The Evolution of Nüwa: A Brief “Herstory” of Chinese SF

By Regina Kanyu Wang. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

If you listen to a lecture on Chinese science fiction (SF), or check a list of representative authors of Chinese SF, eight or nine times out of ten, you will hear the names of male authors first. There is Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, Han Song and He Xi, the “Four Heavenly Kings.” Or Chen Qiufan, Baoshu, Zhang Ran and Feidao, the leading post-80s writers. If the list goes on, you may finally hear of Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, Zhao Haihong and Ling Chen, the female authors who are equally extraordinary but less mentioned. During a panel at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in 2017, the moderator Xia Jia, who is also a prominent scholar, gave a short introduction to Chinese SF. For the first time in such major occasions, she decided to present the female writers before the male ones. Her efforts emphasized that Chinese female SF writers are not inferior to their male counterparts, and questioned the routine of male writers always being the first and the dominant.

Despite the growing popularity of Chinese SF both inside and outside of academia, far less attention is paid to female authors’ works compared with male authors’ works. Research on Chinese SF from a gender perspective is even more rare. This article intends to re-narrate the “herstory” of mainland Chinese SF in the larger historical background of China and hopes to invite more discussion on this topic in the future.

It is widely acknowledged that SF in its modern sense was first brought to China via translation in the late Qing dynasty (1840-1912, from the First Opium War to the issuance of the Imperial Edict of the Abdication of the Qing Emperor). Female writer and translator Xue Shaohui and her husband Chen Shoupeng co-translated Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days into Chinese in 1900, which was among the first SF publications in China (Ren). At that time, there were a group of women intellectuals like Xue who were fighting on the same front as men to save the country from the Western imperial invasion as well as the corruption of the Qing dynasty, while also dedicated to improving women’s rights. This was when women started to have more exposure to public education on both Chinese and Western thinking (Xia X.). Female writers started to publish fiction in newspapers (Ma). However, it was hard to spot any female authors in the late Qing era who created original SF stories. The images of female characters in late Qing SF tend to be either dispensable/nonexistent or unrealistic/hegemonic (Zhang Y.). In Haitianduxiaozi’s 1904 novel The Stone of Nüwa, the author imagines a female utopian society, where women possess various forms of expertise like martial arts, science and medicine. These women are enthusiastic about saving their country and even establish a women-only patriotic organization, but their approaches are bound to feudal gender stereotypes: training cute girls to marry and assassinate government officials, going to brothels to study how to seduce males. Women characters in this book are extreme and exaggerated, but still, it is probably the earliest feminist SF in China.

Unfortunately, it is very rare, if not impossible to find female authors or representative feminist stories in Chinese SF through the Republic of China era (1912-1949, from the end of Qing dynasty to the establishment of the new China) and the first decades of the People’s Republic of China (founded 1949). Through successive unease, wars and regime changes, a three-year period of natural disaster of the Great Famine (1959-1961) and the ten-year turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), we can find no traces of female authors joining their male counterparts in publishing SF in its first short Golden Era in-between the upheavals. 

When the new country was born, China experienced a gender revolution together with a class revolution. After 1949, Chinese women learned that “Men and women are the same” and “Women hold up half the sky”. “Iron Maidens” – women depicted equally as strong as men – contributed vital labour forces to construct the young nation, and the differences between men and women were erased from the mainstream narrative. In the first black-and-white Chinese SF film, Ballad of the Ming Tombs Reservoir (1958, Beijing Film Studio), we can see that although female labourers were taking on the same work burden as male labourers and that a woman can be president of the people’s commune, she still additionally has to carry out traditional women’s responsibilities like cooking and dancing. It is a default setting for women to be responsible for the housework, caring and service work even while carrying out the same social and economic work as men (Wang Y.), not only in the film but also in the real Chinese society at that time. 

