Manifestos and Feminism in China’s Marxist Encounters

Rebecca Karl

translations available: Italiano, 简体中文

Is it important, as a theoretical and historical matter, to note that one of the first-ever translations into Chinese of Marx and Engels, a partial translation of the Communist Manifesto, was published in January 1908 in the feminist journal Tianyi bao [天义报/Natural Justice, Vol. 19] in the 学理 – theory – column? Is this significant or is it merely of minor interest? While it is true that Marxism – as a systemic mode of analysis – was not systematically introduced into and did not take hold in China until at least a decade later, and while it is also true that the import of Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto was not appreciated until well after the initial partial translation, nevertheless, that the Communist Manifesto came into Chinese on the wings of feminism perhaps should not be treated as a negligible detail. Although what that detail signifies also is not clear. Below, I attempt to work out how we could build a historical argument around this detail. But rather than offer a linear through-account of the translation of Marx in China, I present an explicitly political argument on re-reading sources in a feminist light. I suggest at the end what this might tell us about Marxism in China in our contemporary times.

The Manifesto: A Feminist Form

The first translations into Chinese of parts of the Communist Manifesto were done by Zhu Zhixin and Min Ming.1 Zhu, an early associate of Sun Zhongshan, was a founding member of the Tongmeng hui [同盟会/Revolutionary Alliance/RA] established in Tokyo in 1905; Min Ming is a pseudonym for someone historians have never identified. In both translations, the words used to render Marxist terms into Chinese indicates a Japanese derivation, but I will not dwell on that aspect here. Instead, I want to concentrate on the form.

Zhu’s effort was published in 1905 in the RA’s journal, the Minbao [民报/ People’s Voice].2 It was a translation of the ten-point program of Part II of the Manifesto: the part which calls for the abolition of private property, the centralization of the State, the nationalization of industry and agriculture, education for all, among others. Without knowing why Zhu chose to translate only that portion, we can suggest that he was most interested to offer a possible policy direction for a nascent political movement intent on capturing state power through the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. The Revolutionary Alliance was founded as such a movement. That is, the ten points appear to offer a possible blueprint for a new state project. Zhu remarks: “The simple desire of Marx to save the poor and ignorant mass of the people through the method of class struggle may be seen in these ten points.” And he concludes that, “Marx held the capitalists to be plunderers, who pillaged and robbed. Their gains resulted from the exploitation of the workers, carried out solely for the purpose of fattening themselves.”3 Subsequently, in the fifth issue of Minbao (1906), the RA’s Qiang Zhai [Song Jiaoren] quoted the last line of the Manifesto to the effect that: “Our goal is to attain the overthrow of the whole of today’s social structure. We shall cause the class with power to tremble with fear before the communist revolution. The proletariat will then be rid of their chains, and they will gain the whole world.”4

Without any further discussion of the document in the journal, we can see that in Minbao, the Manifesto’s content speaks to a functional method through which the weak or impoverished can gain state power through the mobilization of something called class conflict – the poor against the fattened rich. Because it was inferred to be so narrowly functional, and the ten-point program was presented as a set of potential state policies, Marx here was reduced to his “applicability” to China. Ultimately, Zhu Zhixin and others in the RA considered this applicability weak for China’s situation at that time – with little proletariat to speak of and capitalism seen as contained to Treaty Ports and under Euro-American-Japanese imperialist control. To the extent, then, that the conditions of which Marx spoke for Europe were not apparently manifest in China in the same way, Marx could be and was dismissed as irrelevant to China’s particular situation by the RA and its theorists.

