The Problem with “Feminism”5 min read

Translating Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists – by Barclay Bram

We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx-talk-turned-book, has been translated into Chinese. Released by the People’s Cultural Publishing House in June, the 84-page book closely follows the original’s format aside from one glaring change: the word “feminist” has been dropped from the title.

As Bruce Humes points out in a recent blog post, the book’s pale blue cover has in large text the English title We Should All Be Feminists, but the Chinese has been translated down to the more innocuous The Rights of Women. Why the inconsistency?

Feminism is an increasingly problematic term in China. While the Chinese Communist Party is proud of its record for overturning many of the patriarchal structures that had oppressed Chinese women for centuries – proclaiming that “women can hold up half the sky” – in recent years there have been high-profile crackdowns on feminist activists and feminist websites. In 2015 five feminists were detained just before International Women’s Day for trying to put together a campaign against sexual harassment. Earlier this year the Feminist Voices Weibo account, an influential microblog for the women’s movement in China, was forced offline for 30 days for posting content that was anti-Trump and that implored women to join in an international women’s strike.

The problem is not with the ideas that underpin feminism itself, but about the organizing potential of the cause. As Diana Fu, an assistant professor in Asian politics at the University of Toronto, has written in the Washington Post, China’s feminists are “astute activists” whose techniques of organizing often manage to leverage wider issues, such as inequality, that play well with the broader public, and create connections with other sectors of civil society, like the labor movement.

This might go some way to explain why the title has been neutered and the word “feminism” dropped. The People’s Cultural Publishing House did not respond to requests for comment or for interviews with the editor or translator.

To translate the title as The Rights of Women is to parrot contemporary governmental discourse that emphasizes rights and the rule of law. One of Xi Jinping’s “Four Comprehensives” is to “comprehensively govern the nation according to law.” This discourse proliferates throughout society. Mass arrests of human rights lawyers, suppression of civil society groups such as NGOs and the expansion of diffuse crimes like “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” suggests we are not seeing a genuine change on the rule of law – yet the language of rights is ubiquitous.

Couching the title in the language of rights allows the publisher to avoid another pitfall; the “-ism” in feminism. Isms in China tend to be politically sensitive. In Mandarin, the suffix –zhuyi is added to a term to turn it into an ism. The word “feminism” in Chinese is created by adding –zhuyi onto “women’s rights” (nüquanzhuyi), literally “women’s rights-ism.” However, zhuyi on its own means idea or doctrine, and the CCP is a jealous guardian of the big ideas that shape Chinese society. That is probably why the People’s Cultural Publishing House subtly changed the title: to acknowledge that the book is advocating for something doctrinal would be too existentially challenging for comfort.

But the point of We Should All Be Feminists is that rights are not enough. The book is not a dull treatise on rights and how to change specific aspects of any particular political system. The widespread international success of the book lies in its universal call to arms to change the way feminism is discussed and considered.

Adichie opens by telling an anecdote about the first time she was called a feminist, in the same way that someone might be called a terrorist. She was later advised by an acquaintance, after her first book was published, that she was being called a feminist and that it might harm her career – after all, “feminists are women who are unhappy because they can’t find husbands.” In response, she called herself a happy feminist. When that wasn’t expansive enough to cover other ways in which her feminism might be questioned, she started to call herself a “happy African feminist who does not hate men and who wears high heels for herself and not for men.” In the end, she concludes that a feminist is “a man or woman who says ‘yes there is a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better.’”

The rights of women in China have been improving: there have been some significant legislative victories in recent years in regards to domestic violence and divorce. As Adichie argues, what remains to change, as in all societies, is the acknowledgement that gender “proscribes how we should be, but not what we are.” The problem is normative and cultural. Even if the rights of women were perfectly secured in China, without a commensurate shift in the way that society considers women, equality will still be a long way off.

That is why We Should All Be Feminists is an important book, and why the fact it has been published in China at all should be a cause for celebration. Adichie does not limit her treatise to women; she argues that masculinity is a cage, and that from an early age men have to mask themselves. Poisonous masculinity creates a toxic environment for both sexes.

It’s a shame that the book can’t wear its feminist label with pride. Adichie’s abiding point is that we should all be feminists not just because to do so is good for women but because it is good for everyone. There is work to be done in China, and the publication of this book, title aside, is part of a wider discussion that is already underway in the country. On Douban, an online review platform, “A Dark Blue Sea” comments, “even though there is a long road ahead, the most important thing is that everyone understands that we still need, absolutely, a degree of change.” ∎

Editor’s Note: The original version of this post neglected to mention Bruce Humes’ June blog post on the same subject. Our post has been amended accordingly.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 女性的权利 (People’s Cultural Publishing House, June 2017). Header image from Flickr.