Interview with Rachel Hui-chi Hsu

This interview is with Rachel Hui-chi Hsu, the author of “Spiritual Mother and Intellectual Sons: Emma Goldman and Young Chinese Anarchists,” which appears in the October 2021 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Dr. Rachel Hui-chi Hsu is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at National Chengchi University, Taipei. Read the article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

I got my first PhD in modern Chinese history at National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan in 2001 and began my teaching career for a decade before pursuing my second PhD in US transnational history at the Johns Hopkins University from 2010 to 2016. In January 2020, I started teaching at my alma mater, National Chengchi University, as a history associate professor.

Your article focuses on interactions between Emma Goldman and Chinese anarchists Qin Baopu, Lu Jianbo, and Ba Jin during the 1920s. How did you choose to focus on these anarchist intellectuals and their work?

These three Chinese anarchists had actually corresponded with Goldman and tried to spread her various ideas on anarchism among the Chinese public. In other words, these three anarchists, who happened to all belong to what I categorized as “the third-generation” anarchists in China, duly represented the interactions between Goldman and young Chinese anarchists in the 1920s.

In the article, you describe how Emma Goldman’s ideas of free love were interpreted and transformed by Chinese anarchists. Do you think that Goldman’s ideas and the later reinterpretations impacted later thought and policy in revolutionary China? If so, in what way?

Historical materials indicate that Goldman’s free-love idea was indeed quite influential among Chinese anarchists. As my article shows, her sex radicalism was particularly deployed by the third-generation anarchists as an alternative social revolution to the GMD’s and CCP’s revolutions. But beyond anarchist circles, Goldman’s idea of free love was to a large degree conflated with other feminist, radical thought under the general category “progressive ideas.” So, we could surely say that, along with other foreign thinkers—e.g., Ellen Key, Henrik Ibsen, Bertrand Russell, and Havelock Ellis, to name a few—Goldman’s ideas facilitated the reception of (romantic/sexual) love in Republican China. It is harder, however, to discern from primary sources exactly how much Goldman’s ideas of free love impacted later thought and/or policy in revolutionary China.

The antilove theory—the “later reinterpretations” of Goldman’s free-love idea—proposed by some male young anarchists in the 1920s was challenged by the mainstream idea of “freedom of love,” which was advocated by Ellen Key and her Chinese followers. Also, because these antilove theorists soon turned their attention to other matters than the topics of love and sex during the Nanjing Decade, the theory hardly left an impression on Chinese society. That said, I do want to emphasize that the antilove theory demonstrated the discursive ingenuity of Chinese anarchists in seeking to realize both individual liberty and social solidarity (the dual goal of their anarchist communism) by proposing free sexuality and promoting human love.

You highlight the important differences between the male proponents of antilove and the female proponents of free-love ideals. How does the dichotomy and the dialectical development of these ideals expose the role of gender in Chinese revolutionary thought and activism?

I have explored more about this matter in another article, “Cross-cultural Sexual Narratives and Gendered Reception in Republican China” [Journal of Modern Chinese History 14, no. 1 (2020): 111–34]. Love was a popular, if not notorious (in the eyes of conservatives), topic in May Fourth China; quite a few female novelists have also written about it. But when it involved taboo subjects such as sex or sexuality, women writers mostly chose to shun it. My study shows that, due to the behavioral propriety that society expected from women, the rhetorical feature of progressive Chinese female (nonfiction) essayists was essentially iconoclastic towards sexual conventions and yet reticent about free sexuality, as opposed to the progressive eloquence often shown in male writings about sexual matters. Even women from the radical circles, such as Deng Tianyu the anarchist, were not as explicit as their male comrades when dealing with sexual matters.

For further exploration of the question you raised, I would recommend Christina K. Gilmartin’s fine work, Engendering the Chinese Revolution: Radical Women, Communist Politics, and Mass Movements in the 1920s, which offers insights into the gendered politics of the CCP, which maintained men’s patriarchal privilege coupled with women’s caretaking roles under the nominal principle of gender equality.

