewer women are translated into English: of 117 novels translated from Chinese between 2012 and 2018, only thirty-five were by women. Our aim in translating and publishing these interviews is to bring the opinions of Chinese women writers on this topic, in all their variety and complexity, to English-language readers.

Notes: With the exception of Wang Bang, all writers answered in Chinese. The initials of the translator can be found at the end of each interview. Some writers chose to remain anonymous. We have published the response of another writer, Tang Fei, separately. It can be read in Words Without Borders.

Nicky Harman and Natascha Bruce

Chen Si'an

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

The situation for writers is closely linked to the how gender is framed in society more broadly. On the one hand, we now see increasing numbers of women participating in literary endeavours, especially younger women. On the other, it is clear that, in every field, men are still taken more seriously. With the rapid growth of Chinese cities, both men and women have been under greater pressure to balance making a living, having children, and producing creative work; comparatively speaking, however, the external pressure on women is significantly greater than that on men. But I've also noticed some attempts to break away from this: writers outside the traditional literary establishment have made great strides in terms of [addressing] attitudes towards gender.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

An unusual feature of the Chinese literary world is that it has developed a system of official 'writers associations', which support large numbers of 'professional' writers. This kind of institutionalisation means that literature, to a certain degree, has become an instrument of political authority. As a result, it is extremely difficult to shake up its approach to gender. This isn't just about literature; it's about social and political systems. This is why it's so hard to address gender discrimination in the areas you mention. What can we do about it? Some people think we need an earth-shatteringly talented (female) writer to come along and fix it for us. But I think waiting for a genius is too passive. We need to make sure every person involved in literature is aware that this discrimination exists, and then together we need to do the work of changing things – this seems to me where we need to direct our efforts.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

Prizes are a complicated issue. We see this bias everywhere, but in China it is exceptionally obvious that, while literary prizes are supposed to be about literature first and foremost, they are never entirely about literature. If you were to list the names of prize committee members over the years, you would find the judges to be almost exclusively men. This is a power structure that has solidified over the course of many, many years, with very few exceptions. Externally, women need more support and space to write; internally, more women should be permitted in decision-making circles. This way, we might slowly be able to improve the situation.

A [male] author once commented to me that, in China, male writers are referred to as writers, but women writers are almost without exception referred to as 'women authors'. How do you feel about this?

This is very often commented on as a form of reverse discrimination. To avoid these comments, many women writers resist mentioning their gender in their biographies and oppose feminist interpretations of their work. It's as though any mention of gender will reduce their work, or narrow it. We often hear things like, 'Don't call me a "woman poet", my poems are as great as any man's!' This might seem unproblematic, even admirably 'ambitious', but to go against or even deny one's own gender identity is not particularly helpful when it comes to the struggle for gender equality. This too is a complex issue, because we can't force anyone to affirm their gender identity or to raise awareness of gender equality. It's the same issue as with the questions that came before this one: it's one part of a whole ecosystem. We have to change the overall ecology, to change public opinions, and then these individual issues will gradually start to improve. (NB)

Wen Zhen

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

In some respects, I think attitudes towards gender have become more enlightened over the last 40 years. For example, divorced women or unmarried mothers are now viewed as relatively normal. But, unavoidably, other, more insidious forms of sexism persist. Among writers, 'women writers' are still lumped together and set aside as a category on their own, while 'writer' is used to refer to male writers. It's as if there are two kinds of writer: writers, and women writers. And there's a discrepancy there, in terms of how the two are regarded. Usually, it's assumed that women have a smaller scope, focusing on topics such as family life, marriage, or romance; topics often considered unimportant. Even when a woman chooses to write about the history of the nation, all it takes is for one detail to fall slightly short of perfect and instantly male writers (sometimes even other women writers) will rush to tear her down, saying, 'She's a woman, what do you expect!'

I myself once heard a male writer at a banquet declare: 'Fiction writing is a man's job, you women should stick to poetry and personal essays.' The implication being that the latter two categories are somehow less powerful than the former, although theoretically no such distinction exists. There are so many layers of stereotype and prejudice, that even I have to remind myself not to let them influence me.

