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China Media Research, 2(3), 2006, Yin, Toward Confucian Feminism: Critique of Eurocentric Feminist Discourse

Toward a Confucian Feminism: A Critique of Eurocentric Feminist

Jing Yin, Clemson University

Abstract: Feminist movements in the United States and Western Europe have called attention to the oppression
of women worldwide. However, as Western feminisms are gaining more and more currency, it is vital for non-
Western women to be cautious of the pitfall of replacing one form of oppression with another. This article explores
an alternative framework for non-Western feminism. The article offers a critique of the hegemony of Eurocentric
discourse in feminist movements around the world. It problematizes three characteristics of Eurocentric feminist
discourse: universalism, individualism, and right-based ethics. The article also proposes a Confucian feminism
based on the principle of ren (humanness), the notion of rights as fen (share), and duty-based ethics. [China Media
Research. 2006;2(3):9-18].

Keywords: Feminism; Eurocentrism, individualism; Confucianism; ren (humanness); fen (share); duty-based

Feminism is one of the most powerful struggles for goal, the present article first offers a critique of
social justice in the world (hooks, 2000). Feminist Eurocentric feminism. By Eurocentric feminism I mean
movements in the United States and Western Europe different forms of feminism that are rooted in the
have called attention to women’’s oppression and experiences of European and European-American
exploitation worldwide. However, just as white males women and are relevant only to the understanding of
dominate Eurocentric humanist discourse, Western such experiences. Second, this article explores the
feminist discourse is also a dominant discourse that possibility of a form of Confucian feminism that
displaces non-Western cultural values. Western resonates with the sociocultural experiences of women
feminisms,1 to differing extents, have been accepted by in China and other parts of Asia, such as South Korea,
many across the world as an inseparable part of Japan, and Vietnam. Specifically, the present discussion
modernization and development (e.g., Fung, 2000). In will turn to the Confucian principle of ren (humanness),
the same manner as Eurocentric modernization, Western the conception of rights as fen (share), and duty-based
feminisms are also forms of colonization that codify ethics for cultivating feminist consciousness in China
non-Western cultures as Others (Mohanty, 2002). and beyond.
In the case of Chinese women, with few exceptions,
Western studies present a homogeneous picture of A Critique of Eurocentric Feminism
gender oppression in traditional Chinese society or Asante (1980) avers that ““humanism itself was
under the socialist regime (Chow, 1991; Gilmartin, frequently nothing more than a Eurocentric concept of
Hershatter, Rofel & White, 1994; Mann, 1994). This what was good for the world”” (p. 2). By the same token,
type of research concentrated on how Chinese women feminism itself is often nothing more than a Eurocentric
were victimized and marginalized by the traditional concept of what is good for all women. Just like
patriarchal kinship system or the contemporary Eurocentric humanism, the first and foremost
socialism (Mann, 1994). According to this view, characteristic of Eurocentric feminist discourse is its
Chinese women were victims of oppression, or were assumed universality.
complicit in their victimization, or were their own Although Western feminist discourses or practices
oppressors. These analyses essentially reduced Chinese are by no means monolithic or homogenous, they are all
women to a monolithic Other by subjecting their rooted in the experiences of European and European-
experiences to Western measures and frameworks. American women. However, this Eurocentric vision of
Rather than advancing a vision of real equality, these womanhood is projected as the universal or natural
discourses subjugate Chinese women to the hegemony definition for all women of different cultures and
of Western feminisms. classes. From the outset, Eurocentric feminist discourse
Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2002) contends that the appropriated the notion of ““common oppression”” to
conceptualization of non-Western feminisms ought to build solidarity (hooks, 2000). The employment of a
be a political project that simultaneously involves ““the rhetoric of commonality or sameness by middle-class
internal critique of hegemonic ‘‘Western’’ feminisms, European (American) women constructed women as a
and the formulation of autonomous, geographically, homogenous ““powerless”” group. Nonetheless, Western
historically, and culturally grounded feminist concerns feminists’’ emphasis on commonality or sameness did
and strategies”” (p. 159). In order to achieve this dual not in fact lead to an inclusion of women of different 9
China Media Research, 2(3), 2006, Yin, Toward Confucian Feminism: Critique of Eurocentric Feminist Discourse

cultures and classes. Working-class women and non- European (American) women at the expense of those of
Western women often experience exclusion and non-Western women.
