He-Yin Zhen: Figures of Anarcho-Feminism

For many people, “anarchism” brings to mind images of chaos, destruction, and civil unrest. It is a word that is saturated with the concept of complete disorder; therefore, any ideas that the anarchist proposes are perceived as unorthodox. However, perhaps the anarchist thought should be reexamined through a different lens. Not as a source of an overarching solution to the problems of the world, but rather an insight into the concepts and ideas that remain on the fringes of what society deems as acceptable. This is why He-Yin Zhen, the feminist anarchist of 20th c. China, deserves greater scholastic attention.

A surviving image of He-Yin Zhen and her husband, Lui Shipei

He-Yin Zhen (Literally translated as He “Thunderclap”. She changed her name in 1904, and included her mother's maiden name “Yin” in her published writings) was born in 1884 China, to a wealthy Jiangsu home that held conservative ideals but also gave He-Yin an education in the Chinese classics. In 1904, she was married to Liu Shipei and in 1907, the couple joined the activist movements that were taking place in Tokyo, Japan. In Tokyo, she formed the Society for the Restoration of Women’s Rights and became an editor and contributor for the journal Natural Justice (Tianyi), where she published her essays in feminism from 1907–08. Through this influential journal, He-Yin brought together many women seeking change in the Chinese state and collaborated with other scholastic authors, becoming a prominent voice for revolution in the process during a time of Chinese civil unrest.

It is of note that many historians attributed her writings to Liu Shipei, as both operated under pen-names; the study of He-Yin is a fairly recent development. The couple worked with revolutionaries against the Manchu (who had ruled China for the past 268 years as the Qing dynasty) until 1908, when they fell out with fellow revolutionary Zhang Taiyan, and subsequently were ostracised following the collapse of the dynasty in 1911. In 1919, Liu Shipei passed away, and no scholar knows what truly happened to He-Yin. Rumors were spread that she left for a Buddist convent, or suffered a mental breakdown; the end of her life is shrouded in mystery.

The possible fate of He-Yin Zhen was after joining the Buddist convent, she was ordained as Xiao Qi the nun. Photo by Arnau Manyosa on Unsplash

However, we are left with a number of her writings. She was a truly revolutionary figure for her time, with ideas that were groundbreaking. He-Yin’s education in the Chinese Classics provided a firm foundation for her arguments, in combination with an educated awareness of contemporary global feminism at the time. Interacting with ideas of Marxism, communism, and anarchy, her feminism has been categorized as “anarchist feminism”.

Essentially, the premise of her ideological thesis is as follows. The current system of Chinese rule, and the male patriarchy in general, has been historically built to intentionally be unjust to women. Oppression will continue to endure under this system until the system itself is dismantled. Women who suffer from the patriarchy must lead the dismantlement. Men also suffer from the system to a lesser extent, mainly from economic disparities that are characteristic of capitalist civilization, which ultimately affect all peoples. Therefore, once women humble men to meeting them in dismantling the system, a complete desintigration of the societal structure gives way to a reconstruction of society, where property and the notions of gender difference are eliminated. Additionally, society would reform to be communally focused rather than individualistic or nationalist, essentially a world ruled by neither men nor women. He-Yin advocates this “anarchist feminism” as the true path to equality.

A definition of contemporary anarcho-feminism

“Anarchist feminism” is a very interesting concept, as it seeks to ultimately free humanity from the sins of civilization through the enfranchisement of women. There is something inherently noble and just about He-Yin’s goals, reevaluating what an anarchist truly is. For instance, throughout her various works there are themes of working to improve female mental health, proving an interesting intersection between feminism and mental health. In “On the Question of Women’s Liberation”, the essayist mentions the lack of freedom of the mind for women. The system has essentially rendered their inner desires void. Women cannot act and think the same way as men because they have faced traditions inhibiting this thinking. This is true throughout the world, even in the West. While He-Yin praises the Finnish Women’s Association for battling the Russians in 1894 and achieving parliamentary representation, the scholar remains steadfast that this will not solve the root of the issue. Even in nations deemed as truly progressive, such as America, women suffer in their minds under the rule of men. He-Yin observed countless reports of Chinese women turning to sexual promiscuity, such as incest and even murder of their husbands, and she attributes this to the chains of the female mind. If people are not permitted to have mental freedom, under the weights of tradition and societal institution, then they slowly deteriorate until they become violent or progress to become shells of their former selves. Ultimately, it can be interpreted as both communal and individualistic in practice; to benefit humanity, but to improve the quality of life for women in both a physical and mental sense.

He-Yin Zhen would agree — Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

When examining the contemporary Western social justice movements, the integral goal is for all citizens to be equally treated at the individual and societal level. Societies mental damage to the disenfranchised is extremely harmful to the well-being of all. This is where Zhen’s criticism of the capitalist system intersects with the socialist ideology and its proposed solutions. Socialist policy in states can help to mitigate some of the damages to the disenfranchised at the hands of the capitalist system, a position shared by contemporary movements. One proposed solution for instance is raising children in a socialist-communal system; this would inturn provide for both men and women their physical and mental freedom due to an increase in individual autonomy, supporting people on the individual and societal level. Another example is the elimination of private property serving as a pathway to eliminating the class system that had rendered many disenfranchised at societal and economic levels. These are all common themes of the contemporary social justice movements that are rising in America. He-Yin advocated for similar changes to society over a century before, making a possible connection between the movements interesting. If contemporaries had no contact with He-Yin, then perhaps some of her concepts were translated across the broader social revolutionary corpus. However, it is a certainty that He-Yin Zhen’s writings touched the very soul of the fight for social justice across the world.

It would not correct to say that He-Yin Zhen’s ideas were without their flaws. For example, the complete destruction of society would be very difficult today, and even in the 20th c., because of the globalized world we live in. The goal now become to bring this figure to light to a wider Western audience who have so often Europeanized the world. Through this exploration of knowledge on an international scale, perhaps a new innovative path could be forged towards greater social change. He-Yin Zhen’s essays carry immense knowledge and insight that is compiled with passionate undertones as she walks the ideological line between complete anarchy and a society founded on justice.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Hershatter, Gail. Women and China’s Revolutions, 2019. 83–86

He-Yin Zhen, “On the Question of Women’s Liberation” in Lydia Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, Dorothy Ko, eds., The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) — The entire book is pretty interesting, so check it out if you want.

He-Yin Zhen, “On the Question of Women’s Labor”, Ibid.

He-Yin Zhen, “Economic Revolution and Women’s Revolution”, Ibid.

He-Yin Zhen, “On the Revenge of Women”, Ibid.

He-Yin Zhen, “On Feminist Antimilitarism”, Ibid.

He-Yin Zhen, “The Feminist Manifesto”, Ibid.



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