By contrast, shortly thereafter, the 1888 Engels Preface to the English Edition of the Manifesto, as translated by Min Ming, was published in Tianyi bao [Vol 15, 1908], the mouthpiece of Chinese anarcho-feminists resident in Japan, edited by He-Yin Zhen and her husband Liu Shipei.5 The Tianyi editorial comment at the end of the translated “Preface” commends the piece as follows:

The Communist Manifesto [共产主义宣言] discovered class struggle, which is a beneficial theory of history. From this Preface, we can study the transformations in contemporary thought. Those who wish to study the development of socialism ought to begin here.6

This comment places the Manifesto beyond the functional state program emphasized by Zhu’s ten-point translation and instead draws attention to the social process through which the state is clarified historically: class struggle. That is, here, the Manifesto is understood as a theory of history; it speaks not only to a particular (European) history, but to the problem of the modern historical condition itself. Indeed, in the subsequent joint issue of Tianyi bao (Vol 16–19) the introductory paragraph of the Manifesto – beginning with the specter haunting Europe – as well as Parts I and II were published in Min Ming’s translation in their totality.7

Of most interest to me is how the version published in Tianyi bao highlights the manifesto form, where the Minbao excerpt does not. Documents that are now translated as xuanyan/manifesto/declaration – e.g. The Declaration of Independence; the Declaration of the Rights of Man – were ambiguous in the late Qing. For example, the Declaration of Independence, now known as the Duli xuanyan/ 独立宣言 was known in the late Qing as the Duli xiwen 独立檄文, A Call to Arms for Independence. First partially translated into Chinese in 1901 and published in the Guomin bao 国民报 in Tokyo’s Chinese exile circles, it was only much later that the Declaration of Independence came to be understood not only as a call to arms to oppose particular enemies but as a manifesto declaration of a new kind of history altogether: a history of government by and for the people. That is, as with Zhu’s 1905 translation of the ten-point program of Marx and Engels, the Declaration of Independence at first was understood as an activist policy statement – to overthrow an unjust government – not as an epistemological re-thinking of history itself.

Meanwhile, the Declaration of the Rights of Man first was translated as a xuanbu 宣布/ proclamation and published in 1902, also in a Chinese exile-run journal in Tokyo. While the naming xuanbu is not important, it is important to note that this document too was reduced to a statement of policy direction rather than a rethinking of the premise of modern historical subjectivity itself. It was translated in the form of a petition rather than as a manifesto. As we know the petition form in China had long been a well-trodden strategy of political expression, to supplicate the dynasty for relief or support. Yet, petitions and calls to arms connote differently than a manifesto declaration genre, or at least they did in the early twentieth century. Those forms are functional to a particular goal and do not necessarily call for a rethinking of the historical itself.

By contrast, the Communist Manifesto as translated by Min Ming for Tianyi bao in 1908 participates in the genre of a manifesto just then being established in China. This genre brought something new to the table. In the particular case of the Communist Manifesto, by presenting the introduction – on haunting specters – and Parts I & II, the Min Ming translation offers not merely a political program for state actors or would-be seizers of the state. Rather, it presents the possibility of a complete reconceptualization of the past in a new light. That is, as a genre, a manifesto announces a break with a now-rejected past, whose reach into the present cannot be erased but must be reckoned with. The reckoning comes through a full engagement with the newness and the now-ness of the present, an engagement with the question of what it is about this present that contains traces of the past (the ghostly specters) but is not a mere continuation or attempted replica of it. The reckoning with the past comes with an implied or stated set of hopes for a future not yet foretold.

It is in this sense that it is historically significant that Min Ming’s more full translation of the Communist Manifesto appeared in the anarcho-feminist journal, Tianyi bao. For, the manifesto form, the very genre – which was so useful for Marx and Engels in their declaration of the spectral revolutionary era just then emerging into view – this form presents the possibility of reading the past as an open archive rather than a closed canon. As feminist theorist Kathi Weeks articulated in a talk delivered at Duke University (November 2017), in this archival form, the past is neither sealed from the present, nor is the present a teleological result of an already-known past narrated as history. Rather, perceiving the past as open archive enables a process that sees history as possibly transformative: it points to reconceptualization not recontextualization.

That He-Yin Zhen, editor of Tianyi bao, intended for her feminism to reconceptualize China’s past, and not merely recontextualize it, is clear from her essays “On the Revenge of Women” and others, all published in the journal. Her commentaries and analyses do not revise the past as history, but completely re-read it. Indeed, just a year prior to the Tianyi bao translation of the Communist Manifesto, He-Yin Zhen had launched her journal with a “Feminist Manifesto” [女子宣布书/ nuzi xuanbushu], through which she engaged a radical re-conceptualizing of China’s past in feminist perspective. In this inaugural piece, He-Yin Zhen thoroughly excoriates the marriage system, the married system (that is, once man and wife, how men and women must relate socially), and the labor system within the family where, as she notes fu [妇/woman] consistently is glossed as fu [服/service]. He-Yin’s point is not merely to indicate gender injustice, but to re-read the Chinese and global past in an anti-patriarchal light so as to re-formulate the bases for the present and a future not just for women but for humankind.

