Volume XIV, No. 1: Fall 2016

Fall 2016 Article

“The Task is Hers: ” Going Global, Margaret Sanger’s Visit to China in 1922

By Mirela David, Ph.D., University of Saskatchewan

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Abstract: In 1922 Margaret Sanger visited China, enjoying great attention from Chinese social reformers for her feminism and eugenic ideas on birth control. This transnational project probes the dynamics of the intellectual encounter between western theorists such as Sanger and Chinese intellectuals such as Hu Shi. Sanger’s trip echoed images of China as a poster child for poverty and overpopulation in dire need of contraception, and it also ignited a debate in the Chinese press on the eugenic quality of birth control. The insertion of eugenics into other types of debates allowed a deeper discussion of possible solutions for China’s social problems to emerge. I investigate the intersections and explore the tensions between Malthusianism and eugenics, and feminism and eugenics as well as the local specificities of these debates and the translation and reception of Sanger’s speeches. Chinese male intellectuals considered women’s reproduction both in relation to women’s individual bodies, as well as its repercussions for the future of the Chinese nation. These latest considerations were primordial in considering the political potential of birth control advocacy in relation to Marxism and nationalism.

Key Words: Margaret Sanger, China, population, birth control, eugenics, feminism, women

Bodily diseases such as syphilis, alcoholism, mental illnesses such as dementia, erotomania can all harm one’s descendants, and even more than our children and grandchildren, can harm our society. Eugenics [the science of racial betterment, or renzhong gailiangxue 人種改良學] advocates the use of national power to forbid reproduction of this kind of men and women, suffering from these diseases. Men and women – or one party, if they are afflicted with such illnesses – should resign themselves that they do not have the qualifications of becoming parents and should restrict their reproduction until they do not reproduce anymore. To restrict sons and daughters is to improve the race, to better the bodies of our children, regardless whether it’s about mental or physical health, this is the parents’ responsibility and it constitutes the basis of advancement. If parents are not in a strong position and do not have the ability to rear numerous children, then they should practice birth control.
– Gai Zun (丐尊), “Control of Reproduction,” 1921

Such was the discourse on the eugenic potential of birth control following the 1922 visit to China of its most ardent global proponent, Margaret Sanger. A former nurse, Margaret Sanger coined the term “birth control,” and founded The American Birth Control League, a precursor of Planned Parenthood. Inspired by her mother’s recurring pregnancies Sanger become the foremost advocate of contraception with a global reach. Sanger controversially opened the first contraceptive clinic in the U.S. in 1916, and was tried for violating the Comstock obscenity laws through her birth control advocacy. If eugenics was the goal, birth control was seen as a means to an end. Both Sanger and Chinese intellectuals approached biological reproduction as social, national and racial reproduction. The perceived problem was the perpetual breeding of key diseased segments of the population identified by eugenicists as people plagued by mental diseases or syphilis, and its detrimental and degenerating effect on national health. Journalist Gai Zun (丐尊)2 explicitly linked birth control with race improvement (shanzhong 善種), especially in view of the multitude of ailments that can affect the quality of descendants. Gai Zun developed some of the themes suggested in Sanger’s speech at Beijing National University, in particular the imposition of restrictions on the reproduction of the mentally ill through the use of national or army power. Sanger had also emphasized the benefits of birth control to allow a higher quality education for children in smaller families. The description of dysgenic births and the prescription of coercive measures of inhibiting reproduction of alcoholics, criminals, and the feeble-minded implied a concept of Mendelian laws of heredity, whereby for these categories there was no possibility of improvement in society3 other than stopping their social and biological reproduction. Birth control for less-than-perfect people was seen as a measure of racial improvement and of controlling the quality of the offspring. Eugenics (youshengxue 優生學) proposed a veto on the reproduction of biologically deviant social categories.4

Margaret Sanger’s trip to China held a double meaning: it reinforced images of China as a global example for the necessity of birth control because of overpopulation and insufficient resources, and it also sparked an intriguing debate in the Chinese press around the eugenic quality of birth control. Sanger’s correspondence shows her efforts in forming a global birth control movement, and the enthusiastic responses from Chinese journalists, intellectuals, and expatriates to the social possibilities of contraception (shengyu jiezhi 生育節制). In the 1920s China’s birth control movement was in its nascent phase.

Part of the birth control work was translating birth control theories and methods, debating their uses or inadequacies for the Chinese situation, and disseminating that information through the booming print media cultural industry, in particular in women’s journals in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. This engagement with birth control remained mostly at a theoretical level in the early 1920s. Sanger’s visit to China acted as a catalyst in the birth control debates in China. Sanger’s influence did not end with her visit: she continued to correspond with Chinese intellectuals and female gynecologists, leading to the 1930s openings of Chinese birth control clinics modeled on Sanger’s New York clinics. In this article I explore Sanger’s interactions with Chinese intellectuals of the New Culture Movement (1915-1921), and the initial reception of Sanger’s birth control activism in 1922. To this end I examine the contents of Sanger’s speeches in China and the translation of these and others of Sanger’s works into Chinese, to assess which of her ideas were prevalent in Chinese women’s magazines. Disenchanted with Chinese traditional culture, young intellectuals during the New Culture Movement turned their attention towards Western concepts of science and democracy as a means to help China through its transition. Eugenics was one of the popular sciences at that time.

