The Individual in Early Chinese Anarchism: Feminism and Utopianism in the Tianyi (Natural Justice)


Paper presentation ICAS 2005, Shanghai

(Ole Fossgård)

Not to be quoted


In this paper I shall examine some of the first Chinese anarchists’ interpretations of Western ideas concerning the individual, as expressed in the journal Tianyi 天義 (Natural Justice), the leading anarchist journal of its time, published in Tokyo from 1907 to 1908.


The leading figures among the Tokyo anarchists were the classical scholar Liu Shipei 劉師培 and his wife He Zhen 何震. They advocated a thorough-going social revolution with the abolition of the state and traditional social institutions, like the family. Much due to He Zhen, who had established the Nüzi fuquan hui 女子復權會 (Society for the Restoration of Women’s Rights), the Tianyi argued for a feminist revolution, which was to be the starting point for the larger social revolution. In deed, the journal is considered the most outspoken feminist journal before the republican revolution in 1911.  The Tianyi preached  freedom and equality for all, which had to start with establishing freedom and equality between the genders. Thus the preoccupation with female rights brought attention to the human individual and its role in society.


The Chinese anarchists in Tokyo drew heavily on leading European anarchist thinkers in the latter part of the 19th century, especially Peter Kropotkin and his theory that the leading principle in nature was that of mutual aid, as opposed to the Darwinian idea of a struggle for existence (Pusey 1983: 389-411). Though opposing Chinese tradition, at the same time the language of Confucianism provided the anarchists with the setting in which the ideas of anarchism were to be discussed (Zarrow 1990: 5-6). Early Chinese anarchism grew out of the Chinese revolutionary movement in the early years of the 20th century. The revolutionary movement drew inspiration from several Western thinkers, like Mill, Darwin and Spencer, and the revolutionaries became familiar with Western ideas, like those of liberty and freedom, often through Japanese interpretations. The nationalists surrounding Sun Yat-sen 孫逸仙 and the journal Minbao 民報 (People’s Journal) represented the main current of the revolutionary movement, which had their focus on a racial and political revolution in order to make a change in government and save the Chinese nation. This was obviously quite different from the anarchist vision of a social revolution to achieve a stateless society. Nevertheless, Chinese nationalism and anarchism were part of the same revolutionary discourse and mutually influenced each other.


He Zhen’s occupation with female rights could be seen as a part of the early Chinese feminist movement in late Qing , represented by the upgrowth of women’s journals, like the Zhongguo xin nüjie zazhi 中國新女界雜誌 (New Chinese Women’s World). However, I choose to look at her cry for female rights as representing a more profoud concern with the values of human equality and liberty. Surely, Liu Shipei agreed with his wife’s concerns, which were very much in conformity with his own utopian vision for a future ideal society.


I shall, in this paper, argue that the Chinese anarchists in Tokyo, represented by He Zhen and Liu Shipei, interpreted and introduced Western ideas of individualism to China, with a clear idea of how these ideas were interrelated. Furthermore, I hold that the anarchists’ view of the Chinese individual should be considered to be one of the most radical in the intellectual debate in late Qing China.