alienation in feminist gatherings and college classrooms Eurocentric feminist discourse also created a self-
(e.g., hooks, 2000). perpetuating ritual that reserves the ““real”” or ““true””
The discursive construction of commonality is definition of womanhood only for Western feminists
essentially a self-representation of Western feminisms who initiated such a definition. The self-perpetuating
that signified the needs and desires of middle-class characteristic of hierarchical discourse makes it
European (American) women as a unitary standard for difficult, if not impossible, for the colonized, non-
all women in the world. The universalist feminist Western women, to question Western feminisms’’
discourse imposes the Eurocentric definition of fundamental assumptions, such as Eurocentrism and
womanhood on non-Western women. Placed in the individualism. Furthermore, Eurocentric feminist
context of Eurocentric feminism, non-Western women discourse is intolerant toward other feminist discourses.
are often viewed as Others, whereas the West remains Non-Western women’’s resistance to the Eurocentric
the unquestionable standard against which non-Western standard is dismissed as ““not progressive,”” ““backward,””
cultures are measured and evaluated (Gilmartin, ““ignorant,”” or ““irrelevant.”” hooks (1981, 2000) and non-
Hershatter, Rofel & White, 1994; Yin, 2005). The claim Western women report being ostracized and silenced by
of common oppression in Eurocentric feminist discourse Western feminists who suppose that their issues and
obscures asymmetrical power relationships among problems are not qualified for feminist discussion.
cultures and disguises racism, colonialism, and Despite the fact that the critique of the
imperialism. universalistic feminist discourse can be dated back to
Moharty (2002) asserts that through the discursive the mid-1980s, Eurocentric feminism remains as the
construction of ““the third world women,”” Western unmarked standard against which all other forms of
feminists appropriate and colonize the complex feminism are measured. For example, Fung (2000)
experiences of women in non-Western countries. The evaluates the success of feminist movements in Asian
construction of the homogenous ““third world women”” countries according to women’’s employment
robs non-Western women of their political and opportunities and involvement in politics. Wang (1999)
historical agency and thus renders them objects. Just challenges the communist domination of feminism in
like white male dominated Western humanism, China because the liberalist feminism movement was
Eurocentric feminism defines non-Western cultures as not allowed to flourish as an independent movement in
Others or the peripheral. Only through the designation China. Even in the writings of post-colonialist feminists
of non-Western women as the peripheral can the (e.g, Moharty, 2002; Shohat, 2003), which initiated the
Western women represent themselves as the center. The challenge to the universality of Eurocentric feminist
center can be sustained only when it is placed against discourse and argued for specific forms of resistance in
the peripheral that represents the lack of values (Jandt & relation to diverse forms of oppression, the conception
Tanno, 2001; Said, 1978; Zhang, 2002). of women’’s rights is still rooted in Eurocentric
Eurocentric feminist discourse, despite the rhetoric individualism.
of sameness and common oppression, is in fact a form This issue brings us to the second characteristic of
of hierarchal discourse. According to Asante (1998), Eurocentric feminist discourse: the unambiguous
hierarchal discourse has three characteristics: ““control assumption of individualism. Eisenstein (1981)
over the rhetorical territory through definition, maintains that feminism in North America is rooted in
establishment of self-perpetuating initiation or rite de ““the competitive, atomistic ideology of liberal
passage, and the stifling of opposing discourse”” (p. 34). individualism.”” It is my contention that not only liberal
Here I am not suggesting that Western feminist feminism but also other forms of Western feminism——
discourse has the same authority or status as Eurocentric such as radical feminism, Marxist feminism, socialist
humanist discourse. However, in the context of Western feminism, post-modernist and post-colonialist
hegemony in the production of knowledge, Western feminism——conceive women’’s rights and freedom
feminists’’ definition of womanhood is a manifestation within the realm of individualism.