Ultimately eugenics as a worldwide social movement and ideology was also translated into the Chinese situation. Here, I understand translation not in the sense of transmission, but in a historical and cultural vein as enabling the emergence of new ideas – both in China and globally regarding the relationship between women’s reproductive bodies, population control, politics and activism. Through this approach one can uncover the potential of eugenics for social change, which might explain why in view of national dangers some intellectuals were arguing about solving China’s social problems in eugenic terms. Chinese intellectuals did not just uncritically adopt western theories of eugenics and birth control. Instead they selectively translated western scientific, cultural and social studies emphasizing what resonated locally, namely approaches to poverty stemming from overpopulation.

Moreover, some radical liberal intellectuals agreed with Sanger’s eugenic argument for birth control to improve women’s health. Women’s reproductive health was considered in light of the prominence of feminism and individualism in the decentralized journalistic open period of the 1920s. I find that while Sanger’s feminist and eugenic ideas were well received, few shared her exclusive focus on birth control as a panacea for China’s social ills. This was mostly on account of the philosophical tensions between Sanger’s eugenic line of argumentation for birth control and leftist and nationalist understandings of economic realities. At the height of the global popularity of eugenics, Chinese intellectuals demonstrated agency in their rejection of eugenics. Some Chinese leftist intellectuals disagreed with Sanger’s criticism of the lower classes and her preference for the fit and talented upper classes, claiming instead that birth control only distracted from economic inequality and imperialist oppression.

Gender also played a role in the perception of birth control. Socialist women unlike socialist men believed birth control and socialism are compatible. In 1920s China women’s reproduction was perceived to be the task of modernizing male intellectuals, as men – sometimes using female pseudonyms – wrote the overwhelming majority of the articles on contraception. This bothered Sanger, whose hopes of finding female counterparts in China were initially dashed by the different political persuasions of the male-dominated intellectual scene. Sanger’s insistence on restricting population was incompatible with some nationalists’ views, according to which population was vital for national survival. This was also the reason why the Japanese government censored Sanger upon the occasion of her visit there in 1922. Nonetheless, Sanger’s concern with the population question was the primary reason why she enjoyed substantial coverage in the Chinese press, given the prominence of Malthusian theories of overpopulation in China.

Juliette Chung explores the split in the Chinese eugenics movement between those who embraced birth control and those who saw it as racial suicide.5 My study, however, focuses on the translation of Euro-American eugenic discourses in China, as well as with the cultural encounters between Western activists and writers, and Chinese intellectuals. In her consideration of Lamarckism versus Mendelism, Chung – like Dikötter – argues that Lamarckism exerted a substantial influence in China and Japan because it allowed for race improvement by means of social reform.6 My research suggests that Chinese intellectuals’ belief in Lamarckism, which stressed the influence of the environment for the development of future generations, did not preclude their acceptance of hereditary inheritance inspired by Galton or Mendel’s genetic research, which they advocated in certain instances. I want to complicate this Lamarckian emphasis by also focusing on the Mendelian version of eugenic thought in conjunction with birth control, according to which heredity and biological factors are determinative, which effectively disavows any formative social action apart from predetermining who is allowed to procreate. Chung also collapses radical intellectuals’ engagement with sex to a “sexuality versus morality” opposition. I show that the sexual ethics they professed was undoubtedly eugenic.

Tani Barlow finds that eugenics flourished precisely at the intersection of natural and social sciences, and that scientific racism was a core element of progressive feminism. Woman as a concept could no longer be thought of without science. Barlow’s research centers on the eugenic health of modern women redefining themselves and being redefined in scientific terms as units of reproductive physiology in connection with commodity advertisement in 1920s China.7 My study, like Barlow’s, acknowledges the pervasive presence of eugenic ideology in the cultural sphere in Republican China. Frank Dikötter’s focus on medical discourses of eugenics as a means of reducing birth defects in China posits continuities between interwar eugenic views and the framing of China’s One Child Policy in the 1980s.8 According to Dikötter eugenics was not institutionalized in Republican China, but was popular among modernizing elites.9 My investigation pushes beyond his argument, and inquires into the reasons for the popularity of eugenics.

