Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, Dorothy Ko, eds. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 328 pp. ISBN 978-0-231-16291-3 (paperback).

Most students of modern Chinese history will have heard of He-Yin Zhen, until now better known as He Zhen, as a leading anarcho-feminist of the early twentieth century. Very few will know much more about her. Apart from Peter Zarrow’s 1988 article1 and a couple of others, studies of her either in Chinese or English are scarce; political controversy and marginalization and misattributions of authorship have, over time, conspired to deny her the critical attention she deserves. This volume, then, breaks completely new ground. Edited by three of the most eminent feminist historians of modern China, with annotated translations of six of her major essays alongside important pieces by two leading progressive intellectuals of her day, Liang Qichao and Jin Tianhe, it reveals a thinker of extraordinary critical insight, theoretical sophistication and breadth of scholarship and knowledge. It also reveals the plurality and complexity of Chinese feminist thought at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Born in 1886, He-Yin Zhen married Liu Shipei in 1904 and in 1907 went with him to Tokyo and became interested in anarchist ideas. Together with other Chinese exiles they set up the Society for the Restoration of Women’s Rights, and its journal Natural Justice (Tianyi). He-Yin Zhen’s ideas were highly controversial, and her anarchist critique of calls for suffrage and constitutional rights alienated her from the revolutionary mainstream urging the dynasty’s overthrow. She died (1920?) shortly after the death of her husband in 1919, in circumstances about which there is more rumour than reliable information.

Over its brief span of two years, Natural Justice became the most influential outlet of the time for debates about feminism, socialism and Marxism, and anarchism. It published the earliest Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto in 1908. He-Yin Zhen’s feminist analyses addressed an impressive range of issues, from political economy and capitalism, the modern state and international politics, to suffrage and patriarchy, rejecting the binaries of tradition and modernity, East and West and challenging the predominantly nationalist concerns underpinning her progressive contemporaries’ advocacy of women’s rights. In contrast to dominant emphases on the Confucian marriage and family system as the source of women’s subjugation, she argued that the enslavement of women was rooted in inequalities of wealth sustained by a transnational system of capitalist accumulation that targeted the labour and bodies of poor women. The main concepts she developed to carry this view were ‘nannü’ and ‘shengji’, neither of which, as the introduction explains, are translatable into the theoretical categories of contemporary thought. Nannü was a concept which He-Yin Zhen claimed had been central to patriarchal discourse for centuries, and which she re-inscribed as an indivisible combination of (our) contemporary categories of gender and class across boundaries of past and present, global and Chinese. As the editors put it in their introduction, nannü emerges as ‘an always already gendered time-space of social activity, production and life,’ long before ‘social constructivist’ departures from essentialist views of gender and sexuality (p. 10). Her linked concept of shengji (‘people’s livelihood’) centred on the idea that autonomous labour was fundamental to life itself, both for women and men, but in its commodified form under global capitalism signified the enslavement of all for material gain. Reclaiming autonomous labour was therefore fundamental to the liberation of women and all of humankind.

One of the first clues this volume gives to the bold clarity of her thought appears right at the beginning of the introduction, in a quotation from her 1907 article ‘On the Question of Women’s Liberation.’ ‘In the past when traditional ritual prevailed, men tried to distinguish themselves by confining women in the boudoir; when the tides turn in favor of Europeanization, they attempt to acquire distinction by promoting women’s liberation. This is what I call men’s pursuit of self distinction in the name of women’s liberation’ (p. 2). For He-Yin Zhen, Chinese men’s support for women’s education and suffrage was inspired not by concerns to liberate women but by the idea ‘that they will be applauded by the whole world for having joined the ranks of civilized nations’ that ‘all grant their women some degree of freedom’ (p. 2). As the introduction comments, her attack on her progressive male contemporaries ‘opens up a vast space for a new interpretation of the rise of feminism in China and the world’ (p. 2).

A review of this brevity cannot hope to do justice to the complexity of He-Yin Zhen’s ideas or to its significance for feminist theory in producing a historicized category—nannü—that troubles the common use of ‘gender’ to analyse a political and historical moment from which the category was absent. Nor can it do justice to the scholarly precision of the editors and translators of this book. In resuscitating He-Yin Zhen’s work, they have produced a volume that challenges long-established views about the birth of Chinese feminism and re-positions it as a pluralist and global event, the theoretical significance of which continues to resonate today. It should become required reading for all interested in the history of early Chinese feminism and its contribution to debates that go far beyond the familiar themes and boundaries associated with it.

(Harriet Evans, University of Westminster)


1 Zarrow, Peter. “He Zhen and Anarcho-Feminism in China.” Journal of Asian Studies 47.4 (November 1988): 796-813.