Ideas in "On the Question of Women's Liberation" and Today's Thoughts
He-Yin Zhen was a post-Qing feminism theorist. Although she was a kind of forgotten and diminished figure in the time of history, many of her thoughts, especially on gender equality and women liberation, are considered to be crucial to today's studies on feminism. These unprecedented theories are mostly presented in the long essay "On the Question of Women's Liberation," whose English translation can be found in the book "The Birth of Chinese Feminism."(P.53) He-Yin Zhen was unique because of her different ways of thinking about social positions of women and in the ways of identifying the origin of what women's liberation should look like. Having this contribution to the theoretical feminism of the "Old Society" and ideas that could have helped China progress in the 1900s, she should have been taken as an important role in Chinese history. Nevertheless, dramatically different from evaluations western people made to Zhen, the critiques in China, even today, are offensive to her thought and even the person herself. It is worthwhile to take a look at her notion of feminism and think about why modern Chinese society, which has already given some degree of freedom to every person, still renders Zhen as a negative character and buries her efforts and contribution to gender equality into the history.
In the first part of Zhen's long essay, she presents ideas of how the society separates men and women and how the concept of "private property" and "men dominated political society" made women's' lives more difficult. How people thought about gender in that time was to differentiate men from women, and that was what Zhen called "nan nü you bie:" in a society dominated by men, women could only be a part of private property of men, and men could take full control over their wives. In order to claim their ownership of women, they made women stay at home, and prevent women from meeting strangers. The idea was so "prominent" at that time that it was reflected in Li Ji (The Book of Rites), and this book was highly valued in the Chinese perspective:
"The ancient knowledge, thought and theories recorded in The Book of Rites are keys to modern cultural and moral education as well as keys to construct and maintain a peaceful socialism society." (Baidu Baike)
Considering the evaluation and high standing of the book, we can see that the notion of "owning a woman" instead of "loving a woman" has been rooted deeply in the mind of people at that time and even today. Zhen suggests the concept of private property, in general, is one of the biggest obstacles lying on the way toward women's liberation: " By keeping woman as his own property, a man cloisters his wife within the walls and deprives her of her basic freedom."(He-Yin Zhen, P.55) Despite that women living in middle class or rural areas could go outside and work in the field, they were working as facilitation to men's insufficiency of productivity. They were physically free but their mind still needed to be liberated. The idea of abolishing the notion of private property was important at that time, because it was this distortion of women's character that made liberation unattainable.
Then, Zhen continues to argue about how laws and moral standards made by men impact women. Law was made by the authorities to regulate and format people they would like to see in the society. In late-Qing, there were laws and moral limits, made by men as well, to prevent women from betraying their husband, for example, by remarrying as a widow. However, as He-Yin Zhen wrote, as the limitation got more strict, there would be more of the women that want to break the rule and to pursue their own sexual satisfaction. It was the intense control, in other words, the desire of men over women that made the problem of sexual transgression severe but not freedom of women (P.72). But being free does not mean breaking the basic moral concepts of Chinese culture, for instance having multiple sexual relationships with men; instead, it denotes freedom of willing and freedom of choosing, to have freedom in a love-chosen relationship. Thus, men's goal of making so many moral restrictions for women was to take full-control on their "property" and to show their masculinity; however, it was this pursuit of self-satisfaction made a gap between women and happiness.
Because of the fast speed of cultural invasion from the West, many feminists were insisting on adapting the Western method into the Chinese context, fighting for marriage freedom and rights for election to solve problems in China. Unlike those people, He-Yin Zhen believes that the lack of true freedom is not the problem for just China, it is a global problem. For the Western method, there are still obstacles preventing women (and men) to be truly free: rights, wealth, laws and morality. This issue would not be resolved until the real communisms could be achieved and no oppression from any political power exists. As Western women were fighting for positions in parliaments, Zhen, again, proposed an opposite view of liberating women: giving equal rights (especially the political ones) to women as men could not fundamentally solve the whole big problem; it can even make the issue more serious by creating a power imbalance between women themselves. Zhen thinks that only a reformation from the root of the whole society can change the situation. It is interesting that in the translated version of "On the Question of Women's Liberation," the interpretation of the "root" is "social injustice." But we think it is only a part of a larger picture: for the society at that time, the "root" is the social construct under a male-dominated political structure; thus the cause of the problem should be any form of oppression from men, for example, taking women as property. Zhen radically expresses the ideas like "only the abolishing the concept of privatized property can solve the problem from the source." Although some of those ideas seem exaggerated, and are even nearly impossible to be practical applications, the aims and the deeper notions inside her ideas, if we put them into the historical context, are reasonable, and can be even considered as cutting-edge today.