Ann Farmer emphasizes the scientific rationale for actual prejudice against the poor, disabled, and criminals and the quest for a biological solution to all social ills.10 According to Farmer, tying eugenics to sexual education gave British intellectuals an aura of progressiveness; however, their emphasis was on eugenic reproduction.11 Minna Stern analyzes the institutionalization of the eugenics movement in California, a frontrunner state, from analyzing print media such as the column on “Social Eugenics” in the L.A. Times, quarantine policies at the Mexican border, eugenic sterilizations, Sinophobia, deportation, faulty IQ tests, and race suicide anxieties. 12 My study connects explicitly through translation the Chinese eugenic debates to global eugenics.

1. Margaret Sanger’s Visit to China

In 1922 Sanger decided to visit Japan and China. Sanger was amazed that on the streets of Beijing she saw thousands of men, but very few women. “Dust, dust, dust and walls within walls” is her recurring depiction of Beijing. She was obsessed with cleanliness and hygiene and wanted to bathe all the time.13 Sanger had come with a letter of introduction from Jiang Menglin, who was studying in the U.S. .14 Chen Da, a famous population specialist who studied at Columbia University, had met Sanger in the U.S. and also invited her to China.15

Sanger’s journey to China and her lectures challenged the traditional free birth ethic. Hu Shi (胡適), a famous Chinese writer acted as her translator and invited Sanger to speak at the National University.16 Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培), the chancellor of the National University gave a dinner in her honor. 17 Sanger observed that all of the men had larger families than they desired; she was also impressed with Hu Shi’s assessment of the population question.18 Hu Shi, a leading figure in the New Culture Movement portrayed Sanger as the foremost advocate of birth control: “She is a brilliant orator, very few women can display such an arrangement of ideas in their speeches.” Hu Shi’s comment revealed a concern shared by his contemporaries about women’s lack of personality. Hu estimated that almost 2000 participants attended the lecture, which he promoted in the following ad:

Sanger (center) with Hu Shi (left) and Zhang Jingsheng (known as“Dr. Sex,” right) in Peking, 1922

Unrestricted birth causes population increase to surpass the capacity of raising children. On a small scale it can cause every person and every family to fall into poverty, on a wider scale it is a crisis of world culture and world peace. In the West ever since Malthus many scholars have advocated birth control, but society has viewed this as immoral. In reality to give birth and not be able to raise a child, to give birth and kill because of disease, would it not be better if one limited this in advance, and only gave birth to excellent children?20

Hu Shi contemplated the benefits of contraception, from its implication for the individual, the family and global culture. Here Hu made a eugenic argument to give birth only to “exceptional” babies. Hu praised Sanger’s dedication and sacrifice, relating how Sanger even went so far as going to prison for her cause. Hu further mentioned the establishment of the American Birth Control League, which numbered more than 50,000 members.21Because of the translation difficulties she had experienced in Japan, Sanger showed Hu her speech prior to her talk. Hu advised Sanger to speak on contraceptive methods, as that would interest students.22

Hu Shi’s translation of Sanger’s lecture at Beijing University was published in its entirety in two women’s magazines: The Ladies’ Journal 23 and in The Women’s Review, which issued special editions on birth control.24 Sanger linked civilization with birth control on a global scale25 and approached contraception as a cultural and biological issue. She further equated the birth control problematic with population pressure, and disavowed infanticide and abortion. For Sanger birth control was a solution to poverty, women and child labor, dementia, and crime. Decrying the fact that there were studies to improve sheep, cows, and pigs, but not to improve humans, Sanger stressed the centrality of contraception for race advancement and population suppression: “Now we need to advocate birth control to improve the race. I dare say mankind’s increase is sufficient.”26

Sanger further made a paradoxical and intriguing statement that encapsulated the internal tension of her beliefs: although she had always advocated for the freedom of the individual – and women in particular – Sanger argued for restricting the individual freedom to procreate,27 in view of the urgency of population increase. Sanger even promoted forced sterilization for both sexes enforced with the aid of military action to curb the reproduction of the mentally disabled.28 For Sanger, eugenic concerns trumped women’s rights. Sanger’s position here was quite clear: reproduction was not necessarily a matter of individual choice. Apart from the coercive aspects, even liberal Chinese intellectuals partly agreed with this stance.

Numerous eugenicists relegated the mentally disabled to a different category: flawed and perhaps not fully human. Given their perceived lack of control, Sanger argued to take away the reproductive ability of people with mental health problems: “people afflicted with dementia, could not inhibit their desires, and one has to use sterilization surgery to force them not to procreate.”29 The eugenic discourse problematically marginalized all people with mental disabilities in the quest for a perfect human being and for the greater good of the society. Such arguments placed disabled people in a vulnerable position. Even while a mother’s body was to be protected on humanistic grounds, the bodies of disabled people were refused their full humanity. Sanger’s view on the use of sterilization for racial regeneration was also shared by Pan Guangdan, the most prolific eugenicist in China, and by population specialists such as Chen Changheng and Chen Da.30

