The Birth of Chinese Feminism:
Essential Texts in Transnational Theory

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

Reviewed by Shaoling Ma
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 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)

The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory is less a broad collection of essays than it is a well-argued case for the transnational and radical origins of Chinese feminism. The much-needed translation and study of He-Yin Zhen’s (何殷震; 1884-1920?) works address the limited definition of first-wave feminism as a predominately Western movement that focused on officially mandated gender inequalities such as the right to vote at the expense of racial and class differences. At the same time, the volume also accomplishes more than introducing a little-known Chinese feminist thinker to a wider English-speaking audience. By including and contrasting He-Yin’s global, systematic critiques of the oppression of women with translations of Liang Qichao’s (梁啓超; 1873-1929) and Jin Tianhe’s (金天翮; 1874-1947) feminist writings, which looked to women’s suffrage movements in Europe and in North America as the solution to the larger problem of Chinese nationhood, the volume foregrounds the problem of East-West comparison as central to Chinese feminist theoretical discourse at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a collective project, The Birth of Chinese Feminism brings together its translators and editors Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko’s expertise in Chinese intellectual and cultural history in a global context. As a composite work of translation and theory, the book maintains the difficult balance of letting the late Qing texts speak for themselves in their historical contexts as well as putting them in conversation with existing feminist debates.

The two chapters that precede the translations provide a theoretical discussion of He-Yin’s works and their historical context, or what the editors call “worlds of thinking.” He-Yin’s analysis of “‘woman’ as a transhistorical global category—not of subjective identity but of structured unequal social relations” (9) can be best summed up as materialist-feminist. However, perhaps due to a reluctance to diminish the singularity of He-Yin’s thinking by affixing labels, the editors and translators do not, in spite of their attention to her anarchist-communist politics, address the relation of her feminist theory to Marxist-Socialist or materialist feminism. This connection would be interesting especially given the editors’ stated goal to go beyond the “theoretical priorities of gender, sex, sexuality, sexual difference, identity politics, or intersectionality that have dominated contemporary Euro-American feminist discussion over the past few decades” (4).

The Introduction gives a comprehensive overview of the basic tenets of He-Yin’s feminist theory through the translators’ explanation of nannü (男女) andshengji (生計), two interrelated, foundational concepts in He-Yin’s works. The difficulty in translating nannü has to do with how it is both an object of analysis—the unequal social relations underpinned by the problem of livelihood, or shengji, under patriarchy—and an analytical category—the “mechanism of distinction or marking” linked to philosophical dualisms such as the internal and external, the yin and the yang (14). The translators’ decision to leave nannüuntranslated in some cases, and when contextually appropriate, render it as “man and woman,” “gender,” or “male/female” reflects the interpretive openness of the analytical term in either English or Chinese especially as it pertains to existing feminist discourses (11). They are right to argue that the concept of nannü goes beyond the poststructuralist “social constructivist” view of gender (14-15) as well as legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality (18-19). Yet, insofar as nannü is “always already a class making in the Marxian sense” (17), a footnote that references Frederick Engels’ 1886 The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State or Gayle Rubin’s 1975 essay “Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” might enrich their discussion of He-Yin’s contribution to transnational and radical feminist scholarship and pedagogy.

If the Introduction shows Liu, Karl, and Ko’s fine understanding of translation as a form of theorizing, the following chapter, “The Historical Context: Chinese Feminist Worlds at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” demonstrates a balanced assessment of historical and theoretical interpretation that eschews the mechanical model of influence for the more interpretive “worlds of thinking” in order to stress the “open-ended nature of He-Yin’s dialogue with the texts and contexts of her time and of her past” (27). Three issues stand out in the editors’ accessible overview of late-Qing China in the global context. First, their attention to increasing rural labor intensification and women’s labor, which in and of themselves deserve fuller studies in a field that tends to focus on coastal cities and elite intellectual labor. Second, the editors’ discussion of He-Yin’s philological method of citing and critiquing classical Confucian texts as one of the first comprehensive attacks on Confucianism as a textual practice, ethical system, and sociopolitical and economic order (36). Third, He-Yin’s ambivalence about what she calls the “empty rhetoric” of European, American, and Japanese ideas is significant because it sees Euro-America less as a ubiquitous “hierarchical comparative” in late Qing discourse than as part of a “global conversation on feminism and modernity” (38).

The first translated essay, “On the Question of Women’s Liberation” (1907), sets the tone for He-Yin’s dissection of the material relations that structure women’s role in society through class distinctions and proprietary rights, and the ideological workings of marriage in Chinese society through Confucian rituals and in Western society through religion. The essay is an excellent introduction to He-Yin’s polemics, especially as it pertains to her critique of her fellow male intellectuals, such as Liang Qichao and Jin Tianhe, and their self-interest in promoting women’s liberation, as well as the limits of the women’s suffrage movement in securing liberty and freedom without overthrowing the current wage and class system. As He-Yin explains, she is not suggesting that only women can address women’s liberation or that women’s suffrage is an unworthy cause (62); precisely because the problem of women’s oppression is not a minor symptom of society but the underlying cause of its inequality, she is not content with liberating a minority of women at the expense of others. In conveying the theoretical import of He-Yin’s use of terms such as rights (权利), character of women (女性), and women’s suffrage (女权), the translators’ annotations are useful in noting how these neologisms were introduced through Japanese translations, and in referring the issue of translation back to lengthier discussions in their introduction.

