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.

Understanding Cosmopolitanism within the context of reformation.

Ban Wang engages with the idea of Cosmopolitanism in China by primarily focusing on Confucian ideals. Cosmopolitanism according to Bang Wang can only be established through Aesthetic interests, which would enable the population to become less fixated on categories such as race, class or nation and instead could form connections world wide by focusing on their shared human qualities. Wang is able to strengthen this idea by engaging with other like-minded scholars. The main focus of this is on K’ang You-wei, which therefore, allowed Wang to delve further into Confucianist ideals, revealing how these can help to shape a world centred around Cosmopolitan values. ‘By this widening gyre of sympathy, imagination, and obligation, K’ang You-wei suggests that a member of the local community could become a citizen of the world’.[1]  Therefore, by using K’ang You-wei’s ideal vison of the world, Wang is able to grasp the human qualities which would be essential to creating universal values. However, these humanistic values which Ban Wang highlights within K’ang You-wei’s writings are somewhat misleading. Confucianism was a large focus with K’ang’s writing work, but Ban Wang depicts K’ang’s life and ideals to be idealistic and a form of utopia. Instead, these Confucianism ideals were used to initiate reformation within China’s sovereignty and politics.

K’ang believed that the best hope for China was to bring about reforms within the framework of the traditional systems, with the modification of the absolute monarchy in a constitutional monarchy.’[2]

This, therefore, leads onto how and why K’ang You-wei and his Confucianist writings can be used to understand Cosmopolitanism and its role within Eastern Asia. Perhaps Aesthetics and Confucianist values could be used to create a formation of a universal community, but for K’ang You-wei, according to historians such as Chen Jianhua[3] and Laurence Thompson was primarily focused on reforming China within the context of its traditions, therefore, to ensure that China would not fall into disaster. Jianhua and Thompson, although have written up separate texts focus on this historical figure manage to somehow tag team and cover the groundwork of K’ang’s motivations for reformation. Furthermore, they both focus on a broader scale to understand K’ang’s timeline and the connection to the wider context outside of China. Thompson primarily focuses on K’ang’s education, which later in life transitions into a curiosity towards western society and politics, enabling him to adapt this to his reformist writings. Therefore, this brings more context to the idea of cosmopolitanism because it promotes this idea of shared education and adapting them to reshaping politics and customs. However, it is not surprising that this revolutionary form of ideas leads to K’ang living a life on the run.

Chen Jianhua gives little time for K’ang’s timeline and instead uses his ideas of reformation and rebellion to connect it to a wider context relating to translation. The primary focus on their text it to understand reformation through different terms and how they can be connected in a universal context. Jianhua picks apart K’ang’s use of the term ‘geming’ which has caused debates surrounding its meaning. Whether it be revolution, rebellion or reformation, it can perhaps be better understood by attaching it to K’angs goal for change. To strengthen this, Jianhua uses other terms which K’ang had placed alongside ‘geming’ that were linked to the same meaning and goal. Bianfa, which is a term used that translates to ‘change the rules’ and another which is weixin which translates to ‘keep the newness’. This, therefore, establishes another idea of a universal understanding of reformation. K’ang was aware of these shared ideas for change and used revolutions such as the French revolution and the British glorious revolution to understand western politics. Furthermore, in the context of cosmopolitanism it does not have to be only applied to one shared community, but instead it can be linked through universal understandings of politics and how this form of education can be used to create change.

[1] Ban Wang, Chinese visions of world order: tianxia, culture, and world politics (Duke University Press, 2017) p.97.

[2] Laurence G. Thompson, Ta t’ung shu: the one-world philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei (Routledge, 2005) p.18.

[3] Chen Jianhua, World revolution knocking at the heavenly gate: Kang Youwei and his use of in 1898 (Routledge, 2011).

