Sexual Violence and Science Fiction
Stories on Sexual Violence as “Thought Experiments”: Post-1990s Chinese Science Fiction as an Example
Science fiction is a unique genre of “thought experiment” that can address different socio-political, cultural, and philosophical issues in the process of imagining the development of science and technology in relation to the human world. Post-1990s Chinese science fiction also actively engages with existing and potential crises of the world we are living in—social, ethical, existential, and psychological—and proposes hypotheses or imaginary solutions. Lots of thematic explorations and artistic innovations in current Chinese science fictional works are ignited by deep concerns with long-existing or newly emergent problems such as globalization, over-urbanization, ecological injustice, class distinction, gender inequalities, and so on. Among these issues, gender injustice and sexual violence remain one special thread for the “thought experiment” of science fiction, as this fantastical genre can serve as an “important vehicle for feminist thought” by representing “worlds free of sexism” or “worlds that move beyond gender” (Helford 291).
Facing the remaining patriarchal thinking influenced by thousands-year-long feudalism as well as resurgent masculinist logic in post-Mao China, different artistic works of contemporary China have produced sophisticated inquiries into different gender issues. Chinese sci-fi writers joined this trend to offer critical views on unequal gender conditions and sexual ideologies. More and more writers, especially those from younger generations, have begun to negotiate with gender stereotypes and to assert female autonomy and agency within their fantastical or speculative works. It has already been discussed by some scholars how post-1990s Chinese sci-fi writers offered bold imaginations of bodily transformation, changing gender roles, new sexual identities, and even a posthuman-feminist world (Liu; Cai; Ma et al.). This article surveys various works of post-1990s Chinese science fiction that sharply render sexual violence and gender asymmetries. This survey serves as an introduction to this much-neglected research topic, showing potential avenues of engagement for future work.
There are several contemporary Chinese sci-fi writers who frequently thematize sexual oppression and violence, especially that suffered by women. Han Song (韩松, b. 1968), Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆, b. 1981), and Wu Chu (吴楚, b. 1984) have represented rape, kidnapping, killing, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and forced sterilization in their works. Those violent deeds are done to human, clone human, or cyborg bodies in the settings of the near or far future, exposing gender inequalities caused by male-dominating powers, with all the victims bearing the gender of “female.” While Chen Qiufan and Wu Chu use sexual violence as a lens for questioning the intersectional social injustice in contemporary China, Han Song’s works feature a kind of abstract, symbolist sexual violence for reflecting on how human society is structured. Two female sci-fi writers, Zhao Haihong (赵海虹, b. 1977) and Chi Hui (迟卉，b. 1984), have also adopted gender perspectives in their two stories about humanity’s interactions with prehistoric or extraterritorial civilizations. They both revealed one hidden side of sexual violence imbedded in the human world—epistemic violence marked by delegitimizing subjectivities and agency associated with femininity. This article will focus on the following questions: by representing sexual violence in quite different ways, concrete and abstract, realist and surrealist, historicist and de-historicist, what main agenda and concerns do these Chinese sci-fi works have? What relevant views on science and technology are expressed? Are ideas of humanism and posthumanism articulated and how? By exploring these questions, this paper aims to disclose the current gendered textual politics of these works and elucidate the emerging feminist writing practices in contemporary Chinese science fiction.
Representing sexual violence for questioning intersectional inequalities in contemporary China
Chen Qiufan contends that science fiction is “the biggest realism” in today’s China, as “it provides a window for imagining through its open realism, and for delineating a kind of reality that no mainstream literature has written about” (“Rethinking of sci-fi realism,” 38). Actually, the term “sci-fi realism” (kehuan xianshi zhuyi, 科幻现实主义) has been proposed and discussed by several Chinese sci-fi writers, including Zheng Wenguang, Chen Qiufan, and Han Song since the 1980s, for exploring the role of science fiction in social comments or criticism in the context of contemporary China (Chen, “Rethinking of sci-fi realism”; Zheng). Waste Tide (Huangchao, 荒潮, 2013) by Chen Qiufan and The Happy You Gang (Xingfu de yougang, 幸福的尤刚, 2020) by Wu Chu are two representative science fiction texts that address the issue of sexual violence in sci-fi realist ways. These two works vividly show how different categories of oppression based on the rural-urban divide, class, and gender determine the intersectional nature of sexual violence in the context of China’s globalization and urbanization.