In your article, you mention Arif Dirlik’s Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. How does your focus on Emma Goldman and her Chinese counterparts expand and complicate Dirlik’s prior study?

Mainly, my article offers a case study to reveal the influence of Goldman’s anti-Bolshevism, her sex radicalism, and her views about revolution on the young Chinese anarchists during the 1920s. This study thus adds gender and transnational dimensions to Dirlik’s classic work, which pointed out but did not elaborate on the influence of Goldman on her Chinese comrades. In doing so, my article also illustrates the characteristics of the third-generation anarchist intellectuals in adapting Goldman’s ideas to revolutionary China, hence enriching Dirlik’s study of the declining anarchist movement in the 1920s.

Your research exposes how Emma Goldman’s anti-Bolshevism influenced anti-Bolshevism in Chinese anarchism. How do you see this specific view of anti-Bolshevism fitting with anti-Bolshevik views inside the GMD and the CCP before 1949?

To be honest, I don’t think that either the GMD or the CCP attended to Goldman’s anti-Bolshevism or that her views against Bolshevism fit with the ideological frameworks of either of the two parties. Goldman’s unequivocal antistate stance put her criticisms of Bolshevism or the Soviet regime in conflict with the anti-Bolshevik views expressed by the GMD and CCP either out of nationalism or ideological opposition.

Throughout the article, you discuss the numerous ways that Emma Goldman influenced Chinese anarchists. In terms of modern Chinese intellectual history, what do you see as the greatest impact of this exchange?

A good question and not easy to answer. Personal correspondence between Goldman and some Chinese anarchists, who were all in the transnational advocacy network of anarchism, as well as their mutual support, showcased a manner of intellectual exchange distinct from other foreign thinkers and their Chinese followers, who seldom corresponded or communicated with each other. I would say that, for such anarchists as Lu Jianbo, Ba Jin, and some of their comrades, Goldman’s unfaltering faith in and lifelong dedication to anarchism had a lasting impact on them, as was expressed in their written interviews for the Emma Goldman Papers Project in the late 1980s. In general, I think Goldman’s anti-Bolshevism and her sex radicalism served as the two sources of intellectual inspiration in Republican China.

Also, as I tried to show in my article, the exchanges between Goldman and the third-generation Chinese anarchists illuminated the latter’s masculine rationality, philosophical creativity, and pragmatic flexibility in reacting to Chinese sociopolitical reality while appropriating foreign thought.

By tracing the contact between Emma Goldman and Qin Baopu, Ba Jin, and Lu Jianbo, your article examines the intellectual history of the third generation of Chinese anarchism. How did these third-generation anarchists influence later Chinese anarchists and anarcho-communists?

The third-generation anarchists—mostly in their 20s during the time of their direct contact with Goldman—were arguably the last generation who were still active in Chinese anarchist movement. During the Nanjing Decade, many of them turned their attention to education or cultural problems, rather than inciting the public on behalf of social revolution as they did in the 1920s. Their influence thus would be mainly in intellectual and cultural fields, as many of them did continue publishing their writings.

How does your research into the transpacific interactions of Chinese anarchists complicate the global history of anarchism as a whole?

When I told my two advisers at Hopkins that my dissertation would explore the interactions between Goldman and anarchists in China and Japan, they were both excited about it, for the reason that the research on transpacific exchanges between the United States and Asia have so lagged behind the mushrooming studies of transatlantic history. Particularly in terms of US or Chinese history, studying the transpacific link helps reveal the important role of the United States as a medium/filter through which European thought traveled (through the Atlantic) to Asia. Another of my articles, “Propagating Sex Radicalism in the Progressive Era: Emma Goldman’s Anarchist Solution” [Journal of Women’s History 30, no. 3 (2018): 38–63], for example, has shown how the US mediation—here referring to Goldman’s radicalization of Havelock Ellis’s thought while developing her sex radicalism—complicated and enriched the ways Asian intellectuals received European sexology.

