Feminist: A Dirty Word in Xi Jinping’s China?

Chimamanda Adichie is hot. Not just in her homeland Nigeria, and the US where she spends much of her time nowadays, but in China too.

Witness the fact that four of her works have been translated into Chinese, including her moving portrayal of the Biafran war,  Half of a Yellow Sun  (半轮黄日), The Thing Around Your Neck (绕颈之物), and two just this year, Purple Hibiscus  (紫木槿), and We Should All Be Feminists (女性的权利). African literature is notoriously little translated into Chinese, and four books puts her in the illustrious company of just a handful of oft-translated black African writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, also Nigerians (see my mini-database of African lit in Chinese).

We Should All Be Feminists, just out this month (June 2017) in Chinese, is a personal essay adapted from the writer’s TEDx talk of the same name. Writes Shelley Diaz (School Library Journal), as cited in the Amazon.com blurb for the English version of the essay:

Drawing on anecdotes from her adolescence and adult life, Adichie attempts to strike down stereotypes and unpack the baggage usually associated with the term [feminism]. She argues that an emphasis on feminism is necessary because to focus only on the general ‘human rights’ is ‘to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded’.

I wonder if Ms. Adichie knows what has become of her essay in the Chinese? I have not read it, but I do know this: The very word “feminist”— and the bold call for all of us, irregardless of our gender — to be “feminists,” have been removed from the title.  The Chinese title,  女性的权利 (nǚxìng de quánlì), is a rather flat “Women’s Rights.” No feminist (女权主义者) or feminism (女权主义), no call to take action, just five words, which lack even a verb.

Word has it that the sticking point was the “ism” (the Chinese term for “feminist” is literally “feminism” + “person”). Apparently there’s only one “ism” around today that is considered politically correct; it has “Chinese characteristics,” and it ain’t “feminism.” I don’t know if the decision to tone down the title was made by the higher-ups at People’s Literature Publishing House or someone in the Ministry of Truth, but this is arguably yet another telltale sign of the sensitivity regarding feminist activism that has become increasingly evident since the mid-2015 arrest of “China’s Feminist Five.”

According to The Guardian, the women – Wei Tingting, Li Tingting (Li Maizi), Wu Rongrong, Wang Man and Zheng Churan (Datu) – were detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事罪) after planning a multi-city protest aimed at bringing an end to sexual harassment on public transport.

It’s obvious that the marketeers over at People’s Literature Publishing House, censorship or no, fully understand that the original We Should All Be Feminists is much more likely to drive sales. Just look at the cover (top of article): The lame Chinese title definitely didn’t get top billing.

Comments

  1. Zhixing Che says:

    Hi Bruce, as a Chinese student studying in the states (also a Chimamanda fan), I find this article and the issue it discusses very close to heart. It’s incredibly interesting (and concerning) to see how language can be such a determining factor in censoring knowledge and portraying a favorable viewpoint. Moreover, in news and media, I cannot count the number of times original reports are twisted in words and mistranslated in popular articles shared by millions of chinese who likely knew little about international affair apart from those 微信 or 微博 articles. There is definitely an active attempt by the govt to restrict the influence of progressive ideas (like being feminists or being gay) on chinese citizens. And frankly it has been a success because of the heavy amount of “censoring cops”. But I do see a surge of resistance (for lack of a better word) towards the censorship and internet protests against the govt agenda in young, educated city dwellers. Granted they are a small fraction of the general population, but I find them to be changes that perhaps the rigid govt has no control over.
    I appreciate how insightful your blogposts are. All the best!

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