The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Weatherhead Books on Asia)
Columbia University Press, 2013
328 pp., 36.0
Jamie Friedman and Alister Chapman
An Early Chinese Feminist
In September 1905, a Chinese revolutionary armed with a bomb hid in Peking's train station. His target was a delegation formed by the dowager empress Cixi, which was beginning its journey to the capitals of Britain, France, the United States, Japan, Russia, and Italy. Its brief was to study these countries' governments and return with suggestions on how to reform the crumbling Qing dynasty.
The young man set off for the station determined to thwart an attempt to resuscitate an empire that he wanted dead. He was not, however, an expert with explosives. As the delegation's train left the station he detonated his device, denting the train and killing himself. Two of the dignitaries were injured, and it was four more months before the party set out again. They returned with proposals that were quickly implemented by a desperate court. But Qing China fell anyway six years later, in a revolution that ended more than two millennia of imperial control.
It did not take a trained eye to see that China was on the brink of upheaval in the early 20th century. Its navy had been destroyed by the Japanese in 1895, its army pummeled by the United States, Japan, and all the major European powers in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The country still flew its own flag, but other countries claimed large swathes of its territory as spheres of influence. Students from wealthy families went to study in America, Europe, and Japan. There, they dreamed that China would one day be like these societies, and took to politics. They talked and wrote about the future, about a republican China, a constitutional China, a socialist China, above all, a strong China that would retake its position in world affairs. Small cells of would-be revolutionaries assembled in cities both in China and overseas, taking grim satisfaction at their leaders' woes.
For some, the future of a strong China lay in its embrace of social reforms fueled by the women's movement in the West. Westernized Chinese intellectuals such as Liang Qichao and Jin Tianhe called for greater access to education and opportunities for employment for women, as well as an end to debilitating practices such as foot-binding. Their hope was that these reforms would enable China to take its place alongside prosperous Western nations. Yet other Chinese reformers disagreed about the path to Chinese women's true liberation. For these thinkers, steeped in the Marxist, socialist, and anarchist revolutionary zeal of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women's empowerment—and therefore, China's empowerment—could only emerge from a radical remaking of China itself.
Among these more radical thinkers, He-Yin Zhen was arguably the most articulate and intellectually formidable. Yet before the publication of this volume her voice was little known outside China. Born in 1884, exiled in Tokyo, she co-founded the Society for the Restoration of Women's Rights and its journal, Natural Justice, which became a leading distributor of radical thought in the first decade of the 20th century. He-Yin's writings provide compelling insight into the birth of a Chinese feminism acutely aware of the origins of women's oppression in China and the West and conversant with radical contemporary political and social theories. Her work both demonstrates global connections in feminist thought and prefigures gender theories of today. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory collects her writings together for the first time in English, and makes an invaluable contribution to anyone interested in Chinese intellectual history or the history of feminism across nations and across time periods.
What motivates He-Yin's argument is her contention that male Chinese feminists such as Liang and Jin do not go nearly far enough in eradicating the sources of women's disempowerment. Indeed, He-Yin pushes beyond what many other contemporary feminists were arguing, either in China or in the West. She maintains that unequal distribution of wealth, private property, religious institutions, the legal system, indeed the state itself, all contribute to women's bondage and must all be remade for women to gain social equality. Thus, He-Yin maintains that any feminism based on Western goals and practices—for example, those movements advocating for the vote, education, and jobs for women—are misguided, as they ultimately reinforce the social and political slavery inherent in those systems. After all, she argues, voting rights only give women the opportunity to vote into power the privileged elite and reinforce the status quo. Professional advancement merely increases women's opportunities to participate in a capitalist regime that enslaves women and men. One can imagine that she would not have been impressed with Cheryl Sandberg's injunction for women to "lean in": for He-Yin, leaning in to capitalism and therefore the continuation of economic inequality doesn't free women, rather it only further enslaves them.
Instead of advancement in employment or universal suffrage or better education, He-Yin insists that women's liberation has to be accompanied by a radical remaking of the foundations of society. No less than the complete abolition of government is required, along with its class-based hierarchies created by the unequal distribution of wealth. Economic and political freedom for all women and men would follow the abolition of government which has always, by necessity, run on a structure of haves and have nots organized by class and gender. Readers today are unlikely to share her desire for the end of the state, but the vigor of her critique is provocative.