Chen’s Waste Tide is an important Chinese cyberpunk imagining of a technological dystopia engulfed by corrupt local government, patriarchal local lineage, and global capitalist companies. Region, class, and gender persist as unequal social distinctions in a near-future, technology-dominated society, represented most saliently by “Guiyu” (Silicon Island). Migrant workers from underdeveloped regions in China (including the female protagonist Xiaomi/Mimi), wretchedly work as a cheap labor force. “There are multilayered discriminations against Mimi. She is a female repressed by a patriarchal system. She is a waste girl, representing those who are stratified as low class and socially marginalized and exploited by the privileged people at the top of the social pyramid” (Zhou and Liu 107). All these social inequalities are not eased but conversely reinforced by new technologies. The sexual violence Xiaomi suffers is caused by the multiple social disctinctions and exclusions. After being subjected to beating, rape, confinement, and electric shocks, Xiaomi is transformed into a cold-blooded and formidable cyborg Xiaomi 1. It is this evil female cyborg that becomes the central character signifying the technological dystopia challenged by the author.
Sexual violence against women is prevalent due to intertwining patriarchal powers of different kinds: rural and capitalist, structural and symbolic. In this story, male-centrism dominates social spaces as well as cyberspace through new technologies. One example from the story describes this misogynist environment of Guiyu. A video on rape circulating on an underground online forum supported by augmented reality technology is:
recorded in augmented reality glasses, with a strong first-person perspective, shaky, out of focus, but with an uncanny sense of immersion. . . . The first-person perspective technology was used to make everyone watching the video a rapist and experience the thrill of torture. (Chen, Waste Tide 165)
This sexual violence against women is transmitted to more people through the new information channel, and the male gaze is enhanced by the new communication technology. In this way, the writer cautions the readers against the possible collusion between patriarchy and technology. However, the cyborg Xiaomi 1 is finally defeated by the human Xiaomi’s remaining sense of morality. This positive ending symbolizes the victory of humanist values and ethics (Liu; Jiang).
The story of Wu’s The Happy You Gang is set in a remote village in “universe 046.” This village, although set in the near future, is still a male-dominated area where traditional ideas of female chastity and submissiveness are maintained. Due to the father’s genetic physical defect, villagers You Er and Niu Hongmei’s first two children die because of anal agenesis. The couple is encouraged to accept a new gene-editing technique to replace the problematic gene in the fetus with genes from other people without the defect. However, after the gene correction operation, the healthy baby, You Gang, is believed by others to be the son of another man and is called a “bastard.” You Er is defeated by the gossip and leaves his family. Niu Hongmei is sexually assaulted and verbally humiliated by villagers and ends up becoming a prostitute. When You Er returns, he violently abuses his wife for her supposed disloyalty: “You Er caught up with her from behind and yanked her hard by the hair, kicking her over and low again. You Er stomped on Niu Hongmei’s chest and asked her what the hell to do” (Wu 339–40).
The new biotechnology can help this couple give birth to a healthy baby, but can do nothing in breaking the traditional Chinese ethics of blood. It is this rural woman who ultimately bears the consequences of conflicts between modern technology and the remaining patriarchal ideas in the countryside. This reveals how difficult it is for socially marginalized groups including rural women and migrant workers to benefit from technological advancement under unequal social structures in China. The physical violence and mental trauma Niu Hongmei suffered push readers to think about how the development of new technologies may be overshadowed by entrenched sexist ideas and practices.
“To understand gender, then, we must constantly go beyond gender,” as “gender relations are a major component of social structure as a whole” (Connell 76). R. W. Connell reminds us not to discuss issues of gender/sex only within the framework of gender/sex but to regard them as integral parts of a larger social system. Pierre Bourdieu also calls our attention to the role that complicated structures of domination play in reinforcing violence. If the social conditions of the production of unequal power relations are not dismantled, then mere consciousness raising for the dominated is inadequate for ending violence (Bourdieu). Meanwhile, the perspective of “intersectionality” is an important analytical category for understanding violence, which emphasizes the intertwined structures of domination that produce racialized/classed/gendered/sexualized violence within nations (Abraham; Collins). With the help of these insightful perspectives, it can be seen that the thematization of sexual violence in the aforementioned two texts points to larger, intersectional social problems in contemporary China. Realist experiences of subaltern women who are constantly devalued and downgraded are used for revealing and reflecting on the resurgent regional, class, and gender inequalities along with rapid globalization and urbanization. Different subaltern women are imagined not to be empowered by scientific development and new technologies. Stories on sexual violence help to expose different hierarchical social orders and social justice, especially gender justice sought with the specific genre of science fiction.
