Understanding the rules of the ‘Gender Game’.

‘The study of gender has contributed greatly to our knowledge of history while challenging preconceived notions of sociocultural phenomena and processes in Japan and elsewhere’[1]

Sabine Frühstück’s ‘Recreating Japanese Men’[2]analyses the contrast between sex and gender, while shedding light on how gender has formed masculine and feminine ideals within Japanese history. However, Anne Walthall who has written the first chapter ‘Do Guns Have Gender’ manages to differentiate these gender ideals of masculinity and femininity through Japan’s history of weaponry.

Whether it be a samurai’s sword or a solders gun, there has always been a sense of masculinity attached to the objects. Through this a formation of social hierarchy was created which enabled men to establish their status and class depending on the craftmanship of the gun. Anne Walthall gives a balanced analysis of both men and women and their relationships with weapons, allowing a more in depth understanding of how masculinity affected both genders.

Although swords were considered the soul of a samurai, guns co-existed with the blade as a means of aiding in battle and for hunting. However, for women guns were used as further attempt to isolate them from warfare. Walthall explains further insisting that women within Japanese history were able to learn to wield daggers, but this was used more as a cautionary purpose rather than establishing a fairer groundwork between men and women in warfare. This becomes more evident regarding guns and the lack of involvement of women. They could hold one, but shooting one was considered too masculine for them. This was also attached to gift giving, which men were more likely to receive a weapon as a gift, whereas women would be gifted art and literature.

Wielding of guns was considered a further development to a man’s maturity and masculinity. This, therefore, connects back to the introduction within the text, which is co-authored by Sabine Frühstück and Anne Walthall in which they highlight the connection between maturity and masculinity, which added to the masculine hierarchy within society. ‘Rural social mechanisms were hierarchically structured to produce men whose superior masculinity was based on their maturity’[3].  By pursuing skills and activities which would better themselves, while boosting this sense of masculinity, this was considered further developing their masculinity. This was applied to all men no matter their status or class. Therefore, not being able to wield a gun was considered a lack of development and their roles could be put into question.

‘Not all shoguns mastered this weapon, proof that their gender identities had to be constructed and remained unstable’[4]

This attachment of masculinity to objects and mannerisms was one of the root causes of excluding women from society and forming a stronger sense of control over feminine roles. This masculine attachment to guns was also added to the functions of family’s, which meant that fathers were likely to hand down their guns to the sons. This perhaps was not the same as a Samurai handing their son the family sword in hopes that they would take on the same route, but to push them further into a masculine role. Walthall draws upon historian Amy Ann Cox analysis on the values of masculinity to better understand why Japanese men associated their masculinity with guns. This was because guns represented the same values such as freedom, independence and liberty.

Therefore, what Walthall is trying to argue is what defines masculinity and how it can be manipulated into society to ensure it’s hierarchy. By attaching masculine values onto weaponry and behaviours that allow them to display power, it creates an unbalanced platform between men and women. Although Walthall highlights her intentions to focus on guns and status within the Tokugawa period, there is more that can be uncovered regarding Japan and its depictions of femininity and masculinity, which therefore, paved the lives of men and women. By just looking at guns Walthall has managed to breakdown the foundations of masculinity because the weapon became ingrained within the masculine etiquette, allowing it to manipulate Confucian teachings and Japanese culture.

Furthermore, although guns provided a variety of new skill to Japanese men and enabled them to use this within battle, what Walthall really does is present an underlying argument which highlights to absence of women in many areas of Japans society during the Tokugawa period. Her focus on guns enabled her to uncover Japans Confucian education, politics and warfare, therefore, Walthall has perhaps unintentionally brought a new understanding of how masculinity had been crafted and branded on to mannerisms and objects to ensure the silence and absence of  Japanese women within important areas of their society.

[1] Sabine Fruhstuck, Recreating Japanese Men (University of California Press, 2011) p.3.

[2] Sabine Fruhstuck, Recreating Japanese Men (University of California Press, 2011).

[3] Sabine Fruhstuck, Recreating Japanese Men (University of California Press, 2011) p.6.

[4] Sabine Fruhstuck, Recreating Japanese Men (University of California Press, 2011) p.21.


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. []

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 []

Gender or: How Buddhism Learned to Stop Floating and Love the State

The focus of this week’s readings was on Buddhist world orders, and in particular the way in which the religion – and its followers – oriented themselves within the world. In particular, I wanted to understand how Buddhism was deployed in support of the Japanese state. At a first glance, it seems like such a move is impossible. Buddhism is an other-wordly religion which argues that ‘attachment’ to the material world brings about suffering.1 Nevertheless, Buddhism was used to legitimate Japanese power, the tension between this/other-worldly resolved. In order to understand how this was done, I took a look at several ways in which ‘Buddhism’, as an idea, was reinterpreted and imagined by the state. One such way was through gender. The extract below, from the journal Chūō Bukkyō (1934), demonstrates how Buddhism was reimagined in gendered ways, and how this helped resolved the this/other-worldly tension described.

Through a karmic connection Japan received a daughter from another home as its wife. With a sincere heart this wife worked hard to take care of our home, having children and then grandchildren. Our home, not her original home, has been foremost in her mind. Indeed, from early on, more than a daughter from another home, she has been our wife and mother. (( Ōta Kakumin, ‘Zokuhi zokkai’ in Chūō Bukkyō 18:3 (1934), p. 194 in Christoper Ives (tr.), ‘The Mobilization of Doctrine: Buddhist Contributions to Imperial Ideology in Japan’ in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1/2 (Spring 1999), p. 86 ))

This extract encodes Buddhism with the female gender (‘wife’, ‘home’, ‘children’) contra the Japanese state, which is coded male. This has two effects. Firstly, the term ‘wife’ is used to build a sense of unity between the Emperor’s law and Buddha’s law (王法佛法一如).2 ‘Marriage’ conveys the notion that the Japanese state is in line with the Heavenly Way (天道), and that there is a lot of doctrinal overlap between Buddhism and the state. The emperor, for example, plays the role of the buddha, looking out for his subjects-as-children with the compassionate heart (心). In turn, this gives the state spiritual-legitimacy, with the added bonus of elevating the emperor to an ethereal, buddha-like status.

Secondly, this gendering also imparts feminine stereotypes onto Buddhism, and presents us with an image of the religion as passive and – crucially – subjugated to men.3 This limits Buddhism’s influence within society by channelling its doctrine into areas that are ‘acceptable’ for its ‘gender’, so to speak. Any priests that choose to rebel against the state, therefore, are seen as stepping beyond the boundaries of their ‘gendered’ role. Thus, in siphoning Buddhism’s influence into specific areas, gender imposes boundaries onto the religion so as to limit its power. Buddhists are now no longer unconfined by space and time, like clouds.4 Gender confines Buddhism – and Buddhists – to specific realms that are appropriate and least disruptive to the state.

  1. Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (1998), pp. 70, 73 []
  2. Christopher Ives, ‘The Mobilization of Doctrine: Buddhist Contributions to Imperial Ideology in Japan’ in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1/2 (Spring 1999), p. 85 []
  3. See He-Yin Zhen, ‘On the Revenge of Women: Part 1: Instruments of Men’s Rule Over Women’ (1907) in Lydia He Liu, Rebecca Karl, Dorothy Ko (eds.), The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (2013) []
  4. Hwansoo Kim, ‘The Adventures of a Japanese Monk in Colonial Korea: Sōma Shōei’s Zen training with Korean masters’ in E. Anderson (ed.), Belief and Practice in Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea (2017), p. 63 []

‘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. []