Interestingly, and sadly, even though Zhen had contributed so much in the theory of solving issues of gender equality for China and the world and left thoughts that are even important for today's studies, she did not take much attention from people around her, and today's evaluations from China are dramatically different from those from western feminists. Let's start from the more accessible western view presenting the figure of He-Yin Zhen:
He-Yin Zhen (1884—ca.1920), a preeminent feminist theorist and founding editor of an anarcho-feminist journal Natural Justice, was among the first women readers of Jin Tianhe's manifesto. In 1907–1908, she published a perceptive critique of Jin and other contemporary male feminists in an essay called "On the Question of Women's Liberation."(The Birth of Chinese Feminism, P.2)
He-Yin Zhen's attack on the progressive male intellectuals of her time— men who championed women's education, suffrage, and gender equality and who would have been her allies—opens up a vast space for a new interpretation of the rise of feminism in China and in the world. The current volume makes this interpretive space accessible and available to scholars and students of feminism for the first time.(The Birth of Chinese Feminism, P.2)
It is clear to see that western scholars highly comment Zhen and acknowledge her efforts, thoughts, and generally, contributions she made to Chinese society and to the world of feminism. However, Chinese comments written in Baidu Baike, which is a widely used encyclopedia in China maintained mainly by Baidu Inc. and other folk editors, contain totally different views toward He-Yin Zhen. Many offensive words can be seen in the introduction (biography of He-Yin Zhen).
Invited by Zhang Taiyan, He-Yin Zhen went to Japan with her husband Liu Shipei and joined in Chinese Alliance. She quickly became a believer (xin tu) of Anarchism. Later, He Zhen preached (gu chui) assassinating [government officials] in articles she wrote for Natural Justice: "To begin the revolution of anarchism, we should put assassination in the first place."(Baidu Baike)
Contents in this encyclopedia even include the gossip that says He-Yin Zhen planned to make dissension and betrayed the revolution party. Including so many pieces of information that render He-Yin Zhen a negative figure, this most commonly used encyclopedia in China does not contain anything about her contribution to the Chinese feminism. How on earth could the editors ignore her achievements? Actually, it does include related information in the previous version of this encyclopedia. Back to 2011, in the first version of the introduction to He-Yin Zhen, even though most information is the same as the final one, there was one single sentence mentioned her achievement in women's liberation: "He Zhen is one of the first generation of Chinese socialism advocators, and she was the pioneer of women's liberation movement" (Baidu Baike). Then in 2016, this content was removed by another editor. However, in our understanding, it is rather an editing correction, but a political action: they (the party) avoid advocating anarchism and radical ideas that threaten their absolute leadership and build negative figures of people who are anarchist for their own political propaganda and self-protection.
He-Yin Zhen was almost forgotten by the Chinese history; however, she left so many valuable concepts that greatly helped people today and in the past construct their ideology of thinking about gender and gender equality and helped active feminists at that time realize why efforts they made, led by men, did not lead the solution to the right direction. Even though He-Yin Zhen herself did not participate in activist movements, she was a heroine in the Chinese feminism history: she overcame the oppression from the government and disparagement from people around her because of radical thoughts she expressed from her personality and her writings. Even today's Chinese government continuing hiding everything of this brilliant feminist in the shadow, leaving a figure of an immoral woman, betrayer of the republic revolution to the public. Facilitated by efforts made by He-Yin Zhen and other undiscovered feminists, the long way toward the resolution of gender issues in China becomes wider and brighter, and we hope to see someday, Zhen can get her renown officially in China back and her ideas can further enlighten the general public.
Karl, Rebecca E., et al. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. Columbia University Press, 2013.
"礼记." Baidu Baike, baike.baidu.com/item/礼记/1332574.
"何震." Baidu Baike, baike.baidu.com/item/何震/1435524.