Something else that might be of interest is a survey done [in 2019], by a Chinese literature scholar interested in so-called women's literature, investigating this issue of how gender is perceived by male and female writers. Over one hundred men completed the survey, but only thirty women; after being criticised for this disparity, the researcher added a few more women to the list. I don't know if it was that the researcher herself knew too few women writers, or if subconsciously, even when it came to the issue of gender equality, she didn't feel that the opinions of women were as valuable as what are often perceived as the more 'objective' views of the men.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

In terms of reputation, I don't think there is much difference between top-level male and female writers, but I do think there is a gap in income (when it comes to negotiating film rights, for example, adaptations of work by men usually sell for much more. Are men really so much better at business negotiations? Or it is that there are societal prejudices at work, meaning that women's writing is deemed less valuable and women writers are more easily stigmatised, and so on. I think [this kind of] misogyny is rife in East Asian society, in Korea and Japan as well as in China.

In terms of influence and status, admirably, many provincial writers associations are chaired by women: Wang Anyi is chair of the Shanghai Writers Association, Chi Zijian of the Heilongjiang Writers Association, and Fang Fang recently retired as chair of the Hubei Writers Association. But less eminent female writers, compared to male writers of the same age, face much greater challenges. For example, unequal treatment based on their appearance. Interestingly, the youngest and most beautiful female writers are often accused of being successful because of their sex appeal, rather than on account of their hard work or writing skills, both which can end up overlooked or completely obscured. Less attractive women, on the other hand, are more likely to have their success attributed to hard work. That said, if the young pretty writers can stick it out and keep writing well, once they're older and more prominent, this kind of discrimination and prejudice will lessen, to a certain extent – to put it bluntly, it's because once a woman is older, no one will be able to pin her success on her sex appeal. This kind of prejudice is certainly one of the obstacles that needs to be overcome.

Of course, male writers face obstacles too. Men tend to be more fame-hungry and ambitious than women, and they have their own stereotypes to overcome... but, to be honest, I think they have it much easier. When it comes to getting book reviews, however, I think things are fairly even. Or perhaps I'm just one of the lucky ones. It just seems to me that there are many young male writers who struggle to get reviews, and in this respect there isn't much difference between the genders. For everyone, it's a matter of giving it time and waiting to be noticed.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

I haven't paid much attention to this. Perhaps because I don't think literary prizes are the most important criterion for judging literature. I think it's more important that we write without these kinds of utilitarian objectives in mind. It does seem worth noting that women writers seem more often to write simply for the love of writing, and perhaps this makes them less inclined to go chasing frantically after awards. In the end, though, I think ordinary readers are much fairer judges of a piece of work than prize committees.

A [male] author once commented to me that in China, male writers are referred to as writers, but women writers are almost without exception referred to as 'women authors'. How do you feel about this?

This is one of the things that has always made me most uncomfortable. But I do think society is slowly getting better about it. Once, a book store carried out a series of interviews with women writers, and one of the questions they asked was: 'As a woman writer, what is the question you most dislike being asked?' And my response was: 'This one.' I think most of us young or not-so-young Chinese women who write are astute enough to realise what is implied by this differentiation; we are writers, after all. We all have our different ways of expressing ourselves, of fighting against it, of taking the initiative. The main thing is that these new voices find a way to be heard. So long as they can be heard, I really do believe that the situation will keep on getting better. (NB)

Zhou Zan

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

Over the past forty years, it does seem that more and more women have become involved in the writing business, and are now active across different genres and at all different levels, most likely due to the marketisation of?literature. Does this count as an improvement? In terms of attitudes towards gender,?perhaps not. The standards by which we evaluate literature were decided by men, and men retain authority over the discourse. With the opening up of the markets and the rise of consumer culture, there has been a resurgence of sexist tropes, including the objectification of women, and instances of gender inequality and discrimination against women keep on happening. No female writer can be immune to this environment, and for this reason it is hard to claim that things have improved overall.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

The answer is yes, absolutely: in terms of reputation, income, influence and status, there is simply no comparison between male and female writers in China. I should clarify that I'm giving you my impressions here, as I haven't conducted official research into the topic. But when a female writer brings out a book, it is usually evaluated solely in the context of her gender, without being set in any broader or more comparative context. And gendered critique is generally considered to be the lowest rung of literary criticism.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

This is a complex issue. On the one hand, women have only relatively recently gained the right to become writers; the history of writing with any kind of gendered consciousness is very short. Perhaps there has simply not been enough time yet for many outstanding women writers to appear. On the other hand, men are in charge of how we evaluate literature. The literary world is part of an overarching patriarchal social structure, making it very hard to achieve any sort of equality. In order to stop being blocked and ignored, women writers need to fight a long, hard battle, and to keep calling for equality-minded critics and researchers. There is no shortcut, we just have to keep writing as best we can.