of the political, economic, and cultural colonization of The Eurocentric individualist tradition views
non-Western cultures (Moharty, 2002). The power of women as individuals endowed with inalienable rights
this hierarchal discourse is to impose one vision of the against the competing claims of different social
world while suppressing others (Asante, 1998). While relations (Woo, 2002). The individualistic idea of rights
protesting against the androcentricism in white-male is expressed in terms of individual choices of
dominated humanist discourse, the writings of Western employment, political participation, identity, and
feminists impose an authoritative construction of norms cultural recognition. Those Western feminists who
which privilege the experiences and practices of advocate social equality call for the establishment of
either a gender-blind society with equal opportunities 10
China Media Research, 2(3), 2006, Yin, Toward Confucian Feminism: Critique of Eurocentric Feminist Discourse

for both men and women as individuals or a mode of the transformation of cultural representation,
production that does not exploit or discriminate against Eurocentric feminism attempts to restore to female
individuals in terms of class or gender (Campbell, individuals the rights that have been robbed from
2002). Those Western feminists who champion women by unjust sociocultural relations. Here the
representational egalitarianism demand a new cultural notion of the rights of women is no different than John
formation that provides women——as individuals——with Locke’’s (1967) Eurocentric philosophy that privileges
opportunities to be heard with the same respect given to white men. Rights are defined as natural, absolute, and
their male counterparts. inalienable to the autonomous individual (Rosemont,
Even though post-modernist, especially post- 1998). From this perspective, rights are expressed as
colonialist, feminists are often from non-Western ““negative”” liberties, i.e., free from external oppressive
cultures, many of them reside in the United States and forces (Twiss, 1998). The negative form of freedom
Europe. Undoubtedly, their emphasis on differences does not allow a conceptualization of positive
among women and anti-essentialism marks a major empowerment that serves as an equally valid form of
advance in challenging the Eurocentric universalistic human flourishing (Yin, in press).
definition of womanhood and in conceptualizing The Eurocentric ontology based on individualism
identity and difference. Nevertheless, their theorizing is prevents a non-anthropocentric theorization of rights in
a continuation of, rather than a rupture with, the which the individual is not the center of the world, and
individualist tradition. In the post-colonialist in which human beings embrace interdependent
conception, no collective identity is innocent, and they relationships with other beings and nature (Chen &
all need to be unmasked or deconstructed (Fraser, Starosta, 2003; Ishii, 2001; Miike, 2003a, 2003b). The
1997). They assume that female individuals should not individualistic assumption also does not allow a
be reduced to any kind of group or category, and that conception of rights as a collective good that requires
they should have sovereignty over their own bodies. different kinds of rights and restrictions of individual
Following this logic, the only innocent political freedom for greater social goods such as harmony,
project is deconstruction. However, deconstruction does peace, and ecological sustainability (Parekh, 2002).
not necessarily lead to the emancipation and Still another characteristic of Eurocentric feminism
empowerment of women. Deconstruction strips women is rights-based ethics. In Western traditions, rights are
of certain sociocultural relations. Indeed, at the end of absolutely central for many theorists, especially for
deconstructing every collective identity, when all forms Kantian scholars (Rosemont, 1998; Tu, 2001). ““Rights
of social relations have been cast away, we will find the talk”” is especially ubiquitous in the moral and political
woman as an atomistic individual——a biological object, discourse of the United States. Western feminists’’
prior to entering any social relations. It is precisely subversion of androcentrism places an exclusive
through social relations that persons become emphasis on the rights of women (in a very limited
cultural/ideological subjects and gain a sense of agency. sense). In this respect, Eurocentric feminist discourse is
Hence, indiscriminate deconstruction eventually not again similar to the Western humanist project largely
only reduces women to biological objects but also sponsored by white males.
deprives them of a sense of political and historical Right-based ethics or morality obscures inequality,
agency. Ironically, this is exactly what post-colonialist discrimination, and other wrongs in today’’s world.
