One Hundred Years of Chinese Feminism

Professor Tani Barlow from Rice University spoke to women’s studies students about the history of feminism in mainland China.

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 10, 2016)— Before the end of the 1800s, life in Chinese society was structured around the all-important relationship between father and son. According to guest lecturer Tani Barlow, T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Asian Studies at Rice University, “The political force of the father-son bond kept the society together.” That view was deeply shaken near the end of the 19th century when, Barlow said, western missionaries working in China circulated basic anatomical and physiological information. “What we have in the Chinese theories of balance is … hierarchal, unequal, but reciprocal relationships … between…a husband and a wife. The issue is that people hadn’t thought about this in terms of their physical bodies.”


Kang Youwei, a Confucian reformer, was perhaps most famous for his Book of Great Unity, a utopian treatise. Part of this philosophy, Barlow explained, is “that women and men are the same. No one is better than the other. And the father-son thing is good, but the male-female thing is fundamental.” One of Kang’s solutions to inequality was education. He worked as a reformer, to advocate for education. He believed, Barlow said, that, “when you educate everybody, there’s no grounds for seeing another person as inferior to yourself. They may be anatomically and physiologically different than you, but in the quality of their mind and their moral capacity, they’re just the same as you.”

Liang Qichao, another reformer, believed in the power of emotion. According to Barlow, “He believed that Chinese women, in the long history of China, had been suppressed.” However, Barlow suggested that their voices were nevertheless preserved. “How could we find their voices?” she asked. “Their emotions had been trapped in the writing,” and could be found in the preserved texts. Barlow explained that Qichao saw emotion as
a liberating force of women, that could “draw people together and give them a better way of life because they could understand each other.”

The feminist figure that Barlow called the “most revolutionary of all [the] figures from this time period” was a woman named He Zhen. She was an anarcho-feminist convinced that women had been sexually traumatized and demeaned by patriarchy as well as capitalism. Barlow commented, “She [was] very violent. The problem for her was that capitalism and patriarchy weren’t the same age, so sometimes she would just say, ‘kill men.’” Zhen believed that women shouldn’t be like men, because men were violent and lustful. Ironically, she determined that women needed to kill men that were evil and stand up to the rest to claim their rights.

Qiu Jin was another violently inclined feminist, but also a fierce nationalist. She learned feminist philosophies while living in Japan and brought them back to China. She was an educated woman, famous for cross-dressing often and always carrying a dagger. She was captured during an uprising she had orchestrated against the government, after which she died a martyr for the “new nation.” Later, a woman named Ding Ling “called out the Maoist party at a turning point in communist history and really scolded Mao Zedong, saying that he was a sexist.” Ding Ling was one of many famous, popular feminists who left behind writing that is now an integral part of modern Chinese literature. Women began, more and more, to write about their opinions, feelings, desires and goals.

Professor Barlow concluded, “The most important thing I want you to take from my remarks is that Chinese feminism is a century old.” She told the audience that Chinese feminism is part of a much wider global adjustment in thought as people embraced a rapidly changing world of a myriad of ideas and discoveries. She said, “it’s important to keep in mind that all over the world, people develop these strong ways of thinking about the problem of what the modern future’s going to bring for all of us.”1204deffcb6de72f985ef226264bf563

–Olivia Madsen (French language, ’17)

Olivia covers events for the Women’s Studies Program for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in writing and rhetoric.