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“I want to hear more female literary voices”

Interview with Chinse author and academic Zhang Li

“What I’ve done in terms of researching and writing women in literature I have done out of my own passion,” said award-winning writer Zhang Li. “I hope there will be more women who are willing to write their own stories – stories which not only talk about the lives in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, but also include the experiences of living in rural areas. I hope their voices can be heard by more people, and its precious value will be recognized.”
In March 2019, Zhang Li launched the “Survey into the View of Gender at Our Time”, focusing on 127 Chinese modern writers (67 new female writers and 60 new male writers), in a work that was critically acclaimed.
Comparing the present to the past, she noted some positive developments. “One hundred years ago there were only a few renowned Chinese female writers. However, nowadays, the number of Chinese female writers is not only equal to the number of male writers, but possibly there are even more female writers now. Certainly, the quality of their works is equal,” Zhang Li said, speaking ahead of her appearance at the 6th EU-China International Literary Festival.
However, although female writing has made progress, there is still a long way to go to fully present an equal gender perspective in literature, she said.
“At present, the gender concept of writers has become more and more modern, and almost every writer agrees on the the concept of equality between men and women. But not every writer can show their gender perspective completely in their works. I think the question of how to show the real sense of gender equality is an issue on which we should continue to work.” Zhang Li said.

Love and marriage

In addition to researching gender and writing, Zhang Li also pays attention to changes in writing themes, such as concepts of marriage and love in literary works. “In 1919, young people fighting for free love appeared in modern Chinese literature. What they did is astounding,” Zhang Li said. “And with more and more young protagonists like them appearing in real life, the number of young people who ran away for love began to grow exponentially. What I want to say is that it was the young generation of the May Fourth Movement who followed the dulcet call of literature that changed our view of love from generation to generation. That is the power of literature.”
However, in today’s complex and uncertain world, Zhang Li said that literature has a more limited influence, “but I still want to believe that it will internally affect our understanding of love and marriage.”
A voice for the marginalised
The Internet age has given everybody a chance to speak, but these voices may not be heard by many people. Zhang Li said.
“The vitality of literature lies in having a chance to speak for the poor, the underprivileged, the marginal, and the disadvantaged. Especially when people today prefer those who are appealing but meaningless, this vitality is particularly precious. Literature is not only elegance, like the sunny spring, the white snow, the ivory tower – but is a way for the disadvantaged social groups to speak out.”
“And with regard to female voices, it should be noted they are not only created by women.” Zhang Li said. “Sometimes, the works of some female writers may not completely convey the female perspective and position. What is important isn’t the writers’ consciousness about their biological gender but about their social gender. In the history of literature, most classic female images were created by male writers. These writers are worthy of respect. Today, as more women begin to pick up pens to write, we can hear women’s voices more in the works of female writers. This has gradually become a reality.”
In terms of Chinese female writers, Zhang Li said she particularly admires Xiao Hong and Zhang Ailing; while as for European and American female writers she likes Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Woolf, Atwood and Monroe.
Zhang Li said that the charm of these female writers lies in their profound writing skills and insights.
“Their works can not only manifest women’s survival experience, but also demonstrate the reflection on the survival of human beings. Every time I read them, I can gain new understanding,” she said.
 Chinese-English translator Min Zhe/ 闵哲