To the Women’s World
1907 — China
That which I admire most in my life is a pair of colloquial phrases. Not only have these two phrases been heard by and are known to everyone, but they are also often on everyone’s lips. They are not, however, phrases that one speaks lightly without meaning to accomplish anything. You need to know that these two phrases denote a very important truth [universal to] the past and present, the five continents, ad the myriad nations. Every single person should understand the meaning of these phrases, study their principles, and carryout the rights [quanli] they [represent]. If someone can understand these two phrases, study them, and carry them out, I can conclude that this kind of person is a complete person [wanquan ren] and is extremely fortunate. If someone does not understand these two phrases, does not study them, and does not carry them out, this kid of person is an incomplete person [Weicheng ren] and is unfortunate. These two phrases have such significance, such seriousness, and such importance to the principles of our acting as people [zuoren] and to our personalities [renge], that whenever I think of them I cannot restrain myself — and so I must speak to you all today . . .
What are the two phrases which I admire so very much? They are “Respect oneself and make oneself honorable” [zizun zigui] and “Debase oneself and make oneself low” [ziqing zijian]. Are not these two phrases heard by everyone , known to everyone, and frequently spoken by everyone? Allow me to explain these two phrases a little more. What is it to “respect oneself”? It is to be able to retain one’s right to freedom [ziyou quan]. This right to freedom means that as long as one is a human and has knowledge, regardless of whether one is a man or a woman, one should be entitled to a share of the right to freedom; this right is sacred and inviolable . . . .
That one can retain one’s right to freedom, therefore, means that one respects oneself; being able to respect oneself, naturally one is an honorable person. What is it to “debase oneself”? It is to be unable to retain one’s right to freedom. In no respect is one master of oneself; one is commanded and directed by others on every matter, just as the saying goes: “Order him to go east, [he] dares not go west; order hi m to beat the dog, [he] dares not beat the chicken. One only understands relying on others and obeying others, and does not know to seek one’s own rights, hence one’s right to freedom is stolen by others. Since one’s right to freedom is stolen by others, one is not able to respect oneself. The inability to respect oneself means to debase oneself. One wo debase oneself is naturally a low person. This is why I said that these two set phrases denote a very important truth [universal to] the past and present, the five continents, and the myriad nations. . . .
In antiquity, Confucius once heard a child sing: “if the water of the Canglang is clear,/ It is fit to wash my chin-strap; / If the water of the Canglang is muddy, / It is only fit to wash my feet.” He then told him disciples: “You must remember these few lines. The meaning of this song is that if the water of the Canglang is clear, I will wash my chin-strap. If the water of the Canglang River is muddy, I can only wah my feet.” One may say that the water is the same; why should the chin-strap be washed if it is clear, but only the feet if it is muddy? You must understand that [the decision to] washing the chin-strap or wash the feet is not based on an artificial distinction [weixin], but in fact is because the water brings this treatment on itself.
The two phrases [I discussed above] also mean this same thing. If one can see oneself as worthy of respect, others will naturally regard one as something of value. If one sees oneself as debased, others will naturally take one to e a lesser being. In this light, we can see that the difference between “honorable [zungui] and “despicable” [qingjian] is not the result of artificial distinctions, but is a fact brought on by oneself. Accordingly, since we are persons, we definitely cannot but respect ourselves and endeavor to obtain freedom, and we definitely should no longer debase ourselves or give up freedom [We] now realize that the word “freedom” and those two phrases — “Respect oneself and make oneself honorable” and “Debase oneself and make oneself low” are just like the chemists’ elementary particles of atoms: no matter what one is talking about, they cannot be escaped. From this we can see that if we want to respect ourselves and be regarded as things of value, and do not want to debase ourselves and so behave like lesser beings, there is no alternative to endeavoring to obtain freedom.
