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Sep 01, 2016

Battered and bloodied, a woman in a wedding dress stumbles through contaminated marshland and a sea of human bones. Ambushed suddenly by a band of steampunk thugs on steampunk motorbikes, she pulls out two swords from the fabric of her gown. “I know that I will die,” she says, “but I’d rather you go first.” 

It’s hard to say whether the 33-panel opening scene of “Raging Radish” is more “Mad Max” or “Kill Bill.” But what is certain is that the new online comic tackling the treatment of women and environmental issues is making waves. Since its release Aug. 10 on microblog platform Weibo, the comic’s first installment has been shared over 15,000 times; not a lot when compared with viral posts about Olympic swimmers and celebrity divorces, but an impressive reception considering that graphic novels generally occupy but a blip on China’s media and arts radar.

Set in a dystopian world ravaged by pollution and famine, the comic tells the story of eponymous heroine Radish, a young woman who has been abducted and taken to a mountain settlement. There, she joins countless others whose bodies — in the absence of arable soil — are used to grow crops that will feed the residents of the nearby metropolis, Radish’s native Hope City. The opening scene is a flash-forward to the day she bids for freedom.

Of all the violence and abuse inflicted on China’s women, the most severe is trafficking.

It sounds a world away from ours, but for the comic’s admirers, the implications of the work couldn’t be more real. Radish represents the victims of China’s endemic women trafficking crisis. Like many of China’s real-life victims, she is severed from all that she knows and carted off to an isolated, rural community where she is forced to fulfil her biological, reproductive purpose. The violation of her body — crops growing inside her burst through the skin of her stomach — is an undisguised reference to the rape that many of China’s trafficking victims suffer at the hands of their new “families.” 

A panel from the first instalment of ‘Raging Radish’ shows Radish touching her bulging belly as a woman stands guard beside her. Courtesy of ‘Raging Radish’

Of all the violence and abuse inflicted on Chinas women, the most severe is trafficking,” wrote famed sociologist Li Yinhe in her 2003 book “The Rise of Women’s Power.” In 2014, the year for which the most recent statistics are available, the number of trafficking victims saved from the families to whom they were sold exceeded 30,000. That is likely just a fraction of the total number of women abducted or reported abducted, a figure that the government has never released. The problem has been fueled by perceptions of gender inequality and birth control that have led to tens of millions of “leftover” men in rural China struggling to find wives.

“This is a story about oppressed and exploited women standing up as the world crumbles around them,” says scriptwriter Zhang Xuyang, one of the series’ co-creators. The other is Zhang’s high-school friend Zhu Qing, a watercolor painter known professionally as “Zhu Laober” who serves as the comic’s chief artist. With no intention to make money from the series — as evidenced by social media being their chosen platform for publication — the pair hold down steady, if mundane, jobs in China’s struggling animation industry.

Zhang and Zhu, both 30, embarked on the comic series in retaliation to a 2009 Chinese movie that was widely criticized for romanticizing the rural communities in which trafficking victims find themselves, and extolling those who “choose” to accept their fate rather than run away. “The Story of An Abducted Woman” was based on the real-life case of Gao Yanmin, a woman who in 1994 was trafficked and sold to a family in rural Hebei province, in central China. Gao was raped and beaten, but after several failed attempts to both escape and kill herself, she abandoned hope and went on to become the village’s only teacher.

Radish is lifted on to a motor tricycle on her way to her wedding with the master of the mountain settlement. Courtesy of ‘Raging Radish’

The film caused few ripples at the time of its release, but it began to attract scrutiny in 2015 after it was critiqued by a number of Weibo accounts with large numbers of followers. Web users flocked to the pages of the movie’s producers and review site Douban to voice their disapproval of a film they thought skirted the criminal brutality that put Gao in her position, instead romanticizing her selflessness and newfound commitment to rural life. Reports of Hebei officials being taken in droves to see the “heart-warming” film only fueled antipathy. Soon, the hashtag “the woman who escaped from the mountain” was trending, as web users began constructing alternative endings to the contentious movie.

There were a number of other productions just like it around the same time, all part of a public narrative that I find to be quite noxious.