A [male] author once commented to me that in China, male writers are referred to as writers, but women writers are almost without exception referred to as 'women authors'. How do you feel about this?

This is very common in China. When an author is introduced as a 'woman author' it is usually considered derogatory, the implication being that the things she writes about are 'feminine', third rate, narrow in scope, lacking in reason or logic, insufficiently penetrating or far-reaching, and so on and so on and so on. For this reason, many women writers resent being referred to as such. But if we are to overcome this form of discrimination, I don't think the answer is simply to reject the name. We need to reset and enrich the connotations of this kind of gendered language, including those associated with feminist theory. We should also engage with other social and cultural discourses, rather than isolating ourselves. The goal should be: I am a woman writer, but I am strong! (NB)

ANON, in her 30s

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

The way I see it, yes, there are a few differences. It's hard to come up with concrete examples, but I do think that reviewers actively seek out evidence to support the idea that a piece of writing is 'feminine', for example by calling it 'sensitive', 'delicate', 'fragile', 'emotional', and so on.

Since around 2007, or 2008, I have intentionally reduced any distinctively feminine traits in my writing. In other words, I think that if the writing style immediately gives a reader the impression, 'This was written by a woman!', it's going to change the whole way they view the book. This is probably part of the reason why I've ended up writing quite a few stories with male protagonists.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners between 1984 and?2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

I have no good answer for why this is the case with literary awards. But I do know from personal experience that, in [Chinese] literary circles, it can be difficult, sometimes even humiliating, to be a female writer. At both formal and informal dinners, female writers, especially young female writers, are often seated next to the person in charge, or some important male writer, and urged to 'keep them company'. Often, they are also subjected to frank appraisals of their age and appearance, and this makes me very uncomfortable.

Perhaps because of this, I have rarely seen female writers truly at ease and able to integrate with other (male) writers at gatherings and banquets. For me, this kind of social humiliation is the most uncomfortable thing about being a female writer. (NB)

ANON, writer of children's literature, in her 40s

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

I am a writer of children's literature. When I first started, in the late 1980s, the vast majority of Chinese children's writers were male; famous women writers were rare as unicorns. But by the early 2000s, many of my peers had entered the children's literature field, and with our generation the gender ratio completely reversed – women became the majority, and there were very few young male writers.

I have never noticed particular discrepancies between men and women writers, be it in terms of treatment or literary recognition. The reason for this is that, in China, the status of literature has changed over the past thirty years. The 1980s golden era is gone for good and writers are no longer held in such high regard, in terms of pay or social capital. Men have left for higher-earning occupations. Women, on the other hand, whether for biological or social reasons, are more suited to the literary profession [as it is now].

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

I don't think gender has anything to with this, nor have I ever noticed any discrepancy. Writers are still only ever as good as their work, and in this respect the Chinese literary world does not discriminate against women at all. On the contrary, if a woman writer manages to write something that transcends her gender, literary circles are likely to pay it even more attention [than if it had been written by a man].

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

Perhaps you could look into China's National Outstanding Children's Literature Award, one of China's four major literary awards. I don't have the statistics on the gender of award-winning authors over the years.

But in my personal experience, in any field, the highest echelons are almost always dominated by men. I think this may be down to fundamental biological differences between the sexes. Men are physically much stronger than women, making their writing tougher and more enduring. Their thoughts are also more profound and far-reaching, as well as more meticulous.

A [male] author once commented to me that in China, male writers are referred to as writers, but female writers are almost without exception referred to as 'women authors'. How do you feel about this?

Yes, this is a common phenomenon in China. I strongly dislike being labelled this way. It's a label full of implications – not necessarily discriminatory, but full of complex, subtle social implications. For example, that women writers, especially attractive ones, will have an easier time getting noticed. Because prominent writers and critics are still by and large male, and society in general tends to favour young pretty women. (NB)

ANON, in her 50s

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

When you mention things improving for women writers, I'm not sure in what respect you mean it – whether you're referring to the creative environment or something else.

