In her oral and textual history Women in the Chinese Enlightenment, Wang Zheng posits a response to a fundamental “woman question”, that problem that had long cradled and shaped the emergence of China’s new turn-of-century nationalism. According to Wang, the May Fourth period’s (1915–1925) emergent feminism was itself predicated on the concurrent New Culture’s education in, and rejection of, dominant Confucian gender hierarchy: It was this “modernizing” impulse – one partly furnished by the new culture’s embrace of readily-available Western liberal concepts of human rights[1]–  that necessarily encouraged the development of a male-driven nationalist discourse, one with a female-oriented ethic, around which the goal of women’s emancipation became a logical and primary embodiment of national modernity [2].

Although new nationalist-feminist precepts helped impregnate the May Fourth period and beyond with a heretofore unlikely agency – furnishing a space for a more even and equal education, economic uplift, social engagement, and national intercourse – the experience of individual fulfillment and a general flourishing of female spirit was, in fact, limited and highly variable. Among other factors, the New Culture’s largely masculine makeup and heteronormative character only emphasized an inherited normative gender difference, while its prescription of national duty – in addition to an as of yet unalleviated, residual gender hierarchy – shifted revolutionary onus onto women, subjecting an unsteady accommodation of both male and female duties and identities[3]. The oral histories documented and celebrated in Women in the Chinese Enlightenment, then, give voice to the crucial narratives of female protagonists who struggled to attain a sense of both inter-generic equality and intrapersonal equilibrium amid the May Fourth period.

Emerging in 1915 with the first publication of Chen Duxiu’s New Youth, the New Culture movement was defined by participants’ rejection of any dominant Confucian template of association.[4], [5] Almost all of the leading New Culturalists were from declining scholar-gentry families, educated in the Confucian classics during their childhood[6]. As such, their critique of Confucianism emerged from a deeply personal place: concentrating on Confucian identity, and the personal-political implications of its central “inhumanness” (feiren).[7] New Culturalists focused heavily on Confucianism’s prescription of – what Chen and others saw as – a sort of gendered submission, one endemic to Chinese culture and society. “In contrast to the autonomous human being,” Wang writes, “the submissive Confucian subject was described not only as a pitiable figure in the modern world, but also as totally unfit for a new civilization.”[8]

These new intellectuals (zhisi fenzi) sought a reinvigorated China, believing that for China to survive as an independent nation, “Chinese culture and Chinese national character had to be remolded.” [9] As such, they levied their three-pronged assault upon Confucianism’s cardinal principles – ruler guides subject, father guides son and husband guides wife – which they “held responsible for making Chinese into slaves.”[10] This critique necessarily, and crucially so, included an attack on gender hierarchy and inequality:

More important to the New Culturalists, the social institutions based on [Confucian principles] provided ample evidence of the inhumaneness of Confucianism. Footbinding, concubinage, arranged marriage, female chastity, sexual segregation, and so on were cited frequently by New Culturalists to demonstrate what they viewed as “the cruelty, irrationality, backwardness, and stupidity” of Chinese cultural tradition.[11] [12]

Women’s emancipation, then, was part and parcel of a cultural program of national reinvention, “viewed by these men as a necessary stage in the development of society.”[13] Late Qing–era male-championed antecedents, like those of Kang Youwei, are crucial here: combining with Jin Tianhe’s early embrace of a Western liberal  belief in civil and women’s rights to ultimately inform a syncretic nationalism that, by the May Fourth period, necessarily included feminism[14]: To the New Culturalists, feminism and its discontents were a discursive signifier of national modernity: a feminist politic inextricable from nationalism and vice versa.[15] “In other words,” Wang narrates, “without the birth of new women, it could never be said that China had achieved a new culture, a higher stage of civilization.”[16]

The shifting national landscape partly enabled by the New Culture helped and hindered the aspirations and general development of female lives in May Fourth period China. Experiences were not uniform, however; those described in Wang’s text defy the normative typologies of womanhood, relaying a form and space for the individual woman and her associations. Shifting attitudes accompanying the May Fourth period generally emancipated women to a limited extent: encouraging a certain kind of education, social uplift – both associated with women’s economic independence[17] – and, more broadly, a national and sub-national association, while still incurring pre-1911 norms of gender association.

Both Liu-Wang Liming and Lu Lihua, for example, were able to afford– in both the economic and social sense – a man’s education, which, Wang notes, “changed [their] lives, as it did the lives of many women at that time.”[18] This was certainly a product of the post-Xinhai time directly preceding the May Fourth period, as Lu notes her older sister, just five years older, is of a “different era”:

[My sister] was five years older than I, born in a different era. She grew up before the Xinhai Revolution, therefore her ideas were kind of old-fashioned. She had bound feet and no schooling, because school for girls was not popular in her day. She later blamed my parents for not letting her attend school. My parents said, “At the time, [women did not attend] school, so how could we let you go to school?”[19]

In the post-Xinhai era, however, for the women whose families could afford it, the social and economic opportunity afforded by education was totemic and life-changing. “The May Fourth movement,” writes Wang, “saw the rise of a new social category: female students (nüxuesheng).”[20]It is thus partly Lu’s education that enables her to choose her vocational destiny – rejecting the “commercial business” and “dishonest merchant trade” of her father and attend gymnastics school in Shanghai – an event that changes the course of her life, setting her on the path towards a freer association and supervision.[21]

Yet the landscape engendered by the May Fourth era was hardly uniform, not even for Lu. Firstly, the gender discourse accompanying the May Fourth period was largely male-directed, led by those like Chen Duxiu and other male New Culturalists, in a way that generally, though not exclusively, precluded the female voice. The New Culture focus on gender, though sincere, was not necessarily teleological: “Identifying with the New Culture became merely a sign of modern citizenship,” Wang writes. “Talking about women’s emancipation was an easy way to express such an identification.”[22]

[1] Zheng Wang, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1999). p. 12–13.

[2] Wang, p. 13.

[3] Wang, p. 19.

[4] Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 3rd ed., Paperback (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013). p.

[5] Wang, p. 14.

[6] Wang, p. 10.

[7] Wang, p. 12.

[8] Wang, p. 12–13.

[9] Wang, p. 10.

[10] Wang, p. 11.

[11] Wang, p. 12.

[12] Lu Xun, “Kuangren riji” [“A madman’s diary”]. In Lu Xun xuanji [Selected works of Lu Xun], ed. Wenxue chubanshe (Hong Kong: Wenxue chubanshe, 1956), 53–63.

[13] Wang, p. 13.

[14] Wang, p. 36–38.

[15] Wang, p. 13.

[16] Wang, p. 48.

[17] Wang, p. 93.

[18] Wang, p. 135.

[19] Wang, p. 165.

[20] Wang, p. 13.

[21] Wang, p. 149.

[22] Wang, p. 13.

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