Updated Feb 17, 2023, 1:02pm EST
East Asia

Two ‘unabashedly feminist’ Chinese novels top China’s Goodreads book list


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The News

Two feminist novels by Chinese women writers made it onto an influential books list published by the culture app Douban, which has been described as similar to China’s Goodreads.

It was the first time fiction by Chinese women writers entered the app’s ‘Books of the Year’ list since its inauguration in 2015, observed Irene Zhang, editor of the newsletter ChinaTalk.

REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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Know More

Zhang writes that both books — Zhang Tianyi’s Like Snow, Like Mountains and Yang Benfen’s I Am Rich In Fragrance are “unabashedly feminist in their persuasion.”

Zhang Tianyi’s novel is a collection of seven short stories that delve into traditionally taboo subjects in China, like queerness, sexual assault, and menstruation, through the eyes of the female protagonist, Lili. Yang’s book is her third novel, and traces the life of an elderly woman who endures 60 years of unhappy marriage.

In her newsletter Zhang analyses why fiction by Chinese women writers is only now coming to the forefront on Douban, whose user base is majority female. She suggests that the novels come at a time when discussions of womanhood in China have been front of mind, though largely kept out of the public discourse.


“Such a moment demands society-wide reflection — the kind made increasingly impossible by China’s hollowed media landscape,” she wrote. “Fiction, in its plausible deniability, can still harbor the truth of experience as far as the imagination allows.”

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Step Back

China remains largely a patriarchal society, with only 11 women admitted to the 205-member Central Committee of China’s Communist Party.

The party has long promoted conservative ideas about family structure and women’s role in society. But women are increasingly pushing back. China is experiencing a population decline — as more women in the country choose not to marry and have children.

On social media, young women have increasingly spoken up about sexual abuse, standing in solidarity with the global #MeToo movement that Chinese authorities tried to silence.

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The View From Weibo

Women on Weibo praised the books for being engaging and easy to read, with some quoting passages directly or drawing comparisons between the themes of the books and their real-life experiences.


“Just finished reading I Am Rich in Fragrance,” one user wrote. “A marriage without emotional intimacy is really just a prison.”

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The Economist recently noted how Sally Rooney, an Irish author whose coming-of-age novels “combine feminist tales of urban life with thoughts on capitalist exploitation” are among Chinese readers’ favorite books.

The popularity of Rooney’s stories are partially due to the lack of novels readers are left with after Chinese censors wipe out some of the most well-known titles from the West. Most of the other books that top the charts are science fiction, The Economist writes.

“Shirley Tian, a 33-year-old fan in Shanghai, says the characters ‘represent me at a lot of levels…Their puzzles over the meaning of work and confusion about dating are basically my daily questions.’”