Women In The Chinese Republic: Modernity Research Paper

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: China, Women, Literature, Society, Politics, Confucianism, Role, Economics

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2021/01/11

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Women’s role and place in Chinese society during the so-called May Fourth epoch was nebulous, complicated, and untraditional as a result of broad-sweeping social and political changes that took place. Several pieces of writing penned during the twentieth century developed within particular frameworks and May Fourth discourses issues pertaining to women specifically. Liberals, intellectuals, Communists, and Japanese sympathizers alike have all proffered works that broached women’s issues from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds which nonetheless evinces threading tropes and common themes. Specifically, observers opined about the subordination of Chinese women within a constraining patriarchal culture that signaled cultural backwardness and antiquated remnants of the past. As a result, observers viewed female emancipation as the central goal that was a critical component of a sweeping broad strategy of social and cultural reform. As a result, it is unequivocal that women’s liberation was necessary in order to save China from stagnation and modernize China in a celeritous fashion.
Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum is a novel published in 1986 about a young Chinese woman who works for a liquor distillery that manufactures sorghum in the countryside of republican China. The plot centers on the Shandon family and the three generations who lived between 1923 and 1976 told from the point of view of a male narrator who details the struggles of his family both working at the distillery then as resistance fights in the Sino-Japanese Wars. The Chinese, however, were not a monolithic group, as Yan details the struggles that took place between warring factions. Told through various flashbacks about the horrors witnessed in the struggles against the Japanese, Yan juxtaposes the graphic horrors and brutalities against the beautiful and serene Chinese countryside during the tumultuous 1930s. Yan captures the horrors of the time period faced by those who resided in the countryside. Red Sorghum subverts traditional structures by glorifying peasants, defining a new, liberated role for women while also dismantling class barriers. The film adaptation further underscores how women in the Republic carved out a new role for themselves in reaction to how crippled women were in traditional China. Both the novel and the film adaptation were penned or directed by a male and presents a certain image of Chinese women while also articulating certain assertions about female sexuality in rural China during the republican era.


Scholars such as Gilmartin have decried how contemporaries who lived during the May Fourth era intentionally elided proto-feminist critiques of Chinese philosophers and politicians during the nineteenth century from their narratives because these critiques were purportedly spawned with a complex matrix of ideas and values that were rendered wholly traditional. Due to the iconoclastic nature and spirit of the epoch, observers remained focused on articulating a new argument that called for China to look to the West rather than to China’s past as a model for modernization. Discourses on Chinese modernity thus focused on issues related to national salvation rather than on human rights and on individual freedoms. These discourses eschewed traditional epistemologies and modes of behavior, which Gilmartin states was “embedded in a vocabulary and intellectual framework that valued ‘modernity.’”Such a vision of modernity in the Chinese context, however, was unequivocally colored by both patriotism and a preoccupation with the destiny of China despite the external threats as well as social and economic crises that the Chinese were embroiled in. Chen Duxiu, an intellectual who later became the Communist Party’s general secretary, penned a famous treatise in 1916 in which he berated and lamented about traditional Confucian values because they hindered the modernization of China. Chen argues that the emancipation of Chinese women was a crucial and defining characteristic of modern society. Personal liberty, he contended, were necessary for political and economic life, both of which are necessary for the process of modernization. Confucian values and ethics, especially those pertaining to gender relations, hindered the development of autonomy and personal freedom, which, Chen argued, reveals that they had to be dismantled in order to best serve the interests of the Chinese nation. Chinese philosophers and scholars shared this vein of thinking and argued that Chinese society needed a total transformation, especially with regards to the place of women.
Yun Daiying, a renowned anarchist, penned a piece of writing at the outset of the twentieth century that grafted a motif of progress that illuminated how Chinese society could only evolve towards a modern society if women exercised more agency that traditional mores allowed them to. Daiying argued for the need for childcare facilities that deployed “scientific methods of childrearing” in order for women to cultivate their economic potential while ensuring that women were not ignorant about childcare matters so that they did not do any irreversible damage to their progeny. Such notions were attested to by other writers such as Yun and Chen in a more dispassionate yet satirical manner regarding how conservative, traditional Chinese males steadfastly guarded the erosion of Confucian values in order to preserve the status quo defined by unequal gender relations. These writers did so by glorifying the chastity and purity of Chinese women. Lu Xun , one of China’s most renowned and prominent literary figures, declared that “Men cannot make rules for women that they do not keep themselves.” Xun thus postulated that the very notion of female chastity was a product of a backwards and primitive society that remained a sustained social and cultural more at the behest of “professional Confucians” who remained dominant in political circles, the Confucian intelligentsia, and the “media of public opinion.” Xun also treated this subject in Xun’s short story entitled “The New Year’s Sacrifice” in which a widow, destitute and alone, suffers immensely because she had become a widow at a very young age. Rather than remain faithful to the memory of her deceased husband.
The majority of the corpus of literature regarding women’s issues in the Chinese context were penned by men, which unequivocally shaped the discourses on female emancipation. Male scholars point out that female writers broached the subject matter with a sense of personal exigency far more than their male contemporaries did. Wang Huiwu, a contemporary female author, conveyed her resentment and anger towards men for cheating women out of their freedom. She contended that men created an “iron trap” vis-à-vis the family and marriage system in a way that was so potent that even women who were lucky enough to receive and education were still unable to liberate themselves from this oppressive trap and system. Women had hitherto been forced to live in a state of permanent dependency on men for their economic well-being, as they were stripped of any political and economic agency and shut out of state affairs. As such, Chinese philosophers who lived during the May Fourth epoch broached the subject of the women question in China through a language reform that embraced the vernacular instead of classical Chinese, which represented an expression of modernized, western concepts that transformed Chinese lexicon into more modern forms.


