The Best Feminist You’ve Never Heard Of: He-Yin Zhen

Discussions of historical feminists usually focus on figures like Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst. If you’re lucky anti-capitalist feminists like Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and Eleanor Marx will be mentioned. In this video I’m going to be talking about a historical feminist you’ve probably never heard of: the Chinese anarchist feminist He-Yin Zhen, who during the early 20th century developed feminist theory which conceptualised the manner in which patriarchy, capitalism and the state intersected with one another to uniquely oppress working class women in China. 

He-Yin was born in 1884 to wealthy parents in China’s Jiangsu province and received a considerable childhood education. In 1904 she married the classical scholar Liu Shipei and subsequently fled to Tokyo with him in 1907 due to their opposition to Manchu rule in China. It was in Tokyo, where they lived among Chinese students and exiled revolutionaries in the Kanda district, that they first discovered and came to identify with anarchism. According to the historian Peter Zarrow, Liu and He-Yin were, alongside Zhang Ji, the first Chinese anarchists we know of living outside of Europe. That same year He-Yin co-founded ‘the Society for the Restoration of Women’s Rights’ and its accompanying journal, Natural Justice. The society’s bylaws prohibited supporting governments, acting in subservience to men, and becoming a concubine or second wife. The journal Natural Justice, which was edited by He-Yin, was in print for only two years but played a crucial role in spreading feminism, socialism, Marxism and anarchism among Chinese speakers. This can be seen in the fact that the journal published the earliest Chinese translation of large parts of the Communist Manifesto in 1908. (Zarrow 1988, 800; Zarrow 1990, 31, 33-4, 101-4, 130-1)

In the pages of Natural Justice He-Yin laid out her theory of how women’s oppression arose, was reproduced and could be abolished. Central to this theorising was the Confucian concept of nannü, which can be translated as ‘man-woman’. In Confucianism the concept of nannü was used by male thinkers to render the inequalities and differences between men and women as inherent aspects of the natural world which it was wrong to oppose or try to change. The White Tiger Discourse, for example, claims that “[t]he husband is high as the wife is low; the husband is to heaven as the wife is to earth. The wife cannot do without her husband as the earth cannot do without Heaven.” (Quoted in He-Yin 2013, 180) He-Yin responded to this intellectual context by taking the concept of nannü and using it to theorise how the inequalities and differences between men and women were inherently historical and socially produced, rather than natural, and so could be changed. In her usage the concept nannü refers to the social system under which human action continually produces and reproduces the division of men and women into distinct social categories with accompanying roles who stand in specific social relations to one another. (see the extended discussion on translating nannü by the editors in ibid, 10-17, 20)

There are two important features of nannü as a concept which must be stressed. Firstly, it holds that ‘men’ and ‘women’ cannot be understood in isolation of one another but must instead be understood in terms of the relations that they stand in with one another, such as the actual and socially prescribed relationships between husband and wife, father and daughter, male emperor and female concubine and so on. This relational view of men and women is similar to how Marx defines capitalist and worker in terms of their relationship with one another and the productive process which they both take part in.

Secondly, it holds that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are not static fixed entities but are rather on-going processes which change over time. What it is for an individual to be a ‘woman’ will change between the 16th and 19th century or will change as a woman moves from being a child to an adult and from unmarried to married to widowed. These changes to womanhood can crucially be brought about by women themselves, such as He-Yin changing her own sense of being a woman through the creation of feminist theory. This can be seen in He-Yin’s view that part of why women must emancipate themselves is because it develops their character as women and enables them to unlearn the passivity that they have been socialised into. (ibid, 63) The end point of such emancipation was for He-Yin the abolition of nannü as a social system. She writes that,

Men and women are both humans. By [saying] ‘men’ (nanxing) and ‘women’ (nuxing) we are not speaking of  ‘nature’, as each is but the outcome of differing social customs and education. If sons and daughters are treated equally, raised and educated in the same manner, then the responsibilities assumed by men and women will surely become equal. When that happens, the nouns ‘men’ and ‘women’ would no longer be necessary. This is ultimately the ‘equality of men and women’ of which we speak. (ibid, 184)

