The Great Inappropriateness of Women's Emancipation

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Author(s) Zhang Shenfu
Written October 1919


Originally published in Young China, vol. 1, no. 4, October 1919, under the name Zhang Songnian.
Collection(s): Young China
Keywords : China, Communism, Feminism

The cry for "women's emancipation" rings out loud and clear nowadays. Some talk about "women's emancipation," and others talk about "emancipating women." Since "women's emancipation" is a nice-sounding catchphrase, one only needs to repeat it in a parrotlike fashion. Yet it is essentially a big but erroneous catchphrase expressing a big but erroneous idea.

We should ask whether men and women should enjoy the same status in society, and we should ask what has caused our contemporary social reality. Since ancient times, men, who accidentally became the "stronger sex" in society, have been taking advantage of women, have been wholeheartedly engaged in their indispensable work for society. Men bullied and oppressed women and at the same time created "morality" and "rules" to confine and condition women. Nothing in human history can be more brutal and inhumane than footbinding, which serves this dual purpose. Thousands of years have gone by, and still the men who have committed such wrongs have not awakened. They have not confessed or shown signs of repentance. They feel no pain, no embarrassment, and no shame; instead, they put on this holier-than-thou attitude, declaring arrogantly that "I am going to emancipate you all." Nothing is more brazen than this!

If the English respect the Irish and the Indians, they should help them achieve independence. If the Japanese respect the Koreans and Taiwanese, they should also help them achieve independence. And if the Chinese respect the Mongolians and Tibetans, they should also grant them independence. The same applies to men and women. If men really respect women, they should recognize from the bottom of their hearts that women have the same worth as men and should also enjoy independence. If one group coerced another group into slavery and later felt a bit remorseful and then started talking about emancipation, can they be trusted? Nowadays, men talk about emancipating women; but their words are often less than heartfelt. They show insincere sentimentality and seem interested in using such talk to gain prestige and superiority. We wonder whether enlightened laborers can be truly reconciled with those capitalists who talk about emancipating laborers.

Think about it. The word "emancipation" is rather contemptuous. Needless to say, the emancipator and the emancipated are not on an equal footing. When friends respect each other, one will never say to the other, "I am emancipating you." The butcher who lets one pig back into the sty may also claim to be the pig's emancipator. Those men who crow about women's emancipation may boast that "after being emancipated, women can share in the same kind of life that we men have." Doesn't that sound even stranger? If your life is like that of pigs and dogs (let's assume that the lives of pigs and dogs are no good), how can you impose the same kind of life on others? How can you assume that your life is better? Talk about emancipation is bad enough; it is even worse with this string attached.

Those who respect the worth of others do not speak condescendingly of emancipating them; those who are aware of their own worth are not willing to be emancipated by others. Someone with dignity and wisdom never seeks favors from others; someone who seeks favors from others will only be seen as weak, lazy, self-degrading, and, at best, overbearing. Someone strong and capable would shun and despise such behavior. Why can't one start from scratch? Why can't one rely on oneself? What one gets from begging is unreliable. The donated fruit lacks sweetness, and so does being emancipated by others. What happiness is there when one is let go after being molested? Right now, women are bound and enslaved; they should emancipate themselves from their fetters and obtain independence though their own efforts. It is useless and shameful to wait for emancipation by others.

It is only appropriate for one to talk about emancipation for oneself. What does self-emancipation truly mean? It means the breaking of all fetters, the smashing of all idols, and the elimination of all tyrannies and conventions. One should not be subject to bondage of any kind, visible or invisible. One should not be enslaved by the past or by the present. Anyone who has any independent thought should watch out for senseless parroting. Each and every individual has innate worth. One ought to protect one's own worth and individuality, since without these one will cease to exist. Bear in mind that all laws and morals are fundamentally unnecessary (remember that all laws are man-made). Even customs and habits can be constructed from scratch. All these fetters and idols should be broken again and again. Don't imitate others, don't rely on others, don't sit on the fence, and don't follow trends. Whenever necessary, one needs to rely on one's own experience, observation, deliberation, and imagination. All of these should arise from one's own will; otherwise they are not one's own. One should not believe what big shots such as officials, degree holders, and professors say. A gullible person is a slave even worse than a conquered subject (even among conquered subjects there are distinctions). Today the vernacular is in vogue, but it should still be acceptable for one to write in the classical language. Today everyone is talking about democracy, but it should still be acceptable for one to discuss and even advocate aristocracy on appropriate occasions. Talk about the new is all the vogue today, but one can also believe in the old, if one is convinced that one is not merely sticking to archaic conventions and old prejudices. The worst thing one can do is follow the fads and fashions blindly. The world can do without another parrot! A self-conscious and self-confident belief in the old is much more desirable than any kind of muddle-headed parroting. Self-emancipation involves independent thinking. Unfortunately, this is not how it is with "women's emancipation."

An ideal human society is one that provides everyone with enough to eat, enough to wear, free education, and academic freedom, a world in which everyone has the freedom to work, knows no fear or sense of loss, and has no adversaries. In such a society, everyone would be friends. They would always smile at each other and appreciate each other from the bottom of their hearts. Unlike the profiteering, capitalistic society we see at present, an ideal society should be like this—boundless, fearless, free of traditional obstacles, and free of gender discrimination. Due to certain physiological differences between the sexes, there would still be certain things that could not be shared by men and women alike even in such a society, but that would not matter. It would be just like the difference between a mathematician and a writer, who may also be physiologically different and unable to do the same kind of work, and yet are equally valuable and enjoy the same status. Since we all want such an ideal society, we do not approve of the insipid old ideas expressed by certain men and will refrain from uttering condescending, high-sounding words about "emancipating women." Those who use such words may not have ill intentions, but these words are inappropriate and thus unwarranted. If one intends to accomplish such an important goal, one cannot afford to be so undiscriminating.

We believe that talk about "emancipating women" arises from improper ideas. If a man really respects women and believes that women have the same worth as men, he should not talk incessantly about how to emancipate women. Rather, he should give sincere and enthusiastic assistance to women as they pursue their own independence. In other words, we should talk about "women's independence" instead of "women's emancipation." Some may say, "Women's suffering was caused by men of the past; our current talk about emancipating women may be belated, but it is also a praiseworthy awakening." So it is, but trying to distance oneself from those men of the past is like saying that "other people's sins have nothing to do with me." You may claim to believe this, but you will still feel a pang of guilt from time to time.