No Country for Old (Wo)Men: The Evolution of the ‘Patriarchal Paradigm’

Throughout history, the role of women in China has been riddled by a ‘patriarchal paradigm’ that took hold both in familial and societal life. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan Piggott (2003) write of the ‘patriarchal family paradigm’, in which, “the ideal family thus prescribed [was] marked by gender hierarchy, patrilineal descent, and virilocal residence.”1 They go on to support this view by focusing on the legislative nature of this paradigm through avenues such as the Tang penal and administrative codes. Here, we see the differing roles in society of women and men, as the privilege of a husband’s status was not equally upheld for their wives.2 This is evidenced when assessing the Myörei Ritsu, which stated that murder, among other things such as failing to mourn a husband, was seen as a seditious offence. However, these offences were not as harshly punished for female victims. Ultimately, the role of women in society was one of a second-class citizenry that was in place to provide for husband’s and fundamentally, society. Thus, the ‘patriarchal paradigm’ is evident.

Despite this, however, as society evolved and developed, traditional family values that were upheld for centuries, began to find themselves on the end of criticism from some intellectuals. From these intellectuals, a critical movement grew which promoted reforms regarding the role of women, making the ultimate argument that “China needed healthy, educated mothers to produce citizens sound in mind and body.”3 

Upon further inspection, however, this reform for women was a goal-driven movement that focused on assisting the overall development of Chinese male citizenry, not the true liberation of women and their role in society. Susan Glosser corroborates this when she writes that, “men’s interest in educational and physical reforms for women grew out of this desire to maximise their own contribution to the nation.”4 Thus, the argument arises that the role of women did not truly evolve with these reforms, rather the ‘patriarchal paradigm’, as coined by Ko et al. (2003) evolved. Critically, the main role that these reforms played in altering the role of women was solely effective on the surface and no deeper. Thus, the ‘patriarchal paradigm’ evolved with the times, rather than the overall role of women in society. Ultimately, women were still categorised as the second-class citizenry, critically in place to aid the male population. As highlighted by Glosser once again, the approach to reform was one where young elite men shifted an age-old focus from good mothers to ideal wives.5 Thus, as this piece argues, it was still a woman’s kinship role over anything else that dictated their place in society.

This is exemplified when focusing on the explicit directive for women to improve themselves, otherwise known as the wenming, or ‘civilisation’ of women. This is evidenced most when focusing on the work done by Liang Qichao, who grouped the reforms for women into three categories of, productivity, education, and the cultivation of a strong and healthy body. He argued that by women educating their children before the age of 10, as was done in the Western world, China could ultimately compete with their western counterparts. As a result of Liang Qichao’s work, the first Chinese Girls’ school opened in 1898. Regardless of the clear benefit that this had regarding the liberation of women, at least in educational circles, the overall aim behind this move was driven by the ever-existing categorisation of women by their kinship role.

Thus, as argued throughout this piece, despite some reforms for women in late nineteenth-century China, the overall reason behind the reform was still driven by the ‘patriarchal paradigm’. The ultimate move to liberate women in certain capacities was not compelled by a movement to provide women with rights, rather it was galvanised by a drive to improve the role of man, and to a greater extent, China.

  1. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, Joan Piggott. Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan. (California, 2003). pg.27 []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Susan Glosser. Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953. (California, 2003). pg. 5 []
  4. Ibid. pg.5 []
  5. Ibid. pg.6 []

How Ibsen came to influence the revolutionary movements of China

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen has been hugely influential in the history of theatre and his plays are among the most performed ones in the world. Not only did Ibsen infuse the world of theatre with a more realistic and character-driven style but his plays are also very political – which is indeed the case with his perhaps most famous work, A Doll’s House (1879). The political significance of Ibsen’s plays travelled across Eurasia to Japan and China in the early twentieth century and ended up influencing not only new radical movements such as anarchism and feminism, but its significance also garnered significant critique from far-right movements in China, showing that Ibsen’s writings had a meaningful role in the tumultuous political climate of China in the first half of the twentieth century.


