The Birth of Chinese Feminism

Columbia University Press sent me a copy of a really good book, Lydia Liu, Rebecca Karl and Dorothy Ko. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2013. The core of the book is a set of translations of essays by He-Yin Zhen, although we also get a lengthy introduction and translations of few other key texts.

The authors are interested in He-Yin Zhen because she was one of the the most interesting feminist theorists of the late Qing who has been ignored because her fundamental analytic category of nannu 男女 (literally man and woman or male/female) did not fit well with with either bourgeois or anarcho-feminist ideas about gender. The book includes translations of Liang Qichao’s On Women’s Education and Jin Tianhe’s The Woman’s Bell, but unlike these two (male-authored) texts, He-Yin Zhen did not subordinate woman’s issues to nationalism, modernization, or racial survival.

..instead, in He Yin Zhen’s theoretical idiom, history is formed by a continuously reproduced injustice in the manner of what the Annales school of French historians would come to call the longue duree, whose generalized contours of uneven wealth and property as well as it specificities of embodied affect could be made visible through the figure of “woman”.

For He-Yin, nannu 男女 was the fundamental analytical category, more important that Chinese vs. Western, modern vs. premodern, or Marxist ideas about class. In “On the question of Women’s Labor” she discusses labor and the subordination of women throughout Chinese and modern history, claiming that while modern factory labor has special characteristics, in the end it grows out of the unequal distribution of wealth, the same cause as the subordination of women in traditional society. In “Economic Revolution and Women’s Revolution” He-Yin is in favor of love marriage, but sees every type of existing marriage, both for men and for women, as a form of prostitution. In “On Feminist Antimilitarism” she claims that antimilitarism would be good for “weak nations (literally “races or kind”, zhong 種), the common people, and women.” It’s practically subaltern studies.

It’s a very good book, with some very good readings. It’s pretty obvious why a lot of these have not been translated before, since it is hard to see how you could take a class from some of these readings to other stuff that was going on in 1907.


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