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.

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 []

‘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. []