Most of my work has been about my hometown, and the countryside around it, because that's what I was born into. When I was very young, my father and elder brother were working elsewhere, meaning I was surrounded by women: my grandmother, my mother, aunts. Unconsciously or not, I write from a female perspective, and automatically find myself touching on family dynamics in which men are considered the superior sex. But when it comes to the reception of this work, I haven't encountered any discrimination or pressure related to my being a woman. I'm sure this has to do with the fact that, when I started out, China was going through its period of reform and opening up. The literary world was changing its whole way of thinking, and the country was attaching a lot of importance to literary talent. When I published my first book, the local literary institution really supported me, sending me to study in the provincial capital. It was then that I transformed from being a peasant.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

I'm from an agricultural county, and when I started out there were very few published writers from my region. As a result, not only did I not experience discrimination for being a woman, I actually gained extra attention for it, and support as well. In 199X, there was a shortage of female cadres in the county cultural organisations and I was transferred to the cultural bureau, to work as deputy director. I was passionate about writing, but really couldn't handle management and administration. It just wasn't in my nature. I resigned after two years and become the editor of a literary magazine, in [redacted]. The fact I was able to transfer from the county seat to [a major city] is testament to the support leadership at the time invested in literary talent... so, for me, in terms of reputation, income, influence, status and so on, I really haven't experienced any kind of unequal treatment on account of being a woman.

As for book reviews and whether there's been any discrimination in that respect, I've never really thought about it. In the early days, my work certainly received very limited attention but at the time I didn't think this had anything to do with my gender; I blamed it on my coming from the countryside, or on the narrow range of publications available for submissions, as well as on the fact I lived a long way from the cultural hubs of Beijing and Shanghai.

I always felt I was like a seed buried deep in the soil. The soil above me was very thick and needed to be scooped away, layer by layer. I started out writing short stories and then wrote a novel, which was very well received, and since then my books have been widely reviewed by critics, although only a few short stories have been translated. You could say that my writing is relatively unknown outside of China... I've always thought of this as my personal destiny, rather than anything to do with being a woman. But now you bring it up, I do wonder whether gender might have been a factor? For example, my gender lends a particular perspective to my writing, different to that of a man, so could it be that, on a global scale, patriarchal power structures have prevented my work from being distributed more widely?

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

The data you collected really shocked me. This brings up similar thoughts for me as the above question: Do women lose out on literary awards because of the differing sensibilities of men and women? Because of the different attributes that come with being male or female? Male attributes have made men superior, and men have their own preferences. Their bodies are different, and there's only so much they can empathise [with the female point of view]. In my experience, men (with very few exceptions) are incapable of understanding what it's like to inhabit a woman's world. (NB)

Zhai Yongming

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

The biggest problem now is that as China's economy grows stronger, and it becomes more important globally, there is a growing desire for a Chinese cultural renaissance. But cultural rejuvenation has brought in its wake some very negative phenomena. We get the worst as well as the best. Feudal attitudes and practices once done away with have come back. In my view (though not everyone agrees with me), the status of women in China has slowly, almost imperfectibly, gone into retreat. If I compare the literary world now with 40 years ago, I see post-Cultural Revolution writers forming major interest groups. These are dominated by men, and include only a handful of female authors who are prepared to be subservient to them. These interest groups dominate the discourse in universities and academic circles, and also in non-official and other communities at the margins [民间,江湖]. This has become increasingly clear in recent years. Female writers are basically fighting their own battles and writing their own work, so they are less active [than men]. I personally think that the position of women writers has regressed. We're seeing a gradual reappearance of sex discrimination.

At the same time, opportunities for public appearances are not equally distributed between women and men poets. I think that there are at least as many good contemporary women poets as men, but at key conferences, especially those with international participants, women poets only have a token presence, to add a bit of glamour, as it were. It is largely men who are vocal and make the decisions in these situations. Women tend to be more low-key and retiring. So they end up, at best, playing a supporting role, or at worst, not appearing at all. To change this state of affairs requires a concerted effort by men and women alike.

Chinese contemporary poetry has flourished among women born in the 1980s. There are a lot of female poets, and they are very active. Commercialization has played a role in this, but all the same, the number of women poets, and the fact that they keep writing, is significant. It can't be denied that women are shackled in many ways: the demands of marriage and children consume a lot of their time and energy. So it may appear, if you just look at the important poetry events, that they are not very active, whereas in fact, there is an unbroken continuity in women's writing.

In general, Chinese women poets are consciously feminist [自觉的女性意识], but Chinese literature has always been male-dominated, and is so, now more than ever. For example, women's writing is still not a formal research area in many universities, and is widely regarded as an unimportant 'feminine topic'. Only female researchers study the works of female writers!

A young woman poet once said to me, 'In the new generation of male poets I come into contact with, there is still an essential contempt for female poets. I feel their contempt comes from their view of poetry: a real poet uses the power of strong language, digs into poetic language and creates new traditions... And they regard this as men's work.'

