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Iron Girls to Leftover Women: What Next for Chinese Women?

24th June 2016 - Nicky Harman

Nicky Harman translates fiction and non-fiction from Chinese, including books by Xinran and Xu Xiaobin. She organizes translation-related events, co-runs the Read Paper Republic free weekly short story series, tweets as Chinese Fiction Book Club @cfbcuk, and recently collated ‘Ten Chinese Women Whose Writing Should Be Translated’ for LitHub. She is co-Chair of the UK Translators Association.

Chinese women writers, Xinran and Xu Xiaobin, both focus on women, one in her reportage, the other as a novelist. Exclusively for Foyles, Nicky talked to them about how life has changed for women in China since the 1980s.




Xu Xiaobin’s latest novel Crystal Wedding is the story of a marriage doomed from the start by sexual ignorance, and of a woman torn between her passion for her work as an artist and her love for her son. It also charts some of the changes in Chinese women’s lives, from the muscle-bound Iron Girls of the Cultural Revolution, to the pressures to play simpering seductresses of powerful men in the twenty-first century. Crystal Wedding will never be published in China because it is explicit about sex and corruption; the author has taken considerable personal risk in allowing it to be published in English translation. The boook has recently been longlisted for the Financial Times/Oppenheimer Emerging Voices prize.




Xinran is a UK-based British-Chinese journalist and writer, well-known to readers for her Good Women of China, a groundbreaking collection of true stories taken from her 1990s Nanjing Radio phone-in programme. Since then, she has written about older women (and men) in China Witness, about young women forced to give up their babies in Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother, and much more. In 2004, she set up The Mothers' Bridge of Love  (MBL), a charity for adopted Chinese children which aims to create a bridge of understanding between China and the West and between adoptive culture and birth culture. In 2011, Xinran was nominated for the Guardian’s top 100 of the world's most inspirational women.





How much has life changed for women in China since the 1980s when you began to write about women?



It depends where they are. For urban women, a lot has changed at many different levels. They now have the freedom to choose whom to marry and how to live, they have education, financial independence, sex education and good health care, and the freedom to express their emotions. The value of girls has also been raised by the one-child per family policy.

But not very much changed in more remote areas. There still is a huge gap between cities and countryside. I was in China in April 2016, doing research on migrant women (since 1997 when I moved to the UK, I have gone back to China twice a year to do research). I see how little they are able to earn from their incredibly hard work, as they struggle to make their living in the city. They devote all of their time and energy to their families, even sacrificing their health, in order to build a better life for their children and grandchildren. Indeed, without Chinese mothers, China would not have survived the last one hundred years, which were terribly dark times for China, full of wars, political killings and starvation.


Xu Xiaobin

Since the 1980s, the position of women in China has changed beyond all recognition. In material terms, their standard of living has shot up. China used to be known as the ‘nation of blue ants’. Women’s clothing came in three colours, black, white and dark blue (plus, of course, from army khaki). Nowadays, you can get fashion labels from all over the world in China. However, women's social status has plummeted. At least in Mao’s day, there was respect for the spirit of the Iron Girls. Although gender equality was a myth, the difference in status between men and women was not huge. Whereas now, phallocentrism rules. In almost every domain, what men say, goes. The reason, it has to be said, lies a lot with women: money has become an object of worship in China, but many women would rather rely on a man to fulfill their dreams of luxury, than fight for a better standard of living for themselves. So women get into jealous fights over men, and men increasingly oppress women. It’s produced a situation where women with as much or more talent and ability than men are unable to obtain the recognition they deserve. But most women resign themselves to mediocrity, and would rather be rich than intellectually and spiritually fulfilled.   


Given that there is nowadays less sexual ignorance and more personal freedom, has life improved for young women in China today, or have different pressures made things more difficult for them?


Xu Xiaobin

Of course, sexual freedom has brought progress, but too much sexual freedom has resulted in a skewed kind of sexual permissiveness. As I said in my foreword to Crystal Wedding, sex has become a way of bribing those in power; there are no such things as state-run brothels, but everywhere you see signs for ‘restaurant clubs’ which are brothels in all but name. High-school girls work as escorts, decent women have one-night stands – and there’s nothing shaming any more in using sex to get ahead in life. Poverty is the real shame, not selling one’s body, and honesty is considered really ridiculous.



I have learned two things from my researches on China’s modern history and Chinese women's lives: one is that tradition and cultural beliefs are much more powerful than any religion or political force, and the other is that selecting the sex of the unborn child is the cause of the longest-running war in human history.

Chinese women today face challenges which come both from Chinese tradition and from western culture. Education is the key for women to open the door to making their own life choices and gaining independence, but education over the last forty years has apparently failed to offer this opportunity to Chinese women, especially in the developing areas in China. There are still quite large numbers of Chinese women who suffer the consequences of sexual ignorance and abuse, and languish in forgotten corners, unsupported by their communities. 


And finally, are young Chinese women still terrified of ending up on the shelf. Is ‘leftover woman’ still a term of abuse?



No, the term no longer has the force it once did. In the ‘marriage revolution’ of the last ten years, thousands of Chinese women have said a resounding ‘NO’ to their family and to the traditional society which forced them into marriage.


Xu Xiaobin

No, there are a lot of educated young women who have chosen to marry late or not at all, for all sorts of reasons: because they can see how insecure men are nowadays, because they’re still on the lookout for someone better, because they are quite well-off financially themselves and don’t feel the need to marry, and (in a very few cases) because they have not met a soulmate and persist in believing in the values of marriage. 


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