Two dozen years later, male SF writer Wei Yahua (born in 1949) contributed a pair of provoking stories in early 1980s: “Dream of a Soft Country” (1981) and its sequel “I Decided to Divorce my Robot Wife” (1981), in which he describes a female robot’s transformation from an obedient, beautiful and “ideal” wife to a self-aware and independent woman requiring her own rights. The story, which was published not long after the 1980 Marriage Law was passed, which enlarged the rights of women and children and banned arranged marriage (Conn), can be seen as an early discussion of feminism in Chinese SF. Two of the earliest-known female Chinese SF writers are Ji Wei and Zhang Jing. Ji, who writes under the pen name Miaoshi, was born in 1954 and published her first science fiction stories around 1978. She has won multiple awards both in SF and mainstream literature. Her father, Ji Hong (born in 1920) is also a famous SF and children’s literature writer. Zhang, who was born in 1938 and began publishing science fiction stories in 1985, writes under the pen name Jing Jing. Her representative work “The Love of Nüwa”(1991) won the 3rd Galaxy Award that year. The story is about an alien girl, Y, who while on a field trip to Earth is mistaken for the Goddess Nüwa by the local ancient earthlings. Y cannot bear to see the local people die from rainstorm and flood, so she disobeys her alien fiancé’s order and chooses to help them at the cost of staying on Earth forever. In the end, she marries an Earth man, Fuxi, and takes on the responsibility of sustaining the reproduction of human beings as a woman. In Chinese mythology, Nüwa is the Goddess who mends the broken sky and creates human beings. She is half-woman and half-snake. Y in the story resembles Nüwa by wearing a snake-tail spacesuit, dispelling rain clouds with her spacecraft and fulfilling the job of creating humans. After the “Reform and Opening-up” period in the end of the 1970s, Chinese intellectuals devoured Western thinking and began heated social and political discussions. The concept of the “Iron Maiden” was thus questioned. In the mid-1980s, “female literature” was brought up in China in order to separate out writing by female writers to strengthen the uniqueness of female writers’ expression. This can be regarded as the first upsurge of gender discussions in contemporary China. It is hard to say how much of this has influenced SF writing in China at that time because SF itself was undergoing the criticism of “spiritual-pollution” because of the elements of capitalism and commercialism — topics more than science in SF were regarded as being harmful politically — since 1983 in another campaign of social and political discussions.

The “Newer Generation” writers who are currently still the pillar of Chinese SF began to publish in early 1990s, and more female writers started to emerge around 1995, among whom are Ling Chen
(born in 1971), pen name of Yu Lei, and Zhao Haihong (born in 1977), who have not only won numerous awards since the beginning of their career but also continue writing today. Both of them insist on their own writing being androgynous  —  in the sense of Virginia Woolf’s famous quote on “a great mind must be androgynous”  —  and are unwilling to have their works marked as “feminist.” Ling Chen’s writing style is rather rational and never lacks technological details, which is the dominant masculine aesthetics in Chinese SF. Because of the gender-neutral pen name and her writing style, she has been mistaken as male by some readers, which she was happy about. Zhao Haihong, though usually writing from a female perspective, claims that she never emphasizes her female identity too much while writing. Interestingly, they have spoken through their female protagonists in their stories: “I am firstly an astronaut and then Shu Hong’s fiancée. My career and credits are not earned because of Shu Hong”; “I am a revolutionist, not a woman … I wish I could be a woman, but if I have to choose, I choose the revolution.” Both authors have written about marriage, reproduction, women’s dilemmas in  choosing a career, and other topics that show feminist interests, but their denial of female writing is clear. The Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995 and unveiled the second wave of gender discussions in China. It was then that the concepts of “feminist literature” and “female writing” were brought up. However, due to commercialization, female writers’ expressions of love, desire and sexual experiences were marketed as “beauty writing” and later, “body writing”, which suppressed other possibilities of “female writing.” This caused many female writers’ unwillingness to have their writing categorised as female or feminist writing, not only in SF, but also in mainstream literature as well (Zhang L.).

Entering the 21st century, the increase in the number of Chinese female SF writers continues. Qian Lifang (1978) is worth mentioning because of her 2004 historical SF novel Providence, which was the best-selling SF before Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Trilogy came out, and won the special award of Galaxy Award. The novel is set at the turn of the Qin and Han Dynasties in ancient China, combining historical and mythological elements with alien technologies. The two parts of the book are centered on Han Xin, the talented male hero, and Ji Jiang, the girl who is equally intelligent, both of whom are vital to save the Earth. Such structure makes it possible for readers to see both male and female perspectives in the story and also emphasizes the importance of women’s role in history, drawing attention to the fact that women are mostly missing in ancient Chinese (and other culture’s) history books. The novel was adapted into a TV net series in 2018 (Hero’s Dream), which became the first screened Chinese SF net series adaptation. In fact, the adaptation (which is actually not so good) is mainly targeted at a female audience, adding a time travel setting and enlarging the romance part — typical tropes in female-oriented net series in China — compared to the original, which is probably because women occupy a larger percentage of net series audience than men in China.

