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November/ December 2020: Conversations with Chinese Women Writers

This month on our Book Club we've got something a little different. Rather than featuring an author and one of their stories, we're focusing on a project carried out by translator Nicky Harman, in partnership with Natascha Bruce, interviewing Chinese women writers about their experiences of being an author in China. The eighteen interviews were translated by Nicky and Natascha, and published on Paper Republic.

Here, Nicky Haman briefly introduces the project, and you can follow the link at the end to find all the interviews collected together on Paper Republic. We're also very grateful to Nicky and Natascha for letting us feature their interview with poet Zhai Yongming 翟永明, which you can find in Chinese here, and in English translation here.

And if you're interested in finding out more about Zhai Yongming's work after reading the interview, Zephyr Press has a bilingual edition of a selection of her poems, The Changing Room, with English translations by Andrea Lingenfelter.



Nicky Harman

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 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 award winners (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.

I am a hands-on literary translator. I don’t normally do research. But two things encouraged me to start this project: I was in Chengdu and was chatting to the poet Zhai Yongming about Chinese women poets in 2019; and, also in 2019, Helen Vassallo, of Translating Women, invited me to her Translating Women conference. I decided to fire off some questions to women writers of my acquaintance. They, in turn, passed me on to other women writers, and the result was eighteen detailed responses, all of them fascinating, and three of them in the form of extended essays. I was struck both by the generosity and enthusiasm of these women’s responses, and the fact that they seemed rather surprised, as well as pleased, to have been asked. I translated parts of the responses and quoted them, necessarily briefly, at the Translating Women conference.

Enter Natascha Bruce, my partner in this project. Without Natascha, these interviews would probably have languished on my hard drive, providing the occasional soundbite if I was ever asked to do a similar talk again. But between us, we cooked up rather more ambitious plans: we split the responses in two and translated them in their entirety. We prepared a presentation for the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association, ALTA43, where we discussed challenges encountered during the translation and read our favourite quotes; Words without Borders posted Tang Fei’s contribution, an essay on sexism and science fiction, and we archived the complete collection of translated interviews on Paper Republic, where they can be read here.

My aim was to make the questions as open-ended as possible. I wanted to present the opinions of Chinese women writers in all their variety and complexity. I did not want to put words into their mouths. This is what I asked:

Have things improved for women writers in the last 40 years?

In terms of reputation, income, influence and status, do women writers face gender discrimination?

Why do you think such a tiny number of women writers in China win the major literary prizes?

In China, male writers are referred to as writers, but female writers are almost always referred to as ‘women authors’. How do you feel about this?  

Some of the answers surprised us, and they certainly challenged a few preconceptions.

During our ALTA talk, Natascha introduced three topics that came up again and again in the responses, albeit from very different points of view. They were: i) writers associations; ii) the attractiveness levels of female writers; and iii) the question of whether or not there are fundamental differences between men and women, which affect their abilities as writers. Here’s what she said about them during the presentation:

i) Writers’ associations are state-sponsored organisations designed to support professional writers. They represent a kind of institutionalisation of creative writing, meaning that writers are paid and promoted by the Chinese state. Almost every single interviewee brought up them up, in one way or another. Older interviewees, in particular, saw them as a sign of progress – the associations are concerned with ensuring that women are represented, and several women have been promoted to high positions within them. However, other writers pointed out that, for all the talk of gender equality, the associations themselves are inherently patriarchal, and value literature according to standards set by men – as well as, of course, political standards set by the state.

ii) In terms of attractiveness, several writers suggested that the likelihood of success was higher for conventionally attractive women; others that if you were conventionally attractive there was always the assumption you were only successful because of your looks; and a few mentioned the differing turnover rates for men and women. Even if, on paper, an equal number of men and women are being published, it seems that women last less time in the industry – so the women stay young and pretty and junior, whereas men are allowed to grow older and remain successful writers.

iii) Finally, the idea of fundamental differences between men and women. More than one writer suggested that men are biologically stronger and their writing is therefore more enduring, or that women and men naturally have different interests, and male interests happen to be more important to civilisation, thus their writing is too. For writers who disagreed with this, it nevertheless came up that reviewers will assess work by women with such a distinction (or variation on the theme of) in mind, framing writing by women in terms of sensitivity or domesticity, which has pushed some writers to try to write more ‘like men’ in order to be taken seriously.


And now we’d like to invite you to dive in, and make up your own minds. Here is the link to the complete set of interviews on Paper Republic.

NOTE: These are interviews with cis women from mainland China, of a variety of ages and sexualities. As a whole this is a group underrepresented in China in terms of publishing figures and prizes, and certainly a group underrepresented in Chinese literature translated into English, but our interviews do not account for trans women or non-binary people writing in Chinese or, indeed, for women from sinophone countries other than mainland China.