Gynocentrism in China – by Ping Zhu

The following excerpt is from Ping Zhu’s book Gender and Subjectivities in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature and Culture (p.39-41). Zhu’s exploration indicates that Chinese gynocentrism cannot be reduced to a universal, spontaneous reflex of biology but was instead crafted, ideologically speaking, with the help of cherry-picked details from occidental gynocentrism which were subsequently adapted by Chinese writers. It should be noted that any Chinese expression of cultural gynocentrism, arising from these mostly literary efforts, is miniscule in comparison to the exaggerated gynocentric traditions that have characterized parts of the Occident and especially America over the last two centuries.

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Gynocentrism in China

By Ping Zhu

The early versions of gynocentrism contain some prototypes of gender consciousness within the framework of Chinese tradition. Although these indigenous cultural imaginations of gynocentrism in classical Chinese literature crystallized Chinese literati’s early “feminist” thoughts, they were spontaneous and did little to alter the fundamentals underlying the gender hierarchy. From the late nineteenth century, new forms of gynocentrism started to blossom in response to Western imperialism. Kang Youwei (1858–1927) was one of the earliest Chinese intellectuals who tried to challenge the presumption of Western gender and racial theories so as ultimately to change the inferior positioning of Chinese culture. In The Book of Great Harmony (Datong shu), completed during Kang’s exile in India after the failure of the 1898 Reform, he ascribed the progress of civilization to feminine endeavor:

Therefore men who seek food by hunting the animals are like the
nomadic and free Mongolians and Huns, who were indeed strong.
Women who stay at home and monitor the ancestral sacrifice are like
the Six Dynasties and the Southern Song dynasty, which were content
to retain sovereignty over a part of the state and finally were occupied by and subject to others; they were indeed weak; yet civilizations spring
from the weak nations and not the strong states. (175)

Kang regarded civilization as mainly a domestic, and thus feminine, matter. Because women’s sphere was traditionally domestic, “it is certain that all crafts and tools are invented by women” (175). For Kang Youwei, conquering by power, a masculine impulse, was an aberration of the axiom: “The violation of the weak by the strong force is a barbaric act, and is prohibited by the universal principle!” (172). Kang’s unprecedented exaltation of the female gender manifests his anxiety to reverse the unfavorable position of Chinese culture in the predominant Western racial theory. Kang’s unfaltering confidence in Chinese culture made him draw the conclusion that the weaker and feminine nations were actually superior in terms of civilization. His theory can be regarded as the earliest version of modern gynocentrism that resulted from China’s encounter with the West. Although the confidence in Chinese culture was greatly undermined, if not completely lost, during the New Culture Movement, a significant number of Chinese intellectuals still used Kang’s approach to challenge the gender premise in the racial theory to seek national empowerment.

Later Chinese intellectuals creatively cherry-picked the useful elements in Western gender and racial theories to form their own propositions of gynocentrism. Modern Chinese sexologist Xian’s (no known dates) “Sexual Selection” (Xingze) is the first full-length essay to advocate gynocentrism in modern China.9 ’s essay originally appeared in the fifth issue of Learning (Xueyi) magazine in 1921; it was later reprinted in Mei Sheng’s Collected Discussions of the Chinese Women Question (Zhongguo fun ü wenti taolunji) as the opening essay of the section “Question of the two sexes” (Liangxing wenti). “Sexual Selection” was divided into six parts: (1) female selection; (2) male selection; (3) the fall of women; (4) women’s liberation; (5) the personalities of men and women; and (6) the significance of liberation. The concept of “sexual selection” originally appeared in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).10 Following Darwin, Xian argued that sexual selection, as a form of “struggle for existence,” was the main reason for evolution. Sexual selection motivated competition among males, the result of which was that the strongest men could produce more offspring, thus improving the species. Evoking American botanist and sociologist Lester F. Ward’s (1841–1913) “Theory of Gynocentrism,” proposed: “The origin of life is female, the continuation of life is female, the primary biological body is female” (6).11 For , men participated in sexual selection only as subordinate agents: “In order to have the participation of a heterogeneous element to mutate, the female separated a part of herself, hence there is the derivative, dependent male” (6). Males, according to , only provided the materials for the evolution of the species; it was the females who controlled the process and selected the materials.

Xian believed that gynocentrism was key to the evolution of the species and the mandate of female selection was inscribed in the instinctual nature of heterosexual love. Since males’ sexual desires were stronger than their survival desires, they had to faithfully fulfill the mandate of nature to court females despite all the pains and risks (10). This gave females the right of selection in the matter of sexual love. In the world of biology, female selection was “a supreme right” and their will should be “absolutely free” (12). Xian asserted that as compared to fickle males, females were more stable, so female selection helped to steer the evolutionary trajectory of a species while steadily improving it. “Female selection helps to develop males, whereas male selection will lead only to the downfall of females” (16). It follows that men would evolve only when they were under female control. repudiated the practice of male-centrism as an aberration in the process of evolution due to men’s selfishness.