Symbolizing sexual violence for reflecting on humanity and human society
Han Song is one of the leading sci-fi authors in China and is famous for his Kafkanistic, uncanny, and eerie writing style. His sci-fi works usually convey critical comments on the huge social changes and human cost incurred in post-Mao China. His story Regenerated Bricks (Zaishengzhuan, 再生砖，2010), for example, is a story about how the remains of human flesh after one earthquake helped China to conquer the universe, but criticizes the huge human cost in the rise of China; similarly, Subway (Ditie, 地铁，2010), is a story about people stuck in alienation, despair, and conflicts in fast-speed, public vehicles in order to comment on asymmetries between economic development and psychological wellbeing of ordinary people. Gender is used as key textual tropes for Han Song to signify dystopian post-human worlds and to express his deep reflections on humanity and society. This section discusses two sci-fi works by Han Song that deal with sexual violence.
“Dark Room” (Anshi, 暗室, 2009) is a dark and pessimistic story about a war for equal status and rights between the world of unborn fetuses and the world of adults. The former is a peaceful, contemplative, connected, and reflective community, trying to fight against the latter, which is totalitarian, violent, and patriarchal. Both sides are constructed as masculine, while women (mothers) remain subordinate and victimized in these masculine power struggles. No matter which part wins the war in the end, women (mothers) are manipulated and sacrificed.
It was mainly the decision of older men, because for young lives, only people of this age would not be matronly. In short, during that time, tough measures were taken in principle against every pregnant woman, and it was better to kill a thousand by mistake than to miss one. … Later, people resorted to more than just forced abortion. The resentment of society, which was like wildfire, was also spread against the mothers themselves. It seemed inevitable that mothers would always be unable to defend themselves in the event of a change, and that they would once again become victims in this man-led war. (Han 32)
The bio-politics of birth control are used in the story as an effective tool for male domination. In a surrealist way, this work vividly portrays how women’s bodies are manipulated for power in the story world, as an allegory of the gendered nature of power struggle in the reader’s world.
Similarly, “A Guide to Hunting Beautiful Women” (Meinü shoulie zhinan, 美女狩猎指南, 2014) also addresses the problem with male-dominated bio-technology. In the story, beautiful clones are created and put on an island for male consumption in a game called sex hunting, which recuperates the sexual abilities of men and restores their masculinity. After inventing this “game for true men and exercise for winner” (Han 277), this hunting club:
provides guests with a first-class beauty, not in a room but out in the wild. Women are constantly running like beasts, to be captured by the men themselves; the captured can be treated in any way, including rape. As women hold weapons in their hands, the men who are not capable of capturing them may be killed. In the face of danger, men can take extreme measures against women, including shooting them on the spot. (Han 277–78)
However, although this island is full of male predators raping and killing beautiful clones, it ultimately becomes a suitable place for female liberation. The beautiful clones form a community and enjoy autonomy in their daily life, especially the social relationships free of male-defined obligations.
This group of women live in an extremely pure way, where social roles like mother, housewife or professional woman disappear. Thus, hidden behind the bloody killing, isn’t it a new and highly promising human relationship? It is only here that women truly achieve their liberation. (Han 352)
In the end, the male protagonist, Xiaozhao, who came to the island to be stimulated, finally becomes frustrated because of the diversity and complexity of this “female world.” He castrates himself and embraces a “gender neutral” identity. The ending of the story is meaningful in its attempts to deconstruct gender binarism, which is arbitrary and violent.
Different from Chen Qiufan’s and Wu Chu’s works (which have a strong realist relevance to social transformations in China), Han Song’s dystopian post-human worlds have more symbolic meanings supported by his use of unruly language, cold tone, and non-realist imagery. Together, these writing skills create defamiliarizing effects and push readers to decipher the main concerns of these works. Similar to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, rivalry, conflicts, and violence within human relations are rendered as gendered or sexualized. Using Veena Das and Arthur Kleinman’s perspective on how “violence is actualized—in the sense that it is both produced and consumed” (2000 2), we can see how these stories visualize that male subjectivity is constructed on the violent “othering” of female gender. Sexual violence is based upon the binary and hierarchical relationship between the masculine and the feminine. Hunting women for entertainment or social control is potentially symbolic of the organization of real human society, with women usually being exploited and objectified for the interests of men. Rather than historicized realities, the signifiers of “sexual violence” in Han’s works are more like an overall comment on the development of human civilization, which are male-centered.
