New Women and the New Culture Discourse

One major element of the discourse of the New Culture Movement that precipitated the events of May 4th was a critical focus on Chinese gender norms. This focus dealt in large part with a re conceptualization of the overall gender order in China that had persisted since the fall of the Qing, which had largely been based on a Confucian understanding of gender and its role in society.1 In their criticisms of Confucianism, New Culture activists and intellectuals argued that the hierarchical bonds between husbands and wives, and a focus on filial piety and patrilocal marriage practices combined to subordinate women and propagate anti-individualism.2 The importance of this so called “women problem” of gender subordination in Chinese culture can be seen in the arguments of the New Culture discourse, which viewed the issue as a major obstacle to the further modernization and strengthening of the fledgling Chinese Republic.3 Through this lens, the type of feminism presented in the New Culture Movement was married to a form of nationalism that viewed women emancipated from Confucian subjugation as crucial elements in the building of the Chinese nation, while at the same time largely confining their liberation to marriage and motherhood in a nuclear family.4

The New Culture Movement's focus on gender issues in Chinese society can also be seen as a development of earlier feminist thought, which can be seen in the work of He-Yin Zhen5 and Qiu Jin.6 He-Yin Zhen and Qiu Jin were both well known for writing scathing criticisms of the traditional Chinese gender order that existed in the late Qing Dynasty, however, He-Yin Zhen argued for an anarchist feminism that developed alongside the dissolution of the state apparatus7, while Qiu Jin's feminist critique was expressed in more nationalistic terms.8 Although anarchists participated in the New Culture Movement9, Qiu Jin's feminist nationalism reflected the dominant ideological conviction displayed in the New Culture Movement's discourse of female liberation.10 Within the New Culture Movement of the 1910's however, writings by women on the subject of gender liberation were scarcer and not as well read, in part due to the salience of male intellectuals like Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao speaking on the issue.11 Through this lens, the New Culture Movement's ideas of gender equality can be understood to have been mostly propagated by its male participants, who criticized female subjugation under Confucianism alongside the various other anti-individualistic practices they felt were hampering the development of the Chinese Republic.12

Although women and their voices are sparingly found in study of the New Culture Movement and the events of May 4th 1919, it is important to note that women students did participate in the protests in Beijing despite the relatively small amount of them enrolled in institutions of higher learning.13 In addition, women writers like Chen Hengzhe still made contributions to the New Culture Movement's affinity for vernacular Chinese through their writing.14 In addition, the wave of protests following the events in Beijing in 1919 brought about the creation of many feminist groups and newspapers and increased female enrollment in institutions of higher learning alongside a continued discussion of gender liberation in the ensuing May Fourth Movement.15

1 Mann, Susan. Gender and sexuality in modern Chinese history. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 186-187

2 Zarrow, Peter. China in war and revolution, 1895 - 1949. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2007. 138

3 Koetse, Manya. " Gendered Nationalism and May Fourth: China’s ‘New Woman’ ." Manya Koetse (web log), December 08, 2012. Accessed September 21, 2017. http://www.manyakoetse.com/gendered-nationalism-and-may-fourth-chinas-new-woman/. Para 11

4 Dooling, Amy D., and Kristina M. Torgeson. Writing women in modern China: an anthology of womens literature from the early twentieth century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 7,12

5 Liu, Lydia H., Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko, eds. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. Columbia University Press, 2013. 51-52

6 Dooling et al. Writing women in modern China: an anthology of womens literature from the early twentieth century. 39

7 Liu et al. he Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. 53-71

8 Dooling et al. Writing women in modern China: an anthology of womens literature from the early twentieth century. 40-42

9 Zarrow. China in war and revolution, 1895 – 1949. 139

10 Dooling et al. Writing women in modern China: an anthology of womens literature from the early twentieth century 40-42

11 Zarrow. China in war and revolution, 1895 – 1949. 138

12 Ibid,. 134-135

13 Dooling et al. Writing women in modern China: an anthology of womens literature from the early twentieth century 12-13

14 Ibid,. 88-89

15 Ibid,. 12-15