Much of what passes for scholarship in cross-cultural studies is based on bias, ignorance, and unfounded assumptions, and much feminist research has succeeded in uncovering and exposing subjective factors coloring traditional male research. An interesting dilemma is: why are we so poor at realizing when our own research is not conducted with the same careful objectivity we demand in others? Far too often our own biases, prejudices, and unfounded assumptions lead us to accept conclusions which have no objective foundations. This essay is an examination of one instance where Western feminist thinkers have cheerfully embraced an unsound conclusion which nicely fits their own social political agendas and presuppositions. The case in point is the Western feminist understanding and treatment of Chinese women. To a certain extent, the problem can be understood as part of the widely criticized phenomenon of marginalization of "third world" women in Western feminist discourse; (1) yet, the Western representation of cultural "others" in this case has its particular stereotypes and biases.
Recent years have seen numerous books and papers analyzing and criticizing the Western perception of Chinese women; (2) still, many more details of the subject need to be worked out, especially, the factors that gave rise to the image of Chinese women as nothing but victims in pre-modern China. What also seems to have no been emphasized enough is the fact that the problem of distortion and marginalization does not always exist exclusively in Euro-American literature on third world women. People who are writing from the under-privileged state or from the perspective of those within such a state can also bias their understanding by uncritically embracing Western values as universal truth and judging their own tradition as backward and inferior to their Western counterparts. This tendency was clearly revealed in the May Fourth analysis of China's cultural past and women's enslavement in the Confucian family system. Unfortunately, to a large extent, the May Fourth intellectuals' bitter complaint against the Confucian tradition and their unsubstantiated generalization of women's victimization in pre-modern China are still retained in much of the sinophone literature on Chinese women in contemporary mainland China. (3) An awareness of the close relation that the May Fourth tradition bears to the Maoist state ideology and its impact on the academic research conducted within the country can certainly guard scholars outside China against taking the contemporary Chinese materials at face value.
In this essay, I will try to highlight some of the dilemmas embedded in the Chinese May Fourth analysis and Western feminist representation concerning the status of women in pre-twentieth century China. Specifically, I have two main theses: (1) the construction of the image of Chinese women as nothing but victims of Confucian patriarchy in both the Chinese and Western feminist discourse is designed to further other ideological purposes and political agendas respectively; in both cases, the claim that Chinese women had suffered from a more abusive patriarchy is unsubstantiated, and probably, reflects the biases and assumptions of each political tradition more than reality; (2) by way of an example, from a cross-cultural perspective, the interpretation of the custom of footbinding as the sheer victimization of women by male sadism, which is held by both the Chinese reformers and Western feminists, has distorted the meaning and function of that custom in that such a depiction omits the complex details of the traditional Chinese social milieu which gave rise to footbinding. (4)
In the introduction to her book Teachers of the Inner Chambers, Dorothy Ko noted, "[T]he invention of an ahistorical 'Chinese tradition' that is feudal, patriarchal, and oppressive was the result of a rare confluence of three divergent ideological and political traditions--the May Fourth-New Culture movement, the Communist revolution, and Western feminist scholarship" (1994, 3). Indeed, despite their distinctively divergent ideologies and political agendas, these three schools unanimously agree that women in pre-modern China were uniformly oppressed by an extremely harsh patriarchy that had dominated Chinese society for more than two thousand years. However, the commonality shared by these three political schools is not merely a coincidence. The formation of the discursive image of women, as uniformly oppressed and victimized in feudal China, which unites these three political schools, has its roots in the history of Western economic expansion in China at the turn of the twentieth century.
In order to understand the factors that influenced the Chinese intellectuals' assessment of women's status during the May Fourth period, one needs to consider the issue in the historical context of Western economic expansionism in China and China's painful transition (beginning in the mid-nineteenth century) from its agricultural economy and traditional life to modernity. A brief discussion of some of the crises that China experienced during the early decades of the twentieth century may shed some light on the subject.
The May Fourth legacy as a distinctive ideological and political tradition received its name from a student demonstration on May 4, 1919. College students in Beijing protested the decision taken by the Allied Powers at the Versailles Peace Conference that year which supported the Japanese occupation of China's Shandong province, previously occupied by Germany. The patriotic demonstration later trigged a nationwide political and cultural movement that involved the critical reevaluation of China's entire cultural heritage. (5)
China during this time had experienced a series of national crises. These crises were manifested in widespread corruption, deterioration of government administration, warlord wars at the provincial level, and the economic poverty that caused nationwide starvation. The domestic crises were intensified by Western economic intervention. Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, after Chinese resistance to foreign trade was repeatedly defeated by the superior military might of Western countries, China was coerced into signing a series of treaties that granted extraterritoriality as an indemnity to Western and Japanese powers. By the early twentieth century, a large portion of the nation's economy was controlled by foreign powers.
Reflection on these crises prompted the May Fourth generation of intellectuals, especially those who had studied in the West or in Japan, to become painfully conscious of China's low international standing and extreme economic poverty in contrast to the dynamism they had found in the West and in Japan. Much literature produced during this time revealed that generation's frustration with China's inability to defend itself, deep concerns with the national salvation, and enthusiasm for Western ideals of liberalism, democracy, and human rights. First published in 1915, New Youth, a journal edited by Chen Duxiu, who later became one of the founders of the Communist Party of China (CPC), certainly represents one of the most radical views of the time in advocating a whole sale of rejection of Confucianism. With little scholarly justification, the editors of and contributors to New Youth came to believe that Confucian thought and the traditional social organization, which resembled the patriarchal family structure, were the major causes of …