The history of how patriarchy arose was for He-Yin the history of how men “created political and moral institutions, the first priority of which was to separate man from woman” and thereby come to consider “the differentiation between man and woman” as “one of the major principles in heaven and on earth.” These divisions between men and women either did not exist prior to the creation of patriarchy, such as women’s subservience to men, or were built upon previously existing differences which hitherto had not been of supreme importance and did not determine a person’s social positioning within a relationship of domination and subordination, such as men’s control of women’s capacity to have children. Crucially, in both cases these divisions were created by human action and were not, as people under patriarchy thought, inherent in the natural order. (ibid, 53) 

The key social system which established and reproduced the division of men and women into separate social categories was men’s exclusive right to own property. She writes that “[f]or thousands of years, the world has been dominated by the rule of man. This rule is marked by class distinctions over which men – and men only – exert proprietary rights.” These “proprietary rights” consisted of, alongside the ownership of land and resources, the ownership of women as property. (ibid)   

He-Yin thought that prior to the creation of patriarchy through the enslavement of women, humans initially lived in egalitarian societies in which property was owned in common, both men and women had multiple sexual partners, and children inherited their mothers’ surname because it was not important who the father was. Women’s oppression arose due to a division of labour in which men were soldiers and women were not. The consequence of this division of labour was that when different groups of humans came into armed conflict with one another the victorious group cemented their military supremacy by killing the male soldiers, seizing communally owned property as their own private property, and enslaving the remaining men as labourers and the women as concubines. In so doing the victorious male soldiers established themselves as a ruling class who wielded power over both other men and women through the ownership of resources and human beings. The establishment of patriarchy and class society therefore not only coincided with one another but patriarchy itself was a gendered form of class society because women were owned as sex slaves. (ibid, 92, 108-9) He-Yin writes,

just as the systems of communal marriage and common property were linked, so were the systems of pillaging women for marriage and slavery also linked at their very birth. And so it was that brute force became the way to rule: separating the strong from the weak, creating division into two classes. Both women and men were the objects of brute force, suppressed by those men with strength and power. Henceforth, slavery became the mode of production: whereas the weak expended their strength, the strong enjoyed their successes without effort; and the extremes of wealth and poverty gradually became more severe. (ibid, 92-3)

The practice of owning women as sex slaves simultaneously led men to view women as inferior beings who should be treated as objects and led women to become “disposed to servitude” and following “the commands of men”. It was therefore not long before what He-Yin termed ‘the age of men’s plundering of women’ was supplanted by ‘the age of men’s trading of women’, in which men, rather than seizing women through armed conflict, bought and sold women from within their own and neighbouring communities. This development represented a shift from a society in which women captured through military conquest were thought of as inferior, to a society in which women as a whole were thought of as inferior because all women, rather than only some, became the property of men. Under such a system, men were humans and women were chattel. (ibid, 110-1, 178-80) 

The transition to patriarchy was therefore the process through which a previous matrilineal social system in which both men and women had multiple sexual partners was replaced by a social system in which men owned multiple women as property and prohibited women from having any other sexual partner but them. Under such a system of ownership women lost their surnames in favour of the surname of their husband and the children they gave birth to inherited the surname of the father, rather than the mother. (ibid, 111-2)

The oppression of women was subsequently reproduced through a series of social practices which continually marked out the division between men and women. These included but were not limited to: a gendered division of labour in which men left the household to earn a living whilst women were forced to remain at home and perform “the double task of raising children” and “managing the household”; inequality in the system of rites whereby a husband would have to mourn his wife for a year but a wife would have to mourn her husband for three years; inequality in education such that women were taught how to be wives but not intellectuals; and a vast array of Confucian scholarship written by men which established the ideological underpinnings of man’s oppression of women and was used as the basis for patriarchal laws. (ibid, 54, 181, 122-46, 148-9)

These gendered forms of oppression permeated the whole of society such that irrespective of your economic class and social status if you were a woman then there was some man who you were subordinate to. An upper class woman, for example, may hold power over lower class men but at the same time be subordinate to the power of her wealthy husband. As He-Yin writes,

there is not a single woman who has not been ill treated by some man . . . One cannot deny that an empress occupies a highly esteemed position, but she never questions her own subjugation to a man (men). At the other end of the hierarchy, one finds beggars whose social position cannot be more degraded, yet even a female beggar would not question her subjugation to a man (men). (ibid, 105)

