The Creation of Identity and Community in Print

In his chapter ‘Piety in Print’, DuBois uses the Shengjing Times as a case study to trace the development of religion in print, as controlled by the Japanese, in Manchuria/Manchukuo. He argues that the images of religion presented related to both social trends and political needs, and the images tended to mirror the larger aims of Japan in the region. In his analysis, he refers to the theories of nationalism and community building of Anderson and Weber, which both include the role of print journalism/language in developing identities, ideas, and community. DuBois notes there is a key difference between their two theories however, turning on the question of whether mass media reflects existing identities or creates new ones:

‘In other words, the former [Anderson] shows publications expanding to fit the contours of an existing community, the latter [Weber] shows them creating a new one’.[1]

DuBois concludes that even at its most propagandistic, the paper was never able to simply impose its ideas onto its readership and that its later propagandistic messages probably ‘changed fewer minds than Weber’s example would suggest’.[2] Rather, the paper reflected existing identities, adhering closer to Anderson’s theory, due to newspapers being a product to be consumed and discarded at will and its readership holding the ability to simply disagree with its contents. This is illustrated best in the Shengjing Times’s attitude towards religious practices which promoted superstition; its theme of anti-superstition in its early publications (1906-1924) appealed to an intellectual readership and the iconoclastic May Fourth generation. DuBois argues that it was this image of religion the paper provided that was most successful, because it was a message its readership was keen to hear. Here we see the paper appealing to the pre-established intellectual community of ideas which subscribed to ideas of anti-superstition and anti-religious vision of social progress.

Perhaps Weber’s theory of community and identity building is instead demonstrated in the ‘revolution plus romance’ literary genre of China which appeared in the first half of the twentieth century. In his chapter ‘Revolution of the Heart’, Haiyan Lee provides a critical genealogy of sentiment and highlights the transformations of love as a concept of social and cultural life in twentieth century China. Through this literary genre, we see love used as a discursive technology for constructing individual and collective identities by the KMT and CCP, and literature participating ‘in (re)defining the social order and (re)producing forms of self and sociality’.[3] Love was supplemented to the revolutionary agenda, argued to threaten revolution and diminish revolutionary zeal. The genre therefore was able to use the concept of ‘love’, popular as a symbol of freedom, autonomy, and equality among the May Fourth generation, in order to promote the collective over the individual and further the revolutionary agenda.

Both the Shengjing Times and the Chinese literary genre of ‘revolution plus romance’ serve to illustrate the potential language has in the creation of identities and communities. While the Shengjing Times reflected existing identities and formed a community of readership based upon them, the Chinese literature aimed to form new identities aligned to the revolutionary movements. Overall, both demonstrate the use of language to further political agendas, and as case studies indicate both Anderson and Weber’s theories as feasible.

[1] Thomas David DuBois, Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900-1945 (Cambridge, 2017), p. 87.

[2] Ibid., p. 107.

[3] Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2010), p. 7.

‘National Spirit’ in the revolutionary agendas of Liu Shifu and the Guomindang.


As argued by Maggie Clinton in Revolutionary Nativism, nationalism can be a ‘Janus-faced’ phenomenon[1]. In the early twentieth century, Chinese revolutionaries looked to their nation’s past to ‘remap’ the present by invoking the idea of a ‘national spirit’[2]. Apparently existing from time immemorial, ‘national spirit’ would be the source of China’s modernisation, facilitating the social, political and cultural revolutions necessary for China’s national rejuvenation. This article examines two somewhat contradictory notions of ‘national spirit’- the Guomindang’s (GMD) invocation of Confucianism and Shifu’s appeal to Buddhism- arguing that such notions were imagined to support specific revolutionary agendas and to create a unified sense of Chinese identity in the face of foreign imperialism.

Liu Shifu was an anarchist of the early twentieth century who, disgusted by the moral decline and subservience of China to foreign powers, endeavoured to initiate moral reform for the purposes of strengthening the Chinese nation. In 1908, after being sent to prison for a failed assassination attempt, Shifu wrote his ‘prison essays’ which contained his thoughts on the ‘national essence’ of China[3]. Shifu blamed Confucianism for the supposed moral decline of China, arguing that it legitimized the self-serving Manchu government[4]. Furthermore, he detested the fact that Confucianism claimed sole heritage of the classics and that it was regarded as the fount of all wisdom in China[5]. For Shifu, the ‘national essence’ or spirit of China could be found in the precepts of Buddhism, from which one could discern universal values that would aid social reform[6]. One such value was gender equality, which Buddhist scriptures supposedly buttressed by arguing that women are more in tune with their spirituality than men and can thus more easily acquire the Buddha-nature[7].