feminists are fighting against. Asante (2005) articulates Fingarette observes that the doctrine of individual rights
the destructive nature of deconstructionist research: ““has profound potentials as socially disruptive and anti-
The forms of deconstruction often suggested human forces”” (cited in Rosemont, 1998, p. 56).
by many postmodernist [and post-colonialist] Western feminists, while challenging men as
thinkers leave nothing in the process but oppressive, often refuse to confront the impact of their
unadulterated individualistic narcissism that own privileges and prejudices. hooks (2000) believes
undermines the human capacity to feel solidarity that by identifying themselves as ““victims”” of gender
with others. . . . Life as a random collage or free oppression, white feminists ““could abdicate
association of images may invoke an isolationist responsibility for their role in the maintenance and
individuality, but it is never cohesive enough to perpetuation of sexism, racism, and classism, which
deal with the reality of community and they did by insisting that only men were the enemy”” (p.
communities, that is, groups of people who are 46).
bound together by similar historical experiences Here the underlying assumption is that nurturing
and who are developed by common and peace-loving women are morally superior to
phenomenological responses. (p. 11) competitive and militaristic men (Fraser, 1997). Many
Western feminists sincerely believe that because women
Regardless of the means, whether through the are different from men and would exercise power
reorganization of socioeconomic structure or through differently, they would not endorse domination or 11
China Media Research, 2(3), 2006, Yin, Toward Confucian Feminism: Critique of Eurocentric Feminist Discourse

control over others ——the good girls/bad boys overexploitation of nature. The rights-based mentality
dichotomy (Fraser, 1997). In reality, however, women does not allow a genuine concern for environmental
in power do not necessarily work toward the end of issues, which means giving up one’’s rights for nature.
gender inequality or other forms of oppression. It is also What is missing in rights-based Eurocentric
clear that given the opportunity, women have the feminist discourse is the notion of responsibility.
capability and willingness to kill or torture other human Responsibility is a key component of ethics and the
beings. backbone for community building. However,
Rights-based ethics indeed help sustain the myth of responsibility has been ostracized and marginalized in
equal opportunity for everyone. Consequently, it does the Western axiology informed by individualism
not permit social remedies for injustice. Rights (Rosemont, 1998). Without the notion of responsibility,
consciousness based on individualism makes the without communal consciousness, it is impossible to
conflict between liberty and equality irreconcilable (Tu, envisage a form of feminism that regards women’’s
1998). Some people in the Untied States reject rights not only as individual liberty but also as
affirmative action on the ground that it is preferential empowerment and enablement for women to function as
treatment, which violates the basic right of equal truly equal participating members in a polity or
consideration. Moreover, rights-based ethics sanctions community.
and even encourages self-centeredness or selfishness. In As we are faced with the challenge of ecological
the individualist tradition, priority is always given to destruction, economic disruption, and political and
one’’s own rights when rights are invoked. social instability, the harmful impact of excessive
This form of ethics also leads individuals to view individualism has become more obvious than ever (Tu,
others as rival rights claimants. When talking about 2001). Consequently, there is an urgent need for
affirmative action, white men often feel angry because remedies stemming from other cultural traditions
their rights are ““trumped”” by the rights of women and (Ching, 1998). Furthermore, as argued earlier,
minorities (Rosemont, 1998). As a result, there is no Eurocentric feminism based on individualism has been
motivation to address social justice, which is perceived colonizing efforts to emancipate and empower women
by many people as advocating the rights of others. This in non-Western cultures.
mentality of rivalry also results in indifference to other Asante (2002) notes that challenging gender
people’’s suffering. Rights-based ethics and the idea of oppression in the non-Western world does not mean to
people as freely choosing, rational, and autonomous accept Eurocentric feminism as the only right way.