Two terms central to He-Yin's theories of social life—nannü and shengji—get at what is unique in her work. Nannü—a combination of forms of the Chinese terms for "man" and "woman"—is a concept like the modern Western notion of gender. But unlike that framework, nannü is also inextricably involved in the process of class-making. That is, He-Yin does not conceive of gender apart from the class structures in which gender is enacted and understood. Crafting her gender theories against classical Confucianism (rather than explicitly in response to Western gender models), He-Yin crucially argues that class inequalities are informed by and formative of gender ideas. These are the originary categories from which all other social realities emerge. Further, her idea of nannü—perhaps something like class-gender—also motivates her sense that women will not fully be free until all men and women of all classes are equally empowered.
Secondly, shengji, or "livelihood," extends this class-gender category with a critique of capitalism, imperialism, private property, and, eventually, the state itself, all institutions that necessarily and inherently perpetuate the disenfranchisement of women as the fundamental modes of their operation. These two terms—nannü and shengji—radically rethink the nature of gender, its implication in class, and the institutions that maintain those inequalities.
It is in part because of their refusal to address these class inequalities or to see those inequalities as fundamental to the state (their ignorance of nannü and shengji) that He-Yin is especially critical of her male feminist contemporaries. The editors of the book make this critique explicit by including Liang Qichao and Jin Tianhe's writings in the final sections of the book. He-Yin's critique in fact suggests that Chinese male feminists actually work to extend women's bondage despite appearing to make them more free. She maintains that their feminism, based on Euro-American forerunners, is fueled by Chinese men's desire for recognition and then self-promotion on the world stage, which she calls "men's pursuit of self-distinction in the name of women's liberation." He-Yin insists that Chinese women were educated in order to alleviate men's financial burden, to capitalize on women's labor, and to free up men's time for personal enjoyment.
When she turns from her knowledge of the women's movement in America and Europe and details the origins of women's oppression in Chinese economic and social history, He-Yin's work takes on the feel of an intellectual tour de force. For example, her essay "On the Revenge of Women" traces women's oppression in China across millennia, from the historical rise of patriarchy, expressed in marriage and funerary rites, to the language and writing system that connects characters associated with women to those for servant, broom, and harem. And He-Yin challenges traditional Confucian wisdom literature as underwriting much of the misogyny latent in Chinese thought and practice. While she is equally at home critiquing the causes, methods, and effects of the women's movements in the West, her exhaustive and detailed knowledge of the fundamentals of Chinese culture makes for powerful reading.
While He-Yin's writing is uniquely Chinese and historically specific, her ideas about gender and the role of class in gender formation have some striking echoes in Western feminist theories of the 1980s and '90s. For example, her sense that gender is constructed by external forces like history and politics (rather than innate) seems to anticipate modern gender theories of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. And further, her understanding of gender as class-gender (gender as inseparable from class) has a modern-day equivalent in critical race theory's claim that identity is constructed at the complex intersection of gender, class, and race. Thus, while presenting a distinctive voice in the birth of Chinese feminist thought, He-Yin's work also draws East and West, past and present, into surprisingly vibrant conversation about both gender construction and the sources of women's oppression.
He-Yin wrote and died before the Communist tragedies of the 20th century, so we do not know what she would have thought or said about them. Would she have advocated the speedy implementation of communism in China, or would she have joined those who urged restraint on Mao Zedong? The latter seems likely: her concern for individual, working women and her internationalism would have sat uneasily with the Great Leap Forward, for example. Violent revolution does not hold the central place in He-Yin's thought that it does in that of Marx and Engels, and making that distinction is important if we are to listen to her vigorous critique of certain social structures that are depressingly similar today.
This volume introduces English readers to a powerful Chinese feminist voice, providing historical and cultural context to her thought while also making clear her relevance for contemporary feminist theory. If you read nothing else, read the brilliant and eminently readable 20 pages of "On the Liberation of Women." For originality and sheer intellectual heft, He-Yin takes her place alongside the greatest feminists of her day. This book will help give her the audience she deserves.
Jamie Friedman is assistant professor of English at Westmont College. Alister Chapman is associate professor of history at Westmont College.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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