From the perspective of the global history of anarchism, my study helps add important Asian elements to the transatlantic network that has received much more attention. Japan still served as a bridge via which Chinese and Korean anarchists encountered Western anarchism or contacted their Euro-American comrades. The US anarchist periodicals received information or news about Asian anarchist activities through their European counterparts, and vice versa. As a whole, we get to learn more about the complexity of cross-cultural transmission of ideas or contacts taking place in the global anarchist movements.

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

This article is an offshoot of my new book, Emma Goldman, Mother Earth, and the Anarchist Awakening, published by the University of Notre Dame Press in March 2021. I tried to explore the ways and extent to which anarchists had contributed to sociopolitical, cultural, and sex radicalism by focusing on Goldman, her anarchist monthly Mother Earth, and its global network. The book talks about the transpacific associations between Goldman and her comrades in Japan and China, but mainly during the first two decades of the twentieth century when the journal was published. This article was written originally for a panel on the 80th anniversary of Goldman’s death, but the pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the symposium. I still wanted to dedicate this article to Goldman, so I sought publication for it in Twentieth-Century China.

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history?

I tried to locate my study at the point of convergence of anarchist history, women’s and gender history, and transnational history. I believe that the interactive study of these three fields will further our understanding of radical culture—be it revolutionary activism, progressive print culture, sex radicalism, or gender politics—in China from transnational perspectives. That’s the direction to which I would like my research to contribute.

Where do you see your research going in the future?

I plan to expand my research in two directions: one is about feminism and sex radicalism in Republican China, and the other is about antimilitarism among Leftist women in the early twentieth-century United States.

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

The works of Arif Dirlik, Peter Zarrow, Gotelind Müller, Edward S. Krebs, Fangyan Young, and Bai Hao, among others, have contributed to the historical study of Chinese anarchism. My article mainly builds upon Dirlik’s Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution and Müller’s essay, “Knowledge Is Easy, Action Is Difficult: The Case of Chinese Anarchist Discourse on Women and Gender Relations and Its Practical Limitations.” For the history of anarchist feminism in China, I would also recommend The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (2013), edited by Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko.

For the historiography of Emma Goldman and her anarchist world, the works of Richard Drinnon, Candace Falk, Alice Wexler, Alix Kates Shulman, John Chalberg, Paul Avrich, Kathy Ferguson, Bonnie D. Haaland, Marian J. Morton, Martha Solomon, Donna M. Kowal, and more have together built a rich repertoire of Goldman studies.

With regard to international anarchist movements, there is so much good scholarship, but for now I will mention Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870–1940, edited by Steven Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt, New Perspectives on Anarchism, Labour and Syndicalism: The Individual, the National and the Transnational, edited by David Berry and Constance Bantman, Reassessing the Transnational Turn: Scales of Analysis in Anarchist and Syndicalist Studies, edited by Constance Bantman and Bert Altena, The French Anarchists in London, 1880–1914: Exile and Transnationalism in the First Globalisation, by Constance Bantman, Transnational Radicals: Italian Anarchists in Canada and the U.S., 1915–1940, by Travis Tomchuk, and Transatlantic Anarchism during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution, 1936–1939, by Morris Brodie.

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

I believe that it is just as important to study the history of the underprivileged and defeated as the history of the successful and those in power for a fuller understanding of events, ideas, and experiences in the past, on which we reflect for now and the future. During my study, I was much inspired by the altruism and courage shown by such anarcho-communists as Emma Goldman and her comrades (including Chinese anarchists) in the (eventually subdued) transnational anarchist movements. They were not a group of people who pursued power in the name of the people or state; though they were far from perfect personalities, their love for society and mankind moved me. Even if anarchism is too idealistic to be carried out in reality, the deeds of anarchists who endeavored to carry out their ideal in history may still inspire us to contemplate the important interactions of freedom and power/authorities.