In modern Chinese history, intellectuals have inherited a heterogeneous tradition with regards to their relations with the Chinese state. While some authors choose to emulate the traditions of the Confucian literati by criticizing the ongoing and overt abuses of power, others who self-identify and fashion themselves as intellectuals that follow Marxist ideology eschew the Chinese state's policies and practices steeped in Communist ideals. Some intellectuals embrace more liberal modes of thinking, so they dedicate their works and pieces of literature to the principles of free scholarly and artistic expressions. Throughout Chinese history, it is clear that the Chinese government has an intrinsic connection with the literature produced and sold during particular epochs, as they reflect epochal contingencies and contexts. The political views of writers often affected the Chinese government's acceptance or alienation of particular works as a result. The Chinese government has indeed oscillated in how it treated intellectuals, authors, and members of the literati between exacting restraints when freedom of expression threatened to get out of control and undermine the political and social agendas of the Chinese state. In turn, the state relaxed its hold and controls when policies called for cooperation, good will, and the expertise and dexterity of Chinese scholars. Renowned Chinese author Mo Yan reveals that authors whose writings followed the political agenda according to epochal contingencies enjoyed much more success and became prolific in comparison to those who chafed against hegemonic social and political structures and institutions. Nonetheless, it is unequivocal that Chinese authors have always experienced a troubled yet a relationship that was constantly in flux with the Chinese government at-large, especially during the post-Mao years in the Chinese Republic when as intellectual life transformed from steadfast obedience to state doctrines to a far more nuanced and pluralistic one, which underscores that the relationship between authors and the Republican Party State has remained a significant feature in modern Chinese life.
Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum elucidates the changing role of women during the modern era as an antithesis yet harmonious figure spawned during the Republican epoch. Communist Revolution under Mao during the mid-twentieth century, however, marked the genesis of a wholly radicalized female figure. Republican narratives identified gender conflict, but ultimately embraced the pursuit of harmony rather than outright conflict. China purportedly challenged their antagonists and empowered its own women whom had previously been viewed as passive victims rather than individuals with stature and dominant posturing. Female emancipation unequivocally came to symbolize progress within a Marxian framework of class struggle. Red Sorghum renders the woman a rebel who possessed a spirit of rebellion and a post-socialist world view with regards to the sexual, social, economic, and political rebellion. In a contemporary vein, Yan reshapes the contours of the contemporary Chinese novel which subverts the traditional notion of chronology. The protagonist is a young man who lives in provincial China during the 1930s when war broke out between the Chinese and the Japanese. Murder, rape, and persecution became salient features of provincial life in China. In a fragmentary manner, Mo Yan recreates a tumultuous world in which the very fabric of traditional Chinese society was subverted and deconstructed, which the position of women portrayed reveals. While they were passive victims of rape as a tool of war deployed by the Japanese enemy, they nonetheless were also radicalized and rebellious amidst a tumultuous atmosphere defined by cultural revolution, warfare, and violence.
Modern Chinese novels and film adaptations popularized in western audiences such as that of Yan’s Red Sorghum explore issues related to gender and female sexuality by treating the female body as a direct challenge to the political and social repression that Confucian morality connotes. Rather than treating female sexuality as an “intellectual response to sexuality” that was used to “comprehend the meaning of transgressive sexuality to female characters,” as female writers and directors did, male directors and writers portrayed the sexuality as Chinese women as a “fascinating cinematic image” that emerged as a source of fantasy and alluring (Zhang 298-299). Both novels and films represent society and cultures as a means to sustain or critique certain aspects. Thus, Red Sorghum and its film adaptation represent women in a way that elucidates their changing position and role in Chinese society within the context of modernity.
Female sexuality in Red Sorghum is clearly depicted against violence, as the rape scene insinuates that female sexuality awakened is done so through violent and brutal means. Jiu’er, the heroine and protagonist of the film adaptation, appears in the film as both an object of desire for the male spectator as well as an agent of change who subverts the male gaze back onto them. As such, she reclaims power over herself through her gaze, which results in a role reversal. The young bride in the film, told from the point of view of the male narrator, sheds light on female sexuality and the role of women in a changing Chinese society. Set in the 1930s, Red Sorghum recounts a love story in rural China about a young woman whose father forces her to marry a man fifty years her senior and is a leper despite the fact that she was in love with a young man that was her age. Jiu’er’s grandson narrates this tale about his grandmother despite the fact that the film primarily focused on Jiu’er’s experiences, which is underscored by the fact that the majority of the scenes were told from her point of view.
Jiu’er’s sexual liberation is the guiding theme of the novel and film, which is apparent from the initial scenes of her wedding. The traditional dress and garb suggests that Jiu’er fet trapped by her dress, the very symbol patriarchy because according to traditional Confucian gender mores, marriage was for practical purposes rather than for romance or choice. Zoomed in shots of the heroine crying elicits sympathy for how unfair the protagonist’s life is by virtue of her gender. Although Jiu’er s trapped by Chinese traditional values, she finds subtle ways to rebel both visually and through her rhetoric. Peasant women indeed were liberated during the republican era in ways that eschewed Confucian mores.