Among the female authors who began to publish after 2000, three were born in 1984. Xia Jia, a.k.a. Wang Yao, began to publish SF in 2004 with her debut short story, “The Demon Enslaved Flask”, a science fairytale. She calls her writing style “porridge SF”, which is softer than soft SF, a mixture of SF, fantasy and even fairytales. SF to her is a genre that crosses borders and discovers what is unknown or impossible before. In the afterword of “Eternal Summer Dream” (2008), she questions: “1. Why cannot SF stories be set in the East? 2. Why cannot the protagonist be female?” Her questions pointed out the long-existent problem in Chinese SF – the default Western and masculine setting. In her recent short story series, Sinopedia, Xia Jia continues to challenge the tradition. All the stories have the same female protagonist who is a scholar of humanity, in contrast to the traditional male scientist narration in SF. The series’ stories are all about common people’s lives in a near-future China, where small technological gadgets are embedded everywhere to deal with day-to-day issues at an individual’s scale, such as the ageing society, psychological disease or language malfunction plague, in contrast to the “grand” narration that is preferred in much Chinese SF. Hao Jingfang, the first Chinese female author to win a Hugo Award, claims her writing to be “no-type”, which blurs the boundary between mainstream literature and speculative fiction. She cares about realistic space but expresses it in virtual settings. Her Hugo-winning short story “Folding Beijing” is one such work, showing concerns for the real problem of social stratification in a virtual foldable Beijing that separates three different social classes via a literal stratification. What should also be noted is that Hao, as an economist and a mother, extends her practice of care into the real world where she has established a start-up to provide creativity education to  children, including those in less-developed areas, where kids — especially girls — from poor families don’t get access to such education. Chi Hui is a prolific writer who publishes under different pen names when writing SF, fantasy and game stories, but keeps her real name Chi Hui as the most used one. Majoring in biology, she has created stories with unique creatures and alien planets, almost always featuring a lonely and rebellious female protagonist. In her story “Insect Nest”, Chi creates an alien planet with an interesting gender structure, where each girl has to take care of their boy tree while growing up. They have to be responsible for the boy trees’ life until they grow into full-size men; and together; they will pass through the forest when matured then step into the “third season” of life by transforming into a giant insect. Apart from being a writer, Chi also works as an editor at Science Fiction World, the largest SF magazine in China, and leads many new writers to start their journey in writing.

In the second decade of the 21st century, we continue to see a boom of Chinese female SF writers, and more and more of them starting to openly discuss the feminist themes in their writing. Gu Shi (born in 1985), an urban planner as well as storyteller, says in an interview in 2016 that there is no boundary between male and female in SF writing, and no distinctions, advantages or disadvantages that specifically belong to male or female SF authors when they are writing (Gu, “SF”). In many of her earlier stories, she prefers to choose a first-person narrative from a male protagonist. But in another interview in 2020, she confessed her moment of realizing that this was a problem, after which she began to create more diverse and rounded female characters (Gu, “I want to”). In her story “Introduction to the Second Edition of ‘Prelude 2181’” (2020), Gu narrates the imaginative future history of hibernation in the format of a book introduction, featuring all-women characters: scientists, scholars, journalists, lawyers and entrepreneurs. It is a wonderful piece and the best showcase of the intelligent, capable and beautiful women she wants to write about. In my own writing (Kanyu Wang, born in 1990), I have also experienced a self-discovery of feminist awareness. At the book launch of 2019 China Female Literature Collection, which included my own story “The Language Sheath”(2019, English version published in Clarkesworld, May 2020), I mentioned that questions such as “What’s the Chineseness of Chinese SF?” and “Why do female authors choose to write SF?” show the dominance of Western authors and male authors, because these questions imply that Western and male are the default settings for SF writers. Though I did not want to over-emphasize my identity, and neither do many other female Chinese SF writers, I did want to express the richness and multi-layered quality of writing that grows from cultural and gender identity. “The Language Sheath” is such a story talking about the complications of cultural identity and being a mother.

