Obliterating the division between public and private spaces: Love and Family as the tie of state-society relations

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a time when China’s educated, progressive younger generations came into contact with various Western ideologies—including liberalism, anarchism, Marxism, and so on1 —taken as a hallmark for individual freedom, romantic love became the preoccupation of many. This phenomenon had hence sparked discussion among intellectuals over the relation between love and revolution.2 

In light of prevalent foreign oppression and the incompetency of the domestic government, political entrepreneurs sought to harness and direct the power of love to aid their own cause by reframing its rightful interpretation as universal human love and the love for the nation, rather than romantic love oriented towards individual fulfilment.3  After the familial reform advocacy was circulated during the New Culture Movement4 , the GMD government became the first political institution to formalise the idea of xiao jiating and to incorporate it into legislation. The logic behind such actions is that satisfactory home life and the liberation of individuals from oppressive big families enhance the productivity and creativity of the population, which would, in turn, serve to strengthen the nation and benefit industrialisation. Such are the only ways to save China from foreign threats and internal degeneration.

Later on in the century, the Marital Law issued by the CCP in 1950 demonstrated continuity of this view on the relation between love and national interests, and had furthered the state’s effort to integrate the two matters. The Marital Law, together with the land reform, were seen as the two pillars of a total social reform that aimed to overturn the feudal power relationships.5  Historians like Susan Glosser believe that this consolidated association between family reform and the revolutionary agenda was not established until the CCP came into power.6  We can hardly deny the CCP’s effort in compressing private spaces and making conjugal union increasingly a political matter, however, given Glosser’s less than subtle anti-communist tone, her opinions need to be taken with some reservation. The views presented in Revolution of Heart, a Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 implicitly disagreed with those articulated in the Chinese Visions of Family and States.

Whereas the CCP developed the tie between the society and the state to the fullest through a redefinition of love and marriage, the effort to tame various forces—women’s agency, individualistic romantic love etc.— under the roof of the “family” had existed since the 1920s. Political entrepreneurs and intellectuals constantly sought to reconcile the preconceived contradiction between one’s personal fulfilment and one’s responsibility to the nation by redefining love and family in accordance to their own ideologies. For example, as Revolution of Heart had pointed out, criticism for individual fulfilment was voiced by GMD propagandists such as Hong Ruizhao had appeared as early as the 1920s.7 Hong denounced romantic love manifested in the form of individual fulfilment and urged the younger generations to devote their energy not to love but to their nation.8 

To conclude, the conflicts and overlaps between personal interests and the greater good of the nation manifested in the dilemma of love is a persistent debate among politicians and intellectuals,  and the systematic usage of marriage and family reform to aid revolutionary goals appeared as early as the 1910s. Governments and political parties appropriate the ideal form of love and family to pursue their vision of a productive and efficient state-society relation, during which the line between public and private matters in China was increasingly blurred in the past century.

  1. Susan L. Glosser, Chinese Vision of Family and States, 1915-1953 (Berkeley, 2003), Chapter 1, p.3 []
  2. Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: a Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p.257 []
  3. Ibid., p.264; Glosser, Chinese Vision of Family and States, Chapter 4 []
  4. Glosser, Chinese Vision of Family and States, Chapter 1, p.9 []
  5. Ibid., Chapter 4, p.2 []
  6. Ibid., Chapter 4, p.4 []
  7. Ibid., p.257 []
  8. Lee, Revolution of the Heart, p.262 []

Reforming the Family: Idealism, or Utilitarianism in disguise?

