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

The Twelve-Point Pledge of Liu Shifu’s ‘Conscience Society’ and its Moralistic Anarchism

Liu Shifu (劉師復) (1884 – 1915) was an influential figure in early twentieth century revolutionary movements in China and regularly cited as the intellectual Father of Chinese Anarchism. In 1912 Liu and several of his comrades founded the ‘Conscience Society’ and a twelve-point pledge that would form the core of the covenant of the Conscience Society. Effectively, the twelve points are rules which members of the Society are expected to adhere to. The points are:


  1. Do not eat meat
  2. Do not drink liquor
  3. Do not smoke tobacco
  4. Do not use servants
  5. Do not ride in sedan-chairs or rickshaws
  6. Do not marry
  7. Do not use a family name
  8. Do not serve as an official
  9. Do not serve as a member of a representative body
  10. Do not join a political party
  11. Do not serve in the army or navy
  12. Do not believe in a religion[1]


What strikes me a particularly interesting is how the majority of them seem to be only tangentially related to anarchism, if we understand anarchism as simply a commitment to the abolition of government. The twelve points suggest a heavily moral aspect to Liu’s anarchist thinking, it seems to me to be a common theme in early twentieth century Chinese revolutionary movements to aim not just for political restructuring but a moral restructuring of all of society and in some cases the world. For example, the concept of Datong (大同) (‘Grand Unity’) at a surface level is about eliminating nation-states and founding a world government, however, this was arguably just a logical extension of the core of the concept which was the radical democratisation of all human social interaction and the elimination of hierarchical institutions that governed social interactions like class and gender divisions. Liu was acutely aware towards the end of his life that political assassination was not a good long-term strategy for radical social change, rejecting the tactic of political assassination fully in 1912.[2] Of course, the problem is, what happens after the assassination? Many of Liu’s comrades would have supported the idea of attempting to assassinate Yuan Shi Kai (袁世凱) (1859-1916), the man who betrayed the revolution of 1911. Liu understood that, the physical person of the political tyrant is not the problem, the problem is the whole system. History would proceed to prove Liu correct as a decade of Warlord despotism engulfed China following the death of Yuan.

For real radical change, Liu knew, the whole moral, political and social order must be restructured, and this is why so many of the points in the pledge concern person moral behaviour. At least in the West, when thinking about libertarianism, which advocated for severely limited government rather than no government, its common to associate it with “live and let live” thinking; that people should just be free to do as they like without the government interfering with them. Of course Liu did not advocate for anyone or any group to force anyone to abide by these moral standard, but the points reveal a strong commitment on Liu’s part to self-government, not in the sense of collective popular sovereignty,  but in the literal sense of an individual governing themselves, not just acting according to instinct or succumbing to base desires.

The prohibition against alcohol exemplifies this point. Alcohol impairs judgement and would therefore go against Liu’s vision of a sober, independent, free-thinking individual. The point prohibiting the consumption of meat exemplifies a deep commitment to non-violence, a point that should encourage students of radical thinking to expand their conception of the meaning of anarchism, an ideology so often associated with assassination and violent revolution. The fifth point prohibiting the hiring of sedan-chair or rickshaw rides shows the importance of symbolism on Liu’s moralistic anarchism. Whilst in theory, if a person voluntarily chooses to work as a rickshaw-puller, there should be no problem, it’s the symbolism behind this demeaning labour that Liu finds unacceptable. Liu once quoted Bakunin in saying “If others are not free, I am not free either. If others are slaves, I also lose my freedom”.[3] This shows that Liu was not an individualist in a crude sense, he understood that people are social and interdependent, meaningful reform of society must be encompass of sections of society to be meaningful at all.




[1] Krebs, Edward S. 1998. Shifu, soul of Chinese anarchism. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p.102

[2] Ibid. p.103

[3] Ibid. p.104

The Conservative Character of the Taiping Rebellion

A surface level study of the ideology of the Taiping Rebellion may lead one to view the movement as distinctly unique and unprecedented in Chinese history. Though Christianity, a religion obviously not indigenous to China, had made itself known to China for centuries prior to the rebellion, it certainly never inspired social movements anywhere near the scale of the Taiping. A first impression of the Taiping rebellion as revolutionary and progressive may be reinforced by historiographical schools of thought that see the Taiping’s as peasant rebels and revolutionary ancestors of the Communists.[1] Whilst land redistribution was a theme in the rhetoric of the Taiping’s it was never realized in practice. Additionally, whilst foot-binding was abolished in areas controlled by the Taiping rebels, the practice was far less common in Guangdong and Guangxi province where the revolt effectively was born, therefore, for the leaders of the rebellion abolition of foot-binding was a less revolutionary step than it would have been in other parts of China.[2]