The tendency of authors to openly admit to female/feminist writing may be linked with the third wave of heated gender discussions in China, which was started by the #MeToo movement and extended to more industries in the recent five years or so. Both established and emerging writers were moved to join the league. Cheng Jingbo (born in 1983), who began to publish in 1999, and Peng Simeng (born in 1990), who published her first short story in 2011 but stopped writing until 2016, have both actively remarked on the importance of feminist writing. Cheng’s novella “Host” (2019, Lenghu Award winner) is about a woman in search of her husband, as well as the solution to her emotional dilemma on a road trip. Peng’s novella “Beast Boxing” (2016, Douban Reading Competition winner) tells the story of a female product manager achieving confidence and high targets in a virtual reality fighting game that eliminates the difference between male and female strength. Xiu Xinyu (born in 1993), who was once focused on mainstream literature and now SF as well, contributed one of the rare, from Chinese female SF authors, pieces that takes gender as its only major theme. “Eve and Eve” (2019) – also titled, in its alternative Chinese setting version, “Big Nüwa Era” (unpublished) – speculates what will happen if all-female aliens come to Earth and claim that all women belong to them and men are just accidents and defective products of reproduction. The story shows men’s reaction in an ironic way when the aliens intend to take all the women from Earth.

There are definitely more names to be mentioned, like Tang Fei(born in 1983) who has recently been interviewed by Words Without Borders on “Sexism and Science Fiction” (Bruce and Harman); Zhou Wen (born in 1995) who has been the first female winner of George R.R. Martin’s Terran Prize; Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu (born in 1988) who is a programmer at Google and has won all major awards in Chinese SF in the past few years, shortly after she began to write SF; and Shuang Chimu (born in 1987), who is a PhD in philosophy at Renmin University of China and highly praised by many SF fans in China. The list can go on for a while. Also there are female entrepreneurs in Chinese SF industry, working on the frontier of bringing SF to a wider audience. The CEOs of three of the major SF start-ups in China are all women: Yang Feng of Eight Light Minutes, Zhang Yiwen of Storycom and Ji Shaoting of Future Affair Administration (check out the “Chinese SF Industry” piece in this issue for more about these companies). Their leadership is piloting these companies, as well as the Chinese SF industry, into new territories.

From The Stone of Nüwa to “The Love of Nüwa” and then “The Big Nüwa Era,” women in Chinese SF emerge not only inside but also outside of the texts. There has been increasing self-examination on the issues of  gender identity, and enthusiasm for exploring gender discussions through speculative fiction among female Chinese SF authors, especially in the recent five years. At least three all-women and non-binary Chinese speculative fiction anthologies are being prepared for the first time in history. The US publisher Tor is working with Storycom on The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, an English anthology edited by, written by, and translated by women and non-binary people, with essays by women and non-binary scholars, to showcase both established and rising writers/translators of Chinese speculative fiction. Two more sets of all-female anthologies are being published by Bofeng Culture (Her Science Fiction) and Lichao Culture (Classics of Chinese Female Science Fiction Writers (1990-2020), both with plans to widely include female writers’ stories in Chinese. With the discussion and attention created by these anthologies, as well as more research interests in feminist/female writing in Chinese SF, there is definitely more to expect in the coming years.

Works Cited

Ballad of the Ming Tombs Reservior. Directed by Jin, Shan. Beijing Film Studio, 1958.

Bruce, Natascha and Harman, Nicky. “Sexism and Science Fiction: An Interview with Tang Fei.” Words without Borders, 16 Oct. 2012, http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/sexism-and-science-fiction-an-interview-with-tang-fei

Chen, Qiufan ed. Ta Kehuan (Her Science Fiction.) Bofeng Culture, 2020.

Cheng, Jingbo. “Suzhu (Host.)” Suzhu (Host.) Zhongxin Press, 2019.

—— ed. Zhongguo Nüxing Kehuan Zuojia Jingdian Zuopin Ji (1990-2020) Classics of Chinese Female Science Fiction Writers (1990-2020.) Lichao Culture, forthcoming in 2021.

Chi, Hui. “Chongchao (Insect Nest.)” Science Fiction World, no.12, 2008.

Conn, Virginia L. “Affective Labor and Technologies of Gender in Wei Yahua’s ‘Conjugal Happiness in the Arms of Morpheus”’. Love and Sex with Robots, edited by Adrian David Cheok et al., vol. 10237, Springer International Publishing, 2017, pp. 27–39.

Gu, Shi. “‘2181 Xuqu’ Zaiban Daoyan (Introduction to the Second Edition of ‘Prelude 2181.’” Mobiwusi Shikong (Möbius Continuum.) Xinxing Press, 2020.

