Tang Fei (the pen name of Wang Jing) was born in 1983 in Shanghai. She is well known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy and is also a literary critic and essayist. Tang Fei was one of our star interviewees in Paper Republic's collection Chinese Women Writers Speak, 2020, in which we asked women to share their experiences of being (and becoming) writers in China. Here, Tang Fei reflects on recent changes in the literary landscape, entrenched gender stereotypes, and the trouble with feminist lip service.
We offered Tang Fei a chance to write anonymously, but she replied: “I have decided not to be anonymous. It’s hard to be completely frank, but I want to talk about the complex situation faced by female writers in China, as a woman who writes science fiction, and I’ll do so as accurately and honestly as possible.”
—Nicky Harman and Natascha Bruce
I was born in Shanghai. My grandfather was an old-school gentleman. My mother unfortunately did not receive any higher education, but she has always been very open to new ideas, and apart from our occasional fights, she was very lenient with me. When my teacher found me reading The Count of Monte Cristo and confiscated it for not being on the curriculum, my mother bought me more non-curriculum books and made a point of presenting them to me in front of the teacher. As a child, I used to play with boys of around my age; I couldn’t climb trees, but I did climb cranes. And when I grew up, I made my own decisions and took responsibility for the consequences. It was only later that I realized a lot of Chinese girls did not enjoy the kind of freedoms that I took for granted.
Hao Jingfang's 2016 Hugo Award [for her novella Folding Beijing] inspired many women to become more active on the literary scene. Discussing feminism suddenly became fashionable in SF circles, and I began to be invited to join these discussions at public events. At the first one, several of my fellow participants mentioned being asked why they, as women, liked science fiction. I was astonished. The question itself says a lot, doesn’t it?
Science fiction covers a multitude of literary narratives, from horror stories to speculative fiction to love stories. This is especially true of the past few years, with Doctor Who, recent releases from Marvel and DC, and other SF films and series becoming an established part of popular culture. It is a very common thing to like science fiction nowadays. But even if it were not, when a woman, as an independent individual, likes something, what does it have to do with other people? There are female astronauts in space, while on Earth, Chinese women have to explain why they like science fiction!
There is a link here to how Chinese science fiction developed historically. It was introduced from the West during the late Qing dynasty as a way of educating people. After Liberation [in 1949], it had to find a way to coexist with Marxist materialism, and the way it did this was to promote science and to attack superstition. So science fiction was molded by the specific political context in which it found itself. These days, mainstream science fiction is very focused on scientific logic and grand ideas, topics not generally associated with femininity—because, according to the stereotype, women are no good at science and engineering.
It is tempting to use statistics to attack prejudice and stereotypes. For instance, by saying how many female scientists and engineers there are, and pointing out that there are as many female science students as there are male ones (unequal education and social opportunities in some parts of China notwithstanding). But it makes little difference. Stereotypes, by their nature, are out of touch with reality, and will insist on remaining so in order to maintain their legitimacy.
I was shocked at that first discussion because no one had ever asked me why I like and write science fiction. Since then, I have begun to realize my luck. But my delight at having survived in the SF world is mixed with a growing sense of guilt. There’s all this terrible news about violence against women, and then there’s what’s happening in the literary world, and both of these things have led me to reexamine the position of female SF writers. Talking about the two things in the same breath requires some courage. Some people might even find it offensive.
“Events that focus on female writers are often worse than useless: just token, box-ticking affairs.”
I was a female SF author long before I realized what it really meant to be one. Firstly because of the family support I mentioned earlier. Secondly, because when I started writing, Chinese SF authors and most readers had been to university and were well-educated. The older generation of SF writers were warm and kind to me, and very supportive of those coming up behind them. I assumed that all a writer had to do was to hone their skills, and they would be fine. Gender seemed irrelevant.
However, all of us have been conditioned into certain ways of thinking, and a lot of prejudice is deeply rooted in our consciousness, to such an extent that we’re not even aware of it ourselves. In this respect, all of society is the same—and the Chinese SF community is no exception. I stress that the problems faced by female SF authors and female authors more generally are the very same problems faced by all women in China. But in the writing world, nothing is as extreme or bloody as it is in real life. It’s all rather more elegant and dignified.
It’s worth counting up just how many top-level Chinese SF writers are women, and how many works they have written. The fact is that although more than half of SF editors are women, and there are huge numbers of female SF readers, few of the constant stream of emerging female SF authors persist for more than ten years or maintain their creative output. Among Chinese SF writers, women over the age of forty are as rare as hen’s teeth. If we narrow this group down to female authors who are still at their peak after the age of forty—that is, their work is still being published and their achievements acknowledged in SF circles—then there are no more than five. At the very top are Qian Lifang, Chi Hui, and Hao Jingfang. No one else’s novels have had much impact.
The most senior, best-known living SF writers are all men, and they are prolific. The next generation, the one above me, has its “four kings”: Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, Han Song, and He Xi. They are in their fifties, and the number of works they have produced is truly astounding. (I will avoid debating the literary merits of these works, because it is not the focus of this discussion. Any serious discussion on that score requires us first to define contemporary science fiction and its mission, all of which is highly controversial.)
The problem I’m talking about here is a hidden one, or at least one we have learned to turn a blind eye to. It is not as simple as female writers against male writers. They do not divide neatly into different camps. Women have been conditioned to stand against female writers too, and regularly do so, sometimes even with good intentions.
“When a female writer has been objectified and put on such a pedestal, how is she supposed to get down again?”