individuals further make it possible for the established Non-Western women would never truly have equal
order to attack the oppressed and social welfare rights in any meaningful way if they have to accept a
programs. Because in the rights-based tradition, one definition of womanhood that does not reflect or
must give up one’’s personal rights and privileges for the resonate with their own experiences. Shohat (2003)
sake of one’’s rivals, it is extremely difficult, if not argue that post-Third-Worldist feminists should refuse a
impossible, to attend to social remedies, through Eurocentric universalizing of ““womanhood,”” and even
redistribution, transformation, or reformation. of ““feminism,”” and claim a ““location”” that confronts
Even many Western feminists themselves are not diverse forms of oppression.
willing to give up their class and racial privileges to Afrocentrists (e.g., Asante, 1980, 1990, 1998, 2003)
redress the needs and rights of oppressed groups. This is and Asiacentrists (e.g., Miike, 2002, 2003a, 2003b,
the very difficulty that Marxist and socialist feminists, 2004, 2006) demand that the displaced people,
who insist on redistribution as a remedy for knowledges, and histories of Africa and Asia should be
social/gender inequality, are wrestling with with. In recentered. Other scholars such as Starosta and Chen
Marxist theory, the proletarians are the grave-diggers of (2003) advocate ““multiple centers”” in intercultural
the bourgeoisie because they had nothing to lose but communication research. It is also crucial for non-
would gain everything in the proletarian revolution. Western feminists to assert a location where non-
However, in today’’s capitalist society where the myth of Western women’’s experiences are examined and
equal opportunity has been taken for granted, false class analyzed from their own perspectives, and where they
consciousness has been internalized by the working are subjects as opposed to objects of someone else’’s
class, since 80% of the population claims to be middle analysis. Toward this end, I will turn to Confucianism
class. Therefore, no social force is available to carry out for a new conceptual framework for a form of feminism
redistribution in order to achieve equality. that can cultivate a consciousness of communal good
The rival mentality associated with rights-based and gender equality.
ethics has been extended to the relations of humans to
nature and to other beings. The sense of entitlement Envisioning a Confucian Feminism
rooted in individualism and the lack of respect for the To many contemporary scholars and observers,
rights of others justify and naturalize the Confucianism and feminism would seem to be an 12
China Media Research, 2(3), 2006, Yin, Toward Confucian Feminism: Critique of Eurocentric Feminist Discourse

incompatible couple. Indeed, in China, the birthplace of One of the major difficulties that Western feminists
Confucius, from the May Fourth Movement and the face is the antipathy to women’’s rights and the lack of a
New Culture Movement at the dawn of the 20th century philosophy for addressing the issue of justice. The
down through the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Confucian principle of ren (humanness) can help
Confucianism was condemned as the ideological cause Chinese and other Asian feminists utter a social
for China’’s underdevelopment or backwardness. Even consciousness that is sensitive to women’’s suffering and
today, many in China as well as in the West still view thus makes it possible to engage in social transformation
Confucianism as a drag on modernization (de Bary, toward gender and other forms of social equality.
1998). The Chinese liberal feminist movement was Ren (humanness) is regarded as the cardinal
initiated by New Culturalists (mostly male literati). principle in Confucian teaching (Yum, 1987). Ren is the
Those New Culturalists adopted Western liberalist ideal of a humane person, who values moral
humanism and insisted that the feiren (inhumanness) of relationships above everything else (Ching, 1998). To
Confucianism is the source of women suffering in China be humane or to be human is to ai ren (love all human
(de Bary, 1998; Wang, 1999). Both the Chinese beings) (Chang, 1998; Ching, 1998). The humane
communist government and Western feminists often person practices the five virtues (i.e., respect, tolerance,
echo this argument (Woo, 1994). trustworthiness in words, diligence in action, and
However, it was in the context of Western kindness) in her or his relations with all human beings
imperialism and Manchu domination that New (Chang, 1998). Ren is thus the goal of human nature, the
Culturalists (male literati) connected women’’s ideal for the kind of people that we should strive to
oppression with China’’s subordination to Western become (Yum, 1987).