Be this as it may, the word “freedom” is really very difficult: not only difficult to practice but also difficult to explain. Why is this? You must understand that one can only be free when one has the qualifications [zige] for freedom: without these qualifications, one can never be free. If one tries to forcibly obtain freedom despite not having the qualifications, this is called “tyrannical freedom [quaingheng ziyou] and “savage freedom” [yeman ziyou]. A tyrannical and savagely free man still does not know freedom. Some may say: “His tyranny and his savagery are exactly the freedom that allows him to act as he desires. Why do you say instead that he does not know freedom?” I would answer that I have already said that one can only be free when one has the qualifications for freedom. What are these “qualifications to freedom”? Generally speaking, free people definitely will be delighted to let others have the same freedom as they do, and definitely will not infringe upon others’ freedom or obliterate others’ freedom. When people can act thus, it is called true freedom. As for those with tyrannical and savage freedom, they only know to invariably act as they please, but have no idea what is meant by freedom, what is meant by others’ freedom, what is meant by violating others’ freedom, nor what is meant by obliterating others’ freedom. If this is taken to be freedom, then even killing people, setting things on fire, being a thief, or being a bandit would all be included in freedom. If everything can be counted as freedom, then it is no longer necessary to study what freedom is all about; one only needs to study what Satan is all about. How sad!
At this point, the question of whether we are free or not in China comes to mind. Who do you think are the freest people in our China? It is the men. Who are the least free people? Naturally it is the women. Of course our women in China are the least free people, but can the men in China really meet the definition of being free? No. Why not? Because they do not have the qualifications for freedom: they do not know what is meant by freedom, what is meant by others’ freedom, what is meant by violating other’s freedom, nor what is meant by obliterating others’ freedom. They only know how to act as they please and practice their tyrannical and savage freedom — and they use covert maneuvers and explore all possible methods to deal with the freedom of we women. Therefore I say that men should be regarded as still not knowing freedom. They also do not realize that the right to freedom of we women has been violated and obliterated to the furthest extent by them. My sisters, you have to think about these things yourselves. Men have already violated and obliterated our right to freedom to this extent. Is it conceivable that we should just let things follow their own course an henceforth forget everything? Should we do this, then it is inevitable that others will comment that we “debase ourselves and lower ourselves. . . .”
[What, then, is to be done?] I myself am neither particularly talented nor learned. I an think up no methods but the following: in my humble opinion, there is only one method to vigorously obtain self-respect [zizun] and self-esteem [zigui]. If one wants to respect oneself, one must first gain the right to freedom. To gain this right to freedom, one must first acquire the qualifications for freedom. And how shall we acquire these qualifications for freedom? There is only one way, I think. What way is it? It is simply that we must seek learning. I think that if one has learning, one can acquire the qualifications for freedom. With these qualifications, one can enjoy the right to freedom. [If one] enjoys the right to freedom, one can be called “self-respected and self-esteemed.” If we in the world of women are able to “respect ourselves and honor ourselves,” even if they in the world of men want to practice their arbitrary and savage freedom, they will not dare. Even if [they] want to violate our freedom, they will have no way to violate it. Even if [they] want to obliterate our freedom, they will have no way to obliterate it. Since they will not be able to violate our freedom, obliterate our freedom, and will not dare practice their arbitrary and savage freedom, from then on, if anyone dares utter the sentence that we “despise ourselves and debate ourselves,” I will not believe it. [Since] you all have hard these comments of mine and the explanation to this point, I trust that you do not take my words as unreasonable.
A sister, however, once cam up to me and said: “Your words are no doubt correct, but how is it that we as women have to be free in order to be called ‘self-respected and self-esteemed’” I do not quite understand [your] reason for this.” I then asked her: “What is it that you do not understand?” She said: “Take me as an example. When I was young, living with my parents, though I did not get to study and seek knowledge, I still lived as a precious daughter for ten or twenty years. After I grew up, I was married to a scholar. This scholar was not only a young gentleman [from a good family] but also well learned and very talented. Within one year he passed his first exam, and I then became a Mrs. Licentiate. The first time he took the provincial examination, he got the degree of a provincial scholar, and I thus became a Mrs. Provincial Scholar. Later he went on to obtain the degree of advanced scholar and was selected into the Hanlin Academy, and I achieved the status of a Mrs. Hanlin. Of course Id didn’t get to study nor to seek knowledge, and I do not understand what is meant by freedom and thus cannot respect myself nor honor myself. But if[anyone] wants to put the words ‘despicable’ and ‘low’ on me, it seems to me that they do not fit. An ancient proverb says well: ‘The wife become noble by relying on the husband; the ship is elevated by relying on the water. Therefore I wonder why we must have the right to freedom in order to be called respected and honored. Me, for instance, although I do not have the right to freedom and cannot claim to have respected myself and honored myself, it is impossible not to speak of me as respectable and honorable [kezun kegui]. From my point of view, then, it would be fine whether we women can claim the three words ‘right to freedom’ or not; it does not seem to be necessary. Now I have heard you say that it was so important, and I have become a little confused and wish to ask for your instruction.”