The real problem is that events that focus on female writers are often worse than useless: just token, box-ticking affairs. There is a feminist SF discussion at almost every conference, featuring female writers talking generally about their personal experience. What could be easier? You pull together a bunch of female authors who you can’t find a space for anywhere else, and call the topic feminism. No need for a more thoroughgoing or honest discussion about it. The organizers often lack the most basic understanding of these women’s work and are incapable of probing the underlying social causes and finding a way forward. After a few events like this, I got totally fed up. I am not interested in spending my time on stage griping and moaning. Talking about one’s personal life is not of much help in addressing issues that deserve more serious consideration. To be frank, female writers sitting together complaining simply reinforces stereotypes about women.
To discuss this issue, you need to bring in sociology, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and history, and works by female writers should be brought into the discussion too. Appearing on stage just because we are women and being forgotten just because we are women . . . there is no difference.
I was invited to a cultural festival in Adelaide in 2018, and women’s issues were among the topics. But the discussion was much more interesting. A male Indian mythologist talked about gender transformation and reincarnation in Indian mythology, and several gay performance poets talked about their own practice as artists. I made a critique of gender dualism from a scientific standpoint and then talked about body awareness and its effect on my creativity as a Chinese science fiction writer.
Nowadays in China, I no longer participate in any discussions on so-called feminism. But still they don’t leave me alone. Time and again, I am asked questions in interviews about female SF writers, and the interviews always focus on this topic. It is quite clear that my interviewers are not interested in anything else. Women and science fiction, that is all. No one escapes.
I must emphasize once again that the problems faced by Chinese female authors are exactly the same as those faced by Chinese women. This is not a figure of speech. Let me give an example to show how Chinese literature deals with the problem of Chinese women. It is appalling, and it is sanctimonious. This is one of China's most respected male writers responding to criticism of his novel. [Translator’s note: The novel,《极花》by Jia Pingwa, translated as Broken Wings, is about a young woman trafficked and sold as a wife to a man in a remote village where the local women have left for a better life as factory workers. Jia was accused of being too sympathetic to the male villagers who bought wives.]. He writes:
Pandas are precious precisely because it is so difficult to persuade them to breed; conversely, the more despised and lowly the species—like rabbits, rats, houseflies, and mosquitos—the faster they breed. Yet these despised and lowly men have no chance of breeding at all . . . Let me be clear: kidnapping of women and children is brutal and cruel and should be cracked down on. But every time there is a crackdown, the traffickers are severely punished and the police are lauded for their heroic rescues, but no one mentions the fact that the cities have plundered wealth, labor power, and women from the villages. No one talks about the men left behind in the wastelands to wither like gourds on the frame, flowering once, then dying fruitless.
The problem we face is not how many female writers there are, or how many female writers win prizes; it is how to define humanity in literature. If we accept the justification above and applaud the novel in question as an expression of human tragedy and pity, then even if the chair of the China Writers Association is a woman, it makes no difference. The ones who decide which women to promote are still men and those women who protect them.
Whether they are characters in a novel or novelists themselves, women are defined as the uterus that nurtures men’s minds or men’s flesh, giving birth to replicas either as the mothers of their children, or as their spiritual muses. I do not believe there is another country in the world in which the word “goddess” (女神) is overused the way it is in China. The goddess is the ultimate fantasy: the holy, the beautiful, the unreachable, the inviolable, the redemptive. When a female writer has been objectified and put on such a pedestal, how is she supposed to get down again?
It is an interesting coincidence that if you look at photos of Chinese SF writers after 2000—posed ones, not group photos or candid snaps—you will find that most famous female SF writers are stunningly beautiful and highly photogenic, far more so than their male counterparts. They are as marketable as their books.
“The most important question is how to live, both as a woman and as a writer.”
It is hard to say whether this is natural selection or a process of filtering by publishers, because the best-known really are as talented as they are good-looking. I was amazed at the first Worldcon that I attended. American science fiction writers, both men and women, are all so different from one another! How can I put this? I thought it was really sweet—this world in which anyone can write, irrespective of what they look like, how old they are, or their gender.
In China, as a female writer, the most important question is how to live, both as a woman and as a writer. You have to write, fight for more publishing space, fight for a bigger writing space, enrich or even redefine science fiction itself. You have to write and write and write some more, regardless of marriage or child-rearing, no matter whether you have a job or are unemployed. You have to keep on writing all through your life until you die. And the physical activity of writing is done by your body. The perspective of your writing, how you see things, how you understand the experience of living—it all comes from you. Therefore, if you are a woman, your writing is naturally and undeniably a woman’s writing. It does not matter what you write about. It can be anything: an epoch-making event or just twenty-four hours in a person’s life, based on reality or set in another dimension.
In China, as a marginalized female writer, I not only have to keep caring about the fate of individuals in this tumultuous society, I also have to be fearlessly honest and true to myself. This is, of course, very difficult. But it is no more difficult than the lives of other Chinese women. Some of them are young girls physically abused or murdered by their fathers, some are killed by their own sons simply because they cannot afford to buy them a house, some are beaten up or raped by strangers while out walking. Some are persecuted by officials or the local community simply for demanding equal rights. Some have their names dragged through the mud over and over again in their fight for justice. For a great many of them, simply surviving each day is a battle.
As a woman, and as a writer, I am part of that battle.
Tang Fei is a speculative fiction writer whose fiction has been featured (under various pen names) in magazines in China such as Science Fiction World, Jiuzhou Fantasy, and Fantasy Old and New. She has written fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, and wuxia, but prefers to write in a way that straddles or stretches genre boundaries. She is also a genre critic, and her critical essays have been published in the Economic Observer. Her story “Call Girl” was published in Apex Magazine and reprinted in Rich Horton's The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014. Her other works “Pepe” and “Universal Elegy” were also published in Clarkesworld in 2014 and 2015. She has been translated by Ken Liu.