The Birth of Chinese Feminism:
Essential Texts in Transnational Theory

Edited by Lydia Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko

Reviewed by Tani Barlow
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October 2013)

Book cover for The Birth of Chinese Feminism

Lydia Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko, editors.
The Birth of Chinese Feminisim: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 328 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-231-16291-3 (paper);
ISBN: 978-0-231-16290-6 (cloth)

“We must kill all capitalists”

The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory has brought into English the writings of He-Yin Zhen, and a remarkable polemic from the early twentieth century. Rebecca Karl, Dorothy Ko and Lydia Liu, editors and interpreters, collaborated with a group of translators and co-editors too lengthy to list, and created a terrific book. An unfortunate, completely understandable, editorial glitch in the review process at MCLC, has meant that another review of this book, by Shaoling Ma, appeared in September of this year. The silver lining for me is that I have retooled my remarks to discuss things Ma does not cover. My review’s title, “we must kill all capitalists,” comes from one of the six 1907 essays the editors show He-Yin Zhen herself wrote (p. 82).

The interpreters, editors, and translators should get a cash prize and retire to the Riviera immediately because they have rendered He-Yin’s erudite language, which draws extensively from classical kaozheng and etymological scholarship, readable to modern readers. The collective scholarship in this book is amazing and opens up the work of the self-effacing anarchist feminist to new debates. “On the Question of Women’s Liberation,” “On the Question of Women’s Labor,” “Economic Revolution and Women’s Revolution,” “On Feminist Antimilitarism,” “The Feminist Manifesto,” and (my personal favorite) “On the Revenge of Women,” are a shocking read. They may sound archaic in twentieth century Chinese but they are vivid, dramatic, clean, beautiful polemics in twenty-first-century English.

In her review of the book, Shaoling Ma says that the editors included pieces by Liang Qichao and Jin Tianhe to stress “the problem of East-West comparison as central to Chinese feminist theoretical discourse at the beginning of the twentieth century.” This must be the case, but there is more at stake. Including male liberal intellectuals reinforces an implicit editorial assumption that male feminists lack the authority of experience, because they are male (as well as being liberals). This is a category issue, and it would have been nice to have a male anarchist included or one of the nationalist liberal positions taken by a female intellectual. I am committed to a strategy of confounding the automatic reflex that leads us to argue that feminism is equivalent to the experience of women, and I wonder if male anarchists cast the problem of women’s emergence on the horizon of history differently. Given that He-Yin Zhen’s texts had long been misattributed to her lover and male partner, Liu Shipei, the question is interesting to contemplate.

Liu Jen-p’eng once famously argued that that the sine qua non of “Chinese feminism” is being Chinese, a feminist, and a woman. Otherwise, she argued, Chinese feminism is not “authentic.” Though they gently rebuke Liu for being naïve, the editors cannot completely disavow the issue she raises. They give us a context where only the woman theorist authentically presents the experience of women; in fact He-Yin presents an agonizingly experiential rationale for killing capitalists and killing men. A great anarchist avenger, He-Yin Zhen knew that capitalism is the modern culprit and that men suffer under its regime, too. But she simultaneously argued that patriarchy does its work with or without capitalism; her savage attack on Confucianism bears this out. He-Yin’s violent disposition leads her to state that “every single man,” whether under capitalism or Confucian patriarchy, “has contributed to the oppression of women to the point of [women’s] death” (152). So men kill women. Is murder not a reason to seek revenge? And is not revenge killing a reasonable response to mass murder of women? It would appear that feminism can never be wholly differentiated from the experience of being a woman because the anger that drives this revenge, as it drove Valerie Solanos (1936–1988) in “Manifesto for Cutting Up Men,” is rage that women suffer as women, not as abstraction. This question of the relation of women and feminism also cannot easily be resolved because there is no easy solution to it. Yet my point is simply that feminism’s great potential is that it is predicated on the riddle of who can legitimately author it, who gets to claim experience, and who can speak for women. He-Yin’s brilliant anarchist expositions harbor enduring questions common to all feminisms.