Edward Krebs’ book Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism, shows how the anarchist faction within the New Culture Movement embraced Ibsen’s A Doll’s House not only as a feminist critique of the institution of marriage and a call for women’s liberation, but also as a call for the emancipation of love in Chinese society.1 For anyone familiar with A Doll’s House, the most obvious interpretation of the play is the perhaps more practical side of female emancipation from the structural limitations of life as a woman. That is, the limitations of marriage and family life where the woman has little room for freedom and expression, which, in the play, leads the protagonist, Nora, to reject all of this by the end of it. Interestingly, it seems that the New Culture and May Fourth movements in China not only embraced this but also used the, now perhaps taken for granted, search for love as a concept of both female emancipation and rebellion against the old way of life by a new focus on individuality, as is pointed out by Haiyan Lee. Indeed, Lee claims that ‘[n]o other translated text electrified the May Fourth generation more than Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House’.2 Lee goes on to write that it was not before anarchist takes on the play emerged that the inherent critique of bourgeoise domestic life in particular of A Doll’s House was used politically. Naturally, the combined implications of female emancipation and rejection of bourgeoisie life was then used as a rebellion against the Confucian family ideals. Moreover, the anarchist interpretation developed into a rejection of love as an ‘ideological camouflage’ for the lies of the Confucian family ‘covering up the unnatural and unjustified private ownership of sex’.3


Curiously, the apparent rejection by Nora of bourgeoisie life touted by the anarchists was used against them by the far right and the New Life Movement (NLM). As the illustration titled ‘Nora after Leaving Home’ from the magazine New Life Women’s Monthly implies, Nora’s rejection of family ideals leads to immorality, and in opposition to the leftist interpretation, she continues to embrace the capitalist bourgeoisie or perhaps a sleazier underground life.4 Obviously, the NLM, promoting a fascist and highly conservative ideology, was staunchly against the ideals of the New Culture and May Fourth movements and their rejection of the Confucian family ideal. As Clinton points out, the NLM critique highlights the futility of Nora leaving the traditional family structures given the lack of opportunity for independent women in Chinese society, which would lead her to a life of degeneracy.5 Thus, A Doll’s House did not only act as a critique of the Confucian family in China, but the open ending also allowed for some rather easy refutation of the leftist interpretation.


A Doll’s House was not the only Ibsen play that proved to be influential among leftist revolutionaries in China in this period. In The Birth of Chinese Feminism, Liu, Karl and Ko highlights how The Lady from the Sea, which was first translated into Japanese then into Chinese in 1920, fits perfectly into the anarcho-feminism of a significant figure in anarchism and feminism in China as He-Yin Zhen. The passage they focus on is one where Ibsen is very critical of the whole institution of marriage, which he describes as an arrangement similar to prostitution.6 This passage in itself is perhaps a more direct and radical critique of traditional family structures than most of what is said in A Doll’s House. By being so direct in the description of marriage as a form of prostitution, The Lady From the Sea might even have put off some not so radical leftists at the time, which might explain why A Doll’s House was more popular, and thus more influential.


The curious case of Ibsen’s influence on revolutionary movements in China is another proof of Ibsen’s skill as a playwright and it shows the relevance of his writings across cultures and time, which is furthermore exemplified by his continuous significance today. Ibsen, who may or may not have been an actual feminist himself, did write plays – such as those mentioned above and Hedda Gabler – which presents rebellion against society in the form of female rebellion. This made him a favourite among anarchists and feminists, and also an ‘easy’ target for more conservative voices. However, plays such as A Doll’s House obviously did not only inspire the most extreme leftists at the time since the message can be easily applied to wider society as a whole. It is for that reason Ibsen’s story of Nora’s rebellion became the most ‘electrifying’ foreign piece of writing in the eyes of the May Fourth generation.

  1. Krebs, Edward S., Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism (Lanham, Md, 1998), p. 162. []
  2. Lee, Haiyan, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 109. []
  3. Ibid., pp. 182-183. []
  4. Clinton, Maggie, Revolutionary Nativism: Fascism and Culture in China, 1925-1937 (Durham, 2017), p. 154. []
  5. Ibid., pp. 152-155. []
  6. Karl, Rebecca, Ko, Dorothy and Liu, Lydia, The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Text in Transnational Theory (New York, 2013), p. 93. []

Kang Youwei’s One-World Philosophy: Why Germany Is A Bad Example

In 1884, Kang Youwei penned a book called Ta T’ung Shu in which he laid out his utopian vision of the ‘One-World’, in which ‘all the boundaries which created divisions […] have been abolished,’ and ‘causes of suffering’ have been eradicated.[1] This was a world characterised by compassion and moral fibre, in which ‘all creatures are happy’.[2] In Chapter II, Kang laid out a specific way to achieve this world:  the elimination of sovereign states and national boundaries. The ideal world would have ‘no states’ with ‘[t]he people […] united under one public government […]’.[3] Kang argued that the existence of national boundaries would corrupt even ‘the Good and Upright,’ as every individual would be devoted to increasing the power of their own state at the expense of other states.[4] Peace could not exist in such a system, with countries behaving ‘like a bunch of dogs rolling [on the ground in a fight, like savage beasts devouring one another […]’.[5] Thus, Kang argued for ‘disarmament’ which required ‘abolishing [sovereign] states’.[6]

Kang’s ideas were echoed in a text published in the middle of the following century by Yan Xishan, titled ‘How to Prevent Warfare and Establish Foundation of World Unity.’ Yan argued that ‘[F]rom the lessons of world history, we learn that countries tend to grow in size and shrink in number. China combined several countries into one. Small nations have less chance of survival, and tend to form into federations’.[7] Because nations are destined to gradually subsume into one another, and one world would form from the many, ‘It is perfectly natural for us to adopt Cosmopolitanism today’.[8]

Instead of China, Kang used the example of Germany as a state that had successfully annexed other states to form a larger, more powerful entity. He wrote:

‘The parts becoming joined thus being due to natural selection, the swallowing up by the strong and large and the extermination of the weak and small may then be considered to presage One World. But [the way in which] Germany and America have established large states through [uniting their small] federated states is a better method of uniting states. [They have] caused all these small and weak states to forget that they have been destroyed [to form the united states]. […] This will hasten the world along the road to One World’.[9]

There are many issues with Kang using Germany as a model example as his account is not completely accurate. While Germany was formed out of a union of Prussia and smaller southern states like Bavaria and Baden to become the German Empire in 1871, Clark argued that it was not a ‘one-way process in which Prussians swarmed on to the commanding heights of the new German state. It would be truer to say Prussian and German national institutions grew together, intertwining their branches’.[10] Kang’s assertion that the smaller states were ‘destroyed’ in favour of the larger state was therefore incorrect. Clark went on to give an example, stating that ‘[i]t became increasingly common […] for non-Prussians to serve as imperial officials and even as Prussian ministers’.[11] This is not to say that Prussia did not enjoy hegemony in the newly formed German state, but hegemony did not come about, as Kang believed, through the strong swallowing the weak.

Next, Kang moved into discussing what political form the One World would take.

‘Therefore, within this next hundred years all the weak and small states will certainly be annihilated, all monarchical and autocratic forms [of government] will certainly be completely swept away, republican constitutions will certainly be enacted everywhere, democracy and equality will be burning brightly. […] Complete Peace-and-Equality throughout the world is like the rushing of water through a gully: nothing can check it’.[12]

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that Kang’s centennial prediction did not come true. Not only were the ‘small states’, such as ‘Sweden [and] Denmark’,[13] still in existence but Kang’s reasoning that a ‘republican constitution’ would follow logically from the formation of one unified state was mistaken. Using his example of Germany, the ‘highly artificial product’[14] of a unified Deutschland left ‘a patchwork quilt of types of local governments that needed cleaning up’.[15] The German government suffered from ‘an unsettling sense that what had so swiftly been put together could also be undone’.[16] This combined with the need for a broad ‘Germanization’ to ‘consolidate’ the patchwork quilt of the ‘German Reich’ drove German ‘Iron’ Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to ‘respond with extreme measures’.[17] Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Bismarck waged his campaign against segments of the population he deemed not German enough, namely the Catholics and the Poles.[18] By 1876, all Prussian bishops were either in custody or in exile.[19] Bismarck also embarked upon a comprehensive project to root out the Poles, advocating expulsion of Poles who have no claims to citizenship as well as a language of government act in 1886 that would ban the use of minority languages in local government affairs, thus excluding monolingual Poles from governmental participation.[20]

The German example is evidence that a world formed through the annexation of ‘weak and small states’ to more powerful ones would not be, as Kang argued, the flame to the torch of ‘democracy and equality’. ‘Complete Peace-and-Equality’ is a far more difficult project that would require more types of unification than merely that of the political and geographic variety.

[1] Kang Yu-wei, Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei, trans. and. ed. Laurence G. Thompson (London, 2005), p. 37.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 106.

[4] Ibid, 82.