Sanger further provided practical scientific contraceptive methods for both genders which caused quite a stir: from describing the best time to engage in sexual relations according to a woman’s cycle, to sterilization by means of x-ray, to the withdrawal method and the use of condoms. Moreover, Sanger decried the gendered double standard embedded in the Chinese partiality for boys as the embodiment of society’s hopes for the next generation.31 Sanger hoped to integrate Chinese intellectuals interested in revolution and social betterment into the global birth control movement.32

Chinese intellectuals were particularly receptive to Sanger’s explicit link between birth control and eugenics, which Sanger believed would unravel racial, political and social problems: “Birth Control is practically identical in ideal with the final aims of Eugenics.”33 Thus Sanger not only underlined affinities between the birth control movement and the eugenic movement, but also collapsed the two in their aspirations by suggesting birth control could be a form of eugenics in praxis: “Birth Control Propaganda was thus the entering wedge for the Eugenic educator.”34 Sanger wanted to improve education in prophylaxis, sexual hygiene and infant welfare.

According to Sanger the unequal birth rates between eugenic population categories of “the unfit and the fit” represented “the greatest present menace to civilization,”35 a crisis unresolvable by competition between the classes: “the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded and the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit yet less fertile parents of the educated and well-to-do classes.”36 Despite Sanger’s crusade to help improve the quality of life and health of lower-class women through contraception, this passage demonstrates a certain class bias, in her assignment of unfitness solely to the lower classes. This position explains some Chinese leftist intellectuals’ outright rejection of Sanger’s ideas. Additionally, by warning against emulation of such unfit behavior in the upper classes, she seemed to want to preserve the upper classes intact. Lastly, for Sanger birth control could only solve future problems, but it could not address the effects of present and past dysgenic breeding.

Despite the convergence between eugenics and the birth control movement, there were also significant philosophical differences that Sanger wanted to circumvent to convince eugenicists of the necessity of contraception for the eugenic project. While eugenicists emphasized, “producing healthy children” and “sterilization of the unfit,” the birth controllers advocated stopping all reproduction where economic means were scarce.37 Conservative eugenicists’ belief that a woman’s responsibility was to deliver children for the state did not sit well with Sanger, who also disavowed eugenic mating as insufficient to tackle the problem of unlimited reproduction of the deprived and sick.38 Instead Sanger wanted to convince eugenicists to support contraception for the working class as a means to preserve eugenic aspirations of race improvement:”39

Eugenics without Birth Control seems to us a house built upon the sands. It is at the mercy of the rising stream of the unfit. It cannot stand against the furious winds of economic pressure, which have buffeted into partial and total helpfulness a tremendous proportion of the human race. Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment.40

For Sanger contraception was uplifting to the race, and necessary to curtail the “unfit,” a eugenic euphemism used to connote the diseased population. Whether Sanger herself was a eugenicist or just an ardent birth control activist who appealed to the most convincing scientific argumentations of the time, is debatable. Despite her empathy for the most unfortunate, her statements about the lower classes were extremely controversial. Her commitment was to birth control and she clearly employed eugenic arguments to further the cause of birth control globally.

During the same 1922 trip Chen Haicheng (陳海澄), a journalist from China Times, invited Sanger to Shanghai.41 Despite Shanghai’s Europeanized appearance Sanger was dismayed by the rickshaw men’s appalling working conditions. 42 Chen accompanied Sanger to visit a cotton-spinning mill employing over 5,000 women as well as to the crowded worker shacks: “It was a shock to see sick little children at work; thousands of little girls who could not possibly have been over eight or nine years of age.”43 Sanger was horrified at the abysmal working conditions for women and girls: thus the children got ten cents a day for twelve hours of work, while mothers were compelled to bring their babies to work and keep them in baskets by the machines. Sanger was outraged at what industrialization brought to Chinese women in China, and proclaimed that China, like the Western world, would learn the consequences “of abusing womanhood for this machine labor.”44 Despite her insight that Western imperialism had been detrimental to China, Sanger believed Western contraceptive methods could work efficiently there, because of their potential to effect social change: “And Birth Control must precede any great permanent change in her social systems.”45 Sanger’s one-dimensional vision of social progress was not very convincing to Chinese intellectuals.

Sanger even ventured to see the slums46 and wrote harrowing descriptions in her diary of people “limping in the streets, begging” and “lepers hanging in the street.”47 Sanger’s experiences in Chinese factories and slums, in seeing the abysmal everyday living conditions of women and children, and her empathy for rickshaw pullers informed her opinion of China’s social problems. Rather than seeing poverty as a problem of unequal distribution of wealth, Sanger considered it to be an issue connected to unchecked reproduction. These impressions provided her with more descriptive ammunition for her crusade of promoting birth control to curb these social sufferings. Sanger confessed that China “represents the final act in the national tragedy of overpopulation.” 48

In the Birth Control Review, the American journal Sanger edited, China and Japan figured prominently on the list of countries where overpopulation had become acute, and were given as examples for the necessity of implementing eugenic measures and birth control.”49This was one of the reasons for Sanger’s Asian tour. Chen Haicheng compared Sanger’s experiences in China with her visit in Japan, where the Japanese government had prohibited her from lecturing publicly. Publicized as forbidden, Sanger’s talk, entitled “Population and War,” attracted Japanese educators, editors and scientists.50