In “On the Question of Women’s Liberation,” He-Yin Zhen raises the initial question in most anarchist and communist feminisms: why is it that when men “started to treat women as their private property” there emerges an “extreme . . . differentiation” between women subjects and male subjects, men and women. Oddly, almost inexplicably, He-Yin moves directly away from the vexed sexual gap (nannü / 男女, which the editors discuss at length) to the question that haunts her work, which turns out to be sexuality. Many of He-Yin’s ideas pivot around the allegation that sexuality is a given in all humans. Stifling women’s sexual feelings (i.e., cloistering women) leads to hyper-sexualization and consequently to women’s chronic sexual misconduct. He-Yin Zhen gives masses of specific “historical” examples of female sexual transgression; the more elevated and elite the family the more disgusting the licentiousness of its women. She summarizes: “The intended consequence [of cloistering] is to encourage women to indulge freely in sexual fantasies even though the original intention was to deny them freedom. In other words, the prohibition of sexual transgression . . . encourages sexual transgression in practice” (57).

Her point appears to be that liberation will require not just the overthrow of capitalism and men, but monitoring sex so that only pure, loving, mutual, sexual acts between one man and one woman are tolerated. Sexual conduct, among so-called liberated women as well as oppressed and cloistered masturbating widows, leads to “self-indulgence” or “blind passion” (63), and, logically (if we take He-Yin’s suppositions to their logical conclusion) to self-degradation. This is a subject question. To be a liberated female subject in a filthy capitalist world is to walk a tight rope between caving to the patriarchy and degrading one’s self in the pursuit of one’s natural right to sexual expression. Her ambivalence even leads He-Yin at one point to imply that Chinese women are potentially more liberated than other women. Why? Because after killing all capitalists, old world sexual discipline will actually protect Chinese women from turning into Euro-Americans who live under conditions where “the moral prohibitions are far more lax than in China [and where] it is not shameful to prostitute oneself” (102).

In “On the Question of Women’s Labor,” He-Yin Zhen forwards the core anarchist concern for “common justice” (75). In the feudal past and even more under contemporary capitalism, women are subhuman, and therefore have no recourse to justice. An abject does not have human rights. As she argues in “Revenge,” to even be visible in this corrupt society requires a woman to submit to marriage and to acquiesce to “the combined humiliation of being both prisoner and slave,” which is, in political terms, to inflict abjection on herself. A political being outside the domain of humanity cannot be a subject. “This situation cannot but lead to a point where the idea of woman itself is rendered utterly inhuman,” He-Yin concludes (118). Resting her case on anarchist theorists Kaneko Kiichi and Tazoe Tetsuji, He-Yin further argues that unequal distribution of wealth is the main reason why there are only four options for women: prostitution, concubinage, bond servitude, and domestic or factory work (82). In each case where she should have natural rights to livelihood, she is rendered utterly inhuman. The shengji wenti—the “question of livelihood”—arises from injustice; injustice arose because men turned women into private property. To make a living yet avoid prostitution or slavery (self-abjection), women have no alternative other than to overthrow capitalism and kill the wealthy, particularly rich men. Killing all capitalists resolves livelihood: only killing can overthrow the entire rotten edifice.

Extending Hobbesian and Rousseauian arguments she doubtless read in Japanese translation about the state of nature (brute force) and the rise of the private property regimes, “Economic Revolution and Women’s Revolution” argues that after the rise of the slave mode of production, China became a special kind of hell. Livelihood issues led to the prostitution-marriage system, concubinage, female suicide and illicit affairs, and marriage markets where rape, philandering, bitterness, wallowing in sorrow, starvation, and hopelessness became the norm for women of all classes. Lewdness and obscenity are the result of the fact that “when a man sees a woman what appears before him is merely a commodity that money can buy” (96). An anti-statist, anti-militarist anarchist, He-Yin read and amassed evidence showing how capitalism crushes everyone. Horror stories from the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan reiterate a cycle of desperate suicide, seduction, sale of person, rape of tenants, rape of relatives, domestic slavery, and so on.

Touchingly, and really the only position possible given her logics of oppression and her commitment to the natural right of women to be sexually happy, He-Yin states categorically that “If we want love to flourish, then we must first abandon money. Once that happens, economic equality would follow . . . . whatever tendencies toward brutalities or lingering licentious customs remained, these could be rectified expediently. Therefore, a woman’s revolution must go hand in hand with an economic one” (103).

