“Chinese men worship power and authority. They believe that Europeans, Americans, and the Japanese are civilised nations of the modern world who all grant their women some degree of freedom […] by transplanting this system into the lives of their wives and daughters, these men think they will be applauded by the whole world for having joined ranks of civilised nations” []
He-Yin Zhen in her article On the Question of Women’s Liberation (1907), provides a profound argument concerning the nature of women’s liberation which serves to illustrate the perverted use of women’s issues by men. He-Yin maintains that the promotion of the feminist cause and women’s liberation is only made in ‘men’s pursuit of self-distinction’, and thus questions whether such liberation is truly beneficial for women, or only perpetuates the existing unequal relationship between men and women.
Such ‘pursuit of self-distinction’ was visible not only among the intellectual spheres of China but also Korea, and is evidenced clearly within the Tonghak/Ch’ondogyo movement. Carl Young in Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way (2014) unveils this in his brief discussion of the role and status of women within the movement. The religion promoted the education of women as important ‘for the evolution of Korean society’, and one editorial even advocated the notion of equality of authority and rights between men and women. [] Yet another editorial reveals that the movement’s motivation in promoting women’s education was rather a response to the idea of the need for Korea to ‘catch up’, in a comparison between its own female populations’ ignorance and those women in ‘civilised countries’ (Japan in particular) who had access to civilised education for decades, and whose social status did not differ much from men’s. []
Here we witness women’s issues being manipulated, acting as a supplement to its leaders commitment to their social and national agenda: the social enlightenment of the Korean nation. Their social and national agenda not withstanding the influence of the western intellectual discourse however, in their pursuit to ‘join ranks of civilised nations’. Japanese intellectual discourse enjoyed considerable influence upon the aims, organisation, and doctrine of the movement, both via Son Pyong-hui’s interaction with Japanese reform-minded individuals between 1901-1904, and the movement’s involvement with the Japanese state sponsored Ilchinhoe.
It is therefore not surprising to witness the promotion of women’s liberation within the movement, and the Tonghak/Ch’ondogyo movement itself serves to clearly illustrate the impacts of imperialism upon the intellectual sphere in the east, and its implications in gender relations and ideas on women’s liberation. The feminist cause was arguably promoted for the self-interest of men, to distinguish themselves as progressive, enlightened men championing women’s liberation in a project of enlightenment and national self-strengthening; perhaps in the face of ‘civilised’ nations and influenced by popular ideas of Social Darwinism.
Women’s liberation as He-Yin suggests was presented as a double edged sword. There came the visibility of women’s issues and rights, primarily concerning education, and provided foundations for later activism. Yet such rights came from men who sought to promote women’s liberation in order to promote their own status as enlightened men in the modern world, and therefore can be questioned as truly meaningful representations of well-intentioned progress. Did men’s views of women as their private property, or their relations in reality shift? Or did women’s liberation only strengthen the existing power imbalance and subordination of women to men, for they would not have such rights to freedom without them. He-Yin’s questioning of the nature of women’s liberation was not unfounded, and her concerns highlight the importance of studying feminist history, or the feminist cause within history, as a study of such gender relations rather than simply aiming to uncover the ‘voices of women’.
[] He-Yin Zhen ‘On the Question of Women’s Liberation’ (1907), in Lydia He Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, Dorothy Ko (ed.) The birth of Chinese feminism: essential texts in transnational theory (New York, 2013), p. 60.
[] Carl Young, Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way: the Tonghak and Ch’ondogyo movements and the twilight of Korean independence (Honolulu, 2014), p. 169.