Although all women were subordinate to some man, they did not share the same experiences of subordination due to their different positions within economic and political hierarchies. Lower class women, who were the majority of women, experienced patriarchal, economic and state oppression at the same time. Although He-Yin did not use the word intersectionality, which was coined by Kimberlee Crenshaw in 1989, she did nonetheless think in an intersectional way. (Crenshaw 1989; Collins and Bilge 2016, 2, 4, 26-7) For He-Yin structures of oppression are not separate discrete entities but instead mutually determine and define one another. On her view, patriarchal, economic and state oppression form an interlocking web in which each component is defined in terms of its relationship to every other component. There is no such thing as pure patriarchy because part of what patriarchy is as a really existing social phenomenon is the relations it stands in with other structures of oppression, such as economic oppression. A working-class woman does not experience patriarchal + economic + state oppression whereby each form of oppression is separate and independent from one another. She instead experiences the product of these three systems of oppression interacting with one another to create life experiences that cannot be reduced to any one of these oppressive systems but are instead the product of all three at once. To understand oppression is therefore to examine how a given person is socially positioned along multiple different axis, rather than focusing only on one axis which is taken to be the most important.

I shall first discuss the intersection of patriarchal and economic oppression, then the intersection of patriarchal and state oppression and then the intersection of all three. He-Yin gives three main examples of the intersection of patriarchal and economic oppression. Firstly, poor families could not live solely off of male labour and so lower class women were forced to, usually in addition to raising children and managing the household, work as farmers, factory workers, domestic servants, bond servants, concubines and sex workers. (He-Yin 2013, 55, 82) Although, unlike upper class women, they were free to leave the home this freedom was not a liberating one since they suffered “the most strenuous forms of labor, the most ruthless exploitation, and the most shameful humiliation”. (ibid, 55)

Secondly, patriarchal and economic oppression combined to create a society in which lower class women were forced by poverty to become sex workers who sold their bodies to men who viewed women as sex objects. Poor families, for example, would often sell their daughters, who due to patriarchy they valued less than their sons, as slaves to rich men or brothels visited primarily by rich men. Their poverty was in turn caused by these same rich men economically exploiting them. The upper class therefore both created the conditions under which lower class women were forced into sex work by poverty whilst at the same time being the primary users and owners of sex workers. In a society in which women were owned as property the sale of daughters by lower class families could be viewed, according to He-Yin, as an indirect means through which rich men both seized the property of the poor and raped the daughters of the poor. Even those women who found employment as factory workers or maids were forced to engage in sex work part time because their male employers did not pay them a living wage. (ibid, 74-5, 82-84, 88-9) He-Yin writes that,  

in a world where property is not equal, those who escape being a concubine may not escape being prostitutes; those who escape being a prostitute may not escape being a factory girl or a servant. Even if one is a factory girl or a servant in name, prostitution is the hidden reality. (ibid, 90)

Thirdly, in many cases lower class women, including those who did not engage in sex work, were raped or sexually harassed within the workplace by their male employer or manager and outside the workplace by upper class men who happened to notice them in public. In such situations both lower class women and their families were not in a position to do anything about what had happened because the perpetrator was wealthy and, if it occurred within the workplace, could make their life even worse by having them fired. This sexual violence therefore simultaneously had a gendered aspect, it was directed at them by a man, and an economic aspect, the man in question wielded class power over them. (ibid, 95-6, 100, 101)

A significant number of modern feminists would object to He-Yin’s description of sex work as women selling their bodies to men. She does nonetheless explicitly say that sex workers degrade their bodies not because they have sex with multiple men but because they, like all who must work for the wealthy in order to survive, sell their bodies for money. She therefore views capitalism as a social system in which the working classes in general sell their bodies to the rich, rather than thinking this is unique to sex work under capitalism. (ibid, 64, note 29, 80) Elsewhere He-Yin writes that those who “call prostitutes and concubines insulting names” are “pathetic”. (ibid, 84)

He-Yin does advocate the abolition of sex work, but she does not think this should occur through the violence of the state. She argued against the criminalisation of sex work on the grounds that such laws ignore that women engage in sex work in order to earn a living and will continue to do so as long as capitalism exists. She writes,

