Gendered Nationalism and May Fourth: China’s ‘New Woman’

Gendered Nationalism and May Fourth: China’s ‘New Woman’

The May Fourth Movement (1915-24) is also referred to as the Chinese Enlightenment or the Chinese Renaissance. It is the cultural revolution that was brought about by the political demonstrations on the fourth of May 1919, when citizens and students in Beijing paraded the streets to protest over decisions made at the post-World War I Versailles Conference, and called for a destruction of traditional culture (Schoppa 2000, 159).

The abolishment of traditional culture entailed the invention of a new one. It was therefore especially the idea of “new everything” that became a focal point in the May Fourth Movement. Within the “new everything” debate, that, amongst others, included “new youth” and “new literature”, the “new woman” was an important issue (Chow 1991, 35). What does this idea of the ‘new woman’ actually mean? Why and how did gendered issues matter to the national May Fourth movement? What does this imply about the political culture in China around this period? These questions will be explored here, mainly focusing on how national identity was constructed through the idea of the ‘new woman’.

Gender and Nationalism

Before the May Fourth Movement is analyzed, the two concepts that are the central focus here will first need to be explained. These concepts are ‘gender’ –connected to the ‘new woman’-, and ‘nationalism’ –that was at the heart of May Fourth.

Both ‘gender’ and ‘nationalism’ are discourses that are relatively new study objects in the academic world. Gender relations were first recognized as academic research subjects in the West in the 1960s. Movements like the sexual
revolution have changed understandings of gender and sexuality. Part of this understanding is that sexual embodiment does not belong to some worldwide human nature, but is strongly interwoven with culture and society (Lancaster & Leonardo 1997). ‘Gender’ does not necessarily refer to the difference of sex between men and women, but how this sex-difference is formed by society.

Nationalism has only become a research subject fairly recent too; Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) has had a great impact on the study of what ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ actually is, and how powerful the concepts are: every successful revolution since W.W.II has defined itself in terms of ‘nationalism’. Anderson shows us the contradictions that exist within this idea of nationalism: it is actually a rather ‘new’ idea although it seems to be antique in the eyes of nationalists. Nationalism is a universal concept, yet its manifestations are nation-specific. Lastly, though nationalism is a very powerful concept, the scholarship on it is very poor.

By combining these concepts of gender and nationalism, and applying them to the history of the May Fourth Movement, a constructed image of China’s identity emerges. Notions of ‘nationalism’, ‘national identity’ and ‘gender’ are all not only fairly new to the academic world, they have also become quite fashionable. And thus, when approaching China through an idea of gendered nationalism, its history becomes a modern issue. To speak with Lowenthal’s words (1985): “The past (…) that is conjured up, is an artifact of the present” (xvi). The past actually always is altered for motives that reflect present needs; it is reshaped in order to make it more attractive in modern terms (Wang 2001, 4). Although this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is important to be conscious about the way in which history is approached.

May Fourth Movement & The New Woman

At the end of China’s Qing dynasty (1644-1911), progressive politicians struggled to establish a viable republic instead of the discredited imperial system that was at place. Their hope was to “transform China into a modern nation-state” (Spence 1990, 217). Although the dynastic system did collapse in 1911, the first elections in 1912 failed dramatically as the leader of the majority political party was assassinated. Provisional president Yuan Shikai did not have the power to keep the centre together and the position of the government was weakened drastically, both on a national and international level.

By the end of the First World War, a Chinese delegation of 62 members went to Versailles as the post-war treaty negotiations commenced. Despite of China’s high expectations, the Allied powers decided to support Japan in holding rights to Shandong province and ignore China’s contribution to war. In reaction, about 3000 students marched through Beijing on May 4th 1919 to protest against the Versailles Treaty (Spence 294; Schoppa 67). This day resulted in a broader nationalistic movement arguing that China needed to change from inside out. And so, from 1919 on, and into the 1920s, the direction of the movement changed, focusing on the fate of the nation. Whilst Schoppa (2000) studies the ‘–isms’ (Marxism, Leninism) as the new appeals of a changing China, Spence (1990) illustrates how China was transforming through cultural influences from abroad. In these differences of historical accounts it also becomes clear that there is no definite answer to the question which factors actually form a nation’s identity. Whilst ideologies play a bigger role in Schoppa’s narrative, Spence takes cultural features as the key to national identity. As the main focus of this essay is China’s ‘new woman’, it is mainly Spence’s vision that is followed.