Yet, righting wrongs is not so simple as abandoning money and the commodity form. In “On the Revenge of Women, I,” He-Yin laments that women are not aware of their own degradation. How can women abandon money if they do not have self-consciousness as women? In passages that seem to argue that either women are human but do not recognize our humanity or that we have not yet become visibly human, she wrote, “Suppose we are granted our humanity?” How will that square with our historical record of passivity? “How can we tolerate this oppression day after day and not think about resistance” (my emphasis). This is one of the commonest contradictions in feminism—Why don’t women just kill men and have done with it?

The polemical quality of her painfully conflicting logics and desires—revenge or love, murder or erotic engagement, love or kill—draws on Edward Jenks, Herbert Spencer, Japanese anarchists, and Chinese scholar-theorists Cheng Yichou, Fang Bao, Gui Youguang, and Wang Zheng. He-Yin dragoons every possible scholarly argument to forward her case that “the tyranny of men’s rule is manifest in the entire scholarly tradition of China” (122). “Revenge, II” is difficult to read. Her tormented case against Confucianism and the Chinese scholastic tradition conveys a suffering that belies her profound literacy. She considers the direct and indirect ways that conventions covered for Chinese men, who have killed Chinese women. Direct ways include: cloistering; humiliation; corporeal punishment; kidnaping; and abandonment and enforcement of “chastity.” Indirect ways include: harsh penal codes affecting father, husband and son meant political crimes led innocent women to banishment; enslavement or execution; disrespect; disregard; and hatefulness. Given this history of horrors, He-Yin Zhen is clearly troubled by the question of where women belong in the revolution and sees clearly that revolutionary men of her own circle would not hesitate to grab the mechanisms of government and restrict again the natural rights and political expression of women.

Male dominance is so engrained in social and political life that in ambivalence and rage she declares her mission is to “do away with governments” and to reconsider a return to the “possibility of communally owned property.” Her hate focuses on the class system because class categorically violates the universal truth that all people are endowed with natural rights (107). Yet He-Yin Zhen, this supremely gifted logician, critic, and polemicist cannot avoid walking into the same traps that other advocates have tripped. Are men evil or just capitalist? Are men sadists or redeemable once the rich are killed off? Are poor and abused men less sadistic than rich ones? We women are suffocated in the scholastic tradition that does not see women as human, yet we demand education as a human right. These are some of the agon of international feminism.

In the two concluding chapters, “On Feminist Antimilitarism” (1907) and “The Feminist Manifesto” (1907) He-Yin’s bona fides as an internationalist anarchist are clear. Herve, Liebknecht, Nieuwenhuis, Einar Li and the long tradition in Chinese letters on anti-militarism all combine in a moving polemic: “women know these feelings all too well,” He-Yin argues, quoting the Book of Poetry, Du Fu and many others to convey powerful emotions of abandonment, desolation, loss, despair, inconsolability as the result of militarist violence. “The Manifesto” calls on readers to recognize the natural rights that Heaven has given to women and to men yet she concludes her statement with an admonition, warning women to never become like men. Never “give full rein” to your “personal lust” or use the pretext of male polygamy to have sex with many men, for that would involve abjecting oneself into self-prostitution and becoming a “traitor to womankind” (184).