In a speech at the Shanghai National Association of Vocational Education, Sanger emphasized repeatedly the necessity of the science of birth control – as opposed to natural population control through war and disease – to obtain better babies.51 Here her highlighting the quality of descendants and her message of race improvement expressed her eugenic views. Sanger dismissed her detractors, who apocalyptically predicted the disappearance of mankind or racial suicide as a result of contraceptive practices, and argued instead that contraception improved health.52 This scientism embedded in medical and physiological knowledge, functioned as a sign of modernity and legitimation by implicitly appealing to science’s claim to truth.

In this speech Sanger focused on promoting the idea of the small family: one that included no more than three or four children. New Culture intellectuals conceived of the conjugal family (xiao jiating 小家庭) as a redemptive move away from the bonds of the traditional family that enabled individuals to hone their talents, so that they, in turn, could contribute to the nation’s future. Chinese intellectuals did not unquestioningly replicate the western model of the small family, because in China, unlike in the West, civil concerns were at the core of the nuclear family.53 After Sanger’s visit, many Chinese journalists addressed the issue of selective marriage choice, which followed a eugenic logic. Sanger endorsed what could be termed eugenic marriage by advising women to refuse to marry men suffering from tuberculosis, venereal disease, and mental illness.54 In a move to convince her male audience of the economic benefits of contraception, Sanger argued that a woman who gave birth ten times not only endangered her health, but encumbered the husband as well.55

Sanger was puzzled that during her stay in Shanghai she had yet to meet with Chinese women.56 Sanger’s feminist approach to birth control fueled her desire to attract more women into this global movement. It is apparent that Sanger had no choice but to place her hopes in Chinese male intellectuals to help spread her message. Finally, Sanger met Yu Qingtang,57 a Chinese female professor recently returned from studying in the U.S., who became Sanger’s translator for the speech sponsored by The Kiangsu Educational Association, The National Association of Vocational Education of China and the Association of Family Reformation of China.58 However, a translation problem precluded Sanger from making any meaningful connection to Chinese female intellectuals: Yu felt too shy to translate the technical aspects of practicing birth control and told Sanger she would ask a doctor to say that. Sanger wrote in her diary about the translator’s lack of courage. 59 This further lowered Sanger’s opinion of some of the women in the audience, regarding their inability to engage with topics such as sexuality and references to the female body. This incident underscores the radicalism of Sanger’s advocacy in a time when sexual matters remained very much taboo in China as well as in the West.

2. The Reception of Margaret Sanger in the Chinese Press

Sanger was enthralled with the coverage of her visit in the Chinese press. Pictures of Sanger in Japan, or in Beijing in the company of Hu Shi and Zhang Jingsheng (張競生), appeared in several newspapers.60 Zhang, a well-known advocate of sexual education and contraception, accompanied Sanger as one of her translators. However, their motivations for advocating contraception diverged: Sanger was animated by feminist concerns such as women’s self-determination, whereas for Zhang sexual freedom was central – a radical position for that time.61 A controversial sexologist and philosophy professor at the time, Zhang was quite taken aback by the fact that the Chinese press was so interested in Sanger’s ideas even though he had shared similar views several years prior to her visit. In his “Aesthetic Outlook of Life,” Zhang wrote:

Three years ago [in 1921] I saw how the people of my country bred like pigs and dogs, fathers and mothers only knew about ejaculation and conception, there was no proper education and upbringing, and thus the boys became criminals and the girls became prostitutes. Back then I attempted to promote methods of population control widely, but received nothing but curses and abuses from society. Within less than a year [in 1922] Mrs. Sanger from the United States came to China and promoted exactly the same ideas, and the newspapers, which lambasted me, suddenly welcomed Mrs. Sanger’s views. In fact, my theories were more profound than Mrs. Sanger’s. But I was insulted, and she was praised and enjoyed a great reputation. The reason for this difference was because Sanger was an American woman, and I was just a Chinaman! 62

Zhang prided himself in advocating birth control in a eugenic fashion, and on his theories that connected eugenics, reproduction and sex. He also pointed to the double standard that some ideas were more convincing if they were coming from a Westerner. Suffering from an identity crisis of racial inferiority also evidenced in his other writings, Zhang criticized the wholesale westernization of ideas surrounding sex and reproduction.