This invocation of Buddhism as exemplifying the ‘national spirit’ of China is the antithesis to the GMD’s notion that it should reflect Confucian ideals. The GMD, who ruled China from 1927 until the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, sought to revive Confucianism from the attacks levelled against it by revolutionaries such as Shifu, but also from the New Culture and May Fourth movements which sought wholesale cultural and social revolution[8]. They viewed Confucian principles such as filial piety and interpersonal obligation as necessary to cultivate citizens who would devote their lives to the nation[9]. Confucianism also fostered social harmony, thereby uniting China’s myriad ethnic groups together under a singular national spirit[10]. According to Clinton, this idea of social harmony also sanctioned violence against those people who threatened national cohesion, thereby legitimizing the militarist regime that the GMD were seeking to create[11].

The social harmony indicative of the ‘national spirit’ therefore gave the GMD a prism through which to oppose western encroachment on Chinese culture and identity. Hence, a key similarity between the GMD and Shifu’s conceptualization of a singular Chinese spirit is that they saw it as necessary to revitalize the Chinese civilization after a period of marked decline. For example, Shifu idolized Buddhist monks such as Yuekong of the Shaolin monastery who fought with 3,000 soldiers against the Japanese at Songjiang, thereby exemplifying the ideal of ‘daring to die’ for the nation: a key principle if China was going to truly withstand foreign interference[12].

Ultimately, the contradictory contents of these ideas of ‘national spirit’ are indicative of its malleability as a concept. Both the GMD and Shifu cherry-picked aspects of China’s past in order to support their respective revolutionary agendas. The expediency of the idea of a ‘national spirit’ is particularly true if we consider that Buddhism was a foreign import to China, which is an irony that anarchists such as Shifu were willing to ignore[13]. Nonetheless, despite the artificial nature of such an idea as ‘national spirit’, its utility is evident as a rhetorical device to help unify the Chinese nation, and more importantly, to construct an independent essence of Chinese identity that stood in opposition to foreign intervention.

[1] Maggie Clinton, Revolutionary Nativism: fascism and culture in China, 1925-1937, (Durham, 2017), p. 64.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Edward Krebs, Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism, (Lanham, 1998), p.47.

[4] Ibid., pp.47-50.

[5] Ibid., p.50.

[6] Ibid., p.51.

[7] Ibid., pp.51-52.

[8] Clinton, Revolutionary Nativism, p.67.

[9] Ibid., p.73.

[10] Ibid., p.10.

[11] Ibid., p.11.

[12] Krebs, Shifu, pp.57-58.

[13] Ibid., p.49

The Tonghak and the Chinese Communist Party: Parallels in Tactics and Historiography

A comparison can be drawn between the evolution of the Tonghak movement from 1894 to 1910 in Korea and developments in the family reform debate in China from 1915 to 1953, particularly in reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role in this debate. Although these two historical developments might appear unrelated, in both of the periods examined a radical reformulation of important precedents takes place. The Tonghak religion “presented itself as incarcerating the best of Korean and Eastern tradition in a new and accessible way to regenerate both individuals and society.”1 In China, the CCP propagated a new version of the xiao jiating ideal which has been introduced decades earlier by New Culture intellectuals. While the specific policies of the Tonghak and the CCP differed, both groups sought societal regeneration, largely in the form of modernization, as their final goal. Key to both Tonghaks and the CCP was the importance of individual change and societal change. What differentiated the CCP, however, is their linking of these two factors in a casual relationship. 

In both cases, the strategy employed to achieve this goal was ideological manipulation according to what the historical moment made available to that group. In the Tonghak’s case, an ideological repositioning took place under the leadership of the third patriarch, Son Pyong-hui, in which the group abandoned it’s former anti-foreign stance in favor of Japanese intervention in Korea. Carl Young points out that the activities of the Chinbohoe, an offspring of the Tonghak which merged with the Ilchinhoe in 1905, “saw the war between Russia and Japan as an opportunity to advance their agenda by using Japanese support to overthrow the conservative government surrounding Emperor Kojong and take over government”2 The anti-foreign sentiment of the Tonghak gives way to a policy of supporting Japanese rule due to a desire to realize its goal of preserving Korean sovereignty. Just like the Tonghak reformulate their policy in order to best position themselves for success, the xiao jiating ideal is adapted by the CCP to serve their political and social goals. While the Tonghak engaged in ideological repositioning, the CCP re-imagined the ideological underpinnings of an existing ideal in order to subsume the activities of individuals under the interest of the state: “the state became the beginning and the end, the mode of social organization, and the object of all energies and loyalties.”3 This allowed the CCP to exert control in every aspect of its citizen’s lives under the guise of family reform. The ideological manipulation pursued by the Tonghaks and the CCP allowed both groups to formulate policies which were most beneficial to them at the time.  