Using China as an example, showed the dismal consequences of thwarting the natural right of female selection by allowing aberrant male selection to take over: the production of weaker offspring (18). accused the patriarchal society of smothering the potential of women. In the era of male selection, the arbitrary criteria imposed on women by men led to the downfall of the former, as the physical and psychical ability of women kept dwindling. refuted the popular masculinist viewpoint that reduced females to children or not-yet-evolved males. He argued that the wider pelvis of female was not a sign of regression, but a sign of evolution, since the wider pelvis could only be found in higher species. believed that if women were liberated, that is, if women were given total freedom to carry out sexual selection and realize their moral potential and independence, it would greatly benefit the species. At the end of the essay, beseeched men to be less selfish and women to realize they were also human beings, so that under the mutual goal of species’ evolution, male and female sexual selections could be harmonized.

Xian’s theory of gynocentrism was not only a subversion of the patrilineal system, but also departed from the prevalent view of sex equality during Republican China. Women were endowed with powerful agency, permitting them to select men and dominate the evolutionary course of the species. Xian was certainly not the first to apply the theory of sexual selection to empower women during the debate over Chinese woman question. For example, Luo Jialun’s (1897–1969) well-known editorial “Women’s Liberation” (Fun ü jiefang) was published two years earlier, in October 1919, in New Tide (Xinchao), a leading journal for the New Culture advocates. Luo’s essay promoted sexual equality but it also contained arguments reminiscent of Xian’s gynocentrism: “In the era of sexual selection, men were always dominated by women! The female constitution is actually stronger than that of the male” (4). Through the appropriation of Darwin’s scientific theory, women were invested with a sublime power in sexual relationships.

Another avid advocate of “gynocentrism” during the Republican Era was Zhang Jingsheng (1888–1970), who was an active participant in the debate on new sexual morality during the 1920s. Zhang put forward his “New Gynocentrism” (Xin nüxing zhongxin lun) in his 1925 book The Beautiful View of Life (Mei de rensheng guan). Zhang
believed that there were distinct masculine traits and feminine traits in both males and females. The masculine traits represented the inferior national character, while the feminine traits represented the superior national character. Because the feminine traits were superior, Zhang predicted that women would possess mighty power in the future. Zhang Jingsheng’s rationale of new gynocentrism was not limited to the feminine power in sexual relationships, but in all aspects of social affairs: “In the future, women’s influence will exist in universal love, genuine beauty, and the spirit of sacrifice in a general sense” (162). According to Zhang, this new gynocentrism was the remedy to the problems of a male-centric society, in which “emotion was replaced by reason, beauty was replaced by pragmatism, and the spirit of sacrifice was replaced by selfish narcissism” (162). Zhang encouraged the new women to become “lovers, beauties, and heroines” (166), the three roles that women inherently performed well from his point of view; only then would men, and the whole society, understand love, beauty, and the spirit of sacrifice.

Compared with Xian’s gynocentrism, Zhang Jingsheng’s championing of the feminine power was more grounded in a romanticized and hybrid model of heterosexualism, one that was different from the Enlightenment model of heterosexualism due to its emphasis on “aesthetic response” and “emotion” (Leary 79). By upholding essentialized feminine qualities, Zhang had “made beautification into an ethical obligation” (Leary 81). Zhang Jingsheng’s ideal “new woman” was one that combined the stereotypes of white bourgeois women and Confucian women. The new woman, according to Zhang, should both know how to use sexual favor to manipulate men (162), and be willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of love (165). From a progressive feminist point of view, it is hard to say whether Zhang’s new woman was empowered or disempowered in this paradoxical constitution. But it illustrates that the discourse on the new woman in modern China should not be viewed simply as result of a colonial encounter, but also as a reinvention of tradition which bears “China’s own distinct history” (Judge 2008, 7). In contrast, Xian’s gynocentrism was mainly based on the model of Western bourgeois women, who putatively participated in sexual relationships from an equal or more superior standing.

[11] . Japanese translators Sakai Tosihiko and Yamakawa Kikui translated parts of Lester Ward’s Pure Sociology and renamed it to “Gynecocentrism” in 1916. This book had immediately caught the attention of Chinese intellectuals. Li Da’s (1890–1966) translation of Gynecocentrism (nüxing zhongxin shuo) was published by Shangwu Yinshuguan in 1922; and Xia Mianzun’s (1886–1946) translation was published by Shanghai Minzhi Shuju in 1924 and reprinted in 1925.



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