Feminism and Reconceptualizing History: A Brief Comment

March 14, 2018


In June 1907, He-Yin Zhen (何殷震) wrote a “Feminist Manifesto” [女子宣布书; nvzi xuanbu shu] that served as the lead editorial for the new journal, Natural Justice (Tianyi, 天义),  she and her husband, Liu Shipei (刘师培), were just launching. The Chinese journal, published in exile in Tokyo, was the mouthpiece of the Society for the Restoration of Women’s Rights, an organization intended to intervene politically, intellectually, and socially into then-burgeoning and partially-overlapping radical and revolutionary movements in China and Japan.  Short-lived though it was (the journal only lasted for a year or so, to be followed by another, even shorter-lived journal, Hengbao [衡报, Equity]), Natural Justice provides some of the most trenchant and prescient feminist critiques of the world and China at the turn of the twentieth century from an anarchist perspective. Lost or neglected for many years among historical misrecognitions, mischaracterizations, and presumptions about its irrelevance, the journal, and its co-editor, He-Yin herself, have recently been re-discovered and re-introduced into our world.*


Little is known about He-Yin Zhen (1884-1920?). Also known as He Ban or He Zhen, she was born in Jiangsu Province towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, which proved to be the last dynasty before the monumental changes of twentieth-century Republicanism, capitalism, and socialism. By the time she married Liu Shipei in 1904, in an act of feminist defiance against patriarchal naming systems, she added her mother’s surname “Yin” to her father’s surname “He” to arrive at her (rare) hyphenated surname He-Yin. In early 1907, He-Yin followed Liu to Tokyo, just then becoming a center for Chinese and Asian anti-imperialist/ anti-colonial radicalisms and revolutionary movement-building, despite Japan’s own colonial and imperialist policies towards its Asian neighbors. He-Yin and Liu were core members of the intellectuals in exile of the time, and their journals were among the most radical in a growing field of revolutionary publications. After the Republican revolutionary overthrow of the Qing in 1911-1912, Liu and He-Yin returned to China; with Liu’s death in 1919, all traces of He-Yin disappear.


It is not coincidental that He-Yin’s lead piece for the first issue of Natural Justice is in the form of a Manifesto. While xuanbu shu [宣布书] could be translated as a “proclamation” or “declaration,” it is clear from the form and content of the piece that “manifesto” is a better choice of conceptual framing. A manifesto, after all, announces a break with a now-rejected past, whose reach into the present cannot be erased but must be reckoned with. The reckoning comes through a full engagement with the newness and the now-ness of the present, an engagement with the question of what it is about this present that contains traces of the past but is not a mere continuation or replica of it. And the reckoning comes with an implied or stated set of hopes for a future not yet foretold.  In this sense, it is also no coincidence that the first-ever partial translation into Chinese of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto appeared in Natural Justice (see Wan and Liu (eds.), 264-270). The manifesto form – so useful for Marx and Engels in their declaration of the spectral revolutionary era just then emerging into view – presents the possibility of reading the past as an open archive rather than a closed canon. As Kathi Weeks has articulated in a recent talk of hers (November 2017, Duke University), in this archival form, the past is neither sealed from the present, nor is the present a teleological result of an already-known history; rather, reading the past as archive becomes a process that enables a transformative rather than a merely confirmative view of the present and thus of the future. It points to reconceptualization not recontexualization. While He-Yin’s manifesto is one of the first of its kind in the Chinese context, the manifesto form became an oft-used genre for Chinese women (and radicals more generally) in the early twentieth century. In 1927, for example, in celebration of March 8th Women’s Day, several feminist organizations from Hunan and Sichuan issued manifestos about the meaning of the Day for the smashing of patriarchy and imperialism.


He-Yin begins her “Manifesto” with a conceptualization that serves as a proclamation: “Men and women have been unequal in this world for a very long time.” From this enduring inequality comes a further social fact: “men became masters and women their slaves” (p179). This type of broad-stroke gendered analytical structuring of the social world was very new in 1907; it presents, to be sure, a binary version of gendered power that may not be as complex as we contemporaries might wish, and yet, for its time, its radical potential is notable.  Through centuries of Confucian-structured language and political thinking, the separable indivisibility of nannv [男女; manwoman] had been promoted by the dynastic state and its socio-political proponents as fundamental to a well-ordered polity and social order. That is, while man [男] and woman [女] had separable and separate social roles, it was the indivisibility of their unity that described an ideal political order more generally. In her Manifesto, He-Yin proclaims that this purportedly unified social order always has authorized a gendered hierarchy of existence, with masters and slaves apportioned by sex or nature [xing性] (for an extended discussion, see The Birth of Chinese Feminism, 15-17). He-Yin shows that the vaunted indivisibility thus cannot be characterized by unity, but rather was maintained as a form of structural domination and divisibility into two xing [性 xing]: a female and a male. In He-Yin’s sense, then, nannv can be seen as a foundational social category of inseparability but not of unity. And if one takes the claim of unity away from the nannv structural locution, one can reconceptualize Chinese history and a possible future in a gendered mode. It is precisely in this idiom that He-Yin proceeds.