powers. In addition, they equated Confucianism ethics Ren is not an innate trait. Rather, it is the result of
to feudalism, which they judged to be the origin of self-development or self-cultivation (Chang, 1998). In
women's oppression (Wang, 1999). It was the discourse the Confucian tradition, a person or the self is regarded
of the New Culture Movement that depicted as the center of relationships as opposed to the Western
Confucianism as the cause for all problems by which notion of the independent, freely choosing, atomistic
China was troubled. In this type of discourse, Confucian individual (Tu, 1985, 1998, 2001). The Confucian
ethics was constructed in opposition to liberal person from birth stands in a network of relations that is
individualism, which was symbolized as the only viable guided by the principle of ren (Kwok, 1998). Tu (1985)
means to rescue China from Western colonization and notes that learning to be a humane person (or to be
other social ills. Nevertheless, the acceptance of human) is ““to learn to be sensitive to an ever-expanding
Western liberalism and the rejection of Confucianism network of relationships”” (p. 175).
did not liberate China from Western imperialism. Nor The primary concern of self-cultivation is de
did it eliminate asymmetrical power relationships (virtue), the ability to achieve harmony both within the
between women and men in China.2 person and with other people (Cheng, 1998). Thus, self-
The rejection of Confucianism emerged from the cultivation is a process of transforming the private ego
belief that the Confucian ethics was opposed to to the all-encompassing self which has the ability to feel
independence, liberty, and the inalienable rights of the the suffering of others——or, put in the often seen
individual (Tu, 2001). Rather than the timeless truth, negative form, the inability to endure others’’ suffering
this belief was strategically articulated as a response to a (Tu, 1985). Self-realization is essentially to extend the
particular historical situation, that of Western bonding with our parents and immediate family to larger
colonization and Manchu domination. Now the global networks of human relationships——from respecting our
and local environments have changed drastically from parents to respecting all elderly, from caring for our
those of a century ago. It is necessary to reevaluate and own children to caring for all children in the world.
reexamine such a belief within the current political and Tu (1985) maintains that egoism, nepotism,
historical context. Moreover, as the detrimental parochialism, ethnocentrism, and chauvinistic
potential of individualism in Eurocentric feminism has nationalism are forms of human insensitivity. Self-
become clearer, it is high time to return to some cultivation as an ever-expanding network of
Confucian values that prioritize the collectivity for an relationships transcends such an insensitivity to embrace
alternative form of feminism. Specifically, the principle all human beings. Cheng (1998) calls this
of ren (humanness), the notion of rights as fen (share), transformation ““cohumanity”” –– ““a holistic human
and duty-based ethics in Confucian teaching are existence extending in time and space”” (p. 143). The
invaluable to cultivate a communally based critical self- Confucian teaching of tianrenheyi (the unity of Heaven
awareness and a common language of justice that foster and humanity) further transcends anthropocentricsm in
gender equality.3 Eurocentric humanist and feminist discourse to establish
a community encompassing all beings in the universe
The Principle of Ren (Humanness) (Tu, 1998). 13
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The process of self-cultivation is a social act without resistance from other groups or individuals who
because it can take place only in interactions with other perceive women as rival claimants for rights. Moreover,
human beings (Chang, 1998). Self-cultivation requires a living in a collectivistic society that emphasizes social
social order that enables the development of a person, relationships, Chinese women tend to understand rights
while it simultaneously contributes to develop and in relation to the family or community (Wang, 2002;
maintain that order (Cheng, 1987, 1998). Moreover, the Yin, 2006, in press; Yin & Hall 2002). Thus, rather than
goal of self-cultivation is not merely personal growth or uncritically adopting the Eurocentric notion of
moral perfection. It is not just for a person’’s self- individualistic rights, Chinese feminists should
interest. Rather, self-cultivation is a way for a person to challenge gender oppression from the viewpoint of
make herself or himself available to the society——to Chinese women. The Confucian conception of rights as
contribute to the social order that makes moral fen (share) can provide an alternative framework for
transformation possible (Cheng, 1998). Chinese, and possibly other Asian, feminists to
The Confucian teaching of ren also has conceptualize women’’s rights as communal and societal
implications for political governing. In that case, ren is efforts.