The political and theological orientation of the Taiping’s was conservative in nature, rhetoric and ideology concerned a return to a time when China was favoured by God (Tianzhu). The connection between God and the Chinese people was severed at the time of Qin Shi Huang’s wars of unification when Qin adopted the title of (Di), usurping a title that can only legitimately be held by God, and began worshipping Daoist false Gods.[3] Since then, China had become increasingly morally corrupt not least due to the idolatry associated with foreign Buddhism. It is of course, a classic conservative rhetorical move to harken back to a Golden Age when people had pure morals and society existed in perfect order. The widespread iconoclastic attacks on Buddhist and Daoist idols bare superficial resemblance in imagery to the iconoclastic attacks perpetrated by the Communist Party against antiquated superstition. However, the purpose of the iconoclastic attacks conducted by the Taiping’s was not to destroy old ways to make way for a new, progressive society, but to reverse the spiritual decline that China had suffered due to the worship of false Gods.[4]

Perhaps the most striking example of the Taiping’s conservatism was their distinctly patriarchal view of the role of women in society. In Poems of the Heavenly Father, Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping rebellion, outlines his misogynistic feminine ideal. The poems lay out ten offences which are punishable by beating, clearly establishing a link with the Decalogue so that women serving Hong in the palace would associate the ten offences with the will of heaven. The ten offences are:


          1. Disrespectfulness
          2. Refusing to obey instructions
          3. Raising the eyes
          4. Disrespectfulness in asking for instructions
          5. Rashness
          6. Speaking to loudly
          7. Refusing to respond
          8. Cheerlessness
          9. Casting the eyes to the left or right
          10. Unmannerly speech[5]


In the palace of Heavenly Capital (Tianjing) feminine virtue was an instrument of patriarchal domination. Hong’s patriarchal doctrines where not always Biblically inspired, but in the case of the ‘three obedience’s’ inspired by the Chinese classics. The three obedience’s instructed women to obey their fathers, then their husbands, then (as widows) their sons.[6] In his monograph on Taiping ideology, Carl S Kilcourse argues that the patriarchal nature of the Taiping movement was the clearest example of Hong’s attachment to classical Confucian morality, even though the movement’s outward rhetoric disavowed Confucianism.[7] Poems of the Heavenly Father demonstrate Hong’s reluctance to move away, even nominally, from the oppressive patriarchal role of women that was the norm in China, and is perhaps the most illustrative feature of the Taiping movement’s conservative character.

[1] Kilcourse, Carl S. Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China, 1843–64. Springer, 2016. p.157

[2] Ibid. p.158

[3] Ibid. p.51

[4] Ibid. p.54

[5] Ibid. p.161-162

[6] Ibid. p.164

[7] Ibid. p.165

Xunzi and Ogyu Sorai, Exploring Bad Human Nature as a Justification for Authoritarianism

Xunzi (310BC – 235BC) was a Confucian scholar who wrote in the warring states period most noted for his disagreement with Mengzi (372BC – 289BC) over the question of whether human nature was fundamentally good or bad. In Chapter 23 of the Xunzi he argues that everything humans do that is good is a matter of deliberative effort.[1] The most important contribution of the Sage Kings was to creates rites, rituals and standards of righteousness so that people could act properly despite their nature. Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) was a Japanese Confucian scholar who sought to influence the Shogunate to reform along Confucian principles. Sorai generally aligned with Xunzi on the question of human nature, believing that the only way to correct people’s nature was through sagely social institutions.[2] As a result, Sorai’s conception of the way (Dao) was more materialist, rooted in the rites, rituals and standards of righteousness that Xunzi claimed the Sage Kings invented to correct people’s natural inclinations to evil action. Mengzi’s conception of the way was more loose, emphasizing virtue in a more vague sense although rites and rituals were still important.[3] It is not hard to see how Xunzi’s negative view of human nature could be used as a theoretical foundation for authoritarian governance. Sorai’s reform programme was top-down in every sense of the phrase, for example, he recommended that all people be registered in ‘census registers’ and everyone should be under strict control so that free movement is curtailed.[4] If your political philosophy is that people are naturally evil and chaos is the natural way of things, and the best if not only solution is to have people adhere to specific social mores and standards of righteousness, the logical step of arguing that the state should enforce these standards of righteousness is not hard to make. Xunzi in his writing evoked a distinctly ‘Hobbesian’ view of society when imagining that the power of rulers was abolished writing “Now suppose one were to try doing away with the power of rulers and superiors… Then stand aside and observe how all the people of the world would treat each other… then the strong would harm the weak and take from them.”[5] It might be argued that what characterizes authoritarian rule most distinctly is its arbitrariness. For Xunzi, rule must be strict but it must not be arbitrary, it must strictly adhere to the rituals of the sages. However, it is not as if an authoritarian ruler would described their governance as arbitrary, they would defend themselves by arguing that their strict rule adheres to some sort of supposedly inviolable ideal, which in a Confucian society would be the way of the Sage Kings. This observation certainly does not imply that Confucian societies are by nature more authoritarian but it does align with the fact that late Qing and early 20th century radical reformers in China saw adherence to Confucianism as one of the key enemies of progress.

