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Interview with Zhai Yongming 翟永明

Interview by Nicky Harman and Natascha Bruce, for Paper Republic, first published October 2020. Translated by Nicky Harman.

Read in Chinese here.

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.