defined as the benevolent or humane government that Contrary to the liberal definition of natural rights
requires the leader not only to provide for and protect that prioritizes those who claim rights, Confucianism
the welfare of people so that the people could be taught gives weight to those who make the claimed rights
how to develop ren, but also to set the example of possible (Chang, 1998). For example, in the ruler-
personal integrity and altruistic devotion to the people subject relationship, Confucian teaching emphasizes
(Cheng, 1998; Ching, 1998). The leader’’s rule is thus what the ruler can do to secure the well being of the
legitimized by her or his de (virtue)——a true respect for people as opposed to what the people could claim for
human dignity, a critical awareness of social their rights. Hence, rights in the Confucian tradition are
relationships, and the ability to make moral expressed as fen (share or entitlement). Fen differs from
transformation of the society and individuals possible the Western notion of rights that views rights as a
(Ching, 1998). product of human interaction or natural endowments.
Through the Confucian principle of ren, Chinese Fen is strictly a social product. It is a share of social
and other Asian feminists can articulate and cultivate a good that is created by joint efforts of many members in
consciousness founded on genuine concern and care for a society (Chang, 1998). Fen, unlike the Western
women (indeed for all human beings) at personal and version of rights, is not something a person is born with
societal levels. The interhuman regard associated with or claims. It is what the society, or specifically those
ren not only invokes empathy and compassion for the who are concerned, sees as fit for a person to enjoy.
suffering of women (or the inability to endure their Understanding women’’s rights as fen delegates the
suffering), but also propels a social order to eliminate responsibilities for gender equality to every member of
such an agony. Therefore, in the context of ren, we can the society. In consequence, not only women but also
envision a social transformation that aims at gender men are obligated to work toward the interests of female
equality and other forms of social justice. members of the community. When women’’s rights are
Self-cultivation inspired by ren is not only a means conceived as fen, a share of common good created for
for Chinese and other Asian women to gain a sense of women upon social agreement, it will not leave men or
agency but also contributes to the development of other social groups feeling that their rights are taken
agency of other female members of the society. away by women. Indeed, if the competition mentality
Furthermore, the principle of ren compels us to derived from rights-based consciousness segments
conceptualize a form of political order in which the different social groups as rival claimants for rights, the
government truly represents the interests of women of notion of fen unites women and men through defining
different sociocultural groups. In this conception, the gender equality as a moral imperative and a common
government is obligated to create a goal that requires joint efforts of both groups.
cultural/social/political environment that recognizes and To be sure, fen, as assigned or allowed by the
empowers women as equal contributing members of the society, is valid or meaningful only in a society that is
community. guided by ethics based on duty or responsibility.
Without duty-based ethics, the notion of fen can be
Rights as Fen (Share) and Duty-based Ethics easily used by the dominant group to deprive the rights
Another problem that hinders feminist movements of the dominated. In Confucian teaching, people are
in the West is the definition of rights as a natural viewed as persons located within social networks and as
endowment of the individual. Grounded in having specific duties or moral obligations (Yum,
individualism, the natural-rights assumption not only 1987). In duty-based ethics, the realization of the self, or
confines the notion of rights to a narrow definition, but the worth of the person, is essentially tied to her or his
also makes it impossible to address women’’s rights ability to fulfill her/his social responsibilities (Cohen, 14
China Media Research, 2(3), 2006, Yin, Toward Confucian Feminism: Critique of Eurocentric Feminist Discourse

1996, cited in Tu, 1998, p. 304). Although relationships does not encourage violent revolt, which should be
in Confucianism are often hierarchical, obligations are reserved as the last resort for exasperated people, it does
mutual or reciprocal and required for all parties recognize that other civil processes should be taken to
concerned (Ching, 1998; Yum, 1987). Indeed, rights depose a tyrannical ruler (de Bary, 1998).