The New Woman

In The Age of Empire (1987), Hobsbawn dedicates an entire chapter on the emergence of the ‘new woman’ between 1875-1914 in the “developed” world. Hobsbawn notes the decline in birth- and death rates and the spread of birth control as important factors for the change in women’s lives and feelings. Now that there was a higher standard of living, women started expecting different things from life (193). Growing industrialization produced “a new kind of complementarity” (198) between men and women, as the wives mostly stayed home whilst the men became breadwinners. To Hobsbawn, it does not matter much why the ‘new woman’ emerged; it was more or less a natural consequence of a capitalist society where the woman needed to be treated with greater respect since she decided on the household purchases (202-203). To Hobsbawn, the changing position of women mostly had to do with a transforming economy. The altering divide of gender roles, in Hobsbawn’s view, is more of an economic consequence than a cultural and societal construction, and therefore is also not connected to nationalism.

Looking at other examples, however, we can see that changing gender roles are connected to issues of national identity in many ways, and are not merely consequences of economic changes. Japan, for instance, took on a norm of the ideal womanhood in the late 19th century that was represented by the ideology of ‘good wife, wise mother’. While Japan was developing capital-intensive, higher technology industries, the changes were accompanied by a general sense of fear of losing the Japanese identity. Part of this fear was the angst for disorder in gender roles whilst heading for modernity (Hastings&Nolte 1991, 152; Gordon 2003, 94-111). To ease these feelings of discomfort, new concepts of Japanese ‘tradition’ were formed, in which the new Japanese woman played an important role. By promoting and implementing the idea of ‘good wife, wise mother’, not only were problems with the growing rate of infant mortality solved; the state also enjoyed great benefit from transforming Japanese society in this way (Smith 1983, 77). For one, both Western observers of Japan and Japanese reformers concluded early on that the treatment accorded women was a measure of the level of civilization of a given society, and by moulding the females into a woman of the ‘modern nation’, Western powers were more likely to take Japan seriously (Hastings&Nolte 153; Smith 77).

Not only Japan looked at the West in their transform of gender roles. Hobsbawn mentions the play by Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House (1879). The protagonist, Nora, serves as an example of the ‘new woman’. This same female character became a powerful influence to the May Fourth Movement in China. In this play, Nora leaves her husband and the household behind to find her own place in the world. It became a symbol, culturally and personally, to young Chinese, who admired this strong advocacy of women’s emancipation (Spence 1990, 317). Soon, women’s issues became a priority amongst Chinese intellectuals who examined the “woman problem”. According to them, a lower status of women in the Chinese society meant a serious impediment to further modernisation and strengthening of the nation (Dooling&Torgeson 1998, 13). Education of women was therefore necessary. In 1920, the first 11 female students were admitted to Peking University (Lu 2004, 63). The need for a woman’s own independent personality was also stressed. It was pointed out that: “a woman should have personality, because she is a ‘person’ among the masses!” (Lu 2004, 62).

The Chinese ‘new woman’ was formed through the many discussions in popular magazines such as ‘New Youth’. There was even a new magazine (‘New Woman’) entirely dedicated to the woman issue (Spence 312). The concept of ‘new woman’ (Chinese: xin nüxing) indicated the search for women’s identity in a new China that had rejected Confucian values. The woman was in ‘crisis’, and needed to be ‘re-invented’ (Chan Ching-kiu 13). Soon women started writing themselves and actively participated in women’s movements. By 1922, Peking University had admitted 887 female students (Lu 2004, 65).

From New Woman to New Nation : Gendered Nationalism

The powerful discourses of ‘gender’ and ‘nationalism’ are both concepts that generate identity. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one”. By this she means that we are born with a difference in sex, and that the difference in gender is later formed by society. Different cultures also expect different things of what it means to be a male or a female, and in this way, will construct their identities in different ways. In the same sense, national identities are created by societies. In arguing that, along with gender, nationalism is a constructed concept, I follow the ideas of both Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Eric Hobsbawn’s Invention of Tradition (1983).

Anderson shows how the world is made up of “imagined communities” that we call nations. It is imagined because the members of a nation, whether big or small, will never know or meet most of the members, nor hear from them, yet still in their minds they have the idea that they somehow belong together. Anderson shows how print language has played a very important role in the formation of nationalism; through a shared print language, people could start “thinking the nation”, and imagine themselves as part of a bigger community. In the same way, images of gender characteristics can be easily disseminated. In the case of the May Fourth Movement, cases such as the widespread novel of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the many magazines that discussed women’s issues exemplify this powerful dissemination.