Around 1920s, the Chinese society witnessed a surge of reformative intellectual ideas among the young descendent of the elite class, most of which either oriented towards or, at least, consciously involved a reform of the traditional model of a Chinese family. Traditional theories have it that such a trend was set off by the rising nationalism and romantic individualism sensation , stimulated by external political threats as well as inspired by foreign social movement. A prominent example amongst these intellectual currents is the New Culture Movement, which sees familial reform as a crucial mean to exterminate the chronic corruption and vices in the Chinese society resulted from patriarchy and distorted Confucianism teachings.
The New Cultural Movement deemed the traditional Chinese family as a major obstacle for individuals to discover their creativity and to develop their personhood, which in turn hinders China’s development as a nation in the long term. The patriarchal oppression of one’s personal interests and the patriarchal intervention of one’s private affairs—such as career choices and marriage partners—deprives individuals of their motivations and subsequently stagnates the progress of the nation. The matter became all the more urgent when intellectuals of the early twentieth century viewed China as facing an existential threat. They also advocated the view that the extended family model is outdated and counterproductive. In order to catch up with the more developed states in the world, they believe that a new model of a smaller conjugal family (Xiao jiating) is necessary for the modernisation and industrialisation of China. By analysing the origin of the traditional family model, early twentieth century intellectuals situate the concept in a historical process of formation, which helped them to problematise its perpetuity. Viewing it as a social construction then allows the deconstruction and reformation of the Chinese family model.
Furthermore, this association between family structure and economic productivity led twentieth century intellectuals to shed a different light on the origin of this desire for familial reform. Susan Glosser highlights that, instead of nationalism and individual romanticism, the desire to reshape the family model is actually pushed by socioeconomic factors. The educated and progressive younger generation of the 1920s had increasingly drew associations between an accommodating family, the good citizens, and a strong nation. Following this logic, the familial reform had also encompassed the liberation and education for women, as “good wives and wise mothers” are considered as crucial for the production of fit citizens that can contribute to the development of the nation.
However, from my observation, although the advocation for familial reform had a idealistic starting point of strengthening the nation and help individuals to realise a complete personhood, it is still rather utilitarian and patriarchal in its core. The “individual”, in this case, implicitly refers to educated male Chinese citizens. The old family model was used almost as a scapegoat for China’s degeneration, and the deconstruction of it as a sooth for the male intellectuals’ insecurity under the force of Western political and intellectual influence. This view is also manifested in twentieth century feminist He Zhen’s critique that, educated elite Chinese men were using women’s liberation as a mean to demonstrate their own progressiveness, instead of advocating it for women’s own end.

Anarchists as the tragic hero of China’s twentieth century revolutionary stories

Upon reading various scholarly literatures on the topic of anarchist movement in early 1900s China, it had increasingly appeared to me that anarchists resembled the figure of tragic heroes of the twentieth century whose downfall was doomed from the very beginning due to the fatal flaws in their nature.

At first glance, anarchism is an ideology primarily characterised by its renowned opposition towards any form of hierarchical governance and authority. However, one needs to bear in mind that the abolition of government and state does not mean the abolition of rule and order for an anarchist. Instead, anarchists’ mistrust in state stems from their disbelief in political governance and revolution’s ability to solve prevailing social problems at their time. They believe that, regardless to the political ideology one follows, all political revolutions only ever result in the substitution of one ruling group with another, and all political institutions only ever represent the interests of the minority that possesses wealth and power. Hence, previous social problems, such as oppression and inequality, will persist.1 Anarchist revolutionaries subscribe to the idea that only social revolution (as opposed to political revolution) and moral education can bring about their idealistic worldly society, advocating the maintenance of an orderly and harmonic society through self-governing. Most anarchists rejected all kinds of instrumental use of anarchism in achieving one’s own political enterprise, and declared that all those who seek to realise anarchism ideals through political movements fail to be real anarchists.

Non-surprisingly, this is where anarchist ideology attracts criticism. Many early twentieth century Chinese intellectuals attacked the anarchist for being too idealistic and overlooking the realities of Chinese society, in which the education level of the general public is far from sufficient to uphold self-governance, and external political influence posed significant threat to the survival of the nation.2 Although publicly influential, Anarchism’s fundamental rejection of political means and hierarchical organisation had hindered its advocators’ ability to develop it further than a decentralised social movement.