On the one hand, men think that emotional stuff is not important, too feminine, not worth mentioning. If female writers 'surpasses] this standard, they condemn her as 'too masculine'. In short, powerful, great things are masculine; second-rate, weaker stuff is feminine.

Many male poets either despise female poets, or praise them in terms of their 'gentleness' and 'tenderness', which is pretty much the same thing. This kind of contempt is ridiculous, no more than a gut reaction. Of course, many men have well-founded, rational views and the situation in practice is different. Besides, certain things that men criticize should not be generalized and used as a stick to beat women's work as a whole. It is also worth speculating why they criticize those things in the first place. I think some men are not willing to open their eyes and look properly at women's writing. They cannot accept a woman writing better than them. And so, instead of having competing works, we have a battle between the sexes. When push comes to shove, it is hard to eradicate these prejudices in Chinese men.

Women poets tend to focus more on the problem of writing itself. Gender, although it is a core part of our everyday lives, is meaningless in the world of our imaginations. People can really be androgynous, or they can hide their gender. The internet means that the traditionally dominating voices are no longer so important, and that is a good thing.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

Compared with male writers, female writers definitely have fewer opportunities to get published and win awards and influence. For example, many male writers who became famous in the 1980s have had their collected works published. That is, every single thing they have written. Few women writers have published a Collected Works, except possibly Wang Anyi, though I am not sure about that. And definitely no women poets have. Because in China, a Complete Works is an affirmation of the author's reputation.

It is also worth saying that, in China, there is an ancient tradition of officials writing poems. This is because before men could become officials, they had to show they could write good poetry. This tradition has lingered on, or revived, and many officials have begun to write poems, which gives them both resources and opportunities. It makes it easy for them to publish poetry collections, win awards, and hold international poetry festivals and this, in turn, makes it easier for them to get published and win prizes in translation. This trend has strengthened in recent years. And of course, in China, there are far more men than women officials, and all of this is one of the reasons why female writers have fewer opportunities.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

In China, literature has been dominated by the male voice, from ancient times to the present. The concept of the woman writer as a species was only really incorporated into the many categories of artistic genres since the 1990s. But the definition of this species has been vague, blurred, and sometimes bigoted. Comments by critics about female writers often not on their writing or its quality, but on gender issues. Of course, feminist writing must involve gender issues, but it must also involve [discussion of] the technical aspects of literature. In addition, women writers are often not seen as individuals, but as part of a group. Package up all women poets and market them together. When it comes to awards, in recent years, the judging panels for major prizes have had very few female writers on them, and this is also an important reason for women writers to win less. Many literary awards are simply handed out as perks to those in the inner circle, and there are not many women in them. There are some, of course, and they do sometimes get some of the less important prizes. No doubt, when there are more female judges involved, changes will come. But judging panels are a crony network too. Some of the more prestigious ones have not a single female judges. If there were, however, and she chose a woman writer for a prize, this might lead to the paradoxical situation where the men judges look down on her for being narrow-minded and unable to look beyond her own sex.

A [male] author once commented to me that in China, male writers are referred to as writers, but female writers are almost without exception referred to as 'women authors'. How do you feel about this?

There was a time when I did not like people calling me a woman poet. I felt that with one stroke of the pen, that put me in a marginalized group, one that was despised, and marginalized. So being called a woman poet really upset me. But I am not bothered now, because I think the main issue is how you yourself think about it. For example, if you think that women poets as a group are marginalized, inferior, and not in the mainstream, you might have a bad feeling. But look at from another angle, don't think of women poets as being inferior, think of them as a being a self-sufficient community, on a par with male poets, and then it's not so terrible to be called a woman poet. We can't do anything to change it right now anyway. What we can change is our attitude towards the term 'woman poet'. Still, a lot of women say, 'I'm not a woman poet, I'm a poet.' It's what I used to say too: I am a poet first, then a woman poet. I was very conscious of this in the 1980s. I think the reason is lack of confidence, not wanting to be marginalized, wanting to be part of the mainstream. Now I feel that as long as writing allows me to believe in myself, there are a whole lot of things I don't care about. (NH)

Hong Ying

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

In China, this isn't a problem. Many women writers have become either Chair and Deputy Chair of the China Writers Association. There are no such problems in China, and no inequality between male and female writers. Different problems arise for [Chinese] women writers in the diaspora, however. You don't get awarded prizes, and if you're not physically in China, everyone ignores you, including the media.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

I don't think this is a problem. It is because women writers do not have the strengths that men writers do. There are not many women of the calibre of Alice Monroe.