2.1 The Coverage of Margaret Sanger in Women’s Magazines such as Women’s Review and Women’s Voice

In an article from the “Special Edition for Birth Control” of the Women’s Review, published on the occasion of Sanger’s visit, Chen Dewei (陳德微)63 praised Sanger’s concern for women’s suffering as well as the contribution of her birth control advocacy to the incipient women’s movement in China.64 Chen underscored the future-oriented optimism of this movement. To promote birth control effectively Chen believed one had to:

Investigate the situation of the mother, assess the difficulties of promoting birth control in different places, research maternal and infant mortality rates and illnesses, promote motherhood training for future mothers, as well as publicize the equal aptitudes method to forbid the union of sick marriages, and of people with sick children.65

Chen agreed with Sanger’s rejection of marriage for people afflicted with genetically transmitted diseases. This was in line with the Mendelian approach, whereby dysgenic marriages were condemned. Many other Chinese intellectuals such as Chen Da, Pan Guangdan, Zhou Jianren, and Chen Jianshan also subscribed to this viewpoint.66 The article ended with three eugenic measures: first to research the method of non-marriage for those suffering from hereditary diseases; second “to unite the birth control societies in every country” and third to make use of the slogan “to advance people’s declining base and to raise the racial base!”67 Whereas the first measure addressed the possibility of forbidding marriage on eugenic grounds, the last two measures brought in the possibility of racial advancement as the ultimate goal not just for a national-scale movement, but for a global movement. Chen argued that the Birth Control Research Society should investigate the possible implementation of eugenic laws68 with the following goals: “to prevent China’s decline into a health crisis; to save and protect the Chinese nation from illness and insanity.”69 Chen conceived of national sanity and the possibility of national survival in eugenic terms. Chen echoed Sanger’s scientific emphasis, viewing “scientific theory as point of departure to support the birth control society.”70

Science’s appeal as a topic of study here stems from its application in China as the dominant vision of modernity due to its social potential. The appeal of science in the interwar period can be attributed to its claims to objectivity and universality;71 one of the reasons why eugenics was so popular was because of its claims to scientism through its linkages with genetics. Stressing the need to diminish the reproduction of people plagued by hereditary diseases was also part of Gai Zun’s eugenic platform.

Gai Zun, like his contemporary Chen Dewei, addressed racial preservation in view of disease as a global human predisposition, to which he added the issue of quality versus quantity of descendants in the Chinese case: “In the past the emperor had many sons and grandsons. Nowadays people still embrace polygamy and marrying early as well as leaving behind countless descendants. Irrespective of whether the product’s quality is good or bad, they only care if the number is sizable.”72

In his critique of the traditional family system, Gai was referring to peasants’ penchant for numerous sons. Furthermore, Gai was in implicit alignment with Sanger addressing the problem of large families. In her speech at the Association of Family Reformation of China in Shanghai Sanger had criticized those who believed that a large family would increase the likelihood of a great personality being born in the family. To Sanger large families were plagued by disease, poverty, and crime;73 genius did not arise out of a quantitative probability. On the contrary: population quantity had many potentially devastating dysgenic effects.

Gai contemplated two distinctive methods of restricting reproduction. The first method was the Malthusian method of restricting sexual desire and thus reproduction, which he dismissed as an effective means, because he doubted people’s ability to inhibit their sexuality. Secondly Gai considered the neo-Malthusian doctrine, which advocated the use of birth control. Like Sanger and Zhang Jingsheng, Gai believed humans have a natural sexual instinct that should not be suppressed, whereas Malthus advocated its suppression. Nonetheless, Gai shared the Malthusian concerns of overpopulation: “If population surpassed the material limits available to everybody, poverty must occur, and society would not be safe.”74 Gai made the case for a eugenic solution as exemplified by the newest contraceptive methods:

In most civilized countries contraception is openly endorsed. From a social viewpoint, from a eugenic point of view or of race improvement, it is an issue after Malthusianism. Presently because of the scientific advances regarding pregnancy prevention, there are already methods that do not harm the health of men and women.75

Here Gai remarked on the cultural and civilizational dimension of birth control. From Gai’s rejection of Malthusians’ ascetic method one can infer that for him contraceptive methods also allowed for sexual exploration. Such eugenic methods were seen as salient both for their social significance, and for the protection they offered to women’s health. Gai further made the case for quality to replace quantity as a measure of success: “China’s population is the first in the world, but apart from a few rich ones, most live in poverty. A people’s strength lies not in its numbers.”76

Gai assented to global eugenic criticism of undesirable reproduction for “syphilitics, alcoholics and perverts,” and demanded local regulations to strengthen the Chinese nation. Chinese intellectuals’ preoccupations with the poor physical quality of the population – and by extension the angst of racial extinction – were exacerbated by their belief that this represented China’s backwardness.77 Race improvement was connected with national survival and the reproductive potential of the individual.78 In this sense, discussions of individuality were never about the individual alone, but were framed in the individual/nation dialectic.

Not all authors praised Sanger’s promotion of birth control for China’s national future. Ke Fu (克孚) criticized Malthusianism, especially the idea that poor people who could not feed their children should practice birth control. He believed that Malthusianism’s insistence that insufficient resources stemmed from unchecked population only strengthened Western imperialism by reducing the large Chinese population. Moreover, Ke was convinced that in the long run birth control could only harm China. 79 Despite confusing Malthus’s abstinence solution with birth control, Ke’s was a leftist critique of the suitability of birth control as a solution for China’s difficulties.