[1] Ivanhoe, P. J., and Bryan W. Van Norden. 2005. Readings in classical Chinese philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. P.298

[2] Tiedemann, Arthur. Sources of Japanese Tradition : 1600 to 2000, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, et al., Columbia University Press, 2005. p.219

[3] Ibid. p.219

[4] Lidin O.G. (2014) Ogyū Sorai: Confucian Conservative Reformer: From Journey to Kai to Discourse on Government. In: Huang C., Tucker J. (eds) Dao Companion to Japanese Confucian Philosophy. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy, vol 5. Springer, Dordrecht p.173

[5] Ivanhoe and Norden. Readings p.302

Ogyu Sorai and the Recurring Motif of the Debasement of the Ruling Class

Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) was a Japanese Confucian scholar influential in the Tokugawa period. His most influential work, Discourses on Government (Seidan), laid out a vision for reform of the government along Confucian principles. Sorai’s impetus for writing Discourses on Government was a growing sense of Japan’s moral degradation. According to Sorai, the natural hierarchy of Japanese society was being flipped on its head with the merchant class getting richer than the Samurai and Daimyo.[1]  Sorai observed that the Daimyo had become moral debased, corrupted by luxury and decadence. The Daimyo had become sedentary in Edo and started to expect the state to pay for their decadent lifestyles. Sorai observed that this occurred because there were not institutions (seido) regarding clothes, housing and food, so there was no established way to suppress luxury.[2] The situation was doubly tragic according to Sorai since the lifestyle of the Daimyo became a financial burden for the Shogunate and, by becoming accustomed to luxury, the morally debased Daimyo were not less efficient rulers of their territories. In fact, Sorai recommended that people from the lower classes, who had endured many hardships should regularly be rotated into bureaucratic roles. He wrote “Why is that during a period of prolonged peace, men of ability are found only in the lower classes, while men of the upper class grow increasingly stupid? As far as I can see, men’s abilities are developed only through hardship and tribulation.”[3]  In my opinion there is a clear aspect to which Sorai’s language is gendered. With the trend of Daimyo marrying women from the Kyoto court nobility, they had adopted feminine luxury, and had become emasculated by the now more economically successful merchants. I’ve noticed that there is a recurring motif not just in the history of the Sino sphere, but world history, that of the upper/ruling class becoming gradually, over generations, accustomed to foreign luxuries, becoming morally/sexually debased as a result, and then the state, which was founded on according to high moral principles, inevitably collapses. This motif most strikingly appears in explanations for the collapse of the Roman Empire, which was founded on such pure virtues like the rule of law and equality between citizens. Once the empire stopped expanding, military and political rules became sedentary accustomed to Persian luxury goods and lost their civic and military virtue. In Chinese dynastic history a recurring motif is that of the early rulers of a dynasty winning the mandate of heaven due to their pure morals and sagely ways. However, over generations, the emperors become sedentary, become sexually deviant, and lose the mandate of heaven because of their lax morals. Until modern Western enlightenment political theory, I believe it was taken for granted by most that the state was at its core a moral entity, and the health of the state was a matter of adhering to rule that was morally virtuous (however defined). I believe Sorai wrote the Discourses on Government with a sense of urgency for this reason, that he did not want to he the Tokugawa Shogunate descend into unrecoverable moral chaos and collapse.

[1] Lidin O.G. (2014) Ogyū Sorai: Confucian Conservative Reformer: From Journey to Kai to Discourse on Government. In: Huang C., Tucker J. (eds) Dao Companion to Japanese Confucian Philosophy. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy, vol 5. Springer, Dordrecht p.178

[2] Ibid. p.175

[3] Tiedemann, Arthur. Sources of Japanese Tradition : 1600 to 2000, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, et al., Columbia University Press, 2005. p.236