A [male] author once commented to me that in China, male writers are referred to as writers, but female writers are almost without exception referred to as 'women authors'. How do you feel about this?

This is true, but it's just what people are used to saying. The problem with women's writing is that women are under much more pressure than men. They have to raise children, take care of their husbands and the old folks. Second, they have to go out to work. They can only write in the evenings and at weekends, and they get paid very little for it. There are fewer and fewer people reading books. If women want to support themselves and their families through writing, the only way is by writing commercial screenplays. (NH)

Liang Hong

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

Women writers should have made substantial progress in the past 40 years, in terms of feminist consciousness [女性意识] and a recognition of their work; there should be an essential difference between 40 years ago and now. However, feminist consciousness has lagged behind. Many women writers subconsciously think that if you admit to a feminist consciousness, it will affect or devalue your writing. I think this is a sign of prejudice.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

Gender discrimination in the literary world still exists. More demands are made on women writers, and more negative labels are applied to them. For example, the label 'glamour writers' that emerged in the 1990s. Women writers' income, status, and influence may well be less than men's. After all, there are more male writers and they have more advantages. Women do not have the advantage of numbers. They get less good reviews too. On the one hand, this is because they don't produce work of such good quality as men. And reviewers betray their own prejudices when they make disparaging comments such as, 'She doesn't write badly, for a woman.'

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

I think this is still very much related to the progress of human civilization. More than a hundred years ago, women around the world generally did not have the right to vote and inherit property, and Chinese women could not even leave the house on their own, let alone become a writer. That is why Virginia Woolf said that women must have 'a room of their own', meaning they need rights. Only when they have achieved fundamental social rights and power can women become independent people, begin to think more deeply and live life more fully.

And this is just one example. At the beginning of the 21st century, women seem to have gained status, employments rights, reproductive rights, and rights with the family, where a lot of people complain that women have far more status than men. But then came #MeToo. After the movement began to ferment and expand on a global scale, people suddenly discovered that deep inside the power structure, the status of women has not really improved. This structure of power includes that between men and women, the power structure implicit within social systems, deep-seated inequalities within culture and education, and so on, covering almost every aspect of life, culture and politics. I was very optimistic at the start of #MeToo. I believed that if the movement really went deep, it could bring about social changes that would not be limited to changing relationships between men and women. I saw it as shaking deep cultural prejudices and impacting the redesign of the power structure. I saw it as a great opportunity for human civilization to move forward. However, it has disappointed us. Nowhere in the world has the #MeToo movement brought about genuine, healthy change. This shows yet again how difficult it is to tackle the problems inherent in gender politics. The fact is that women are still seen as weak, as the 'second sex'. (NH)

Lu Min

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

In the past forty years, women have undoubtedly made great progress in education, professional status, and economic independence. However, there are still limitations in the position society assigns to women, and women's own perception of gender issues. It is relatively easy for women to get into writing as a career, because from the perspective of the reading public and the media, the barriers to entry are not high. Women writers can get themselves noticed. But for mid-career professional writers, where competition is more intense, and for those who aspire to be great writers, it is clear that women writers are marginalized, and this becomes increasingly so as they progress through their career.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

In the early stages, women writers sometimes actually attract more attention and comments, and a bigger reputation than men, because society and the media and the critics feel that their efforts should be appreciated and encouraged. But it is more difficult for them to advance their careers. I don't think that this is entirely because of discrimination. It is because of what they write about. Most women writers tend to be inward-looking in their themes. While the tradition in Chinese literature is to focus on literature's ability to bring about social change.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

The writers I personally read and like most are male rather than female, because male writers are what a study of world literature provides. This long list of names [of world literary figures] has always been dominated by men. I believe that many women writers will never be able to enter this list and are therefore ignored. But I can also look at this ratio calmly and objectively. The critical horizons and frames of reference of literature are paternalistic, masculine, and social (outward-looking). The standards by which any literature is judged, no matter of which genre, which country it comes from, or which prize it is, are defined accordingly. Literature is patriarchal, because the entire world is, and has been, since the end of matriarchy. In everything from design, to cuisine, to sport, it is the patriarchal aesthetic that rules.

