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. []

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. []

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