He-Yin, at the same time as re-presenting the past in feminist perspective, also engaged a vision of a future predicated upon social and cultural transformations informed by a totalizing revolutionary overthrow of the historical and contemporary premises of an unjust and unequal patriarchal social order, one that was gendered, classed, domestically ethnicized (Han vs. Manhcu), and globally racialized through imperialist practices of capitalist domination and legal control. As she writes in her Manifesto, the goal of social transformation is not to grab rights for women so they can oppress men, but rather to attain and affirm the full humanity of all, so as to find a way out of inequality and towards justice, without regard to hierarchy or ancient custom. As she concludes: “By saying ‘nanxing’ 男性 and ‘nvxing’ 女性 we are not speaking of ‘nature,’ as each is but the outcome of differing social customs and education…” In rendering women and men equal by producing different historical outcomes of custom and education, He-Yin writes, the “nouns ‘men’ and ‘women’ would no longer be necessary. This is ultimately the ‘equality of men and women’ of which we speak.”8 In this feminist re-conceptualization, “woman” and “man” name differences as the result of a process of gendered social inequality not as the result of biological sex. The future of equality – where the nouns ‘man’ and ‘woman’ do not connote difference as the premise for social injustice – thus hangs on the capacity of feminists to read history differently, so as to derive a more just premise for a future equality.

Read in this light, then, the fact that the fuller Communist Manifesto as a theory of history came as a feminist document in China is highly historically significant. Indeed, this perspective on manifestos and feminism has most recently been articulated in the “Notes for a Feminist Manifesto” written by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya & Nancy Fraser and published in the New Left Review (#114, Nov–Dec 2018), and in the expanded version, Feminism for the 99% published by Verso in 2019. Just as with Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto, in content and also in form, their recent feminist manifesto demands a reconceptualization of history and the future. This reconceptualizing is not merely inclusionary; rather, it transforms what we see as historical, how we present the past as history and thus the present as a source of possible futures.

It is no coincidence, then, that the manifesto form became an oft-used genre for Chinese women (and, soon, for radicals more generally) from the early twentieth century onwards to re-conceptualize the present in light of rejected propositions from and about the past. In 1922, for example, an Anti-Christian federation of students at Peking University issued a manifesto contesting the necessary centrality of Christianity to global modern life, proclaiming instead that religion in general and Christianity in particular were inimical to transforming the capitalist system and its forms of governance. For March 8th Women’s Day in 1927, several feminist organizations from Hunan and Sichuan issued manifestos about the meaning of the Day for the smashing of patriarchy and imperialism. Soon, the genre came to be embedded in the multiple social and political struggles over re-reading the past to claim the contours of possible futures. Meanwhile, in 1919, the Karakhan Manifesto, issued by the newly formed Soviet State, renounced the Tsarist regime’s imperialist concessionary interests in China by re-conceptualizing the relations between the nations as equal and sovereign. In 1935, Mao used the form – his Wayaobu Manifesto (瓦窑堡宣言) – to call for the redefining of the Nationalists from mortal enemy to anti-Japanese ally. By 1979, the “Manifesto of the Alliance for Human Rights in China” [中国人权宣言/ zhongguo requan xuan’yan] – a document generated as part of the Beijing Spring that soon was suppressed – still has echoes of the Communist Manifesto, proclaiming the centrality of humanity/humanism to the socialist project (as against what the authors saw as the inhumanity of the just-concluded Cultural Revolution).