It is easy to become a writer at the start, but as we go forward, women writers become fewer and fewer. Gradually, they are filtered out. This saps women writers' confidence. Subconsciously, they begin to feel that only male writers progress in their career, and get translated into foreign languages, because they are more profound, have more of a sense of history and of national destiny. In fact, in the exchange of different cultures and civilizations, it is the most basic inner emotions that should find literary expression and resonate the most, things like motherhood, love, life, death. And these are the areas women are best at describing.

A [male] author once commented to me that in China, male writers are referred to as writers, but female writers are almost without exception referred to as 'women authors'. How do you feel about this?

I have come across this too. Women are defined as female calligraphers, female painters, female singers. It's the same everywhere. It shows how patriarchy permeates the whole of society. I don't like it at all. But I can take an objective view of it. We can think of it as an ornament, like a buttonhole fastened at my throat. You can see it when you look at me, but I can't see it. And I know that I am me, irrespective of my buttonhole, I am a writer. (NH)

ANON in her 30s

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

I don't know what aspect you are referring to. If you are talking about great literary work, it is true there are no Zhang Ailing and Xiao Hongs nowadays. If you mean the status of women writers, they do not seem to have much of a function, they seem unconcerned about society around them, they need to liberate themselves more. If you mean the writing environment as a whole, we're all feeling nostalgic for how things were five years ago.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

There is still a gap. Women writers are still treated differently, and the fact that they are female still lurks in people's subconscious. Male writers get more attention and praise. Many readers, when the works of female writers are talked about, automatically assume their books are trivial, and reject them out of hand, without even bothering to try and read them.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

It is difficult to determine why women writers win fewer prizes than male writers. No one can read everything that's written, so it is impossible to judge whether men really write better than women. But the skewed gender ratio in literary prizes does seem to prove that they are. I didn't know the gender ratio. But it's definitely worth looking into.

A [male] author once commented to me that in China, male writers are referred to as writers, but female writers are almost without exception referred to as 'women authors'. How do you feel about this?

He is telling the truth. On the list of Chinese writers' congresses, female writers will have their gender indicated in brackets. It's the same in other professions, and some have quotas for women too. Some government departmental groups go the same way. The use of the character for female in brackets with someone's name can denote a number of things, political, social, cultural, and so on. On the one hand, it shows a focus on gender equality and the advancement of women. But it also proves that women are still treated like a national minority and other vulnerable groups. (NH)

Wang Bang

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

As for the past 40 years, because the past is so horrible, I can only assume that the situation now is far better than before, at least there are more Chinese female writers starting to target gender issues (eg. I myself hold a position as a columnist writing for the RNW Love Matters China on various gender discussions). This is especially true for the younger generation, who would probably challenge their predecessors, and make critical remarks about the characterization of the female protagonists from those popular novels, such as Youth (芳华) or 夏摩山谷 [Summer Valley] by 安妮宝贝 Annie Baobei etc.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this?

Women's situation, on the whole, is still quite grim in China. Gender inequality is leading to many social problems. A friend of mine who is also a writer, has just completed her MA degree on art history, and is currently unemployed, because she is told by her potential employers that she is too old. She is 34. I fear that the similar situation might have occurred innumerable times in our literary world as well, age is a curse for female writers, Eileen Chang once remarked, 'Get famous when young'.

Many well-known Chinese female writers are not only young but also beautiful, if not stunning, at least attractive. You could turn a couple of pages of any literary magazine or their Wechat official accounts, to see the carefully chosen photographs of female writers, whilst the portraits of male writers remain rather casual and less smart.

However, to answer your question; I would like to assume that once you become famous your sex will not be an issue anymore, you will be treated fairly in terms of income and influence (take Yan Geling 严歌苓, for example), but first of all, you have to become famous, and sadly, you have to be young (perhaps pretty too).

Apart from Yu Xiuhua 余秀华, have you ever heard of 'the Chinese Alice Munro', or 'the Chinese J.K. Rowling' ? Middle age housewives or 40-somethings just don't match up to the expectations of the (probably male) editors.

Most literary reviews are not gender-specific. As long as you are famous, your work will attract the same amount of attention. However, in China most famous writers are male, in fact, at least two thirds are male.

