“Of the women, by the women, for the women”: An Interview with Xiao Yin, editor of the first Women’s Poetry Journal in China – curated by Ming Di

Xiao Yin is a poet and novelist from Xichang, Sichuan province of China. She founded the first women’s poetry journal in China in 1988, Women’s Poetry Paper.  She graduated from the writers program at Beijing University in 1995 and then moved to Maoming, Guangdong province in the south. She has published several volumes of poetry, essays and novels and is currently the chairperson of Maoming Writers’ Association. She is continuously publishing theWomen’s Poetry Paper independently as an annual collection of women’s poetry in a mook form (magazine book). 

Ming Di: Hello Xiao Yin. Since we met in Qinghai in 2011, I’ve always wanted to chat with you about the women’s poetry journal you’ve been editing and publishing since 1988. You lived in Xichang where Zhou Lunyou was publishing Not Not Poetry. Did you ever publish in his journal? What inspired you to have your own journal?

Xiao Yin: Hi Ming Di. Good to be in touch again. There were quite a few independent poetry journals in Xichang in the 1980s. Not Not (Fei Fei) was one of them. The others include Trekkers (1983), 000 Poetry Tide,  Ox Sun River, Mountains and Seas, River of Torments, Dada Poets, etc. I published my poems in some of them and was inspired by the “independent” spirit in Xichang in those years. 

MD: Did you have funding?

XY: No. Just personal donations from a few women poets including myself, used for printing only. The editing work was on a voluntary basis. 

MD: I read your editorial essays which are very informative and inspiring.

XY: I tried my best. To review women’s poetry by women poets was part of my dream. I also thought we should have a theoretical framework besides writing poems. 

MD: Among the contributors, I notice Xiao Xiao’s name. Many of the others I don’t recognize at all.

XY: The inaugural issue published poems by 28 female poets from 10 provinces. But women writers tend to “disappear” in history.

MD: How did you find them and gather their work?

XY: I contacted the women poets that I knew in Sichuan province. I also asked other (male) editors to recommend women poets from other provinces to me.

MD: Do you remember any poems you published?

XY: Yes. Poems that appeared in the inaugural issue such as “Abortion” by Jin Xiaojing, “Women Under the Tree” by Xiao Xiao, “To W.L” by Zhong Yin, “Someone is in the backyard” by Hai Ling, etc. received very positive feedback and I still remember those poems. 

MD: Have you ever changed your editorial policy?

XY: No. Always of the women, by the women and for the women. No change over the last 30+ years. I stopped in the 1990s due to pressure but relaunched it in the early 2000s with the same name but different format, an online journal.

MD: Yes I noticed it around 2003 or 2004, a very dynamic journal.

XY: One of the reasons I started to continue the Women’s Poetry Paper (or Women’s Poetry News) was that I was not happy about the way some of the male editors treated women writers’ work, so I decided to continue the journal exclusively of women’s poetry, edited by women and for women. Another reason on a deep level: my father served in the Kuomintang Youth Army. I had a bad experience from elementary school to high school due to his background. I was considered a child from a bad family, “to be reformed.” I became rebellious and I have since maintained a sort of independence. But above all, I was influenced by the “rebellious” literary atmosphere in Xichang and that influence has stayed with me even after I moved to Guangdong province.

MD: What made Xichang poets so avant garde in those days?

XY: Xichang was a remote region for “exile”. Many “rightists” were sent to the labor camps in Xichang. They were intellectuals that didn’t follow the government policies. The books they brought to Xichang, their education and knowledge and their independent spirit influenced the young people in Xichang. 

MD:  Did you have specific readership in mind back in 1988?

XY: No. Independent poetry magazines and newspapers can only be distributed among poets. I spread to the poets I knew. Many poets helped spread the word. I carried them with me and gave to people for free. I also took them to university cafeterias and passed them to students. My ideal readers include men and women alike. 

MD: In the 1980s, independent publications emerged in Sichuan one after another, such as Sub Forest, The Third Generation, Not Not, Reckless Man, Holism, Modern Poetry, etc. How did you interact with them? Any cross communication?

XY: Yes of course. We rode bicycles to visit Zhou Lunyou to share our poetry with him. As a matter of fact, our Women’s Poetry Paper was modeled on the newspaper “Grand Exhibition of Modernist Poetry (1986) that he shared with me. We designed the layout based on that legendary Shenzhen Youth Paper which showcased avant garde poetry nationwide in 1986.

MD: What is feminism to you?

XY: In the inaugural issue, I didn’t think much about it. But I wrote an essay for the second issue to criticize the popular women poetry at that time. My essay was titled “Space of consciousness: Adventurous analysis of feminist poetry.” I defined feminist poets as a group of women poets empowered to resist the poetry trend predominantly controlled by men and to free women’s poetry from the elbow protection of male poets. I reviewed the poems by the women poets that I considered to be feminist poets. But at the same time I tried to minimize the difference between male and female. Gender shouldn’t be the dividing line to separate us. Good poetry should have poetic criterion only. nothing else. The prevailing female poetry trend at that time was Night, Darkness, “I shall find a few men for fun (Tang Yaping), “You didn’t come to live with me”, etc. 

MD: Have you changed your opinions over the years?

XY: No. I still don’t think highly of those popular poems in the 1980s. Tang Xiaodu was the first critic to write about feminist poetry in China. I felt depressed that it wasn’t done by a woman.

MD: Oh, no need to feel depressed. Zhu Hong was actually the first critic to introduce feminist theories to China in 1982 and used feminist approach for literary criticism in China. She was ahead of Tang Xiaodu but not many poets are aware of it. I wrote about it in my essay “Third Gender” in 2009 but I didn’t want to make a big deal of it as I didn’t want to offend anyone. 

XY: But he was more than just a critic. He was the poetry editor of the “Royal” Poetry magazine in China. He was such a powerful figure. He promoted fake feminist poetry which influenced many women poets. 

MD: I don’t think that’s a big problem. He published and promoted several women poets since 1984. I think women poets have benefited from that due to the wider exposure of that government Poetry magazine. 

XY: Do you know Zhou Zan who launched Wings in 1998? I’m happy to see a woman critic publishing and reviewing women poets. 

MD: Yes I met her in 2001 when I returned to China and wired money to her after that. But I didn’t publish in her journal or your journal, nor the other women’s poetry journal edited by Narenqiqige. I prefer to keep a distance in order to maintain my independent judgment. 

XY: I was astonished to see New Rouge Poetry promoted by another male editor in the 21st century. It’s a sad thing that male editors and critics control the “microphones” to judge women’s poetry and to lead women’s poetry. It’s even worse to see that some women poets enjoyed being viewed in a sexual way and talked about by men. 

MD: Whose poetry do you like?

XY: Personally I like the poetry by Wang Xiaoni, Li Nan, Zhang Xiaoqiong, Liu Hong among others. To me, mature women poets or feminist poets go beyond “gender” and carry dialogues with the wider world but at the same time search inward to bring out a unique female voice. 

MD: Everyone has her or his own definition of feminism… What do you care about most? 

XY: A platform for women to publish and review each other’s work. There have been many conferences of Women’s Poetry and/or Feminist Poetry in China but all the speakers have been men. 

MD: You use women’s poetry and feminist poetry interchangeably. What’s the most ideal poetry to you?

XY: Feminist but not merely focused on gender or body; Women but not petite womenhood (小女人). 

MD: Why did you choose the form of a newspaper instead of the form of a magazine for your journal in 1988?  

XY: Because it’s less expensive to print newspapers than magazines at that time. Besides, a newspaper would have a stronger impact.

Translated from Chinese by Ming Di