‘I cannot but sigh at this’: He-Yin Zhen’s Use of Confucianist Ideas and Methods

He-Yin Zhen (1886-1920?) was a Chinese anarchist feminist, advocating the feminist struggle as equal to or even superseding ‘the nationalist, ethnocentric or capitalist modernisation agendas’.1  After moving to Tokyo in 1907 with her husband, fellow activist Liu Shipei, they began publishing the anarcho-feminist journal Natural Justice.2 In this journal, Zhen’s anarchist sentiments became more pronounced. Her suspicion of state logic and all institutions of social hierarchy led her to argue for the removal of government, replaced instead with the instalment of communally owned property.3 For Zhen, the ‘goal of women’s struggle is no more and no less than the restoration of universal justice for all’.4

In her 1907 essay, ‘On the Revenge of Women’, Zhen detailed the tools and ideas with which women are made unequal to men. She specifically argued that Confucian scholarship was one of the main instruments of male tyrannical rule through looking at four of the Confucian ‘Five Classics’: the Book of Songs, Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and Spring and Autumn Annals.5 However, I will argue that He-Yin Zhen employs Confucianist methods and ideas in her critique of Confucianism. 

The first reason why she believed Confucianist scholarship had played a major role in the oppression of women is through its insistence that women maintain obedience and consequently made ‘subsidiaries of men’.6 She argued: ‘Does this not amount to controlling women so that they cannot be free?’7

She gave further examples in Confucian classics such as the expectation that women remain faithful to one man unto death8 and that women are often blamed for bringing disorder to both families and to the state9 . She claimed that through scholastic traditions such as Confucianism, men had monopolised learning and allowed women to ‘internalise patriarchal values’10 

Eventually, she concluded that ‘all Confucian teachings are teachings that kill people,’ because they have led to the ‘draconian suppression and control of women’11

However, I would argue that throughout this critique of Confucian teachings, she based some of her arguments on the concepts and ideas that Confucian teachings use. For instance, Zhen highlighted a quotation by Zheng in Annotations to the Mao Tradition of the Songs as an example of women being blamed for disorder being brought to the state:

‘The man is yang, so when he plots and schemes he benefits the country. But the woman is yin, and when she schemes she disrupts the country.’12

Zhen argued that ideas like these perpetuate ‘deviant teachings as “yang initiates, yin harmonizes”’.13 These teachings have caused ‘the relationship between men and women’ to become ‘one of absolute inequality [through cosmic abstraction]. I cannot but sigh at this’14 . Yet, Zhen herself used cosmic abstraction such as yin and yang to support her own ideas. In her section on ‘Women Suffering Death by Cloistering’, she argued that forcing women to cohabitate in harems was a punishment equivalent to death. She cited a Han official, Xun Shuang, who wrote: 

‘I heard that as many as five to six thousand women are gathered in the harem […] The qi [vital energy] of harmony is disturbed, leading to frequent calamities and freakish omens. […] all women who were neither betrothed by the proper ceremonies nor consummated their unions should be released […]. This would alleviate their forlorn sorrow and return yin and yang to harmony’.15

By citing quotations that use the logic of yin and yang to argue for the improvement of female conditions, she relied on the same ‘deviant teachings’ as those Confucian scholars she tried to disprove.

Strands of Confucianist ideas were also evident in Zhen’s critique of the ruling parties. In describing the process of accumulating women for their harems, she wrote that ‘[…] the Ming […] were even more relentless than the alien races in drafting maidens’.16  She described the Ming rulers as examples of ‘despotic sovereigns [who] committed against women heinous crimes of cruelty’.17 This critique fell in line with the idea of ‘virtue politics’, a specific mode of politics that Confucians pursued. Sage-kings were given the responsibility of being teachers for their subjects and to uphold a moral order, or the Way, which would translate to sociopolitical harmony – failure to rule according to the Way was perceived as a failure to rule.18 Zhen’s attack on the morality of Ming rulers drew on the Confucian tradition of critiquing the moral disposition of rulers if they did not uphold the Confucian expectation of being a benevolent ruler.

Zhen continued to discuss the importance of virtues in the subjugation of women. She proposed that men knew ‘docility was not a good virtue but nonetheless made women abide by it. Does this not imply that they were banishing women from the realm of the human?’19 By posing this question, Zhen evidently believed that following good virtues was a fundamental aspect of being human. There are parallels between this belief and the teachings of Confucian philosopher Mengzi. In his writings, Mengzi noted that human nature is good, as every human ha[d] the potential to develop that goodness. He wrote: ‘Benevolence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom are not welded to us externally. We inherently have them’.20 When Zhen claimed that by deviating from good virtue, we are deviating from being human, she made the same assumption that Mengzi did: human nature is inherently good. 

In the areas of cosmic abstraction, virtue politics, and human nature, Zhen followed the Confucian methods and ideas that she attempted to denounce. It is clear that Zhen’s ideas could not be extricated from the indigenous Chinese traditions and philosophies that she was surrounded by. Whether this was accidental or intentional in order to better convince her contemporaries by using the mode of thinking they have become accustomed to, Zhen could not completely separate her own, albeit radical, work from the intellectual traditions and tools of the time. 


  1. Sharon R. Wesoky, ‘Bringing the Jia Back into Guojia: Engendering Chinese Intellectual Politics’, Signs 40 (2015), p. 649. []
  2. James St. Andre and Lydia H. Liu, ‘The Battleground of Translation: Making Equal in A Global Structure of Inequality’, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 38 (2018), p. 381. []
  3. Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko (eds), The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational History (New York, 2013), p. 107. []
  4. Ibid, 108. []
  5. Ibid, 122 []
  6. Ibid, 129. []
  7. Ibid, 130. []
  8. Ibid, 133. []
  9. Ibid, 141. []
  10. Peter Zarrow, ‘He Zhen and Anarcho-Feminism in China’, The Journal of Asian Studies 47 (1988), p 805. []
  11. Liu, Karl and Ko, The Birth of Chinese, p. 124. []
  12. Ibid, 142. []
  13. Ibid, 128. []
  14. Ibid. []
  15. Ibid, 154. []
  16. Ibid, 156. []
  17. Ibid, 158. []
  18. Sungmoon Kim, Democracy After Virtue: Toward Pragmatic Confucian Democracy (New York, 2018), p. 8. []
  19. Liu, Karl and Ko, The Birth of Chinese, p. 131. []
  20. Bryan W. Van Norden (ed.), Mengzi: With Selections From Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis, 2008), p. 149. []

One thought on “‘I cannot but sigh at this’: He-Yin Zhen’s Use of Confucianist Ideas and Methods”

  1. Thanks for this close reading. I was a bit confused with the key Xun Shuang quote – perhaps I misread this but I didn’t see how this showed her (as opposed to the figures she cites) being guilty of embracing Confucian style arguments (or at least Yin and Yang cosmic ones). You were on firmer ground later on when you show how she sometimes indulges in a kind of virtual politics that is reminescent of the very Confucian literature she is mocking.

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