My point, then, is that the manifesto form has to be seen not merely as containing a static content, but as re-presenting in the present a past that does not lead to a desired future, but rather a past whose ghostly hauntings remain to be reckoned with as a new future is made. In this light, Zhu Zhixin’s version of the Marx & Engels’ Manifesto – the ten-point program – is merely an instrumentalized document presenting a potential blueprint for state politics; this functionalist reading – we can call it a masculinist one – becomes one primary mainstream fate of Marxism more generally in China. That is, how does a Marxism defined by known and static principles “apply” to the Chinese case? As soon as those principles are seen as inadequate/inapplicable to China, Marxism can be jettisoned. In its feminist rendering, however, the Manifesto form – and Marxism as a historical analytics – can be seen as a method of re-reading and reconceptualizing the past; it is an intervention into how to think the historicization of social relations and power dynamics in a totalizing and not merely a state-led mode. In this version, Marxism remains a fluid dynamic, a set of possibilities, a way of recognizing and purging the inequities of the past and present in the name of a transformed future. It remains enduringly relevant as a mode of re-conceptualizing and re-totalizing so long as the historical conditions to which it is connected and to which it responds – capitalism and global unevenness – subsist.


Marxism-in-China cannot be seen primarily as a chronological or even a geographical problem, but a problem of what Hayden White calls “deep temporality” that “seeks to grasp the ‘plural unity of future, past, and present.”9 It points, therefore, not to a static set of principles but to a mode of analysis and conceptualizing that brings temporalities into necessary confrontation. Meanwhile, the spatial problem – most narrowly construed by the “applicability” of Marx to China; but most expansively as the historical method through which a different Chinese and global future might be imagined – can be thought by acknowledging a global potentiality that points elsewhere, and not to a form of stasis pointing to the continuity of an immovable past. Spatiality, therefore, cannot be represented in the present by settled regions or places, rather, it must be represented by material historical forces whose dynamic of the production and reproduction of unevenness forms the basis and object of research rather than of ideological territoriality.

Marxism-in-China cannot and does not signify one thing at all times. In its initial arrival in China in a feminist idiom, the Communist Manifesto opened the possibility for the reconceptualization of history in tendentially totalizing terms: whether that was through the history of class struggle and/or through the history of patriarchal logics, whose past unjust reproductive processes could be redirected through radical support for human equality and justice. Through the twentieth century, historical reconceptualization in China became not only totalizing in the terms of a global capitalist/ socialist logic or an anti-patriarchal principle but also particularizing in terms of how to think China within and through those logics. Particularization concerned how to create social meaning in Chinese and in China through conceptual productions related and relatable to the globalized everyday lives of Chinese experiences of capitalism, socialism, and patriarchy. Today, in the twenty-first century, particularization will need to address, among others, how to create social meaning in Chinese and in China through conceptual productions related and relatable to the changing globalized everyday lives of Chinese experiences of capitalism and patriarchy. This struggle, as with its historical instantiations, will be neither easy nor straightforward. It is one of the great challenges of our times.

Rebecca E Karl teaches at New York University in New York. Her latest book is China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History (Verso 2020). Her ongoing work engages conceptual issues in China’s twentieth-century political economy. She is a founding member of Critical China Scholars and a proud participant in the positions editorial collective.

  1. Ma Zuyi, “History of Translation in China,” in The Encyclopedia of Translation, ed. Chan Sin-wai and David E. Pollard (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1995), 383.
  2. Kirk Denton, Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893–1945 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 257.
  3. Rong Mengyuan, “The Introduction of Marxism in Chinese Publications Before the Revolution of 1911,” trans. David P. Barrett, Chinese Studies in History, 14, no. 3 (1981): 41–2.
  4. Rong, “Introduction of Marxism,” 43.
  5. The Japanese translation by Kotoku Shusui 幸徳秋水 and Toshihiko Sakai 堺利彦had been published in 1904. Kotoku’s common-law wife, Kanno Suga, was in touch with He-Yin Zhen in their shared radical circles in Tokyo.
  6. Wan Shiguo and Liu He, eds. Tianyi, Hengbao (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin daxue chubanshe), 270.
  7. Rong Mengyuan’s previously cited essay, originally published in the PRC in 1953 and then translated into English in 1981, on introductions of socialism into China does not mention at all this particular piece.
  8. He-Yin Zhen, “Feminist Manifesto,” in The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory, ed. Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 184.
  9. Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 51.