Feminism as a force for anti-colonialism in 1930s Manchukuo

In 1931 the Japanese military seized Northeast China and in the following year established the puppet state of Manchukuo. As in other Japanese colonies and in contemporary Western colonial empires, the state used female education to promote its colonial goals. In Manchukuo, the Japanese used the conservative values of “Good Wives and Wise Mothers (GWWM良妻賢母)” to tie women’s efforts to the state’s goals. My recent article in the journal Twentieth-Century China highlights that many students opposed this teaching by advocating for female emancipation. Their advocacy can be read as a form of opposition to the colonial regime.

National liberation and female liberation

For Asian societies facing Western imperialism, there is often a tension between the goals of national liberation and female liberation. For example, in India, nationalist intellectuals called for neo-patriarchy as part of the decolonization efforts. These intellectuals saw “modernization” and female liberation as a part of imperialism and the colonial regime.

In contrast, the people of China, while threatened by imperialism, did not experience the daily humiliations of colonization on a large scale. It was therefore psychologically easier for Chinese nationalists to examine and appreciate aspects of Western modernity without feeling like they were collaborating with an enemy.

From advocacy to subversions

In the early 20th century, the legacy of the 1919 May Fourth Movement, with its associated ideas of nationalism and feminism, greatly influenced urban female students in Northeast China. These female students participated in anti-Japanese political movements and disavowed traditional values, such as those associated with Confucianism.

But after Japan took power in Northeast China, the Japanese rulers worried that this kind of western feminist thought could foment anti-Japanese activities. So, when Manchukuo was created in 1932, the Japanese colonizers changed the rhetoric on female education from one oriented toward freedom, opportunities, and individual morality, to one that emphasised duties towards family and society.

The Japanese colonial government actively encouraged the students to study Confucian classics and follow Confucian ideals — including honoring filial piety, and celebrating “virtuous women” — ideals that ran counter to the May Fourth ideals held by female students at the time.

According to the Confucian rhetoric promoted by Japanese colonizers, women’s efforts should concentrate on the home and the state. Although the rhetoric allowed for educated women to take jobs, their efforts were to be for the benefit of the home and the state, rather than for their own personal betterment.

As part of my research, I examined the response of female students to the state’s rhetoric about the place of women in society. I found that the students expressed a wide range of criticisms of traditional GWWM ideas about the roles of women, and called for progressive change.

Some of these students used examples from foreign countries or other parts of China to support their criticisms of Manchukuo society.  For example, a second-year middle school student contrasted the relatively free life of women in other cities in China with the oppressed life of her friends in Manchukuo, which included arranged marriages and suicide. She contrasted these examples with the free and happy life of a classmate who fled to Tianjin. By contrasting life in Manchukuo and Tianjin, she struck the Chinese nationalist note. At the same time, she used the images of women’s predicament in Manchukuo to criticize the colonial regime and express the desire to escape the colonial rule.

In occupied Manchuria in the 1930s, the connection between Chinese nationalism and feminism remained as strong as ever. When Japan invaded, it brought with it a conservative GWWM ideology, and that ideology became linked with the colonization effort. Chinese women in Manchukuo who favored female liberation could link female liberation with Chinese nationalism and anti-colonial efforts, meaning they could easily support both.

Manchukuo education trends

The space for female students to resist has been compressed with the strengthening of colonial control. In order to enforce the colonial rule, colonial officials encouraged educated women to focus on domestic duties. They wanted to train girls to become mothers who could support a stable family and teach their children pro-Japanese and pro-obedience messages. However, many girls disagreed with this conservative message and recognized it as chains holding women back.

The colonial education policy of Manchukuo gave local women some rights and freedoms which included the ability and space to pursue female liberation or resistance to colonial rule. In the early colonial period, there was relatively permissive space for female students to express themselves in Manchukuo. Influenced by traditional ideas, women’s literature was despised. Naturally, women’s voices were not valued by colonizers.

The Japanese colonists’ supervision and control of culture focused on textbooks and teachers. School journals, on the other hand, were ignored by the colonists. Therefore, supported by some teachers, girls started to publish articles on progressive feminists in school journals to resist Manchukuo education.

Those progressive feminist positions worried the Manchukuo state, and as a result, the state started to arrest students, teachers and magazine editors. The number of progressive articles critical of traditional patriarchal positions declined in a school journal from 1935. By its final issue in 1936, there were no progressive articles left due to the crackdown by Manchukuo education officials. After the crackdown, female students found that only underground journals and writing clubs remained as outlets to express their frustrations with patriarchal and colonial structures.