Like in the paper presented by Rune Svarverud, Steven Lukes’ account of Western individualism will also serve as the point of departure for my discussion. I will only briefly recapture some of the main points in Lukes’ argument. Lukes traces the historic development of the Western notion of individualism in the nineteenth century, and ends up with four “core values” expressing its basic meaning. The idea of the dignity of man is “the ultimate moral principle of the supreme and intrinsic value, or dignity, of the individual human being,” (Lukes 1990: 45) which should be respected by all. The idea of autonomy is a notion that “an individual’s thought and action is his own, and not determined by agencies or causes outside his control.” (Ibid: 52). Privacy is a notion “of a private existence within a public world, an area within which the individual is or should be left alone by others and able to do and think whatever he choses.” (Ibid: 59) Finally, the notion of self-development or self-realisation has been a central ideal to many Western thinkers, and suggests that every individual have some potential which he should be able to realise. Generally, it “has the status of an ultimate value, an end in itself.” (Ibid: 72) Lukes sees these core values of Western individualism also as central elements in the ideas of equality and liberty or freedom. More specifically, respect for human dignity is an egalitarian principle, which forms the nucleus of the idea of equality, while autonomy, privacy and self-development are essential to the idea of freedom. Freedom would be incomplete without any one of them. Lukes further argues that the ideas of individualism are intimately interrelated.  Human capacity for autonomy, privacy and self-development forms some of the basis for how respect is obtained. And this first core value of individualism - respect for human dignity - involves treating other individuals “as (actually or potentially) autonomous, as requiring privacy, and as capable of self-development” (Ibid: 133). Furthermore, the three ideas of freedom are also closely connected to each other. Autonomy requires privacy to a certain extent, and self-development might be seen as a central form of autonomy. Privacy implies autonomy and involves self-development. Self-development presupposes autonomy and might require some sort of private area. Lukes concludes that respect presupposes the existence of freedom and that the lack of respect threatens it (Ibid: 135-137).


In the following discussion I will show that He Zhen and Liu Shipei were very much concerned with the values of individualism, as presented by Lukes, only leaving out the idea of privacy. Apparently they also made many of the same considerations as Lukes when it comes to the interrelations between the different values of individualism. However, as will be evident in the following discussion, both He Zhen and Liu Shipei ultimately considered human rights as important means to achieve their goals.


Much of He Zhen’s views concerning the individual came to expression in her lengthy essay entitled “Nüzi fuchou lun” 女子復仇論 (Discussing Female Retaliation), which was serialised in the Tianyi. As the title of the essay suggests, He Zhen took on a harsh tone against men. She expressed rage for the way women had been treated by them through history and called for a female retaliation. However, He Zhen’s main concern was with pointing to the inequality between the genders, thus also indicating that what she longed for was equality. And it was not only equality between man and woman she advocated, but also the equality between all individuals. As she mentioned in several articles in the Tianyi, one just had to start with the gender issue.


With the idea of equality established as her ultimate goal, He Zhen went on tracing the reasons to the existing inequality between the genders. And like Lukes, she found human respect - or the lack of it, to be more exact - to be the core issue. According to He Zhen, the main reasons for the position Chinese women were in were to be found in the fundamental disrespect towards women inherent in the teachings of Confucianism. He Zhen put forth a harsh and lengthy critique of Confucianism, which she claimed that men had created to protect their own interests, and which therefore respected men and suppressed women. She examined the Chinese classics and conducted an extensive discussion of different concepts of Confucianism, which expressed a deep disrespect for women. In her discussion, He Zhen also linked the lack of equality and respect to the lack of freedom, which she mainly equated with the idea of independence or autonomy. Women were merely seen as a man’s accessory (fushuwu 附屬物), she claimed, and was therefore deprived of her independence and freedom, concluding that: “Controlled women cannot gain freedom”. (Tianyi 3: 5). He Zhen, like Lukes, also mentioned human self-development as important to the idea of freedom. However, the value of privacy did not come up as an issue.


The lack of independence, liberty, respect and equality for women was, according to He Zhen, most importantly due to the fact that women had only duties but no rights (you yi wu quanli 有義無權利). Men have “taken away her rights bestowed by Heaven (tian fu zhi quan 天賦之權),” (Ibid: 10) He Zhen cried, and thereby revealed a commitment to the Rosseauan idea of natural rights, which she considered applicable to all human beings. The main rights that needed to be returned were rights concerning military (bingquan 兵權), politics (zhengquan 政權) and education (xuequan 學權). Only then could one reestablish female dignity and independence.


In short, He Zhen was primarily concerned with the return of female rights, with a mission to achieve equality between the genders. However, her discussion put attention to the human individual as such, and introduced liberty and independence as values applicable to the Chinese person. She did not say much about any concrete measures to achieve liberty and equality, but like most anarchists she suggested assassination (ansha 暗殺) as a viable method. She indicated her ideal society to be a communist one, without specifying it any further. And as she was mostly concerned with the return of female rights, she did not mention anything as to what kind of obligations individuals would have in society. However, her husband Liu Shipei attended to these matters, to a certain extent.


