Thursday 14 January 2016

Chinese women's seafaring: a history

Wafu Yang, China's first women marine engineer

This is a very brief edited extract from Pengfei Zhang’s and Minghua Zhao’s chapter, 'Chinese Women Seafarers: Past, Present and Prospect'. The full version is in Global Maritime Women: Global Leadership, Editors: Momoko Kitada, Erin Williams, and Lisa Loloma Froholdt, Springer, 2015, extracted and edited the words below with their kind permission.

Chinese women seafarers in the last six decades, including women cadets in Shanghai Maritime University (SMU) are the focus of their study.

1950s and 70s.
After the founding of the communist China in 1949, the policy expressed in Chairman Mao’s strongly egalitarian slogan, ‘Women hold half the sky’ led to women being employed in traditionally male-dominated industries.
In the 1950s, women were actively recruited to maritime schools. They were trained as seafarers, primarily to sail ships on inland waters, then on ocean-going vessels. In the 1960s and 1970s, women seafarers were sailing on Yangzi River.
The world was excited to see the Fengtao, the world’s first women-officers-only Chinese cargo ship trading in international waters in 1974.

Some were considered as ‘heroines’. They included:
• Qingfen Kong, the first-ever captain in China’s ocean shipping (pictured below)
• Yafu Wang, the first, and the only, female chief marine engineer in China, who later gained a high-ranking post in the shipping industry (pictured above)

1980s and 90s
However, these women seafarers were few and their careers brief. With the promotion of market forces in the 1980s and 1990s, gender equality received less attention than before.
At the same time, demand for seafarers declined when shipping companies developed new technology and shed ‘surplus’ seafarers.
It became pointless to encourage women to take part in seafaring. Also the ‘strategy’ of placing women on board ships had not been successful. Less than half stayed long at sea.
The majority of them had to give up the career, primarily because of marriage and family.
China had 75-plus maritime education and training institutions with an annual capacity of over 30,000 cadets. But none were willing to enrol female students.
By contrast, the dramatic development of port facilities and the increasing number of vessels calling at Chinese ports led to pressure on the Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) in many ports. There were shortages of telephone operators to coordinate the arrival and departure of international ship.
'Many people considered that women would be most suitable to perform … [such] duties … Compared with the stiff and harsh orders from a man, a female voice may inspire different feelings for seafarers… seafarers are more likely to follow the instructions from the VTS call centre,’ thought a senior lecturer at SMU in an interview with Pengfei Zhang.
But VTS operators need to have the background of nautical studies. They had to train.


So times changed. In September 2000 Shanghai Maritime University (SMU)announced that it would start to recruit females, on a tailored programme. The Women Seafarers Project had made a historic breakthrough.
Thirty female students were enrolled. They studied in ten mixed classes, to acclaim by national media.
In the subsequent fourteen years 356 female students have been trained there. But the SMU continues to be the only training institution for women seafarers.
Women only do nautical studies. Marine engineering is seen as too hard. Men outnumber women by over ten to one.
Jieying Xie, first woman deck officer of scientific research ship Xue Long.

In 2001 Minghua Zhao interviewed the then-senior manager of SMU, who made clear that desire for international prestige coloured women’s acceptance:
‘I must mention another reason for us to decide to recruit women cadets. Some two or three years ago, we attended maritime events organised by the IMO [International Maritime Organisation] in Japan and in the Philippines. In both, they showcased their women cadets.
‘They looked really smart and beautiful, really outstanding… We must catch up so that we can also showcase our women seafarersat the future IMO events.’
As of January 2014, 255 women had graduated, a completion rate of 72 per cent. Despite the high hopes only six have actually been engaged in the seafaring profession.
Others found land-based jobs as pilots, Port State Control inspectors, ship agents, ship brokers, freight forwarders government agencies, port facilities etc.

Zhengrong Li, the first woman pilot

Even those who applied for posts as VTS operators have seldom succeeded. The problem is that only people who pass the national civil service examination can apply. It’s extremely competitive. Just two females have become VTS operators in Zhenjiang port.
And the six women seafarers are all employees in the SMU, not in shipping companies. As lecturers they have work on board regularly, but that is just to maintain and renew their certificates. They often only work on training ships.
Similar to the ‘heroines’ in the 1960s/1970s, some of them have been ‘drafted’ to perform duties primarily for national prestige. For instance, two were on the well-known scientific research ship Xue Long (Snow Dragon) (pictured below, Sino Ship They navigated through the Antarctic and Arctic. These expeditions make them very famous in China.
An instructor of SMU explained to Pengfei Zhang in 2013, ‘the majority of them [women graduates] have to participate in professions which are not relevant to maritime. Accordingly, the nautical knowledge they have studied would become totally useless in their daily work ….[it has] been suggested [that we] cancel the WSP programme.’

In the same year another lecturer in SMU said
‘Every year we would visit many shipping companies …Unfortunately, the result is always disappointing. The shipping companies seldom reject our request directly, because [they] want to take in more male graduates from us. However, they always let us wait until the girls give up their hope and find other land-based alternatives.’