Imperial China witnessed a litany of rebellions against perceived social injustices that were taking place at the same time that China enjoyed a cultural flourishing. The Chinese Empire indeed was quite large and wealthy, and the government had become efficient and well-organized for decades by putting in place an effective tax collection system. This imperial bureaucracy supported China’s burgeoning economy, which was catalyzed by the Silk Road that reached an entire network of roads by maneuvering around mountainous regions and deserts, extending all the way to Persia, India and western societies including the Roman empire. At the apex of the Silk Road, technology transfer escalated along with the commercialization of the Chinese economy. Amidst these vast changes, the role of women in China must also be considered and assessed in relation to the profound changes taking place in Chinese society. The Song Dynasty built on the great changes wrought during the Tang Dynasty. The economy became increasingly commercialized, so women enjoyed a far more active role in the production of goods vis-à-vis textile production, which was a necessary catalyst for the burgeoning economy. As a result, a resurgence of Neo-Confucian ideals surfaced in novel ways that functioned as remnants of an antiquated past rather than modernized progress. Patrilinealism became reasserted, while the traditional separate spheres ideology that undergirded Confucian discourses hardened in response to such profound and transformative changes taking place. As a result, various sources underscore the contradictory portrayals of Chinese women. Although women were empowered vis-a-vis the infiltration of new religions such as Buddhism into imperial China, the integration of Buddhism into Chinese society suggests the need to reinforce women’s traditional role in imperial China.
A wide range of perceptions of Chinese women manifested as Buddhism was integrated into Chinese culture and society. The majority of these renderings stressed the traditional place of women as subordinate to men. Buddhism was a foreign religion that gradually was adapted and grafted into Chinese values and soon became natural aspects of Chinese culture. Although it was not always harmonious when it was integrated into Chinese culture and society, the Chinese nonetheless struggled to negotiate being a Buddhist and a proper, traditional Chinese individual while also striving to emulate traditional principles. There is a wide huge range of images of women in Buddhism that range from evil templates to overly compassionate pedagogues. What becomes conspicuous is that Buddhist and Chinese sentiments about gender and virtue collided. Buddhism appropriated traditional Chinese and Confucian values such as patrilinealism and family values so that they became incorporated into Chinese society, which countered the salient belief that Buddhism was intrinsically incapable of doing so. The Dunhuang Prayers provide ample information about the life and Chinese culture during the imperial age, especially with respect to the role of women. Chinese women wanted to help the family’s economic base by participating in commercial activities carried out vis-a-vis the Silk Road. The prayers also illuminated information on Chinese marriage and their beliefs about the afterlife. Buddhists believed in the notion of a post-mortem death so that certain individuals could become ancestors. Indeed, Chinese customs mandated that only those who were married could truly become ancestors, which reinforces Buddhism adapted and changed according to traditional Chinese family values. Moreover, in the epitaphs, or obituaries that were penned by elite men, proffered short biographies that praised the deceased. Although these epitaphs did not explicitly expound on the role and position of women in imperial China, they nonetheless underscored the inferior position of women in accordance with Confucian values.


