Turning the page on female and non-binary Chinese science fiction writers

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Only a tiny percentage of Chinese fiction finds its way into English each year. According to Publishers Weekly’s translation database, only nine Chinese contemporary fiction books were translated into English in 2021, five of which were written by male authors over 50, such as Liu Cixin and Yan Lianke.

The arrival of spring and other stories, an anthology of science fiction and fantasy short stories, hopes to change that picture. Published simultaneously by Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House in Chinese and English by science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor.com earlier this year, the book was written, translated, edited and designed by a female, non-binary Chinese team. . Many of the 17 stories included were from “net novels,” literature primarily circulating through online literature platforms like Qidian, Xiaoxiang Study, and Jinjiang Literature City.

The writers are mostly in their 20s and 30s and have all made a splash in the Chinese literary scene, either winning prestigious awards or gaining large fanbases. But the majority of them have only had one or two short stories translated into English in anthologies or journals with relatively limited circulation. They come from a variety of backgrounds: Anna Wu and Xia Jia have degrees in literature, but Shen Yingying is a doctor by training who started writing short stories and novels online at the beginning of this century, the popularity of which led to the offline publishing. of five of his longest novels. Wang Nuonuo graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in economics and was a key opinion leader (the Chinese equivalent of influencers) on the Zhihu Q&A platform before she started writing science fiction.

Over the past 30 years, the internet has spawned a number of prominent female authors. In an essay on web novels at the end of the anthology, science fiction writer and translator Xueting Christine Ni points out that China’s traditional publishing industry has been male-dominated since the 1950s. and strongly favors male authors. “The ingrained patriarchal attitudes meant that they [women] were still expected to take on some, if not all, of the domestic and childcare responsibilities,” Ni writes, giving them neither the time to write nor the respect required by senior management of publishing houses “for the out of the ever-increasing mud”. pile.”

But since the early 2000s, online literature platforms have helped women authors in China, many of whom started out as amateurs, bypassing the biases of publishers and readers to break into previously male-dominated genres. The largely meritocratic voting, rating and subscription systems on these platforms reward writers based on their popularity with readers rather than their credentials.

An excellent translation, the anthology is a refreshing mix of stories, each rooted in the classic texts, culture or worldview of China. Although fantasy and science fiction in China have had a reputation in the past for channeling ideas from Japan or the West, this collection takes us to fantasy worlds wonderfully different from our own, many of which have a unique Chinese flavor. . The anthology’s namesake, “The Way Spring Arrives” by Wang Nuonuo (translated by Rebecca F. Kuang), fuses familiar names of gods and animals in Chinese mythology with a puppy love story to present an epic change of season. It all starts with Goumang, a boy who follows his crush Xiaoqing on a journey to bring spring to the world. They ride Kun, a giant fish, bringing the hot currents heated by Zhurong, the god of fire, and Chisongzi, the god of rain, from the South Sea to the North Sea. Rain falls along the way, and the giant fish adjusts the Earth’s axis to its destination, thus beginning spring.

Others merge the features of East and West. Anna Wu’s “Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe: Tai-Chi Taro Mash” (translated by Carmen Yiling Yan) also puts a new spin on a name that many Chinese readers will recognize. Wu riffs on the essay “Contemplating the Snow at the Pavilion in the Center of the Lake” by Ming Dynasty scholar Zhang Dai, which documents a chance encounter on Hangzhou’s West Lake. Zhang is a household name to Chinese readers, as his essay is required reading in middle school. His background is also common knowledge, a libertine in his early years and a sad old man after the Manchurian invasion of 1644. Wu mixes Zhang’s story with that of British author Douglas Adams. Restaurant at the end of the universethe plot involving mashed taro delivered through time and space to West Lake, commissioned by a mysterious man who encounters Zhang at various points in his life who helps him time travel.

Some use their background outside of writing to startling effect. Shen Yingying’s “Dragonslaying” (translated by Emily Xueni Jin) is set in a shared fictional world known as “Cloud Desolate”, created by Shen and other writers. Su Mian, a female doctor, travels to the southern shore of the Cloud Desolate continent to witness the slaying of dragons, an operation that splits the tail of jiaoren, sea creatures with the upper body of a human, and transforms them into walking beings that will serve humans. Shen’s knowledge of medicine and surgery agrees with detailed descriptions of operation procedures and jiaoren anatomy. The protagonist’s desire to prove himself better than the male doctors may also reflect that of the author.

In addition to the short stories, the English version of the anthology also includes essays by translators of some of the stories, reflecting the translation process. For example, Yilin Wang explains a number of choices she made while translating, including her decision to use the pronoun “they” for a protagonist who is a eunuch. Rebecca F. Kuang illustrates her internal debate on translation: staying faithful to the original text risks making it exotic or “other”; but if a translator makes a work accessible to an audience unfamiliar with the cultural context, this could also erase the unique qualities of the source text. There are “no right answers or hard and fast rules,” observes Kuang, but translators should always “consider carefully who they are writing for and how they represent a culture that is not their own.”

Interestingly, while The arrival of spring and other stories received a rating of 8.3 out of 10 on the Douban review platform, a small number of readers who gave a low rating say they are “disappointed” because “[the content] has nothing to do with women” and accuse the book of not being “feminist enough”. Indeed, most of the stories in the collection do not feature gender equality as a central theme, and not all of them spotlight heroines.

Is it a necessary task of a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories with a female, non-binary team of creators to shine a light on gender issues? “I don’t think the definition of feminism should be viewed so narrowly, and female designers don’t automatically fit what is expected of ‘feminism’ (especially in the Chinese context),” writes Emily Xueni Jin in a message to TWOC.

For Jin, the fact that these writers are platformers is the main point. “As minorities, we can have a voice and an opportunity to earn money. Together, we are breaking the status quo where male writers have absolute dominance in Chinese science fiction translated for foreign audiences. This is certainly one way feminism could take shape.

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