Deconstructing epistemic violence in female-authored sci-fi works
Zhao Haihong and Chi Hui are two Chinese female writers who express strong feminist impulses in their sci-fi works. Both of them created fabulous stories about the communication and interaction between humans and beings from prehistory or outer space. Although there is no explicit plot of sexual violence in their works, they both show how gendered violence can be exerted epistemologically, such as delegitimating “knowledge” associated with femininity. In Feminist Science Fiction and Feminist Epistemology: Four Modes, Ritch Calvin argues, “The category of femininity, and the social and cultural traits associated with femininity in the West, have been discounted as contrary to knowledge and to reason or rationality, and, therefore, women qua women cannot claim knowledge or offer truth claims” (229). By imagining conflicts between humans and other forms of life, two stories by these female writers demonstrate a science fictional approach to how the normative way of understanding what is knowledge in the human world is both anthropocentric and masculinist.
“Jocasta” (Yi E Ka Si Da, 伊俄卡斯达, 1997) by Zhao Haihong is a story about a female scientist’s self-sacrifice for scientific experiment by serving as the surrogate mother of an embryo cloned from a prehistoric human body. Her female body is exploited while her love and affections are devalued as non-rational by other male scientists. The male collaborator of the female protagonist emphasizes her loss of “rationality” in the experiment:
Melanie, everything we do is for science; you must not get emotionally involved. I am in no way trying to exclude you from the experiment in order to enjoy the results alone. From beginning to end, you are the greatest contributor to this experiment. But, Melanie, you now harbor a motherly affection for this child—this prehistoric man—that will be harmful to our experiment because you will not be able to face him with a calm, rational, scientific mind. (Zhao 23)
The male scientist employs Melanie’s female body for conducting the experiment, but delegitimizes her motherly devotions and emotions. This is an implicit sexual violence in exploiting women’s bodies while disqualifying their subjectivities. Melanie resists this opinion with strong agency. She still develops a romantic relationship with this prehistoric man and accompanies him until his death, saving this man from becoming just the research object of a scientific experiment. The story challenges this idea of non-rationality by valorizing women’s experiences of connection, affection, and care as important values for scientific exploration. This work aims to break down the gendered and hierarchical value systems of emotion/reason and caring/transcendence in the context of scientific research.
Chi Hui’s “Nest of Insects” (Chongchao, 虫巢 2008) also addresses the gendered epistemic violence deeply rooted in the human world. She imagines a planet named Tantatula that has a harmonious symbiosis of all species based on equality and connection. But humans from Earth just want to colonize this planet for its natural resources, and they do not treat the lives of this planet as equal “intelligent beings” because of the matriarchal social structure of Tantatula.
For the creatures of Tantatula, life is divided into hatchling, child, and adult. In the hatchling stage we learn and we grow; in the child stage we give birth and we live; and in the adult stage we need to come to the nest, to change and grow in the resonant call of the nest and our bodies, and finally to become what you call a Tantatula giant worm and plunge into the universe—this is what we call the third season, the adult season. (Chi 62)
The racialized violence of colonization is deeply rooted in an epistemic violence justifying a series of male-dominated power structures. This violence is also gendered in that the matriarchal social system is despised and devalued from the masculinist perspective of the Earth colonizers. They refuse to understand the different social arrangements that have females as decision makers. Moreover, gender-based violence is normalized as part of masculinity for Earth colonizers. The epistemic and psychological violence has finally brought explicit violent actions including killing. However, these different forms of violence are questioned and resisted by the lives of this planet. One female resident from Tantatula expresses her doubts on the violent ideas and deeds by visitors from Earth:
I once wondered why a passing visitor would commit such a crime against us. Today I still wonder why a male would encourage his own son to commit crimes and violence, and then would commit his own tree to his son’s care? (Chi 60)
There is no need to be afraid of what you do not understand. This is not the monster you imagine in your mind, this is just the process of evolution of our Tantatula people. (Chi 62)
In the end, the male protagonist from the Earth begins to reflect on the anthropocentric and androcentric way of living and thinking of the Earth civilization, especially his belief in the “natural superiority” of humans. “Through science-fictional imagination, the writer proposes a view that human species from Earth are just like well-protected children and have no idea about the adult world in outer space. At the end of the day, they must face the consequences of being self-centered, which is significantly exacerbated by technological advances” (Zhou and Liu 105). “Adult season” in the story could signify the deep connections with nature instead of segregation or exploitation of it, which is highly necessary for human society.