The sources from imperial China—more specifically, from the Tang and Sung Dynasties—limn women and their role in society in an ironic and contradictory fashion, which underscores how the influx of new philosophies, epistemologies, and ideas into Chinese society that threatened the traditional status quo in traditional Chinese society. The Tang and Sung Dynasty were time periods during which women experienced and enjoyed a degree of more freedom and open-mindedness as a result of broad sweeping socio-economic changes. While these transient changes empowered women, they also simultaneously incited reactionary responses by fortifying the traditional role for women conveyed and fortified in Confucian discourses. Women in Republican China eschewed traditional, Confucian gender mores as a remnant of an antiquated past. In order to modernize Chinese society, female emancipation would become a benchmark of a new era during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Gilmartin, Christina Kelley. “Introduction: May Fourth and Women’s Emancipation” in Hua R. Lan and Vanessa L. Fong (eds). Women in Republican China: A Sourcebook. London: M.E. Sharpe, 2008.
Goldman, Merle. China's Intellectuals and the State: In Search of a New Relationship. Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard UP, 1987.
Hershatter, Gail. Women in China’s Long Twentieth Century. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.
Lan, Hua R. and Vanessa L. Fong (eds): Women in Republican China: A Sourcebook. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.
Xun, Lu. “What Happens After Nora Leaves Home? A Talk Given at the Beijing Women’s Normal College.” 26 Dec. 1923. Retrieved April 4, 2015 from file:///C:/Users/admin/Downloads/Lu%20Xun%20-%20Source%2013.%205%20-%20Nora(2).pdf
Yan, Mo and Howard Goldblatt. Red Sorghum: A Novel of China. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

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