——. “Kehuan Xiaoshuo Xiezuo Bingbu Cunzai Nannü Jiexian (Science Fiction Writing Does Not Differ between Male and Female.” SF.kedou, 9 Nov. 2016, sf.kedo.gov.cn/c/2016-11-09/859793.shtml

——. “Wo Xiangxie Naxie bei Hushi de Wanmei Nüxing (I Want to Write about Those Ignored Perfect Female.)” Baguangfen, 13 Apr. 2020, mp.weixin.qq.com/s/UmPhVzraRywuJlSpYDQbqg

Haitian Duxiaozi. Nüwa Shi (The Stone of Nüwa.) Cread.jd, cread.jd.com/read/startRead.action?bookId=30049340&readType=1

Hao, Jingfang. “Beijing Zhedie (Folding Beijing.)” Zui Found, Feb 2014.

Hero’s Dream. Directed by Ding Yangguo, Youku, 2018.

Jing, Jing. “Nüwa Lian (The Love of Nüwa).” Science Fiction World, no.3, 1991.

Ling, Chen. “Tiansun (The Sky Falcon.)” Science Fiction World, no.3, 1998.

Ma, Qinqin. “Wanqing Nübao yu Jindai Zhongguo Nüxing Xiaoshuo Chuangzuo de Fasheng (Late Qing Female Newspapers and the Happening of Modern Chinese Female Fiction Creation.)” Sohu, 12 Dec. 2018, http://www.sohu.com/a/282680734_100191010

Peng, Simeng. “Yeshou Quanji (Beast Boxing.)” Douban Read, Jan 2017, read.douban.com/ebook/26653823/

Qian, Lifang. Tianyi (Providence.) Sichuan Science and Technology Press, 2011.

Ren, Dongmei.”Zhongguo Kehuan Xiaoshuo Dansheng Tanyuan — Wanqing zhi Minguo Kehuan Jianlun (Tracing the Origin of Chinese SF — A Brief Discussion on SF from Late Qing to Republic China.)” Chinawriter, 8 Jul. 2016, http://www.chinawriter.com.cn/n1/2016/0708/c404080-28539127.html.

Wang, Kanyu. “Yumo (The Language Sheath.)” Harvest, no.5, 2019.

Wang, Yao. “Cong ‘Xiaotaiyang’ dao ‘Zhongguo Taiyang’ — Dangdai Zhongguo Kehuan zhong de Wutuobang Shikongti (From ‘Small Sun’ to ‘Chinese Sun’ — The Utopia Chronotope in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction.)” Journal of Chinese Modern Literature Research, no. 4, 2017, pp. 20-34.

Wei, Yahua. “Wenrou Zhixiang de Meng (Dream of a Soft Country.)” Beijing Literature, Jan 1981. 

——. “Wo Jueding he Jiqiren Qizi Lihun (I Decided to Divorce my Robot Wife.)” Wo Jueding he Jiqiren Qizi Lihun (I Decided to Divorce my Robot Wife.) Jiangsu Science and Technology Press, 1981.

Xia, Jia. “Guan Yaojing de Pingzi (The Demon Enslaved Flask.)”  Science Fiction World, no.4, 2004.

——. “Yongxia zhi Meng (Eternal Summer Dream.)” Science Fiction World, no.9, 2008.

Xia, Xiaohong. “Waqing Nüxing yu Jindai Zhongguo (Late Qing Female and Modern China.)” Beijing University Press, 2004.

Xiu, Xinyu. “Xiawa yu Xiawa (Eve and Eve.)” Xibu, no.2, 2019.

Yu, Chen and Wang, Regina Kanyu ed. The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories. Tordotcom, forthcoming in 2022.

Zhang, Li. “Women de Xingbieguan Zenyang Liancheng (How have Our Gender View Been Shaped.)” Harper’s BAZAAR, Oct (1) 2019.

Zhang, Yue. “Lun Nüxing zai Wanqing Kehuan Xiaoshuo zhong de ’Quexi’ (Discussion on the ‘Absence’ of Female in Late Qing Science Fiction.)” Journal of Chinese Modern Literature Research, no. 9, 2018, pp. 172-180.

Zhao, Haihong. “Yijiuersan Nian Kehuan Gushi (1923 – A Fantasy.)” World SF View, no. 5, 2007.

Regina kanyu wang is a PhD fellow of the CoFUTURES project at the University of Oslo and Overseas Market Director of Storycom. Her research interest lies in Chinese science fiction, especially from the gender and environmental perspective. She is also an award-winniNg writer who writes both science fiction and non-fiction.
This result is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 852190)

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