However, due to this unavailability of the established revolutionary methods, twentieth century Chinese anarchists are themselves confused along the way to figure out how to achieve their vision of a good society. This is why some anarchists, aware of the inherent weakness in their own ideology, comply with other revolutionary groups—such as the Revolutionary Alliance, the Communists, and the Guomindang—temporarily to achieve their own end goals. They adhere to political parties where they see congruency with their own vision, with the hope that it would help to overcome the deficiency in their own ideology. They are wanderers who were confused on the way to realise their own ideals of a revolutionised society. Various other revolutionary groups had welcomed those anarchists and their philosophies in the early stage of their revolutions, as they see value for their own cause in the popularity anarchism had acquired among the people. But once they achieved their own revolutionary goal, all turned their back to purge anarchism out of their system, precisely due to anarchism’s very anti-political establishment nature. In this sense, anarchists are pure idealists who are used, betrayed, and extinguished, in the revolutionary climate in early twentieth century Chinese society.

For anarchists, the only way forward is to reimagine the possibility of reforms, be that anarchist education, be that social revolution etc. Shifu, a prominent Chinese anarchist had once come close to a new path by linking anarchist message with the labour movement before his premature death, which is a potential direction for future anarchists to look towards.3

  1. Dirlik, Arif, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (1991), p.93 []
  2. Ibid., p.93 []
  3. Krebs, Edward S., Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism (Lanham, 1998), p.13 []

Deconstructing the ahistorical conception of “Womenhood” and “Confucianism”

Recent studies on premodern Chinese philosophical ideas, especially Confucianism, had increasingly adopted post-structuralist and constructivist theoretical approaches. Scholars, especially feminist historians and philosophers, are seeking to clarify and redefine preconceived conceptions through discourse analysis, and the reinterpretation of the past and the present phenomena by tracing their historical formation processes.
This tendency in the academic field of East Asian and gender history is well exemplified in three scholarly works—Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan1 , Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation2 , and The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism.3) The three readings are tied together nicely by their shared goals to problematise the concept of a universal “womanhood”4 used by Western as well as East Asian scholars.5 

One reoccurring theme is the authors’ collective appeal for future scholars to fix their analytic gaze upon “female subjectivity”.6  This appeal is reflected in Barlow’s The Question of Women, which introduced the use of future anterior tense into the academic writing of women in China. It was also directly mentioned in Women and Confucian Culture and Confucianism and Women. The introduction of Women and Confucian Cultures provides a rather comprehensive definition of “subjectivity” for the purpose of this discussion, stating that it encompasses the subject’s “interior motives, identity formation, and perceptions of the world”.7 With this adjusted focus, feminist historians will be able to recognise women as agents and the formation of gender in East Asia as a social process. This then allows them to account for changes in gender identity and relation, the evolution of social and ideological factors that influenced their formation, as well as the potential reimagination of an original East Asian female identity.

Consequently, as a very, if not the most, influential philosophical and ideological tradition in the Sino sphere, Confucianism became a target of deconstruction for some scholars to make sense of its role in gender formation and oppression. Ko and Rosenlee both sought to challenge the traditional monolithic conception of Confucianism in their writing. One important point they both raised is that there is no conceptual equivalent in East Asian cultures for “Confucianism”. For example, the Chinese term Ru, although very close to, is not entirely congruent with Confucianism.8 Another example that poses a significant challenge to this monolithic interpretation is the changing nature of the Confucian social order and its implication on women’s social status across time and countries, of which Ko and Rosenlee both offered thorough evaluation in their books.

It is worth noting that a discussion over the nature and development of gender and women in East Asia does not only have a significant implication on feminism; women and gender are two good lenses for historians to look through to understand the influence and evolution of Confucianism values in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese history. Confucianism casts a different level of impacts on gender relations under different historical contexts, and women’s lives and status is an extremely good indicator of the function and operation of these Confucian traditions in various times, societies, and across different regions.

  1. Ko, Dorothy, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan(2003 []
  2. Rosenlee, Li-Hsiang Lisa, Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation (New York, 2012 []
  3. Barlow, Tani, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism (2004 []
  4. Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women, p.151 []
  5. Ko (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures, p1; Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women, pp.3-6, 45-46; Barlow, The Question of Women, p.6 []
  6. Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women, p.152; Ko (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures, p.7 []
  7. Ko (eds.), Women and Confucian Cultures, p.2 []
  8. Ibid., pp.7-8 []