Friday 3 October 2014

China Flash: Writer Zhang Chao on media misogyny, China’s momentous social changes and the pressures facing young Chinese women today

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing.

It took an earthquake to make Zhang Chao a writer. She is now an acclaimed journalist with nearly fifty thousand followers on Wechat and Weibo and is celebrating the release of her book Silent Golden Age, published by Xiron in October. Six years ago, she was staring tragedy in the face. “In May 2008, on the day of Sichuan Earthquake, my mom was having surgery. Thousands of people had died in this disaster and I was still waiting for my mom to wake up. That's when I decided to ignore my fears of failure and criticism and start living my life to the fullest.”

She always wanted to be a writer, but “having any kind of dream can be kind of terrifying.” Yet this terror is the source of her insight. In her sharp, punchy writing Zhang examines her own post-80s and 90s generation, which is “living out their golden age, but not having their voices heard by society. Young people, especially young women, are caught between their own dreams and society's expectations of them. I find it interesting how people choose, how people face heartaches and hardships, how people fight against and cater to society.”

Despite her success on social media and the highly Netty habits of today’s young Chinese readers, Zhang maintains that it is not important for 21st century writers to use social media and that is not writers’ own responsibility to increase their impact: “[Chinese social media networks] WeChat and Weibo and Facebook are merely platforms, and are not that different from traditional publishing. Things online can be very misleading, especially in this day and age, when information can travel so quickly. Even if a million people read your article it doesn't mean that it was good. For writers, what matters the most will always be the compassion and thought reflected in your work, everything else is a bonus. As a writer, you should focus on content - reach and social media is for the publisher.”

Describing her beloved Beijing as “the only city that can see all of my scars,” Zhang is inspired by China’s fast-transforming capital. “When I read E. B. White's Here is New York, all I could think of was my experience in Beijing. The first time I came to Beijing was 20 years ago. Back then, the city only had two subway lines. I moved here after graduate school, and since then I've lived in five different apartments, changed jobs twice and added about a thousand people to my phone contact list. The city saw me grow up, saw how I got lost and found my way back, how I fell and stood up again. Beijing knows the wounds and healing that came before.”

Zhang’s articles cover everything from food to football, social justice to sexual equality, love and sex to the arts and culture and everything in between. “What my more popular pieces have in common is that they focus on female independence and empowerment,” she says. “Most of my readers are young, intelligent, well-educated professionals. They are pushing a social movement here to encourage our generation of women to challenge tradition. I use my personal experience to prove that all limitations only exist in our head. We have the power to change culture and tradition.”

Despite her ambivalence about social media, Zhang’s influence is rooted in the impression that she is communicating directly and candidly with readers who are peers and contemporaries: “The stories I share, they've been happened to them before. I just help them say what they want to say, because I am one of them.”

Zhang has suffered from the misogynist backlash which seems to be an endemic and very telling feature of online life all over the world, especially when women writers address misogyny. “The most criticism I ever received was after publishing my thoughts on Eve Ensler's TED Talk ‘Embrace Your Inner Girl’. What I didn't expect was the mockery and verbal abuse from some male readers. They made me realize that in China, many men and women are far away from being equals, and female independence can be a very dangerous thing to these men, because they're not ready to share the power or to give up any control.”

Zhang’s ambition is to examine the “momentous” social changes China is undergoing and their effect on ordinary people. “Both the unrelenting spirit and weakness in humanity are being shown up more obviously than before. Materialism, idealism, collectivism and freedom are all big words which are [actually] deeply integrated in people's real lives. I want to write the untold stories, so my readers can remember what China was and understand what it will someday be. I’ll keep writing until the day I die, that's who I am.”

To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here or explore some of the links below: