He Zhen and Qiu Jin: Feminist thinking in contrast

He Zhen and Qiu Jin are both prominent feminist figures in the early twentieth century in China. When we investigate their thoughts on a superficial level, they share many similarities; for instance, to fight for the right and interests of women. If their revolutionist ideas are put into the contemporary context, their explanation of feminist movements has an opposite causality with the national revolution. Qiu Jin argued that feminist goals could be achieved as a part of the nation revival project; He Zhen argued that women liberation could not be simply considered to be the by-product of revolutions; only if women’s liberation is achieved, then the revolution can be successful.

For Qiu Jin, women liberation and female rights can only be won when the current corrupted government is replaced by a better one. During her stay in Zhejiang, where she took an active part in the radical revolutionary circle, and their main goal was to overthrow the dynasty and purge the corruption and injustice that existed in the society. It is clear that fighting for equality between men and women is not a specific task in the revolution purpose for Qiu Jin, rather than treating it as an individual task that requires extra attention and effort, Qiu considers the improvement of women’s conditions as a part of national and social revolutions, as long as the polity is changed, women liberation can be realized under the new and more advanced government in a strengthened nation. Margery Wolf concluded that she placed revolution ahead of the feminist goals.1

He Zhen, on the contrary, held a different faith. Her theory on women liberation is closer to anarchism; she does not believe that men and women can share equal status with the existence of government or any other kinds of ruling organizations. Women’s emancipation is a part of the revolution, not one of the outcomes of national and social revolutions. In her cases, she criticized those who treated the feminist movement as a mere tool for national revolution; for example, Jin Tianhe saw women’s emancipation as a part of a larger project of enlightenment and national self-strengthening.2 The goal of emancipating women was not to establish a more civilized and mighty nation, but it should be the goal itself. The causality of women’s liberation and national self-strengthening plans believed by Qiu and He Zhen leads to their differences in practising feminist movements in reality. For Qiu Jin, her actions did not always directly relate to women emancipation; she did both feminist-related activities and nation-saving projects. For He Zhen, according to Kazuko Ono, He Zhen failed to bring a practical theory to conduct her ideas in reality.3

In the later time, the general trend of feminist movements followed the idea of Qiu Jin. Many women chose to participate in revolutions in 1911; they chose first to emancipate the country then restore social status for themselves. Women assisted the revolutionist activities in many ways; for instance, women were rioters in the Rice Riots, Xu Zonghan transported three hundred pistols from Hong Kong to Huanghuagang uprising. Women’s army was organized in Wu Chang Uprising. After the establishment of the ROC, women did not get suffrage as promised.4 Just like Kazuko Ono stated in the book, Women suffrage movement failed eventually, the result of this series of feminist movements in pre-1911 time did not bear a good result.5  Though women had devoted a lot of effort to the revolution, like what Qiu Jin believed that if women wanted to be liberated, they need to first liberate the country. The final result ultimately disappointed them. To some extent, what He Zhen had said became true, women would not share equal rights with men, even the government is changed, the change of polity cannot change the social and political status of women. Qiu Jin did not have the chance to see this later event after her execution.

These two ideas on feminist movements have their own results. He Zhen’s idea lacks a solution for the problems she brought up; it lacks practical action; her ideas are stagnant on an ideological level. Qiu Jin, by tying feminist movements with the national self-strengthening program, leads the later trend of women emancipation. However, it still failed to prove itself to be the right path for women.

  1. Margery Wolf, “The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch’ing: The Case of Ch’iu Chin” in Women in Chinese Society, p58-9. []
  2. Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko, “Introduction: Toward a Transnational Feminist Theory” in The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. Columbia University Press, 2013, p.1-2. []
  3. Kazuko Ono, and Joshua A Fogel, “Women in the 1911 Revolution “in Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution, 1850-1950, (Stanford University Press, 1989), pp.69-70. []
  4. Ibid, pp. 70-73. []
  5. Ibid, pp. 80-85. []

Men’s Perverted Use of Women’s Liberation

“Chinese men worship power and authority. They believe that Europeans, Americans, and the Japanese are civilised nations of the modern world who all grant their women some degree of freedom […] by transplanting this system into the lives of their wives and daughters, these men think they will be applauded by the whole world for having joined ranks of civilised nations” [[1]]

He-Yin Zhen in her article On the Question of Women’s Liberation (1907), provides a profound argument concerning the nature of women’s liberation which serves to illustrate the perverted use of women’s issues by men. He-Yin maintains that the promotion of the feminist cause and women’s liberation is only made in ‘men’s pursuit of self-distinction’, and thus questions whether such liberation is truly beneficial for women, or only perpetuates the existing unequal relationship between men and women.

Such ‘pursuit of self-distinction’ was visible not only among the intellectual spheres of China but also Korea, and is evidenced clearly within the Tonghak/Ch’ondogyo movement.  Carl Young in Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way (2014) unveils this in his brief discussion of the role and status of women within the movement. The religion promoted the education of women as important ‘for the evolution of Korean society’, and one editorial even advocated the notion of equality of authority and rights between men and women. [[2]] Yet another editorial reveals that the movement’s motivation in promoting women’s education was rather a response to the idea of the need for Korea to ‘catch up’, in a comparison between its own female populations’ ignorance and those women in ‘civilised countries’ (Japan in particular) who had access to civilised education for decades, and whose social status did not differ much from men’s. [[3]]

Here we witness women’s issues being manipulated, acting as a supplement to its leaders commitment to their social and national agenda: the social enlightenment of the Korean nation. Their social and national agenda not withstanding the influence of the western intellectual discourse however, in their pursuit to ‘join ranks of civilised nations’. Japanese intellectual discourse enjoyed considerable influence upon the aims, organisation, and doctrine of the movement, both via Son Pyong-hui’s interaction with Japanese reform-minded individuals between 1901-1904, and the movement’s involvement with the Japanese state sponsored Ilchinhoe.

It is therefore not surprising to witness the promotion of women’s liberation within the movement, and the Tonghak/Ch’ondogyo movement itself serves to clearly illustrate the impacts of imperialism upon the intellectual sphere in the east, and its implications in gender relations and ideas on women’s liberation.  The feminist cause was arguably promoted for the self-interest of men, to distinguish themselves as progressive, enlightened men championing women’s liberation in a project of enlightenment and national self-strengthening; perhaps in the face of ‘civilised’ nations and influenced by popular ideas of Social Darwinism.

Women’s liberation as He-Yin suggests was presented as a double edged sword. There came the visibility of women’s issues and rights, primarily concerning education, and provided foundations for later activism. Yet such rights came from men who sought to promote women’s liberation in order to promote their own status as enlightened men in the modern world, and therefore can be questioned as truly meaningful representations of well-intentioned progress. Did men’s views of women as their private property, or their relations in reality shift? Or did women’s liberation only strengthen the existing power imbalance and subordination of women to men, for they would not have such rights to freedom without them. He-Yin’s questioning of the nature of women’s liberation was not unfounded, and her concerns highlight the importance of studying feminist history, or the feminist cause within history, as a study of such gender relations rather than simply aiming to uncover the ‘voices of women’.


[[1]] He-Yin Zhen ‘On the Question of Women’s Liberation’ (1907), in Lydia He Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, Dorothy Ko (ed.) The birth of Chinese feminism: essential texts in transnational theory (New York, 2013), p. 60.

[[2]] Carl Young, Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way: the Tonghak and Ch’ondogyo movements and the twilight of Korean independence (Honolulu, 2014), p. 169.

[[3]] ibid.

Translating the Untranslatable: He Zhen and the Concept of ‘Nannu’ for English Readers

He-Yi Zhen, better known as He Zhen, was revolutionary, there is no denying that. As an Anarcho-Feminist, she was undoubtedly a revolutionary too, and nearly a century later her work still remains incredibly pertinent for the modern day. However, the early analysis of her work is not without criticism. In this piece, I argue that Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko’s seminal work The Birth of Classical Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theories, does both He Zhen and western readers a disservice in their analysis of her created term ‘nannu’. Rather than a “mostly untranslatable conceptual totality”, I believe that the term ‘nannu’ does not need to be translated, and that efforts to do so can actually do more harm than good.1 Instead of attempting to find an accurate or comparative English translation, time would be better spent in analysis of He Zhen’s theories and their relevance for the modern day.


What is ‘nannü’? As Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko state, He Zhen created the term as a combination of the characters for man and woman, or male and female, to create a singular compound concept that expressed “the category through which He-Yin Zhen understood her world as an always-already gendered timespace of social activity, production, and life.”2 They then go on to state that their original translation of ‘gender’ is unsatisfactory as, while it is useful in placing He Zhen’s work alongside western feminist theory of the late 20th century, doing so could “ensnare us in conceptual traps”.3 Here, they cite Joan Scott’s famous essay ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, which argued that the term ‘gender’ in its modern meaning  was not used until the late twentieth century. 4 It is this argument that I think holds the greatest weight, and one that feminist academics seem to spend an unnecessary amount of time on.


Nannü as a concept has no direct translation in English. A fair statement of fact, or a much-debated topic? Probably both. However, I argue that whether the concept itself is translatable in any way, in any language, it should not matter. ‘Gender’ may be a good starting point, especially as the meaning has grown in the twenty-first century. ‘The Patriarchy’ is a close enough concept with which to discuss social hierarchical behaviour and control, especially and particularly for women. The issue, then, is not how to translate ‘nannü’, but whether it needs to be translated at all. Is it not enough to explain the concept itself, and let the reader figure it out for themselves? The debate seems almost ethnographical at heart, and has severe repercussions for readers in all disciplines. To constantly attempt to translate and compare a foreign concept to one’s own worldview is not only ethnocentric and presentist, but runs the risk of alienating and othering ‘foreign’ history, thereby deeming it only worth studying so long as it can be neatly compared to something familiar, i.e Western.


That said, I do not suggest that all foreign terms should be left untranslated for the reader to puzzle out themselves. If a term has a direct translation, then it should of course be used, simply so long as it is able to keep the meaning and concept clear. If there is not, though, a simple explanation will suffice. In the end, it boils down to the fact that on occasion, less is more, and in the case of ‘nannü’, there is no need to tie oneself up in circles attempting to find a suitable English translation. After all, we in the west are nothing if not fond of a loanword or two, and in the endless debate over the specific terminology of ‘gender’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘sex’, and other terms, one might wonder if He Zhen herself might not regard us as unnecessarily complicating things. Nannü is nannü, and that’s all there is to it.

  1. Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational
    Theory. Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 10 []
  2. Ibid, p. 10 []
  3. Ibid, p. 11 []
  4. Ibid, pp. 12-13. []

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 []

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. []

Nannü and Modern Gender: How He-Yin Zhen’s Concept Anticipated Current Understandings of Gender

In The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts of Transnational Theory, Lydia Liu, Rebecca Karl, and Dorothy Ko claim that He-Yin Zhen’s conceptualization of nannü ‘signifies not only gendered social relations between man and woman but also, more broadly, the relationship of the past to the present, of China to the world, of politics to justice, of law and ritual to gendered forms of knowledge, interaction, and social organization’.1 The concept of nannü, He-Yin argued, worked within patriarchal discourse as a means of legitimizing men’s oppression of women. This incredibly broad definition leaves room for multiple discussions to develop around nannü. Though the authors try to move the conversation away from its traditional male-female translation, this idea has some interesting similarities to modern evolving understandings of gender. In particular, the breaking of the binary view that has long held in the West and the growing acceptance of gender as a societal category.

He-Yin Zhen saw the world ‘as an always-already gendered time-space of social activity, production, and life’; her views align well with conceptions gender and its effects on society that have been pushed into the mainstream by the LGBTQ+ community. Rather than an intrinsic quality or set of qualities, gender has come to be understood as a means of categorizing people, sometimes incorrectly. Using the framework of nannü helps create room for this more complex formulation of gender because it inherently recognizes that society enforces the gender construct constantly. For He-Yin, the effects of nannü were present in every experience that a person has because it formed ‘the foundation of all patriarchal abstractions and markings of distinction’.2 Any trans individual who has ever felt the pressure to ‘pass’ as their preferred gender identity or person who has felt they were ‘not masculine/feminine enough’ can recognize the truth in this statement immediately. These feelings, among many other reasons, have led the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, especially among feminists, to raise awareness about the negative effects of gender norms. Nannü offers another way to explain these effects to people. It could be especially impactful for presenting how gender norms and distinction effect society beyond simply feeling comfortable in public spaces, which those who take for granted see sometimes see as frivolous. With this concept, the effects on the economy and politics could be expressed better.

In particular, He-Yin’s argument that ‘gendered’ identities separated people into socioeconomic groups in a similar way to class could aid current discussion surrounding gender relations. Anyone who is cognizant of the effect of perceived gender on all aspects of daily life would likely agree with Zhen’s worldview. This sentiment is clearly evidenced by the continued frustrations over the gender-wage gap. For modern feminists, He-Yin’s assertion that gender may function as an economic distinction is a statement of the obvious. Even if she was not directly concerned about a wage gap between men and women, her concept of nannü anticipated this issue, as well as the modern global shift towards viewing gender as a complex set of societal and cultural expectations.

  1. Lydia Liu, Rebecca Karl, and Dorothy Ko, The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts of Transnational Theory (New York, 2013), p. 10 []
  2. Liu, Karl, and Ko, The Birth of Chinese Feminism, p. 11 []

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

‘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. []