Why are shipping companies unwilling to recruit women seafarers?
1. There are sufficient male seafarers.
2. Women are seen as increasing costs. Shipping companies are legally required to supply separate sleeping rooms and bathrooms, and women-specific materials and supplies such as sanitary towels and family planning pills.
3. The number of qualified women seafarers is too small for shipping companies to recruit competent women seafarers regularly as a normal practice.

Besides, in the eye of many ship owners and shipping managers, said a senior crewing manager in an interview by Pengfei Zhang,‘Women seafarers would bring about extra troubles for crew management on board… The management of [an] all-male-crew is much easier than to handle a mixed-gender crew ...
‘We do not know what may happen if a women is working on board among a group of male seafarers. We have heard some incidents in some other shipping companies which were associated with women seafarers on board. We do not want to make same mistakes.’
Chinese cadet officer Wang Chung-Hai, proceeding in 2008 despite the problems, on the YM Orchid. Picture by M Crozet, copyright ILO.

Indeed, shipping companies expressed concerns as they believe that ‘women seafarers at sea sometimes may also cause troubles and inconveniences to other male seafarers.’
They reported, ‘(W)hen the crew members are male only, the relationship between crew members are relatively pure and simple. The relations may change significantly when a woman join the group.’
A thirty-six-year-old third engineer, who worked with a Singapore female second officer, complained,
‘Before the lady joined us, everything on board was fine and peaceful.However, after her coming, many things changed, and troubles occurred.

'For example, all crew shared the same laundry room. We normally put the washed clothes on the clothes lines in the laundry room with a heating facility.
‘However, the lady always put her underwear together with ours. Many colleagues reported that they felt nervous and uncomfortable about that.
Furthermore, we could no longer strip to the waist in the common rooms.
‘In addition, afterwards two senior officers were jealous of each other because of the lady. Therefore, the matter was reported to the crewing manager as an incident, and she was called back to the company immediately.’

Women seafarers’ difficulties in gaining acceptance exist despite the 1992 Law on Protection of Women’s Rights; Chinese Labour Law, 1995; and Chinese Employment Promotion Law, 2008.
No legislation explicitly rules against women’s participation in seafaring. However, a number of regulations intended to protect women’s rights and interests exist. In practice, they tend to deter many employers from recruiting females.
There is, therefore, much to improve in the Chinese legal system to enable and empower women’s participation in shipping and seafaring in China.


Authors Minghau Zhao (above left, at the opening of the China Centre (Maritime) at Solent University, of which she is director.) Pengfei Zhang (right) is a lecturer at the university, working on the same Gem project on women seafarers.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Alex Beecroft: fictionalising queer seafarers in the age of sail

Alex Beecroft: author.

Could maritime novelist Patrick O’Brian ever have expected that he would accidentally generate a new sub-genre: M/M (meaning male/ male) romances about the sea in the Age of Sail?
Ms Alex Beecroft’s five M/M novels show what can happens when men are on ships together. Homosocial situations turn to homoerotic ones. Men fall in love, and carry on sailing. And how much more enjoyable a voyage is for that!
Of course, queer seafaring in reality is still an occluded subject. There's only a handful of history books, and several paragraphs - all mainly based on criminal proceedings and hostile witnesses' accounts. See my bibliography at
Alex's fiction is part of the re-writing of history that corrects the false assumption that everyone was heterosexual. Joanna Chambers has similarly written M/M historical military romances, such as Unnatural. Jasper Barry created The Second Footman, about a 19C bisexual male servant.

M/M Age of Sail romances

Alex, who describes herself in an unlikely way as a stay-at-home mum from a Cambridgeshire village, has written five such books, and short stories. Mainly ebooks, they are:
Captain's Surrender, Linden Bay romance 2007, second edition by Samhain Publishing, 2010 (her first novel)
False Colors, Perseus (Running Press), 2009 (named among the top 100 gay books of the 21st Century)
His Heart's Obsession, Carina Press, 2009.
Blessed Isle, Riptide Publishing, 2012 (Voted “Best GBLT historical of 2012” by The Romance Reviews
By Honor Betrayed, Carina Press, 2011


I find Alex’s novels about this world deeply enjoyable and satisfying. And I’m intrigued that they are written by woman who isn’t even a boatie; read by metropolitan men who certainly didn’t sail in the 18C; and relished by straight landswomen.
The bizarre nature of this phenomenon is why I have just interviewed Alex by email. Here are the replies she kindly sent:

Q. Why did you start writing queer Age of Sail books? Did you feel something should be explored about the hidden potential sexual extent of those close on-board relationships in history books and in novels such as those by Patrick O'Brian?