After I had listened to her remarks, I almost burst into laughter. I suspect that each of you cannot help laughing after hearing this story. Yet we ought not laugh at her, but rather need to understand that these remarks of hers are the result of not having studied and not having sought learning. Accordingly, the words that she utters will induce others to laugh. Nevertheless, a person like her should really be seen as pitiable. There is in fact no shortage of pitiable people like her in our China, but people who speak out like she does are rarely seen. As for those who do not speak out but have this sort of idea in mind, I fear that they are too many to count. Because of this, though I felt like laughing very much when I first heard these remarks of hers, after a moment’s thought, not only did I not feel like laughing, but I actually felt like grieving. I realized that our world of women has been poisoned to such a grave extent without our realizing it. The imprisonment techniques of the world of men have bound our world of women so tightly that people in our world of women — who have become slaves, become utensils, become toys, and even had their lives entrusted to the hands of others — do not even have any idea of this. Instead, she is quite elated; she calls herself respectable and honorable. Every sister, people think carefully about this. Isn’t this the most grievous thig for our compatriots in the world of women?
Therefore I did not laugh at her, but peacefully answered her: “Sister, your remarks do show a bit of thought, but because you have not though it through carefully enough, you cannot understand my words about the self-respect, self-esteem, and freedom . . .
You said; ‘The wife becomes noble by relying on the husband; the ship is elevated by relying on the water.’ You have become the wife of the chief court historian and you seem to think of yourself as respectable and honorable. If a learned person were to view [our situation], however, he or she would probably say that your respect and honor are not reliable. Why is this? You need to know that since the heaven and earth have given birth to humans like us, we are entitled to a share of rights of freedom. This right to freedom is sacred and inviolable. Only [that which] is sacred and inviolable can be regarded as respectable and be regarded as honorable. As for those things we accomplish and those honors we receive by relying on others no matter how respectable and honorable, they cannot be regarded as [genuinely] merited respect and honor.
“Now I will make another analogy. Suppose one of us women were married to a man who is truly rich and noble. Although he is rich, however, he does not allow you to spend any part of his money. Although he is noble, he does not allow you to share any part of his good fortune. How can you cope with this? Even if he allows you to spend his money and to share his good fortune, if at some moment he wants to apply his tyrannical and savage freedom, again, how can you deal with him? This is why I said that your respect and honor are not reliable. If we want reliable respect and honor, we must retain the right to freedom. You have to know that we are simply women. Is there any relation of superiority and inferiority between women and men that we have to obey him, depend on him, and lead him to think of us as a utensil or a toy? Is this regrettable or not, do you think? The two phrases ‘The wife becomes noble by relying on the husband; the ship is elevated by relying on the water’ are not wise sayings but rather extremely unkind expressions. The first phrase mans that we women are base by nature and we will become noble only by relying on men. The second phrase identifies we women with the ship, which will be elevated only when the water is rising; if there is no water, then [the ship] cannot move. Do you not agree that these words can enrage us? Because I cannot restrain my anger, I thus hold on to an idea of freedom [ziyou de zhuyi]. The idea of freedom is sacred and inviolable.”
After I told her these things, that sister did not say more. As for whether she could understand what I told her, I have no idea. My speech today is simply a casual talk based on my humble opinions; without realizing it I have spoken quite a lot. I wonder what you think after hearing all this? If the theory has some merits despite the vulgar diction, then all my elder and younger sisters, every one of you has to make up your mind and try your utmost to seek knowledge. Everyone must study until you have the qualifications for freedom and enjoy the right to freedom. From then on, the good words “self-respect” and “self-esteem” will naturally apply to you, while the bad words “self-contempt” and “self-degradation” will naturally fade away. The Analects says: “I seek humaneness and humaneness is sat hand. This means that as long as I want to do this, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished. My elder and younger sisters, [you] simply need to mindfully and vigorously do it at once.
Source: China New Woman’s Magazine [Zhongguo xin nüjie zazhi], 1907.
Also: The Chinese Human Rights Reader: Documents and Commentary 1900-2000, ed. Stephen C. Angle and Marina Svensson (London: Routledge) 2001, pp. 43-49.