He-Yin Zhen is a great feminist polemicist. Her work is agonistic, disruptive, riddled with double binds and painfully rotten logic. And it is an access point for major questions in international feminist studies. Her direct, brutal expressions raise the familiar, worn out, and inescapable question about what feminism is good for. He-Yin aside, is feminism a way of thinking, a moral stance, a statement about experience, a set of sexual identifications, a philosophy, a political orthodoxy—an orthodoxy where one can get feminism right or wrong? I say, none of the above. Feminism is and always has been a problem and not a solution. Thankfully feminism is a vexed philosophical and political debate across the world. Moreover, theories are not born. They have no birthplace. They are the product of modernist rationalities and emotional creativity, all over a globe that the anarchist feminists of the nineteenth century knew quite well. Of course feminist studies has agonized for years over questions of location. How do theories travel, Mary John repeatedly asks from New Delhi? Cultural studies has also called the national language, “Chinese” in this case, into question, just as others have blown up “China” and pointed out that there is nothing stable about this term, it is a process (reregionalization) and not a piece of real estate. These are the historical facts. If there is anything that makes Chinese feminism “an event of global proportions” it will be precisely what makes other forms of national feminisms equally monumental (i.e., that with all its surly contradictions feminism has surfaced at all). And, in the case of Chinese feminism, as I suggest, there exists the happy flexibility of the language itself which allows a way out of the “essentialism” debate. The question of what distinguishes the Chinese tradition in feminism (feminism being a foundationally, colonial modern, political ontology and an internationalist theoretical practice) is difficult to determine; particularly when the gender of authors is conflated with their political standpoint. That is why I would have preferred to see included in this volume a feminist polemic from a male anarchist or a liberal one from a female theorist, rather than to revisit the often criticized nationalism of the mainstream tradition of progressive, male dominated, Chinese feminism.

The questions I have raised are mainstays in international feminist study. One runs a risk in ignoring them. The lubricity and international formation of this century-old phenomenon, feminism, is no longer debated. The question I see is where, in this living body of thought called feminism, He-Yin Zhen belongs. The question cannot be how Chinese she was or whether or not she invented a previously undisclosed doctrine. The warp and woof of communist feminist theory, socialist feminist theory, bourgeois feminist theory, fascist styles of theorizing women and across the spectrum all claim to represent either women’s latent human rights (the right to be human) or reasons why a proxy needs to represent women’s interests (e.g., the state, the church, the law, the court, feminism). In the 1990s conflict in China over “essentialism” and nationalism between the Ford Foundation-financed Fudan University liberals and the nativist women’s movement, on the one hand, and the 1980s post-Marxist feminists and now an outrightly communist feminist Beida-Qinghua faction, on the other hand, these same questions continue to be fought, as they continue to be thought in Francophone, Anglophone, and to some degree in Japanese feminisms.

How the woman question works in He-Yin’s work belongs in the philosophic domain, too, where politics is explicit yet not doctrinaire. He-Yin presumed to be conversant in theories about egalitarianism, natural rights, universal equality, and simple justice. Anarchists particularly fuse justice claims and natural rights arguments. In my own discussions of the Chinese tradition of thinking feminism, I look at how people defined the noun “women” and demonstrate that the category women could be named in many ways. In fact I found a historical pattern of neologisms and suggested that these were material in relation to modernist colonial debates in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Chinese intellectual communities (Barlow 1994; 2004). The intent in this by now twenty-year-old work was neither linguistic, a matter of sorting categories, nor a claim about rigid stages of historical development from one word/era to another word/era. My concern was and is universality in thought. Chinese feminism is a field among many, a feminist struggle that transcends its origins yet is historically discernible in documents of those years, for its irreducible heterogeneity and its prosaic quality. In that respect, it is a lot like other national traditions in feminist thought.

The value of working in Chinese feminism is that it has no singular term for woman. Women, in the history of Chinese expression has always apparently been multiple or polysemic. There are not just three terms, there are potentially dozens of woman signifiers, since the Chinese past (I think He-Yin would agree with me) is a treasure trove of “female” or “women” terms that carry the valence of enslavement, derogation, or high value, latent power and so on. Scholars in social history like Susan Mann and Nanxiu Qian have proposed that arguments to value the humanity of women were widely available, even in the decades He-Yin Zhen published her work under pseudonyms. Theirs are not philosophic arguments but they do suggest ways of understanding how He-Yin Zhen came to be such a confident, conventionally-educated exegete in the disintegrating classical scholarly conventions.

The point at issue here is that claiming humanity for women does not require linguistic stability. In fact it does not require the definitive use of yet another neologism, nannü, to make women historical. There is no need for a persistent term, no need to invite others to adopt and apply it. I have found in my recent work that in the late nineteenth century most terms were in transition and many, including what would be stabilized to mean anatomical sex, were being translated, defined, and situated in the moment. The 1890s resembles very much the post-Mao linguistic upheavals of the 1980s when philosophical terms floated around, but had not yet been assigned definitive translations.