[As for how few women writers get translated] I wish the translators could skip the mainstream literary world for a moment and try looking into underground literature. We are facing the most absurd censorship these past five years. Inside the mainstream publishing houses, there is only a tiny bit of space for male writers to explore, let alone female writers. So many things have become taboo topics, nobody could speak like Svetlana Alexievich. If you dare to try, it won't last for two seconds. The underground, the hidden, unpublished, or self-published is the only hope for surviving a literary massacre. If this becomes possible, you might find there will be more women eager to be involved with the translation projects, until then you probably still won't see more than 35 volumes translated in six years.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

Most jurors for the most prestigious Chinese literature prizes are male, the editors I know who have published my work are all male. But there is always an exception. A collection of my essays which I wrote for Dan Du (单读) Magazine was selected for the 10 best non-fiction of 2018 in China by 收获 (the Harvest) Literary Magazine, and one juror voted it as the best. I later learnt that the juror might have been Xiang Jing 项静, a very youthful and talented Chinese literary critic who left a very kind comment about my work on the minutes at a press conference for the prize. I felt so lucky to have a female juror who appreciated my work at last. The same work was shortlisted for the Chinese Youth Literary Prize 2019 (华语青年文学奖 ), which included 9 jurors, all male, and I had no luck at all. Another time, when I sent off a short story to a competition named Anonymous Writers, with three jurors, all male, I did not even get an automatic receipt. Luckily the story was soon published by an established literary magazine, therefore somewhat proving it was not a complete waste of time. As a female writer myself, I could really do with a few more female jurors. I feel the lack of sisterhood, not just in the literary world, but also in reality.

Xia Jia

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years? If so, how?

There has been great progress in science fiction writing. In the 1980s, there were almost no women science fiction writers in China. They made an appearance after 1990, but were few in number. And now almost half scifi writers are women.

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination? Do their books get reviewed less? What do you feel about this? ?

In China today, the kinds of scifi writing and the way in which they are evaluated by critics are still largely male-dominated (and they go for the 'grand narrative', 'hardcore' and 'technical'), while scifi by women is treated as 'minority' or 'alternative' (emphasizing 'feminine characteristics' such as 'delicate' and 'emotional'). The Four Greats in contemporary Chinese scifi (He Xi, Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, and Han Song) are all middle-aged male writers, while female writers are in a relatively marginalized position.

Literary prizes: pitifully few women win. Of the 2 major prizes, the Mao Dun prize 34 winners to 2015, only 9 were women. The Lu Xun prize (till 2017) had 201 total winners but only 27 were women. What do you think the reason is? Can the situation be improved, and if so, how?

China's most influential sci-fi awards are the 'Galaxy Award' and the 'Nebula Award'. The former is voted for by readers of Science Fiction World magazine, while the latter has a long list voted for online and a jury to make the final choice. Overall, the winners of these two awards are more male than female. On the one hand, this ratio is not as disproportionate as the ratio of Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, but on the other hand, it is far greater than the gender ratio of recent winners of the US Nebula Award and the Hugo Award. (The proportion of women and LGTB writers has shown a clear upward trend in the latter).

[As for how few women writers get translated] I have no data in this regard. But in science fiction translation, the novels that are currently translated into English seem to be works of male writers; while in short stories translation, the proportion of female writers is quite high.

A [male] author once commented to me that in China, male writers are referred to as writers, but female writers are almost without exception referred to as 'women authors'. How do you feel about this?

This is especially evident in science fiction circles. Many people even talk about 'pretty women writers' without thinking, and don't realize that this is an offensive name that is politically incorrect. (NH)

Comments

# 1.   

It is disappointing and frankly a bit bizarre to see how many of the interviewees chose not to respond using their own names or pen name.

Why so? Any insights?

Bruce Humes, October 18, 2020, 6:24p.m.

# 2.   

I'm not sure that they have to justify their reasons for choosing anonymity. And no matter their reasons, is it possibly presumptuous to question them as someone who doesn't share their situation? Dismissive too perhaps, can you not perceive any possible reasons for their choice without asking? That said, Nicky and Natascha might well have your answer

Jack Hargreaves, October 19, 2020, 3:37p.m.

# 3.   

Thanks for your comments, Jack and Bruce. Bruce, we should perhaps have been quite clear: four out of eighteen chose anonymity, that's not many. (You can check above.) We did not ask them to justify why. I can guess, but my guesses might be wrong. We thought their comments were sufficiently worthwhile and anonymity did not detract from them, so we never considered kicking them out on those grounds.

 Nicky Harman, October 19, 2020, 6:49p.m.

# 4.   

Thx for your comments, Nicky.

I would certainly not want to see them "banned" for claiming anonymity!

Bruce Humes, October 20, 2020, 4:28p.m.

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