Building peace in the minds of men and women

Wide Angle

Women’s writing: Illuminating the darkness


Zhai Yongming at a farm in the ancient water town of Xitang, near Shanghai.

The world after the pandemic will be different from the one that we've always known. It will be more benevolent towards the unknown, and more respectful towards living species, predicts one of China’s best-known contemporary poets.

Zhai Yongming

Recipient of numerous international awards for her work, the poet has published over ten poetry anthologies and eight essay collections, and has been translated into many languages.


In the face of a disaster, what literature should try to do is neither express a hasty eulogium, nor rash criticism. Instead, it should focus on individuals. It should be about the true emotions felt, and reflections on the disaster. Human beings need to learn to have a reverence for the unknown, show respect for life, and keep away from prejudices or a dichotomous way of thinking. If we can achieve this, the people of the world may be granted more liberty and tolerance when the pandemic finally dies out. 

Starting with Woman, which I wrote in the 1980s, most of my poems have drawn inspiration from reality and from what goes on in society. So I hope my writing at the time of a pandemic is not a spur-of-the-moment thing, or just about drawing attention. I hope my work can be expressions of some concrete feelings and thoughts about this outbreak. As a writer, you need to present insights, rather than just slogans.

A special form of literary expression, poetry comes out of the depths of a heart that is deeply moved. Poems written at such times should be about people’s sufferings and resilience in the face of a disaster. They need to be thought-provoking.

A poet must dedicate herself/himself to building a just society and protecting the environment. A writer is incompetent if she evades reality, or fails to say what she thinks about the world – she is then not playing the role that she is meant to.

Écriture feminine as an alternative

In times of crises, women often demonstrate fearlessness, courage and engagement. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Deng Ge, a young woman, organized a Contingent of Angels after the lockdown of Wuhan – to deliver goods to hospitals, care for the homeless, help patients find hospital beds, and provide free catering for medical workers, on a daily basis. She did this out of her own free will, braving great life-threatening hazards and pressure. Besides her, there are many women in Wuhan who have silently done their part as volunteers.

Écriture feminine, or feminine writing, is a relevant, not outdated, topic today. During the outbreak, for instance, Ruoshuiyin, a female poet and nurse on the front line, wrote poems about the true experience and feelings of medical professionals, which have been widely welcomed by the public. Her writing is irreplaceable in that her poems depict a character like that of a journalist on a battle-field, who can see for herself what really happened on the front line and present the whole picture.

In reality, women are already playing their roles in public contexts or domains. They are in positions which demand greater efforts, as they take on tasks that are often stereotyped as the business of men. Women constantly have to prove that being female is not a drawback.

Feminine writing is not something physiological, but rather a new perspective that does not follow the masculine discourse and thinking blindly. The feminine voice represents a different benchmark away from the existing aesthetic system, instead of simply filling the blanks or supplementing the masculine discourse.

Some women writers seem to be destined to truly transcend the fetters of their gender – which, as I see it, means that they fear no labelling, and are able to stay optimistic. Their work is like a light that shines through all darkness. I prefer to call this a “white night”, to describe this darkness with the ambition and benevolence of women. 

The pandemic has overshadowed the rosy prospect of a world characterized by security and liberty. We will have to live with uncertainty about the future for quite a long time. There may not be any prophet or sage who comes forth to guide us through. Will there be more liberty and tolerance in this world when we are finally through this?

If we are to achieve this freedom and tolerance, we must keep off prejudice or a dichotomous way of thinking, and forsake the habit of bashing things we have little or no knowledge of. The post-pandemic world should be less morbid – there should be more kindness towards people from other countries and towards other species. As the world constantly changes, and however hard the human race tries to shape the world with advanced technologies, Nature runs its own course, and we stand no chance of conquering it. We can only regard what is unknown with more reverence, and be kind to all species of life.


Read more:

The poet at the heart of society, The UNESCO Courier, July-September 2017

When poetry is louder than a bomb, The UNESCO Courier, July-September 2011

The liberating power of words, The UNESCO Courier, May 1997


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