For female socialist journalists, however, there was no incompatibility between birth control and socialism. One of the first women leaders to rise out of the Communist movement, editor of Women’s Voice Wang Huiwu (王会悟), and female journalist Wang Jianhong (王剑虹) both wrote articles supporting birth control.80 Women’s Voice was the first Communist party-sponsored journal that presented female voices, and not merely male writers writing under female pseudonyms.

In an article entitled “Birth Control for the Preservation of Love,” Wang Jianhong stressed the liberating characteristic of birth control for women that would allow them to reclaim their humanity, an idea shared by Sanger. Writing from a woman’s experience, Wang argued that not practicing birth control led to inequality within marriage, as the woman shouldered more burdens. In addition, she highlighted how reproduction hindered economic independence for women:

Wedged tightly under the control of men’s heels, women are the tools that satisfy male carnal desire...Women constantly raise small children for men and aside from this role are nothing but ignorant animals. Chinese society is built upon this kind of slave system that lacks any compassion and human character.81

Here Wang Jianhong articulated a powerful critique of women’s traditional roles as merely procreative figures, and confronted the sexual objectification of women. Wang did not argue against motherhood per se, but for a better-quality motherhood by focusing on fewer children. Wang challenged Sanger on only one issue: that socialists and Marxists generally opposed implementing birth control, since she was both a socialist and a supporter of birth control. However, male socialist Mao Dun contested birth control as a distracting issue for women, who he argued should engage more in politics instead. In his view, unequal distribution of wealth – not overpopulation – was the root of all China’s social problems.

Many intellectuals were dissatisfied with the view of China’s population as its main source of poverty, which they considered to be part of a larger, systemic imperialist oppression resulting from unequal treaties that gave unfair trade advantages to foreign powers in China. Others were optimistic that China’s resources were sufficient to feed its burgeoning population and rejected contraception out of fears of racial destruction. Instead writers like biologist Zhou Jianren (周建人), one of the editors of The Ladies’ Journal, proposed improving food production to solve the reproductive dilemma: “The unchecked population problem has become a hardship as it pertains to food distribution. Some advocate restricting blind population growth. However, they have not thought of food distribution methods.”82 Zhou refers to the unequal distribution of wealth – a fundamental problem in socialist thought – where resources including food are concentrated in the hands of a small wealthy minority, at the expense of the underprivileged majority. Zhou dismissed some aspects of Malthusian theory, such as restricting sexual desire to avert reproduction, as irrational.83 Zhou thought the focus should be on improving existing – if imperfect – contraceptive methods.

Zhou addressed the tension between advocating birth control on individualist grounds and as a total solution to China’s problems. Zhou’s feminism informed his opinion that women as individuals had a right to access contraception, while his socialist bent led him to view reproduction as work: “Regarding the private personal domain, women shoulder the task of childbearing by far more than men. They are pregnant around 280 days, followed by a similar period for breastfeeding. This kind of work is extremely tiring and hard.”84 Similar to many socialist reformers of the time, Zhou also advocated communal childrearing to ease a mother’s sufferings. Zhou had a utopian socialist vision of childbearing, since he considered it to be “a great benefit to a future society.”85

Despite Zhou’s advocacy of contraception, and his belief in its compatibility with socialism, he criticized the wider social relevance of birth control as an absolute solution to universal social ills: “Using birth control to solve a few difficulties was thought to be able to resolve many problems, but it is all wrong. In theory birth control is in my opinion very healthy. The mistake of many past discussants is not related to birth control per se, but in trying to employ this method as a solution to all social problems that cause inequality.”86 Zhou, unlike Sanger, rejected birth control as a panacea to economic inequality. Instead, his support for contraception was spurred by his feminist concern with women’s health and the effects of pregnancy on women’s bodies.

Shan Yongjun (山用均) also addressed the convergence between the “health of the mother’s body” and contraception.87 Shan started from popular dichotomies that contributed to criticism of birth control: moral/immoral, natural/unnatural, whereby birth was presented as natural and contraception as unnatural. Shan employed the following eugenic arguments, to which he saw no possible objection: the goal of the advancement of human society, limiting reproduction of mentally defective people, and the right of doctors to induce abortion to protect a mother’s weak body and preserve her health. Birth control was also thought to improve the quality of life of the offspring, so that “children are not given the worse quality clothes, food, and shelter; in short life necessities.”88

Shan like Gai was familiar with the neo-Malthusian doctrine of birth control,89 which sought to lessen social decline. Shan identified three possible causes for this: corruption and poverty, excessive human fertility, or economic organization. Shan deemed that Malthus addressed all of these issues: mankind’s corruption and poverty arose from overpopulation and fertility. People’s fertility was situated above economic organization in Shan’s view, having the power to destroy it. Thus “poverty is not the fault of economic organization, but it is the liability of human fertility.”90 Echoing Sanger, Shan was frustrated that the working class was indifferent to human fertility. Ultimately, for Shan, fertility as a problem seemed to override and determine other economic concerns.

