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 []