Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Birth of Chinese Feminism

I've been meaning to write about this for a couple of weeks.  It's a commonplace that feminism and the gay movement are innately and perfidiously Western, and that activists are just trying to force their Euro-American categories down the helpless throats of indigenous women and queers around the world.  It's an odd instance of common ground between Third World fascists and Western postmodernists, which right there is a sign that something's wrong with the commonplace.  So I was happy to encounter a book on the New Arrivals shelf at the university library called The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory, published this year by Columbia University Press.  Edited by Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko, it collects English translations of feminist writings by Chinese writers at the end of Qing Dynasty, early in the twentieth century CE.  These include two manifestos by male writers urging China to move into the modern age and learn from the West's openness and dedicates to equality for all, and several pieces by a woman taking those male writers to task.  The woman, Zhen He-Yin,* labeled an "anarcho-feminist" by the editors, argued in Chinese terms for the liberation of women.
The social system in China has enslaved women and forced them into submission for many thousands of years.  In ancient times, men acquired proprietary rights over women to prevent them from being claimed by other men.  They created political and moral institutions, the first priority of which was to separate man from woman. For they considered the differentiation between man and woman to be one of the major principles in heaven and on earth.  Men thus confined women to the inner chamber and would not allow them to step beyond its boundaries.  The Book of Rites states, "When a married aunt, or sister, or daughter returns home (on a visit), no brother (of the family) should sit with her on the same mat or eat with her from the same dish."  It goes on to state [m]ale and female, without the intervention of the matchmaker, should not know each other's name.  Unless the marriage presents have been received, there should be no communication or affection between them" ]53-4]. **
But Zhen didn't regard the West as a role model for China either.
Liberation means setting [the body and the mind] free from bondage.  The problem with the marriage system in Europe and America is that individuals remain constrained by three bondages: power/privilege and self-interest profit, morality, and law.  They talk about freedom in marriage and so on.  But do individuals in Europe and America get married purely out of free love?  What often happens is that a man may lure a woman with his wealth, or a woman's family fortune may cause a woman to admire her and propose marriage ... [58]

As for equality between man and woman, it is likewise often a sham.  Although men and women are both now educated [in Europe and America], they live in a world supremely ruled by man.  Women seldom study politics or law and are completely barred from acquiring knowledge in the fields of the military and police.  It is true that women and men may socialize ; but when the world is controlled by governments that systematically exclude women from their governing bodies, so-called gender equality can exist only in name [59].
Things have changed somewhat in the West, but it took the better part of another century, and there are still efforts to roll back the progress that has been made.  So-called gender equality still exists only in name here.

Zhen wrote her essays while in exile in Japan, and this kind of criticism of her culture was dangerous. The editors mention one of her feminist contemporaries, "Qiu Jin (1875-1907), the cross-dressing revolutionary martyr, who left her husband and children behind to seek education in Japan, and who, upon her return to China, was executed by the Qing state for her advocacies of dynastic overthrow.  In her essays, songs, poetry, and short stories, Qiu tirelessly wrote of the nationalist political need for female emancipation" (35).  Zhen herself, "in her published works, ... prefers to sign her name He-Yin Zhen so as to include her mother's maiden name in the family name.  This was a decision grounded in her theoretical work published in National Justice" (2-3).

The Birth of Chinese Feminism isn't for every reader. Zhen bases much of her argument on exttended citations from the Chinese classics, which were important for her original readers but won't have much effect on a modern Western (or even non-Western) reader.  Those people who are interested in the history of feminism and gender struggle will probably find it interesting, as I did.

*The surname comes first here, as usual with East Asian names.
** I've silently removed the transliterated Chinese terms the editors included in the text.