In addition to similar ideological tactics employed by the Tonghak and the CCP, what this discussion reveals is a tendency to disregard specific historical trends in order to preserve an all-encompassing narrative. In his work on the split in the Tonghak religion, Young observes, “the fact that there were some elements of Tonghak that actively cooperated with the Japanese is disturbing and is often not discussed because it does not fit with the simple structure of history that has often been framed by Korean political ideologies.”4 In relation to Chinese visions of family and state in the early 20th century, Susan Glosser points out that there has been a lack of scholarship which connects the New Cultural intellectual’s linking of the individual and the state in their propagation of the xiao jiating ideal in the early twentieth century, with the CCPs subsequent policy. Glosser argues that this provides the basis for CCP policy, “although the CCP was most effective in lengthening the reach of the state, the invasive potential of the state was not peculiar to the CCP.”5 Despite similarities discussed above, the Tonghak and the CCP are very different organizations which existed in distinct contexts. However, a close analysis reveals a connection between the ideological distortions pursued by each group and the treatment of these in historical writing on the topic. 

  1. Carl Young, ‘Eastern Learning Divided: The Split in the Tonghak’, in Emily Anderson (ed.), Belief and Practice in Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea (Springer, 2016), p. 80. []
  2. Young, ‘Eastern Learning Divided’, p. 83. []
  3. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953 (University of California Press, 2003), p. 186 []
  4. Young, ‘Eastern Learning Divided’, p. 80. []
  5. Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, p. 200. []

‘Love has no boundaries’, and what that can teach us about the self

I am a hopeless romantic. So, when we were assigned readings on new conceptualisations of love in China, I jumped on the chance to learn more about something that resonates deeply in me. I ended up reading Lee Haiyan’s Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950, which maps the way perceptions of love changed within Chinese society. Lee does this by taking Chinese sentimental fiction as her source material. With the rise of popular press in China, it became a genre that was both widely-written in and widely-consumed – pervasive, in short. This pervasiveness meant that sentimental fiction had a social utility: an ability to reflect on and perpetuate certain views within society.1 Therefore, in applying a historical analysis to works within sentimental fiction, Lee argues that we can shed light on what ‘the social order, the self, and sociality’ were like at the time, and how they were expressed.2. To demonstrate Lee’s point, I take as reference her analysis of Hu Chunbing’s play, Ai de geming/愛的革命 (The Revolution of Love), and expand on the serious historical implications her analysis of it has on our understandings of the self, vis-a-vis the external world.

Zhong Sanmin is the rebellious son of a well-to-do compradore merchant. His name, Zhong (invoking Zhongguo, China) Sanmin (invoking Sun Yat-sen’s sanmin zhuyi, the Three People’s Principles), marks him as a  … Nationalist patriot … [Sanmin] steadfastly courts a free-spirited New Woman appositely named Hua Ziyou (free China). 3

In the extract above, Lee references the lovers’ names, arguing that the symbolism contained within them indicates that love and revolution were seen as an ‘essential oneness’ in Hu’s time.4 Private emotions can be united with public political commitment; the public action of revolution is just another means of expressing the private feeling of love. Moreover, one could also speculate that Hu, in naming his characters after nationalistic and revolutionary ideals, believes that love is a necessary factor drives revolution. Of course revolution is, by no means, guaranteed through the use of love on its own. However without love, revolution cannot emerge and/or is fruitless. Either way, no matter what inference we draw out, Lee’s point is Hu’s characterisation of love and revolution as an ‘essential oneness’ gives rise to a unique understanding of the self. (( Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 276 )) If we believe that love and revolution are two sides of the same coin, then love exists externally as much as it does internally, with the boundary between the two fluid.

I think this point comes with some very serious – but important- historical implications. I turn to the philosophy to explain why. ‘Internalism/Externalism’ is a dichotomy that is used in philosophical debates to draw a distinction between the external world and the self. Traditionally conceptions of this distinction take ‘internal’ and ‘external’ to mean ‘inside the skin’ and ‘outside the skin’ respectively.5. However, if internal feelings, like love, can arise in external events, like revolutions, then this means that internal feelings can arise outside the skin – a contradiction. Traditional philosophical interpretations of the internal/external distinction thus fail to explain cases of the sort that Lee describes. This poses a serious problem for history. If we have been analysing Chinese history with the presupposition that there is a distinction between the internal and external when no such distinction really exists, then our historical analysis is misguided. This means that our understanding of Chinese society, and particularly the way in which individuals relate to the outside world, needs to be overhauled – an unsettling thought. On the bright side, at least we now know better.

  1. Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), pp. 4-5 []
  2. Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p.7 []
  3. Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 276 []
  4. Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 276 []
  5. Farkas, Katalin. ‘What is Externalism?’ in Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol 112, No. 3 (February 2003), p. 189 []

‘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. []