Feminism in China: Chinese-American illustrator defines the undefined
“I want to depict women as nuanced, complex and human"
Feature image: zhang kaiyv/Unsplash (modified).
Global feminism is on the rise, and this includes in China. While there is influence of such activism from the West, Chinese society is opening up and embracing more liberal views and the younger generation of Chinese women are becoming bolder and more willing to speak up against the stereotypes held against them.
However, China’s patriarchal tradition is still strongly rooted in society. The matriarchy established and observed by Mosuo – an ethnic minority occupying the far eastern foothills of Himalayas in China’s Yunnan province, is more of a novelty than an influencing force to the outside due to its small population and isolated location. Therefore, it could hardly reverse the dominance and power being largely held by men in society at large.
In defining the undefined, or going against conventional ideas, I allow my feminist perspectives to come through. -- Frankie Huang
Ideas have to be communicated implicitly when it comes to challenging the 'norm' and creative in the way they are communicated on digital platforms. Especially as the algorithm doesn’t allow hashtags like Metoo to trend on Chinese social media due to government censorship.
Thanks to the Chinese language itself, activists in China are communicating with the rest of the world on this topic with wordplay, such as replacing original words with homophones to evade censors. Or sometimes, it doesn’t even have to be text-based, as visual representation can speak louder than words and avoid the misinterpretation that occurs when words are translated into other languages.
"Loss is an unavoidable aspect of translation...more often than not, a lot of embedded meaning and context is lost in the process of translation,” says Frankie Huang, a Chinese - American, feminist and illustrator.
Rice Bunny (mi tu 米兔); illustration by Frankie Huang.
Her drawings visualise Chinese characters that have a visual identity that is not overly abstract, but instead open to interpretation. “In defining the undefined, or going against conventional ideas, I allow my feminist perspectives to come through,” Huang says.
Her illustration Rice Bunny (mi tu 米兔) decodes the textual meanings of the two Chinese characters that are widely used on Chinese social media for Metoo discussion because the pronunciation of –(mi 米 ) for rice and (tu 兔) for bunny – is a homophone for Metoo. The piece was originally created as a greeting on China’s Mid-autumn festival but at the same time, through potent feminine symbols in China like the moon and rabbit, Huang wanted to convey a message to young girls about equality and self-worth of women.
If anything that Metoo in China has brought into fruition, it is scandals of sexual harassment that are repetitively exposed in the higher education sector, from perpetrators who were once being called “professors”. As a result, “professor” or “(jiao shou 教授)” in Chinese, which consists of the word of （jiao 教）that means teaching and (shou 授) which means giving, now has been used as an innuendo in the context of Metoo.
Barking Beast (jiao shou 叫兽); illustration by Frankie Huang.
Huang’s illustration of （jiao shou 叫兽）might have explained the word better than a dictionary. （jiao shou 叫兽）can be broken down into “barking” and “beast” and it is a homophone for (jiao shou 教授). The barbed term refers to when professors conduct themselves without restraint or dignity. So in the age of Metoo, those professors who abuse their power and prey on their female students are often referred as (jiao shou 叫兽）in Chinese.
“Sometimes a wolf wears sheep’s skin, sometimes predators wear glasses,” says Huang.
The expression of feminism in China is subtle compared to that in the rest of the world. Perhaps, because of the language, or perhaps, because of the culture, where the role of women has been conventionally marginalised, and women have been accepting or even accustomed to the way they are perceived in society.
"I’ve always been highly conscious of the patriarchal tradition in Chinese culture and wished to be free of it as much as I can,” says Huang, “having a second language (English) as my tool for talking about Chinese culture, I am freed from certain constraints that the language presents.”
Crane’s Wife (he nv fang 鹤女纺); illustration by Frankie Huang.
Crane’s Wife or (he nv fang 鹤女纺) in Chinese, is another piece from Huang that reflects upon and intends to challenge that status quo that is shared in oriental culture. It was inspired by a Japanese folklore where a crane turns into a woman and marries a lonely sailmaker. She exhausted herself making sails by picking out her own feathers for her husband to sell. “As a girl, this story was just a standard magical fairy tale for women. But as I got older, it became a parable for the toxic, imbalanced relationships endemic in women’s lives,” says Huang.
The woman is covered with feathers and stands on claws with her head up, eyes closed and hands placed in front of her chest, looking unsure but hopeful. “I wanted to depict the typical role of women and to capture the strangeness and universality of the traditional relationship between men and women,” Huang continued.
Ambition (ye xin 野心); illustration by Frankie Huang.
If saying Rice Bunny and Crane's Wife are symbols of awakening feminists in oriental culture, Ambition or (ye xin 野心）in Chinese, which translates to ‘wild heart’, is an implication of a rising power and will of rebellion among women in today’s Chinese society.
Depicting a naked and screaming woman with a giant wolf bursting out of her chest, it shows women as an untamed and wild force. “Ambition has become a positive trait in China in recent years, but the word has always carried certain negative connotations, perhaps because the word (ye 野) ‘wild’ is the opposite of polite and civilized,” says the illustrator, “but I love the idea of a powerful, untameable woman taking on this world which often has everything rigged against women.”
Marriage (jie hun 结婚); illustration by Frankie Huang.
Sexual orientation in Chinese society has also evolved with the rise of feminism. By drawing the two figures intertwined together without indicating their sex, Huang wanted to underline the fact that marriage, which is (jie hun 结婚) in Chinese, can be egalitarian and ungendered. The character of (jie 结), which means “knot”, showing a close connection between two people is emphasised and (hun 婚), the Chinese word for marriage, which contains a female radical, making it a heteronormative institution that has been degenderized.
“I want to depict women as nuanced, complex and human,” says Huang, “it’s important to me to depict their strength and courage, but I’m not interested in showing how women are better than men...I want their humanity to be accepted as the norm, rather than the feminine tropes that women are shoved into.”
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