Although eliminating prostitution and concubinage is spoken of all over the country, neither public opinion nor legislative prohibition can stop poor women from becoming prostitutes and concubines. Nor can they stop the rich from patronizing prostitutes and keeping concubines. Even if the systems of prostitution and concubinage were eliminated in name, they would persist in reality. (ibid, 86)

According to He-Yin, the abolition of sex work could only come about through the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a classless society. She advocates,

the implementation of communalized property, where there is no differentiation between the wealthy and the poor. This would allow poor women not to seek money by sacrificing their bodies and would prevent the rich from using their wealth to satisfy their desires. It would also eliminate the system of women’s employment, thus overturning the trend toward semiprostitution and semiconcubinage. In this way, one could save women from hardship. (ibid, 90)

This is not to say that He-Yin’s critique of involuntary sex work under capitalism is flawless. The way He-Yin talks about sex work gives the impression that her critique was underpinned by sexual prudishness. For example, she describes sex work as an “immoral profession” based on “the selling of lewdness and obscenity” which poor women “sink into”. She alleges that wealthy men who hire poor sex workers “ruin the virtue of women” and that “wealth is the root cause of lustful indulgence”. (ibid, 88, 97, 84, 96) He-Yin’s response to the idea that women should have multiple husbands in order to be equal with men who have multiple wives is particularly yikes. She writes that,

A woman who has multiple husbands is virtually a prostitute. Those women who are now advocating multiple husbands use the pretext of resisting men, but their real motivation is to give full rein to their personal lust, following the path of prostitutes. These women are traitors to womanhood. (ibid, 184)

Within another passage He-Yin complains about women who “appear to be liberated” but are instead merely “taking cover under freedom and equality to seek self-gratification and the fulfillment of sexual desire”. Some of these women are “driven by blind passion and some are seduced by men and fall into their snare.” She claims that “when liberation is mistaken for self-indulgence, a woman cannot think of a nobler task than sexual pleasure”. It should, however, be noted that He-Yin also writes that “free love is an exception” to this, where free love means a monogamous sexual relationship in which both partners are free and equal. It is, in addition the case that, she critiques these liberated women for conceiving of “liberation much too narrowly” and focusing on their own individual self-indulgence, rather than fundamental social change for everyone. (ibid, 63-4) Perhaps then He-Yin’s issue is not with the fact that these women are pursuing sex but with the fact that they are ignoring the need to achieve universal human emancipation and are being seduced by sexist men who treat them badly.

According to He-Yin, women were oppressed not only by the intersection of patriarchal and economic oppression, but also suffered due to the intersection of patriarchal and state oppression. This took the form of women being excluded from wielding political power and commanding armies. The consequence of this is that states were not merely institutions controlled by a ruling minority in their interests. They were controlled by a ruling minority who were specifically men and so had an interest in reproducing and expanding the oppression of women by men. In those rare moments when women did wield state power they would often have to entrust the affairs of state to their husband or brothers and would be viewed as a danger to the country by men. State power was therefore exercised to perpetuate not only economic and political oppression but also gender oppression. For He-Yin one of the prime examples of this was patriarchal laws which dictated that when a man committed a crime the punishment would be applied not only to the guilty man but also to the innocent women within his household, which included his wife, daughters, sisters and concubines. The consequence of this is that countless women were executed, banished or imprisoned by the state because of the crimes their husband, brother or father committed. The law treated women “as appendages of men” and so deprived them of life for crimes they did not commit simply because of who their father, brother or husband happened to be. (ibid, 59, 107, 147-8, 158-67)

The intersections of patriarchal, economic and state oppression came together in the form of state power being exercised to force large numbers of women to become the concubines of both the male head of state and male lords. Under this system the political ruling class was divided into ranks and the higher a man’s rank was the more sex slaves he could have. Although in some periods these women were from both upper class and lower class families it was nonetheless the case that the majority of the women coerced into sex slavery by the state were poor. In some cases the concubines of Emperors would even be killed and buried alongside the Emperor when he died. (ibid, 112-3, 153-8)