[5] Ibid, 83.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Yen Hsi-shan, How to Prevent Warfare and Establish Foundation of World Unity (n.p., 1952), p. 40.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kang, Ta T’ung, p. 85.

[10] Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (London, 2007), p. 559.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kang, Ta T’ung, p. 89.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Clark, Iron, p. 570.

[15] Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford, 2012), p. 335.

[16] Clark, Iron, p. 570.

[17] Steinberg, Bismarck, p. 335.

[18] Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany Vol. 2: The Period of Consolidation, 1871-1880 (Princeton, 1990), p. 209.

[19] Steinberg, Bismarck, p. 333.

[20] Pflanze, Bismarck and, p. 205.


Primary Sources

Kang, Yu-wei, Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei, trans. and. ed. Laurence G. Thompson (London, 2005).    

Yen, Hsi-shan, How to Prevent Warfare and Establish Foundation of World Unity (n.p., 1952).

Secondary Sources

Clark, Christopher, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (London, 2007).

Pflanze, Otto, Bismarck and the Development of Germany Vol. 2: The Period of Consolidation, 1871-1880 (Princeton, 1990).

Steinberg, Jonathan, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford, 2012).

‘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. []

Shifu and the Conscience Society Covenant

In his work on the Chinese anarchist Liu Shifu, later simply Shifu (1884-1915), Edward Krebs devotes a chapter to the remarkable 1912 transformation of an anti-Manchu assassin into an a self-proclaimed “apostle of anarchism” who rejected violence as an effective means of acheiving social revolution.1

A core component of this transformation was the creation and elaboration of a series of moral pledges that, beyond his immediate rejection of violence, help us understand the ways in which these radical movements could move well beyond the kind of associations that might come to mind when we think of “anarchists” if we have not studied these movements in greater depth and have only popular cultural references to go by. One thing we might associate with anarchism is the goal of liberation from, not only oppressive state power, but, presumably, oppressive rules and regulations surrounding individual conduct. Presumably, according to anarchist ideals, this will unleash the formerly repressed natural “social” and compassionate tendencies of humanity and establish a kind of socialist utopia that does not need the artificial oppressive structures of the state to thrive.

In the course of his tranformation, however, Shifu and his close collaborators embraces a set of moral principles. The 12 articles of what Krebs translates as the “Conscience Covenant” (心社社约十二条 – 12 article covenant of the Xinshe, literally heart society) are:

1) Do not eat meat 不食肉
2) Do not drink liquor 不飲酒
3) Do not smoke tobacco 不吸煙
4) Do not use servants 不用僕役
5) Do not ride in sedan chairs or rickshaws 不坐轎及人力車
6) Do not marry 不婚姻
7) Do not use a family name 不稱族姓
8) Do not serve as an official 不作官吏
9) Do not serve as a member of a representative body 不作議員
10) Do not join a political party 不入政黨
11) Do not serve in the army or navy 不作海陸軍人
12) Do not believe in a religion 不奉宗教  2

Of these, it is relatively easy to connect points 4-12 to principles prevalent in anarchist thought, not only in China, but elsewhere. They may be read as avoiding behavior that proliferates the kind of oppressive society that anarchism’s concept of social revolution wants to oppose. Starve these institutions of your participation, and you can uncover our natural humanity underneath.

What is more interesting, however, are the elements 1-3, which we might associate more commonly with the influence of religious asceticism (the connection between religion, especially Pure Land buddhism and anarchism is taken up by other readings from our module). According to Krebs, Shifu argued that these “polluting” or “crude” desires had to be elimited to allow humanity to develop its character, and notes that some western anarchists such as Leo Tolstoy, also embraced vegetarianism.3 Laudable though we might find the principles, we should note how relatively arbitrary this could become, however: if this line of argument is embraced, with its combination of negative and positive imperatives on conduct, might there not be the risk of other rules of conduct sneak in here, threatening either to reinforce forms of societal oppression on the one hand, or leave little left of the supposedly spontaneous natural moral conduct to emerge once we have purified our character?


  1. Krebs, Edward S. Shifu: Soul of Chinese Anarchism, Chapter 7. []
  2. ibid., 102. Original Chinese versions from 陈哲夫《现代中国政治思想流派》当代中国出版社 (1999),vol. 2, p61. []
  3. ibid., 103. []