A. I started writing queer Age of Sail (AoS) books as a direct result of watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. There's a moment in the film, right at the start, where HMS Dauntless glides out of the fog with all her timbers and sails creaking.
It hit me right in the heart.
I fell in love instantly with the magic of tall ships. As a result of this new love for 18th century weapons of mass destruction, I started reading up on the 18th century Royal Navy, both in non-fiction and fiction.
I discovered Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian gave me another of those "OMG, how did I live before this moment?" feelings. He instantly went to the top of my favourite authors list.
I have recently discovered asexuality and realized that I was asexual. But all of this took place before that realization, during the time when I didn't know what I was.
I knew I wasn't a gay man, but I had been struggling with my gender all my life (I now identify as agender or non-binary). Certainly I did know that I wasn't very good at being straight.
As a result, I'd always identified with queer characters without really knowing why. I identified with that sense of being a misfit/outcast because of something you were born with and could do nothing to change. I identified with that disconnect from the surrounding society.
And thinking back on it, I don't think I've ever really written heterosexual main characters. My Main Characters, such as Captain John Cavendish on HMS Meteor in 1762 (False Colours), have always either been totally disinterested in sex and romance or they've been queer in some way - gay or bisexual or trans.
It was never really a question for me. Queer people have always existed. Queer people were who I wrote about. Why on earth wouldn't I have queer Main Characters?

Q. What sorts of market has there proved to be? Would your readers tend to be maritime or queer, or what combination of both?

A. As far as the market goes, I only really have anecdotal evidence to go on. My experience has been that I've had more fan mail from men.
Most of it is the 'OMG, I never thought I would see this kind of book with a protagonist like me. Thank you!' sort.
But in egroups and book groups the people who talk about the book tend to be women. My impression was that gay men tend to find False Colors in book shops. They don't necessarily know the m/m romance genre is out there.
By contrast, women of whatever orientation tend to be online more. I have had False Colors and Blessed Isle added to a couple of maritime fiction reading lists. But my feeling is that more people are looking at them as queer books about the Age of Sail than are looking at them as Age of Sail book with queer characters.
In the early years of the M/M romance community, when False Colors came out, the received wisdom tended to be that the readers were predominantly straight women. False Colors and its running mates were marketed as ‘By straight women for straight women’.
Such a description ignored the fact that the authors were in fact two bisexual women – Erastes and Lee Rowan, plus Donald Hardy, a gay man, and me (a person who didn’t yet realize at that point that they were an agender asexual).
This precipitated a real upheaval of the community. Readers started to speak up and say “No. Actually we’re queer, and we’re fed up of being spoken about as though we’re imaginary even in a genre that purports to be about us.”
Ever since then, I’ve tended to assume most of my readers were MOGAI (Marginalized Orientations, Gender Alignments and Intersex)in one way or another. Even if – like me in those days – they haven’t yet worked out exactly how.
Lee Rowan was publishing gay Age of Sail fiction well before I did. Her Ransom series was really the trailblazer for queer naval historicals. I owe my start in publishing to her suggestion that I should submit the manuscript of Captain’s Surrender to her publishers.

Q. What pleasure was there in it for you? Are you sort of one of those queer sailor boys manqué?

A. I do love my war machines! I love stories that take place in small, tight knit military communities. I love military science fiction.
A story about the 18th century Age of Sail is like Star Trek, boldly going where no (Western) man has gone before. And it has the added charm of gorgeous clothes and an interesting and intriguingly weird world view.
I found the culture/power structure in the 18th century Royal Navy tremendously interesting. And it was a small enough subject that I could become reasonably well versed in it in a short time.
The expansion of knowledge in the Age of Enlightenment gave, I felt, a glorious, optimistic world view. And the queer subculture of the time was stirringly vocal and unashamed and good to be around.
For example, there is a transcript of the trial at which possible trans man/possible gay drag queen Princess Seraphina took a man who had robbed her to court. She was supported by her female friends and neighbours from whom she used to borrow clothes. (
Also I love learning. The opportunity to find out what all the masts were called, and how you clewed off a lee shore, or navigated by knots and bits of wax stuck on the end of a plumb line was fascinating.
I don't want to be a queer sailor. I'm a queer writer. What I enjoy is to find out new things and then tell stories about them.
I feel you'd have to have very little romance (with a big R) in your soul not to be a little captivated by the lure of a tall ship and a star to steer her by.

Q. Why did you stop producing these books six years ago, and move onto other subjects?

A. Because I enjoy finding out new things. I got to the point where I felt if I wrote one more Age of Sail story, I would end up repeating things I'd already done.
I started to feel so familiar with the life on board ship that it stopped seeming strange and wondrous. It started to seem ordinary. I wanted to try something new.
There are many other things in history which are equally interesting which I fancy exploring -- such as the ancient Minoans, who I've been reading up on recently. What a fascinating world they lived in!
Also, by nature I've always been more of a fantasy and science fiction fan. Producing the Age of Sail books was a thoroughly enjoyable temporary blip. I may come back to it later. Or I may not.
Margaret Atwood popularised the adage “The proper study of Mankind is Everything” I quite agree. And if I'm going to write about everything I find interesting, I can't stay on any one thing too long.
Why do women write M/M fiction?
Alex’s discussion, ‘Why do women write m/m fiction? Answers for the men’, can be found at
She remarks ’Bear in mind that it’s a snapshot of what the debate was like in the m/m romance world in 2009. Both the debate and the community have moved on a lot since then.
‘For up to date discussion of the issues surrounding queer romance and literature, try subscribing to Riptide Publishing’s Tumblr It’s a good jumping off point from which to listen in to the discussion as it is still going on.’