Equipped with this intersectional theory of women’s oppression He-Yin critiqued liberal feminists who sought to achieve women’s emancipation through winning the right to vote and electing women into parliament. Such a strategy ignored that the majority of women are simultaneously oppressed by patriarchy, capitalism and the state. As a result, liberal feminists would not achieve the emancipation of women as a whole but would merely establish a situation in which a minority of upper class women wielded state power alongside men to oppress the majority of the population, both male and female, in their class interests. He-Yin writes,

If gender equality simply means that a minority of women may take political office and maintain an equilibrium of power with a minority of men who hold similar office, we should try to explain how the following happens among men: namely, in today’s world where there is difference between men who rule over other men and men who are ruled by them, the majority of the ruled in the world of men are demanding a revolution. As for the idea of equal division of power between men and women, most people seem to believe that since there are power holders among men, there should be among women as well. But did such powerful female sovereigns as Queen Victoria of the British Empire or Empresses Lü Zhi and Empress Wu Zetian in the dynastic history of China ever bring the slightest benefits to the majority of women?

A minority of women holding power is hardly sufficient to save the majority of women. In the case of Norway, for instance, the few aristocratic women who occupy political office do little in the way of bringing benefits to the general population. And as representatives of women from the upper classes and gentry families, these women have gained political rights and are assisting men from the upper classes in perpetrating damages even further. If their legislative work benefits upper-class women only, it deepens the suffering of lower-class women. (ibid, 66)

The emancipation of women as a whole could only be achieved by abolishing the three main social structures which intersected to oppress them: patriarchy, capitalism and the state. He-Yin writes that her “understanding of gender equality implies equality among all human beings, which refers to the prospect of not only men no longer oppressing women but also men no longer oppressed by other men and women no longer oppressed by other women.” Given this, “rather than wrest power from men, modern women should aim to overturn the rule of man by compelling men to renounce their privileges and power and humble themselves so man and woman can achieve equality on woman’s terms. . . the ultimate goal of women’s liberation is to free the world from the rule of man and from the rule of woman”. He-Yin was therefore “proposing not merely a women’s revolution but a complete social revolution” which abolished the state and capitalism in favour of an anarchist society based on communal ownership. Or as He-Yin writes elsewhere, “if you desire to realise a women’s revolution, you must begin with an economic revolution”. (ibid, 65-6, 70, 183, 103)

Doing so was necessary to abolish patriarchy because of the manner in which capitalism and the state underpinned and constituted patriarchy as a really existing social structure. In a classless egalitarian society based on production and distribution according to need women would no longer be subordinate to the whims of men who wielded economic and political power over them and forced women to engage in work, including sex work, in order to survive. In the absence of money women would marry for love rather than wealth and childcare could be organised communally rather than being the individual responsibility of mothers. This is not to say that abolishing capitalism and the state was sufficient to abolish patriarchy. He-Yin held that there must, in addition, be a transformation in gender relations such that sons and daughters were raised equally and given an equal education. As adults men and women were to shoulder the same responsibilities and all affairs in society were to become women’s concern. Overtime these changes would culminate in the abolition of nannü itself such that “the nouns “men” and “women” would no longer be necessary”. (ibid, 90-1, 103-4, 107-8, 182-4)

Within the modern context of the increasing popularity and ever-expanding influence of liberal and corporate feminism He-Yin’s intersectional anarchist feminism serves as an essential corrective. The emancipation of women cannot be achieved through electing woman presidents or having more women in boardrooms. Doing so would, as He-Yin argued over a century ago, merely bring about a more diverse ruling class and so create a situation in which the majority of women are oppressed by a small group of rich and powerful men and women, rather than only or largely men. The emancipation of women as a whole can only be achieved through a social revolution which overthrows the ruling classes and abolishes all forms of oppression, including patriarchy, capitalism and the state. If, as He-Yin wrote, “the question of women’s liberation is one of enabling each and every woman to partake in the joys of freedom” then women’s liberation can only be found in an anarchist society which brings the joys of freedom to all of humanity. (ibid, 70)


Collins, Patricia Hill, and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Anti-Racist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, no. 1: 139–67.

He-Yin Zhen. 2013. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. New York: Columbia University Press. Edited by Lydia H Liu, Rebecca E Karl, and Dorothy Ko. 

Zarrow, Peter. 1988. “He Zhen and Anarcho-Feminism in China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 47, no. 4: 796–813.

Zarrow, Peter. 1990. Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

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