The point is that many terms for women will be available in Chinese language and historical records at any given time. However, more philosophically, even when a term, “women” or “woman,” is relatively old, as it is in English, essence is beside the point. Being precedes essence; how can this be doubted? And women are human, no matter what we are called. The political issue now is to figure out how to move on, to move on in the name of something as multiple as women. This position suggests that “gender”—an idea that arose in the context of Anglophone essentialism debates—was a well-executed, provisional gain, and neither a fact nor even a theory. It was Joan Scott’s demand that feminists think historically. And when I did, I found that historically the Chinese tradition of feminist critique offers a powerful international argument for why feminism does not require essence or stable signified woman.

Where that leaves me in scholarly terms is agnostic, for two reasons. First, linguistic heterogeneity indicates a set composed of things that are different, not things that are the same. What makes up a group of women is not a common anything, not even, as He-Yin points out, a common suffering, for rich women suffer less than the poor. “Essentialism” means that all the things in the set are the same. To say someone is an essentialist often means they are conflating femininity and anatomy. That is all. I am inconsolable that women cannot be stabilized and yet joyous. Frequently, and this is also a familiar argument outside of Chinese studies, the universal signifier “women”—or slave, or liberation, or rights—gestures beyond the contemporary moment and flings the strategist (and He-Yin was a good one) into a future of possibilities where natural rights are presumptively real and accessible, where women understand liberation and where men are not condemned to brute and mindless sadism. Her very ambivalence suggests that He-Yin Zhen acknowledged the heterogeneity that “women” is; not knowing how precisely to address the question of the subject and the abject, she hesitated at the threshold, never willing to present a common noun “women” without a class analysis within, yet not willing to let go of the possibility that killing men in the name of women is possible and should be carried out.

But I am also agnostic about the woman problem’s claims for a second reason. The editors suggest that He-Yin is irreducibly singular because of her new interpretation and novel concepts. They proposenannü, an untranslatable term that can replace “gender” in feminist theory. They also suggest that in He-Yin’s anarchism” livelihood” (生計) is a latent and valuable term. Indisputably this is the case. She did think this way, and though she did not carry her categorical insights into her polemics, preferring or perhaps compulsively having to return instead to the matter of sexual impurity, she put words onto difficult ideas. The question is what the significance of these concepts is in the long and short terms. Shengji, is a familiar idea, I think, as mundane as the right to livelihood (民生) in the Three Principles of the People (三民主義). So one argument against the case for He-Yin’s singularity as a feminist is that shengji precedes class not because it is a better concept, but because private property is the basis of class, and livelihood is the basis of human survival. One has a better chance at a decent life before the advent of capitalism and, if I understand He-Yin correctly, before class structure created patriarchy and overthrew the acephalous, communitarian, matrilineal human collectivities of the prehistorical eras where livelihood was not problematic. This suggests that the concept is not singular to He-Yin but was in the air, a common neologism and a sociological idea or ideologeme, and that it eventually stabilized in vocabulary filiated around the Doctrine of the Three Principles as a kind of futurity or advocacy and not so much a categorical.

A great question in feminist scholarship and philosophy is that feminism makes universal claims yet most frequently takes a parochial or culturist and thus nation-based expression. He-Yin’s comparativism was tinged with parochial stereotypes, squeamishness, and class disdain. Worldly and yet relatively untraveled, reading about the world through the scrim of Japanese translation, constrained in her ability to distinguish discomfort about female sexuality from natural rights, He-Yin Zhen was a cultural nationalist despite her best efforts to transcend herself. How her work may reach beyond the provincial expression of a universal political ideal remains to be demonstrated in the debates that will surely open up around this wonderful book.

Tani Barlow
Rice University


Barlow, Tani. “Theorizing Woman: ‘funu, guojia, jiating’ Chinese Woman, Chinese State, Chinese Family.” Angela Zito and Tani E. Barlow, eds. Body, Subject, and Power in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

—–.The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

Ma, Shaoling. Review Essay: “The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory.” MCLC Resource Center Publication (September 2013).