associated with a position are often defined as duties. The relationship between individual members and
Take the ruler-subject relationship as an example. It the community defined by duty-based ethics thus makes
is commonly understood that Confucianism requires the it possible to cultivate a feminist mentality. Self-
people to meet the obligations of the ruler. However, cultivation, as a social act and a mutual obligation of
Confucius also insisted that the entitlement of the ruler individual members and the community, can be used by
is inseparably linked to her or his responsibilities for the Chinese and other Asian feminists to develop a sense of
people. A ruler is endowed by Heaven precisely because feminist consciousness and agency in the members
she or he is given more responsibilities than the (both male and female) of the community. Duty-based
governed. Thus, for the ruler, her or his rights as well as ethics fosters a unity of individual members and the
identities are expressed in terms of duty or community, which makes the conception of public
responsibility. As Cheng (1998) elegantly puts it: ““For (common) good not only possible but also expected. As
the ruler to define his [or her] identity in terms of ruling a result, a public consciousness for women’’s rights can
means his [or her] duties are also his [or her] rights; on be elaborated as both individuals’’ duty to the
the other hand, for the ruler to define his [or her] community and the community’’s duty to women. In
identity as serving the interests of the people means his addition, a Confucian feminism does not preclude
[or her] rights are also his [or her] duties”” (p. 145). women, or any other oppressed group, from demanding
Moreover, in the Confucian tradition, all virtues are and fighting for their own rights if the community or
expressed in the form of duty or moral obligations society fails to fulfill the obligation to provide the well-
(Cheng, 1998). The principle of ren is also expressed as deserved rights.
a person’’s duty to define her or his relationships with
other human beings. This is a duty that benefits the Concluding Remarks
society as a whole (Cheng, 1998). Duty-based ethics is As feminist movements are attracting increasing
crucial for formulating a Chinese feminism based on fen attention around the world, it is vital for non-Western
because it promotes the kind of consciousness and women to be cautious of the pitfall of replacing one
behaviors that benefit other members of the community. form of oppression with another. Challenging gender
Duty-based ethics emphasizes the reciprocity oppression in non-Western cultures should not lead to
between the self and the community. On the one hand, a an uncritical acceptance of Eurocentric feminism, which
person’’s self-cultivation or acquisition of virtues is is anchored in the experiences of European and
encouraged and nurtured by the community. On the European-American women. Non-Western women
other hand, self-cultivation is to make the self available should develop different forms of feminisms that reflect
to contribute to the social order that enables self- and resonate with the experiences of non-Western
cultivation. Therefore, a person’’s moral development is women as subjects. Non-Western women can never be
both a duty of the self to the community and a duty of truly free if they take on the experiences of someone
the community to the self. As Cheng (1998) states, ““the else.
duty consciousness comes from a vision of the perfect Furthermore, we also need to keep in mind that
union or unity of self and community in which both Western feminisms themselves are struggles in process.
their needs are realized”” (p. 148). Many fundamental problems are still yet to be addressed
Furthermore, in duty-based ethics, public or and resolved in Western cultures. It is very dangerous
common good is not only a moral ideal but also actually for non-Western women to accept Western feminisms
expected. Individual members’’ duties to the community as the truth or panacea for gender problems everywhere
promise a sense of public good. On the other hand, in the world. Indeed, the time is long overdue for non-
every member of the community is also an indirect Western women to re-claim their own locations and to
beneficiary of other members’’ duties (Cheng, 1998). become masters of their own destiny.
Therefore, public good can be defined not only as moral To explore alternative forms of feminism does not
obligations but also as something intertwined with the mean to ignore the contribution and spirit of Western
personal interests of individual members. feminisms. A Confucian feminism does not preclude the
Finally, duty consciousness helps overthrow use of theories and strategies developed by Western
powers that may distort or dominate public interests feminists for Chinese and other Asian women to claim
(Cheng, 1998). In Confucianism, the ruler is obligated the rights that they duly deserve. The point here is that
to provide for the people’’s welfare. If the ruler’’s private Eurocentric feminism should not be the only right way
interests dominate public interests, she or he should be for women’’s emancipation and empowerment
removed (Ching, 1998). Although Confucian teaching regardless of the locations and contexts. 15
China Media Research, 2(3), 2006, Yin, Toward Confucian Feminism: Critique of Eurocentric Feminist Discourse

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