The “Manifesto” disarticulates nannv from the Confucian ideological and political work it long had performed. The point is to see the Chinese past not as a settled canon of “teachings of pedantic scholars” (182) but rather as an open archive revealing systemic inequality. Here, then, the customs of imperial concubinage that bound endless numbers of women to the emperor’s body; of one-husband but many-wives; the linguistic inscription of “woman” (fu 妇) glossed as “service” (fu服); the rites mandating less ritual mourning for women than men: these are just a few of the ways in which a known social structure said to foster unity can be reinterpreted, reconceptualized and thus interpolated as a systematic structure of gendered power and subordination. This re-reading breaks apart the ideological claims for unity without, however, discarding the category nannv itself, which, as we will see, is the object of recuperation in a new mode.


He-Yin follows her brief gendered reconceptualization of Chinese history by advocating for “not merely a women’s revolution but a complete social revolution” (183). Here, she makes clear that women and society are not separate categories, thus if the one – woman – is to achieve equality a whole social structure has to be overthrown and remade. In this advocacy, He-Yin wished to reclaim nannv [manwoman] as the grounds for a different social vision – one that was as clearly anti-Confucian as it was anti-capitalist – but to do so she had to discover how the indivisibility inherent to the category could be severed from its ideological embeddedness in oppression. To do that, it was not enough to effect a mere reversal: women could not claim supremacy over men. And nor was it sufficient for women to claim the same right as men to inherently unequal practices; thus, putting women under military arms, for example, or allowing women to have multiple husbands were ways that merely perpetuated systems of dominance and inequality that no one – man or woman – should be allowed to engage. Rather, as He-Yin says, “men and women are both human. By [saying] ‘men’ [nanxing] and ‘women’ [nvxing] we are not speaking of ‘nature,’ as each is but the outcome of differing social customs and education.” When these social customs are transformed, “the nouns ‘men’ and ‘women’ would no longer be necessary. This is ultimately the ‘equality of men and women’ of which we speak” (184).


We should note that He-Yin, in the “Manifesto” as in other essays, proclaims that women who wish to have sexual freedom are “traitors to womanhood” (184). Although she was no doubt familiar with the anarcho-feminist Emma Goldman, for whom sexual freedom was a major component of female freedom, He-Yin was in no way a proponent of a sexual revolution. We can speculate that this is in part because her vision of “woman” [女性] was not grounded in embodied sexuality/ subjectivity but rather in social relations. Meanwhile, however, for He-Yin, who does announce herself the moral arbiter of the archival past (she channels Confucius in her final locution: “agree with me or condemn me” [184, 知我罪我]), reclaiming nannv as a foundational category for a new social order is to strip it of its ideological pretense to separable unity thus to reconceptualize it as a new social relational mode through which equality could be forged. That is, the indivisibility would be maintained and yet transformed. She reinforces this point in her slightly later essay of September 1907, “On the Question of Women’s Liberation” (女子解放问题; nvzi jiefang wenti), where she documents how the political and moral institutions created by men historically have been aimed at differentiating between man and woman (男女有别;nannv youbie). The only way to rid China and the world of this philosophical dualism, whose materialist patriarchal practice of separation-in-unity is neither neutral nor natural, is to produce new conditions of possibility in economics, politics, and language (culture) through which one could “free the world from the rule of man and from the rule of woman... to begin to look toward the eventual abolition of government” (70).


The utopianism of the anarchist vision is in part responsible for the subsequent dismissing and burying in the historiography of Chinese feminism and radicalism of He-Yin Zhen and her advocacies. As Party-centered Marxist-Communist versions of China’s past and future were written and legitimized, or, alternatively, as liberal/fascist-capitalist versions were promoted, He-Yin’s efforts to reclaim nannv [manwoman] as a separation-in-equality – where the answer to inequality was not to reinforce structures of political and economic authority by opening participation in them to women, but rather to destroy them – fell by the wayside. After more than a century of practice, where patriarchy has not only survived but seems at times to have strengthened its grip; after more than a century of practice, where inequalities of every kind have proliferated… it may be time to think with He-Yin Zhen, to reconceptualize the past rather than merely to recontextualize it. Her uncompromising gendered vision of how to think through and out the other side of enduring categories of patriarchal power might just show a way.


*The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory, ed. Lydia Liu, Rebecca Karl, Dorothy Ko (Columbia UP 2013). (All translations cited in this essay are from that anthology; page numbers are in the text. The full punctuated, annotated, and corrected versions of Tianyi and Hengbao are available in a volume edited by Liu He [Lydia Liu] and Wan Shiguo, published by Renmin daxue chubanshe, 2015).

Rebecca E. Karl is Professor of History at New York University. Her work to date has explored the intersections of Chinese intellectual-cultural history, global change, and conceptual histories. She is interested in how China’s violent integration into the global capitalist world system of economics, culture, and society transformed China and the world from the late-nineteenth century onwards. She is the author of The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China (Duke 2017), Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History (Duke 2010), Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Duke 2002), and co-editor (with Lydia Liu and Dorothy Ko) of The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Columbia 2013). She also co-translated and co-edited (with Xueping Zhong) Cai Xiang’s Revolution and its Narratives: China’s Socialist and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949-1966 (Duke 2016).



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