Although Anderson’s book is not about gender, he does note the formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept: “(…) in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she has a gender” (5). As indicated, both ‘nationality’ and ‘gender’ are ideas that generate identity. This identity is mainly based on what it is not; both nation and gender define themselves through the ‘Other’, namely the other nation (which it is different from), and the other sex. According to Parker and Russo (1992), the fact that such identities constantly depend on difference, means that nations are always haunted by their various ‘Others’ (5). As a response to this constructed ambivalence, the nation needs to represent itself as united community. This results in the trope of the nation-as-woman, as if the male citizen were married to the female country. The fact that gender is anchored in nationalist imaginary also shows in the terms associated with ‘nation’: motherland, mother tongue, mother culture, etc. (Heng 1997; Parker & Russo 1992).

Walby (1992) builds on other academics that have written on gender and nation, like Yuval-Davis, when suggesting five major ways in which women are involved in the nation. These are: women as biological reproducers of ethnic collectivities, as reproducers of the boundaries of national groups, as participating centrally in the reproduction of the collectivity, as signifiers as national differences, and lastly, as participants in national, economic, military, and political struggles (Walby 1992; Yuval-Davis 1996). These are all ways in which women and gender relations operate in nation and nationalism.

The symbolic relation between woman and nation explains why the ‘new woman’ was so important in China’s road to modernisation. The new independent, educated, non-traditional woman was, after all, everything China was seeking to be. In this way, the re-invention of the female identity is paramount to the re-invention of the Chinese nation. The basic idea that either nation or female identity can be ‘invented’ leads back to Hobsbawn and Ranger (1983). Woman’s role in society is often referred to as ‘traditional’. In China’s case, old traditions were banned in order to create new ones.

However, women’s roles in society cannot be explained by simply calling them ‘traditions’. In most societies we see the way in which gender roles are divided as ‘traditional’. In Holland, for example, it used to be traditional for the bride to marry her husband as a virgin. By calling these ‘norms’ ‘traditions’ we close our eyes for the reasons behind them. In The Invention of Tradition, Hobsbawn and Ranger open our eyes by pointing out that ‘traditions’ are not as natural or self-evident as we may think. On the contrary, they treat tradition as something that is constructed to implant certain values and norms of behaviour by repeating; which suggests continuity with the past (1). Traditions come in multiple forms, and establish or symbolize social cohesion, legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority, or inculcate beliefs, value systems and conventions of behaviour (9). It is stated that it is beneficial to study traditions because through them, we might discover problems that remain unnoticed otherwise. You can thus see traditions as indicators of existing problems. The study of tradition is highly relevant to the concept of ‘nation’ (12,13); after all, it is the state that ‘invents’ traditions in order to benefit from them. In this way, gender roles are built to serve the nation and construct national identity. And so we can see that the powerful concepts of gender and nationalism are intrinsically linked and entwined in many more ways than meets the eye.


The period around China’s May Fourth was one of great significance to the formation of the Chinese nation. It was a political and cultural movement, searching to transform China. It also meant a change in China’s political culture. Whereas the focus first was on high politics on an international level (looking at the decisions that were made around the time of the Treaty of Versailles) it later shifted to a political culture where high politics did not matter that much; ‘politics’ became the politics of the people. The masses themselves could transform politics by parading the streets and changing their attitudes and (gender) roles.

In the case of May Fourth and the ‘new woman’, national identity matters greatly, as it is the key to the entire movement. The concept of ‘nation’ itself is also significant; as the dynastic rule came to an end, another way had to be found to keep the people connected. This connection was found in the concept of the nation.

Although the Chinese nation is the focal point of this narrative, it does help to pay attention the emergence of the ‘new woman’ in other countries. Through historical comparison, one can not only see that gender and nationalism are both socially constructed, since their interaction differs per society, it also indicates that there indeed is a reciprocal action between these concepts. Both Japan and China perceived the change of the female role as a requirement to be a ‘modern’ nation. Cultual transfer also matters in this history. The idea of the ‘new woman’ essentially came from the West, and was thus a transferred concept. However, there was a big difference in what it precisely meant to be a ‘new woman’ in the West, China or Japan. This, once again, shows us how ideas can be borrowed and then implemented in different ways, to serve the own nation – traditions and gender roles can all be constructed in such a way that it helps the nation “imagine” what they want their national identity to be. The ‘new woman’, now a thing of the past, has surely contributed to that.



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