Rebecca Karl is an associate professor of history at NYU who primarily studies 20th century Chinese history. Her recent book, co-edited with Dorothy Ko and Lydia Liu, translates and introduces the early twentieth-century writings of anarcho-feminist writer He-Yin Zhen, which were largely suppressed or overlooked by her male contemporaries.
Shanghaiist: Tell us about He-Yin Zhen
Rebecca Karl: He-Yin Zhen was not only a feminist, she was also an anarchist. Her history has been buried because she’s too feminist for the anarchists, she’s too anarchist for the Marxists, she’s too Marxist for the liberals…she’s too something for somebody. So she’s just not very well known. Her husband Liu Shipei, however, was a very famous intellectual of the late-Qing period, and when we started looking for her writing we found that all of her texts had been incorporated into the collected work of her husband.
SHist: She sounds a bit like Emma Goldman (late nineteenth century American anarchist). Can you tell me what her impact was?
RK: Well besides founding Natural Law, the journal that published the first Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto, she also had an incredibly far-sighted perspective on the role of women. While other feminists understood women’s liberation in terms of contributing to the strength of the nation, as an anarchist she thought the state was a part of the problem. Thus, she brought a feminist critique of the state into the equation decades before any other feminist did so. She also brought an awareness of this idea she called nanv (男女). What she means by nanv is that all social relations incorporate within them the social relationship between men and women. This is still a disputed topic in feminist analysis, but it was way ahead of its time then.
SHist: Why should we care about He-Yin Zhen today?
RK: We should care about her today because many of her critiques still ring true. She was a strident critic of factory production, which was just beginning then. She was a critic of concubinage which has become pretty potent again between some Hong Kong and Taiwan businessmen who come to China and have 二太太 (second wives). While the issues Chinese women face today aren’t exactly the same — they aren’t — they are sufficiently similar in structure that He-Yin Zhens writings remain relevant and startling.
SHist: We’ve interviewed folks like Shaun Rein who have told us that Chinese capitalism has been great for gender equality. What’s your take on this?
RK: In May, I held a workshop with the twelve leading feminist thinkers about Marxism and Feminism in China and this was the entire discussion about which we could have no resolution. This is the big question, ok?
There is no doubt that the Maoist period, through the power of the state suppressed a series of what were called ‘evil practices’: concubinage, prostitution, and foot-binding. Since the 1980s we have seen a lot of these practices — well, fortunately not foot-binding — come roaring back just as socialist feminist institutions like the Women’s Federations have lost a lot of credibility. Let me be clear though, this isn’t about absolute standards of living for women but rather about the issue of relative equality with men.
Ultimately, because of the withdrawal of state support for feminism we see what happens, which is a real regression in gender relations, and a real regression in the status of women in society.
SHist: Rape and sexual assault has been a growing issue too. Has there been a change in the way this is perceived?
RK: During the Maoist period, rape was treated incredibly harshly, and was punished incredibly harshly and was not understood to be the women’s fault. What happens these days I think that there’s reversion back to some sort of conservative idea that if a woman gets raped it’s somehow her fault. That she dressed provocatively, that she acted provocatively, that she stimulated it or something.
SHist: On a different note, one of the most public figures in Chinese feminism is Ye Haiyan, who has gained fame for stunts such like going out and becoming a prostitute for a week. Do you think He-Yin Zhen and Ye Haiyan would have been friends or enemies?
RK: No. Enemies.
SHist: Enemies? Why? What do you think of her.
RK: Yeah, no. I’m not prepared to do a takedown of Ye Haiyan.
RK: I mean I think Ye Haiyan has carved for herself a position and a forum in which she can raise what she considers to be the essential questions of Chinese feminism today. They wouldn’t be my questions and they wouldn’t be He-Yin Zhen’s questions. How’s that for a pretty moderate, mild critique?
Read a sample of The Birth of Chinese Feminism at Columbia University Press or buy the book at Amazon.com.
[By Patrick Lozada and Yining Su]