Calvin proposes that sci-fi works with feminist epistemology can “challenge the arbitrary division between rational and irrational; they value the rôle of the senses in knowledge validation; and they emphasize the importance of the body in producing and validating knowledge; they acknowledge the communal (subjects; discourses) over the individual” (237). Within the above two works, epistemic violence embodies different forms of knowledge production that deny the subjectivity of particular populations (women, extra-terrestrial). The epistemic violence is gendered in that “the social and cultural traits associated with femininity”(Calvin 229) are devalued while structural gender inequalities are maintained. These two female authors firstly expose and interrogate this violence in their stories and then explore complex forms of resistant subjectivities. They assert their political ideas by creating fantastical or utopian worlds in sharp contrast to the human world.
This paper surveys contemporary Chinese sci-fi authors who represent sexual/gender violence within the specific genre of science fiction. All the works discussed above presented utopian or dystopian worlds with diverse styles of cyberpunk, science-fiction realism or postmodernism. Multilayered forms of sexual violence as well as their complex effects are explored in their works. Centering on the tragic sufferings of sexual violence by subaltern women, sci-fi realist writers like Chen Qiufan and Wu Chu strongly question the existing, intertwined inequalities in terms of gender, class, and the rural/urban divide in post-Mao China. Han Song tactfully employs an abstract sexual violence in his post-modernist thematization of the unequal power relations in terms of how society is organized and male subjectivity constructed. Female authors like Zhao Haihong and Chi Hui effectively deconstruct the masculinist and violent ways of knowledge production and sanctions while exploring possibilities of feminist epistemology. All of these Chinese sci-fi writers set their human or post-human utopias and dystopias in a gendered environment in order to critique the present-day gendered power relations.
The specific genre of science fiction is viewed by Darko Suvin as “cognitive estrangement” for providing an alternative imaginary framework for the writer’s empirical world (373). Therefore, science fiction serves as a perfect platform for writers to launch their thought experiments of understanding, criticizing and creatively transforming the status quo. Through creating sci-fi works, the Chinese writers discussed in this paper all successfully stir the readers’ conventional or normative way of understanding gender/sex, pushing them to reflect on violence in current gender/sex system and to imagine new possibilities in gender relations/identities. Chen Qiufan and Wu Chu set their stories in near future China to blur the boundaries between harsh realities and fantasies; Han Song’s surrealist rendering of violent gender struggle and violence bring much insights through defamiliarization; Zhao Haihong and Chi Hui create alternative utopia structured by feminist epistemology and make readers to see world they are living in different angles. All of these sci-fi works become, in Suvin’ sense, “a diagnosis, a warning, a call to understanding and action, and-more important-a mapping of possible alternatives” (378) of/to the current male-centered and anthropocentrist ways of doing and thinking.
What’s more, Anna Gilarek proses two approaches of creating feminist science fiction: firstly an exaggerated method utilizing fantastical elements such as “invented worlds, planets, moons, and lands” for reflection on social problems, and secondly a more straightforward approach of “relying on realist techniques to convey the message about the deficiencies of our world and its social organization, in particular the continued inequality of women” (222). The above-discussed Chinese sci-fi writers have incorporated these approaches for problematizing different forms of sexual violence and probing into possible methods of negotiation and resistance. Their artistic explorations and philosophical probings are not just on China-specific issues, but point to problems in a global context. Feminist perspectives of using science and technology for social justice instead of reinforcing unequal power relations are actively explored in these texts. The feminist agenda of opposing male-centrism and anthropocentrism as well as multiple social inequalities are strongly asserted in their sci-fi works, which are all critical stances in this genre of “thought experiments.”
 I use the collective pronoun we here because I hope my fellow writers, editors, and readers join with me in acknowledging the various material realities of sexual violence.
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Dr. Xi Liu (PhD HKU) is an Associate Professor at Department of China Studies, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Her main research fields are modern & contemporary Chinese literature and Chinese women’s studies. She is the author of Discourse and Beyond: Gender Representation and Subject Construction in 100 Years of Chinese Literature (Nanjing University Press, 2021).