For thousands of years up until the 18th century, China believed that it was the greatest nation that was centered in the world. Thus, the Chinese call their country Zhong Guo literally translating into “Middle Kingdom”. China’s emperors and many leaders reigned under a strong dynastic system, with an obdurate and culturally conservative view that they were completely independent as a nation.
Because of this stubborn notion, China was reluctant to open up to foreign nations for trading and political relations, and change its view that women were lowly servants and even slaves. However, these long lasting system of beliefs were shattered from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century when the educated Chinese elites and bureaucrats were forced to radically alter their perceptions of China and the world.
In 1793, Emperor Qian Long sent a letter to King George III to show gracious kindness, and that he had accepted the British ships into China for trade. However, there was a serious tone of arrogance Qian Long’s letter that almost elittled the nation of Great Britain. The letter stated, “As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” (Qian Long Emperor, 2). From Qian Long’s writing approach and style, it is clearly evident that China sees itself as the world’s greatest ountry and confident enough to fend itself from any other nation that dares to attack, without much trouble.
However from the late 18th century, this view was altered and remolded into a new vision that China could potentially be in danger of destruction from the “Westerners” and should be extremely cautious when making political decisions. “Those in the world who have policies to accumulate foreign debt and to have foreign-born officials in their governments, I now warn you that your future will look like Egypt’s.” (Qichao, 3). This is a warning from Liang Qichao against borrowing and accumulating foreign debt from other nations for the fear of becoming a failure of a country, using Egypt as an analogy.
The change of viewpoint that China now fears the fact that it could be destroyed by western nations was radical because China once believed it was an invincible nation. The fact that China now has this fear is even more palpable because of the strong discouragement from asking foreigners for help of any sort. In fact, Liang Qichao states many examples of countries he considers destroyed to prove a legitimate fear of becoming the same as them. “Although I am not surprised: these are the new rules for destroying countries.” (Qichao, 7).
A system of rules is devised for China to follow and never break, so that it does not follow the footsteps of the other countries it considers as failures. This proves that the archaic view of China being the only great power in the world has drastically changed into a fear of being consumed by foreign powers.
Since ancient times in China, men and their families saw women as objects that could be controlled and manipulated to their desired likings, and forced to do whatever they were told to do. “They can be flogged with a whip; or they can be branded; or their skin can be pierced with sharp instruments; or their bodies can be doused in boiling water. If they want to escape, they cannot; even if they want to die, they have no way to make a plan. There are some who are killed through illegal torture; some who die from suicide; and those who die off in epidemics are too numerous even to record.” (Zhen, 76).
The original view was that women could be sold forced to submit to any commands by using force. He-Yin Zhen states, “The history of our Chinese women sinking into bodily slavery is very long! Today, they are slaves of capitalists, whereas of old they only were being ordered around as servants.” But as more western influence penetrated the Chinese mentality, this perspective quickly died out and transformed into new ideologies. “That the most strenuous labor was all being heaped onto the bodies of women—how can this not be a major tragedy of the world? How is this not the case of the society of the wealthy using women as instruments of wealth accumulation?”
(Zhen, 78). The old customs of treating women were questioned by educated elites such as He-Yin Zhen and reformed to more feministic visions. “The women of the poor can seek employment as maids or factory girls to support themselves without resorting to becoming prostitutes or concubines.” (Zhen, 88). This went against the traditional Chinese view that women from poor families should be sold into slavery or prostitution. By comparing and seeing women from Europe, United States, and Japan, China is forced to change its view of women in order to become keep up with the manufacturing speeds of its competitors and put women to better use without its traditional lewd perspective on poor women.
From this new concept of feminism, an even more revolutionary concept begins to take shape: equality. “Labor is a natural calling for women. But everyone, not just poor women, should labor. When labor is borne only by some poor women, then it is a kind of subservient labor. So, in our opinion if there were the implementation of a system of communalized property, then everyone, whether man or woman would labor equally.”
(Zhen, 91). Bureaucrats such as He-Yin Zhen realize that if women, regardless of class, were to all contribute to the labor force, society would become a lot more efficient. “When employed labor is transformed into equal labor, then some people would no longer be dependent on other people; everyone would be independent—no one would have to rely on others, and no one would have to serve others. This would indeed be fortunate for the world. How could it be fortunate only for women?” (Zhen, 91). The view on how women should be treated has greatly shifted since the ancient times. Instead of women being seen as mere tools and objects of lust, they are now seen as potentially beneficial to all of society and even the world.
By and large, China’s adamant political and cultural perceptions of the outside world and itself have drastically changed starting from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. China now had competition from other countries and feared destruction. Even China’s views on women have exponentially changed into more feminist views because of the many educated elites who were sent abroad to study. Ultimately, as a result of the many Western and European powers forcing their ways into China, trying to establish trade ports and missionaries, China’s traditional views were inevitably changed due to the overwhelming outside influences.