Historical Fiction, Feminism, and Humanitarian Issues

Janie Chang is the author of Dragon Springs Road and Three Souls – both novels set in China. When we chatted back and forth on email, she said she was intrigued by the notion of “looking under the covers of historical fiction to illuminate those attributes that make it different from contemporary fiction” – the purpose of my Inside Historical Fiction focus. Here’s Janie Chang discussing historical fiction further.

Historical Fiction, Feminism, and Humanitarian Issues by Janie Chang

Writing historical fiction for a modern audience has its challenges, especially when you are acquainting readers with an unfamiliar time and place (see ‘Avoid Breaking the Spell’, my blog about anachronisms). It really makes me happy to receive email from people telling me that they never knew much about pre-war China, or even China, but now my novels have sparked their interest.

I also receive emails asking why the women in my novels couldn’t be more feminist. These readers want stories that encourage social activism and promote human rights. They want strong role models. ‘Why don’t you write about … ?’

Of course there have been famous Chinese women of extraordinary courage and intellect. Qiu Jin was an early revolutionary against the Imperial government. Her brutal execution and the anger it roused contributed to the fall of the Qing Dynasty. There was Song Qingling, whose marriage to Sun Yat-sen put her on the public stage, and who continued on as a force in Chinese politics after his death.

But I am moved to write about ordinary women. They lack the support and inner resources needed to break free from restrictive traditions. They’re flawed in character. They are the Everywoman of their generation, nobody special, just trying their best to survive with integrity under difficult conditions – and not always succeeding.

three-soulsIn Three Souls, the main character is an idealistic and spoiled young woman from a wealthy family; but when she steps out of line her father forces her into an unwanted marriage. Her husband’s family turns out to be poor, despite the enormous dowry brought into the household a generation ago by her mother-in-law, because her father-in-law squandered it all. That novel was based on my own grandmother’s life. She was a woman of unusual intelligence but never allowed to make decisions about her own fate. I take every opportunity at literary festivals, book clubs, and interviews to point out that there are cultures in our modern world where women are still treated as chattels, their lives dictated by fathers, brothers, husbands, and in-laws.

dragon-springs-roadIn my latest novel, Dragon Springs Road, a Eurasian girl faces rejection and racism. She is female, an orphan, and bi-racial – an absolute trifecta of sorrows in a society that values boys, family, and lineage. The closest contemporary situation we have to her and how she is treated would be the bi-racial orphans left behind by US servicemen after the Korean War.

The novel also includes descriptions of an unwanted baby girl being smothered by her mother and the child labour in a silk factory. They are not central to the story, but they are part of the main character’s reality. Historical fiction adds context to modern-day social problems. Like science fiction, we can comment on our world in oblique (or maybe not so oblique) terms, but unlike science fiction, our examples are drawn from history. We read about infanticide and child labour in the past tense. Historical fiction sharpens our outrage when we realize that such issues still exist in our supposedly enlightened times because we’ve already met its victims. (photo below – child workers in a Shanghai cotton mill)


Thus my response to “Why don’t you write about [insert issue here]?” is that I do write about humanitarian issues, just not always in a direct, in-your-face way. As a storyteller, my preferred approach is to let characters and their responses to the conditions around them inform the reader.

I also believe that I do write about strong women. However, they must behave in a way that’s true to the realities of their era, economic status, and position in society; otherwise they turn into anachronisms. They’re heroic to me, not in an epic way, but in the way generations of women have been heroic, enduring much for the sake of the ones they love.

Many thanks, Janie. I love the way you’ve positioned your approach to writing. Wishing you great success. PS – Love the titles of your novels.

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang – China, 1908. At the turn of the 20th century, an imperial dynasty collapses, a new government struggles to life, and in an ancient courtyard outside Shanghai, a Eurasian girl is abandoned by her mother.

Three Souls by Janie Chang – China, 1935. An absorbing historical novel of romance and revolution, loyalty and family, sacrifice and undying love — narrated by a ghost.

“We have three souls, or so I’d been told. But only in death could I confirm this …”

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com where you can also sign up for her newsletter.

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13 Responses

    1. Thank you, Maria. I wrote my first novel THREE SOULS because of my grandmother, who I never knew, but whose sad life of unrealized potential has always haunted me.

  1. I’m currently editing a family saga about life in Victorian England. One of the hardest parts was to get inside the head of one of my main female characters. Society dictated that she should be a subservient, passive character and anyone who knows me will tell you that is not me at all! It is difficult to stay true to the period when you really have no experience of it. A second female lead is much more hot headed and wants the freedom that men have. It lands her in a lot of trouble but the timing coincide with the start of female suffrage. I had so much more fun writing her character!

    1. I had the same problem with my latest novel, Val. But I kept a friend in mind as I wrote the less feisty character’s thoughts and dialogue. That helped. Good luck with yours!

  2. I’m reading Ms. Chang’s Three Souls now and enjoying it immensely. I’m hoping to meet her at the HNS conference this June, too. That would be an honor!

    1. Please do introduce yourself, Betty. I will be there with my friend and fellow Canadian, author Jennifer Robson. Hope to see you at our sessions.

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