The following two essays, “On the Question of Women’s Labor” (1907) and “Economic Revolution and Women’s Revolution” (1907), illustrate He-Yin’s knowledge of Chinese political economy and in particular her analysis of the sexual division of labor as historically prior to capitalist relations. Hence, it is “the problem of livelihood” (生計問题), not the class system, which gives rise to the system of slavery (74). In “On the Question of Women’s Labor,” He-Yin also refutes the argument that the system of slavery only began with the invasion of the Mongols and Manchus, an assertion that must have prompted discussions from Han nationalists at the time she was writing. It would be useful to know what He-Yin’s original words for “labor power” and even “labor” are in this same essay since the translations call up Marx’s famous distinction between the two terms. On this note, I cannot help notice how “Economic Revolution and Women’s Revolution” bears curious similarities to Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State in its materialist-historical account of marriage as the first class division (103), right down to its idealism in mutual love in marriage as the natural outcome of economic equality (104). Still, He-Yin’s assorted references to European literature (Ibsen, H. Rider Haggard, Shakespeare), Euro-American current events as well as seventeenth-century Chinese poetry and the Book of Ritesall as evidence of what she calls the “mutual prostitution” of both sexes in marriage is remarkably singular. Misreadings occasioned by partial translations, as for instance He-Yin’s access to only the first half of Haggard’s Joan Haste (99 fn. 10), doubles the effect of intertextuality produced by these references.

But the term “intertextuality” does little justice to describe He-Yin’s repetitive citational philological method, which is at its most forceful in the long two-part essay “On the Revenge of Women.” Her study of the writing system and etymologies that relegated women to the lowest ranks in society underscores her attention to ideology as an analytical tool for naturalizing misogynist thought. While it is difficult, as the editors point out, to fully comprehend the rhetorical impact of He-Yin’s lengthy exegesis of classical texts unless one is classically trained in the canon, the scrupulous English translations—original, except for occasional adaptations from James Legge—makes the readers’ job much easier. At places where He-Yin’s historical examples are too repetitive, the editorial choice to omit some of the detailed accounts is unfortunate, but perhaps necessary in emphasizing the logic of her argument over its pathos.

The last two essays, “On Feminist Antimilitarism” and “The Feminist Manifesto,” appropriately raise the question of what He-Yin considered to be the best action to bring about women’s liberation. Her ambivalence, or rather insufficient elaboration, on this issue marks a curious contradiction in her anarchist politics. While she is incisive in advocating the disbanding of armies and pointing to militarization and warfare as responsible for the historical oppression of women, it is unclear whether her call for a feminist revolution would require an armed revolution. Translators of “The Feminist Manifesto,” Meng Fan and Cynthia M. Roe, correctly identify this uncertainty (183, fn. 8), although what they call He-Yin’s pacifism in the earlier essay is really more targeted against state military violence than revolutionary violence per se, and it may not be justified to dismiss her demand for action in this regard. He-Yin’s ambivalence on violence notwithstanding, what is most significant is her unwavering support for a “complete social revolution” as opposed to merely a woman’s revolution (183). Here, it would be fruitful to include the original Chinese term for “social,” which in line with the author’s critique of state-based, liberal solutions to women’s problems is very likely a specific term that stands in opposition to the political.

The focus on the alternative voice of a little-known Chinese feminist means that it is difficult not to view Liang Qichao’s “On Women’s Education” (1897) and Jin Tianhe’s “The Woman’s Bell” (1903) simply as texts or “worlds of thinking” to which He-Yin Zhen was responding rather than early Chinese feminist theories in their own right. This, however, is a strength rather than weakness of an edited volume. Readers will be quick to juxtapose Liang and Jin’s subordination of women’s liberation to nation building with He-Yin’s demand for a total social revolution. However, the real contrast between the authors lies more in their diagnosis of the problem than in their proposed solutions. It would therefore be helpful to point out that Jin uses the same neologism nüxing, which the introduction discusses in the context of He-Yin’s usage and which they translate as the “character of women” or “women” (16), but mystifies it in terms of timeless characteristics, both positive and negative, which together make up the “depths of feminine qualities” (267). He-Yin’s definition of nüxing as the outcome of unequal social relations cannot but amplify the contrast between the thinkers.

It would not be inappropriate to view The Birth of Chinese Feminism as occupying a unique space between Amy Dooling’s and Kristina M. Torgeson’s Writing Women in Modern China (1998) and Tani E. Barlow’s The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism (2004) in its dual status as an edited volume of translations with a theoretical rigor rare for such works. By focusing on a late Qing feminist contemporaneous to the more well-studied Qiu Jin, the present volume greatly contributes to Dooling and Torgeson’s anthology where He-Yin was mentioned only very briefly. In keeping a sharp theoretical focus, editors of this volume share Barlow’s goal of situating the construction of Chinese women in a global context; He-Yin’s analysis of the question of women in light of global capitalist relations and the editors’ decision to translate nüxing as “women” or the “character of women,” instead of Barlow’s choice of “female sex” (16), will certainly generate further discussions on the significance of the self-fashioning of the Chinese language for transnational feminist theory.

If ultimately Liu, Karl, and Ko are suggesting that Chinese feminism is born from the differences between Liang and Jin’s liberal, nationalistic politics and He-Yin’s anarchist politics and materialist views of history, it is because juxtapositions and contradictions mark all emancipatory movements worthy of the name. This legacy resides in He-Yin Zhen’s writings, as the editors themselves comment: “there is a politics to her reading, a very radical politics that we can register only by noting the asymmetry between her theory and her history, as well as by paying attention to her mode of argumentation” (28).

Shaoling Ma
Penn State University