Two radical approaches to feminism: Xiang Jingyu and He Zhen compared

Xiang Jingyu (向警予)(1895-1928) became one of the earliest female members of the Chinese Communist party in 1922 and served as its first Head of the Women’s Bureau.[1] Xiang did much influential work in the 1920s to advance the women’s movement including writing for a variety of revolutionary publications such as Republican Daily[2] and promoting a major industrial strike of women silk workers.[3] He Zhen (何震) (1884-1920) on the other hand, was an anarcho-feminist radical intellectual whose revolutionary thinking was more gender-centric than Xiang’s.

One of the most interesting aspects of Xiang’s thinking was how she attempted in her tenure as head of the Women’s Bureau to integrate feminism and Marxism. Intellectual orthodoxy at the time suggested that Marxism and feminism were incompatible.[4] Feminism, due to its association with the suffrage movement, was thought to be fundamentally bourgeois. Xiang herself wrote in 1920 that “These advocates [of women’s suffrage] believe that the emancipation and remaking of women must start with education equality and economic independence. But ultimately such prerequisites will be difficult to achieve without women holding power in the legislatures… in my estimation the representative system of government… has now become an impediment of the proletariat”.[5] To many socialists, the suffrage movement was anti-working class; in some cases women’s suffrage advocates utilized arguments based on the supposed intellectual superiority of middle-class women – who have time to read and think, and manage important domestic affairs – over working-class men. In one specific example leaders of the Women’s Rights League was criticized by a member of the CCP’s Central Committee for lacking class consciousness.[6] Whilst Xiang never abandoned the belief in the supremacy of class consciousness as the core of her revolutionary thinking, due in large part to the belief that the progress made by the women’s movement would not be permanent if proletarian revolution did not accompany it[7], it does appear that from 1923 onwards, she sought to unite feminism and Marxism in her thinking and more importantly in her actions. In the third party Congress of 1923 Xiang argued that the aim of the party’s work among women should be to gain influence in the ‘general women’s movement’, far broader that the suffrage movement, which emphasised equality in education and the eradication of traditional patriarchal social structures.[8] In her writing she sought to distinguish the proletarian women’s movement from the middle-class feminism of Chinese intellectuals.[9] Many intellectuals probably would have believed that Xiang was trying to square the circle by integrating Marxist class consciousness with feminism, you either believe that proletarian revolution will render the gender question irrelevant, or you believe that gender is so fundamental that undermining patriarchy is the core of the revolution. I would conjecture that Xiang would have been happy to disengage is this excessive theorising and let her massively influential work for poor women in China in the mid-1920s speak for her.

He Zhen, in contrast to Xiang, embodied the belief that undermining patriarchal social structures should form the core of revolutionary ideology and activity. From He’s perspective, the state, the institution of private property, and patriarchy were mutually reinforcing.[10] He Zhen criticized liberal male feminists like Jin Tianhe and Liang Qichao by exposing the patriarchal foundations of capitalist modernity.[11] This is where Xiang and He’s thinking have significant overlap, both believed capitalism oppressed women in the cities and feudalism oppressed women in the countryside. But He’s feminism was deeper, seeing the rule of men, which was far older than capitalism or feudalism, as the nexus of the whole system of oppression. He Zhen analysed the concept of nannü (男女), and argued that the terms ‘nanxing’ (男性) and ‘nüxing’ (女性) reified the idea of the natural dualism of the genders, when in reality gender was the outcome of differing social customs and education.[12] Language therefore becomes a key tool for the creation of insidious social hierarchies. In He Zhen’s analysis of the political economy of gender she argues “The beginning of the system of women as private property is also the beginning of the system of slavery. He believed that the global accumulation of wealth and capital, underpinned by a system of property rights cannot be disentangled from that systems enslavement of women.[13] He Zhen diverges from Xiang again in her total disavowal of the state, believing that the state by its nature can only reinforce the reproduction of the powerful and wealthy, even a dictatorship of the proletariat would just replace one tyranny for another.[14] Ultimately there is no way to say whose analysis was more accurate, but the comparison goes a long way to show the plurality of feminisms in early 20th century China.


[1] Gilmartin, Christina K. Engendering the Chinese revolution: radical women, communist politics, and mass movements in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1995. p.71

[2] Ibid. p.88

[3] Ibid. p.90

[4] Ibid. p.72

[5] Ibid. p.71

[6] Ibid. p.83

[7] Ibid. p.89

[8] Ibid. p.84

[9] Ibid. p.91

[10] Liu, Lydia, Karl, Rebecca, and Ko, Dorothy, eds. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. p.7

[11] Ibid. p.8

[12] Ibid. p.14

[13] Ibid. p.22

[14] Ibid. p.23