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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 this article): The lame Chinese title definitely didn’t get top billing.