Zhu Qing was one of them, posting with the same hashtag an imaginary film poster that depicted a woman standing atop a tractor, a bloodied sickle in one hand and a heavy chain in the other. The words at the bottom — “Pick up your butcher’s knife, stand up and find peace” — reflect Zhu’s wish that art tackling the subject matter focus on the struggle of trafficking victims to fight back against their predicament.

“[‘The Story of An Abducted Woman’] was completely at odds with my values,” Zhu tells Sixth Tone of the 2009 film. “There were a number of other productions just like it around the same time, all part of a public narrative that I find to be quite noxious.”

Neither the movie’s production company, government-backed Changchun Film Studio Group Co. Ltd., nor its producer and screenwriter Yin Yongfa responded to requests from Sixth Tone for comment. But in a previous media interview, Yin said that “film comes from life, but is above life,” adding that the state’s cautious approach to “dark subject matter” meant plot adjustments had to be made to ensure it could be released. 

Zhu shared his frustrations with Zhang, and the two soon posted to Weibo a half-joking casting call for a film production crew, saying they planned to make an antidote to “The Story of an Abducted Woman.” Very soon their mailbox was overflowing with messages from enthusiastic applicants. 

The project went through a number of incarnations. Not only did the format change from movie screenplay to online comic, but the characters of the story themselves changed, in an attempt to distance the work from the real trauma of Gao’s experience. That distance was furthered with the introduction of the apocalyptic fantasy elements of the comic’s setting.

Radish sits with a cattle skull mask after her forced wedding with the settlement’s master. Courtesy of ‘Raging Radish’

Zhang says the removal from reality gave the project both creative space and a way around the country’s media censors. Most importantly, though, it meant they could portray even the most brutal, disturbing of concepts in more subtle, allegorical ways. “Zhu and I both were unwilling to write in the sexual abuse of women,” Zhang says. Concern about the sensibilities of some of their readers led Zhang and Zhu to opt instead for the metaphor of “human plantation.”

[The comic] talks not only about abduction, but also about women’s collective tragedy, that is, the pressure and demands on them to reproduce.

In Zhang’s mind, too, was the concern that overly graphic and violent depictions in the comic would fuel misconceptions about rural people. “There could be misunderstandings — people could get hurt,” he says. “We don’t want to make rural people the target of our work.”

Zhu is happy to let people interpret the fantastical, symbolic work in the ways that they want, refusing to offer his own explicit explanations of all the comic’s many nuances. “It’s like a mirror,” he offers. “What you see depends on yourself. This is precisely where the charm of art and literature lies.”

For women’s rights activist Li Xiao, the reflection in the mirror is without doubt a feminist one. “[The comic] talks not only about abduction, but also about women’s collective tragedy,” she tells Sixth Tone, “that is, the pressure and demands on them to reproduce.” Li, who runs the feminist arts and media blog “Herinfilm,” says there is a gap in Chinese works of art when it comes to empowered and rebellious female protagonists. 

Yet there are others who feel it is simplistic to imply that all trafficked women can, and should, rise up against their oppressors. Huang Deng, a professor specializing in cultural criticism at Guangdong University of Finance, thinks it’s a positive sign that discussion surrounding human trafficking is growing. But, she says, “an individual’s choices are limited, and you cannot simply neglect their emotional state to satisfy the unrealistic expectations of netizens.”

A promotional image for ‘Raging Radish’ shows a trafficked woman in a cattle skull mask fighting against her captors. Courtesy of ‘Raging Radish’

Despite criticism, interest in Zhang and Zhu’s work has prompted several requests from production companies to buy the rights to the “Raging Radish” franchise, which comes as a surprise to Zhang given the boldness of the subject matter. The pair are keeping their cards close to their chests, and have not yet replied to any of the commercial enquiries.

For now, they are happy to continue publishing the series on their Weibo microblog: Thirsty readers can expect to see the second installment in mid-September. For Zhang, whether the issues tackled by “Raging Radish” will one day make the journey from the pages of niche comics to the big screens of mainstream cinemas isn’t of paramount importance. “As long as more and more people join the conversation, the size of the screen doesn’t really matter that much,” he says. “We are not trying to push ideas on people. We just want to make them think.”

This article has been updated to correct the name of womens rights advocate Li Xiao. In a previous version she was referred to erroneously as Li Zheng.

(Header image: A panel from the opening scene of ‘Raging Radish’ shows protagonist Radish walking through muddy marshland. Courtesy of ‘Raging Radish’)