Liu Shipei also introduced many of the same ideas concerning the individual as Steven Lukes does in his sketch of Western individualism, linking the idea of equality to liberty and individual autonomy, or independence, as Liu called it.


Let us now take a look at Liu’s essay entitled “Renlei junli shuo” 人纇均力說 (On the Equality of Human Rights and Abilites), published in issue no. 3 of the Tianyi, where he introduced his ideas of the individual within an ideal society. Liu Shipei had long been searching for the “complete man” and “complete society” through his studies of Neo-Confucianism and with influences from both Buddhism and Daoism, but in anarchism he seems to have found his answer (Chang 1987: 146-179).


Like for He Zhen, human equality was the main goal also for Liu Shipei. According to Liu, man had never in history achieved the happiness of equality. This was due to the fact that man was not free, and the main reason for this lay in the bonds of dependence between humans. The three concepts were closely linked to each other: human equality was dependent upon individual freedom, which again could not exist without independence. Or as Liu Shipei himself put it: “Because [man] can not be independent he has lost his right to freedom, because he can not be free he has lost his right to equality.” (Tianyi 3: 19) He also indicated that men’s enslavement of women was the primary problem in this matter.


To Liu Shipei, as to He Zhen, the key to achieve independence, freedom, and ultimately equality, was in the equality of rights. However, equal rights would not be enough, said Liu; duties (yiwu 義務) would also have to be equal. A balance between rights and duties was crucial to accomplish his vision of equality.


An individual, which was independent, free and equal, could only become a reality within the utopian society, which Liu Shipei prescribed. Liu’s ideal society seem to have been influenced by Kropotkin’s vision of a society based on mutual support and voluntary association, but also bears resemblances to Kang Youwei’s 康有為 utopian Datong 大同 society (Kang Youwei 2002). It was to be a system of small village-communities (xiang ), with shelters for elderly and children (lao you qixi suo 老幼栖息所). The idea was that in these shelters, those over fifty years of age would care for the children after they were born, and teach them science and general subjects as they grew up. After twenty years of age one should start working, changing between different kinds of work according to age until one reached the age of fifty, when one would return to the shelter to take care of children. The equipment made should all be common property and the houses should all be the same. This way there would be an equal distribution between suffering and happiness, and no one should need to worry about there being a lack of things. All individuals were equal and independent, as they had equal rights and equal duties. Liu also saw his society as ideal for human self-development. Realisation of one’s potential was best achieved through community with others - a community where the ideals of equality and freedom prevailed.


The essay ended with a comment by He Zhen (Ibid: 29-30). She clearly approved of Liu Shipei’s “doctrine of equality of human rights and abilities” (junli zhuyi 均力主義), and equated it with her own “doctrine of equality between man and woman” (nan nü pingdeng zhi shuo 男女平等之說).



Formed by Chinese tradition and anarchist ideology, He Zhen and Liu Shipei’s view of the individual very much adhered to the values of Western individualism, as presented by Steven Lukes. He Zhen’s anarcho-feminism put attention to the Chinese individual, and through her discussion on equality between the genders she introduced a notion of the individual as requiring respect, independence and self-development, and which was entitled to certain rights. Liu Shipei added to this that to achieve true equality, the equality of duties was as important as the equality of rights. They also made certain links between the ideas of individualism, making it clear that equality rested on respect for human dignity, and that equality was dependent on liberty, which could not be achieved without individual independence. The idea of privacy, however, was ignored by both of them, maybe because they were more concerned with their overall quest for equality than with the values of liberty.


The Tokyo anarchists’ view of the individual was very much a radical one. Unlike most other revolutionaries, they did not only wish to liberate the individual within the larger context of the nation, but from the nation itself.


Although Chinese anarchism did not survive as an ideology in China, many Chinese intellectuals found their way to Marxism via anarchism, and several of the early anarchists’ views concerning women were echoed in the intellectual debates of the May Fourth movement. The Tokyo anarchists’ role in the diffusion of Western ideas of individualism to China should not be overlooked.