2.2 “The Task is Hers”: Translation and The Ladies’ Journal Special Edition on Birth Control

Excessive fertility was also the target of Sanger’s critique in “Woman’s Error and Her Debt,” which represented Margaret Sanger’s call to women to take responsibility in accepting their inferior status and causing overpopulation.91 The Special Edition on Birth Control in The Ladies’ Journal contained an approximate translation with commentary on Sanger’s Woman and the New Race, translated by Wu Jing under a different title: “Inspecting the History of Birth Control.”92 The purpose of this article was to present the book. The translation started with an excerpt from the first Chapter of Woman and the New Race, which corresponded to the beginning of the first chapter “Woman’s Error and Her Debt,” and continued with a short presentation of Sanger followed by a second chapter “Women’s Struggle for Freedom.”

In “Woman’s Error and Her Debt” Sanger ridiculed the League of Nations, and what she saw as the futile attempts of weak statesmen to “carve out spheres of influence.” Sanger stated that women had the power to destroy their efforts by “producing explosive populations” and “converting these pledges into the proverbial scraps of paper.”93 This passage was the beginning of the Chinese version presenting Sanger’s Woman and the New Race. The more radical call to voluntary motherhood that followed, however, was missing from the Chinese translation: “or she may, by controlling birth, lift motherhood to the plane of a voluntary, intelligent function, and remake the world. When the world is thus remade, it will exceed the dream of statesman, reformer and revolutionist.”94 Sanger’s opinion that free motherhood had the potential to change the global situation95 was emphasized in the Chinese version, which also contained an explanation of Sanger’s activities in the Neo-Malthusian League, and the “race improvement” results in countries such as Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Switzerland, and Mexico, where the organization had local unions similar to the one in New York.

A closer look at “Woman’s Error and Her Debt” is necessary since Chen Haicheng published his own translation of Woman and the New Race, which he entitled Jieyuzhuyi (節育主義[Birth Control] (Shanghai: The Commercial Press, 1925). This Chinese translation of the book was republished in 1928.96 In the original English version Sanger made a very sarcastic and emphatic argument for woman’s acquiescence to her inferior status. For Sanger, the ties of motherhood that established women’s social roles represented “chains” that “bind her to her lot as a brood animal for the masculine civilizations of the world.” 97 In this Sanger established a direct link between reproduction as women’s dominant social role and their plight. The animal metaphor only reinforced the notion of the burden women had thrust upon them in a patriarchal world.

Sanger went even further by blaming prolific mothers for plagues and famine. In what follows Sanger articulated a strong eugenic disparagement of women:

While unknowingly laying the foundations of tyrannies and providing the human tinder for racial conflagrations, woman was also unknowingly creating slums, filling asylums with insane, and institutions with other defectives. She was replenishing the ranks of the prostitutes, furnishing grist for the criminal courts and inmates for prisons. Had she planned deliberately to achieve this tragic total of human waste and misery, she could hardly have done it more effectively.98

In this passage Sanger condemned women for reproducing all that eugenicists hoped to reduce: the feeble minded, prostitutes, and criminals. For Sanger undesired children represented metaphorically “clogs and destroyers of civilization.99 The convergence of reproduction, health and culture is a frequent motif for both Sanger and Chinese intellectuals, the only difference being that Sanger was thinking globally, while Chinese intellectuals were thinking locally about how these Western concepts would further China’s national future. Sanger believed that birth control enabled the fundamental freedom for woman that could “uproot the evil she has wrought through her submission.”100 Sanger emphasized that women’s negative impact had been unconscious, while birth control epitomized a conscious means of action. This was a call to action for women to assume responsibility for their reproductive capabilities: “the task is hers. It cannot be avoided by excuses, nor can it be delegated. It’s not enough for woman to point to the self-evident domination of man, nor does it avail to plead the guilt of rulers and the exploiters of labor.”101 Here Sanger suggested that the ubiquitous feminist criticism of patriarchy, autocracy, and labor exploitation were insufficient if birth control as women’s empowerment was not practiced.

Sanger felt that woman’s error lay in her submission. Her debt was the limiting of her reproduction: “War, famine, poverty and oppression of the workers will continue while woman makes life cheap. They will cease only when she limits her reproduction and human life is no longer a thing to be wasted.”102 In establishing that life was devalued by uncontrolled reproduction, Sanger made a qualitative assessment. She also recognized a causative link between poverty, famine, and overpopulation. Interestingly Sanger’s rhetorical strategy and argumentation combined eugenic arguments with feminist criticism.

Wu Jing’s selective translation of Woman and the New Race also gives us insights into Sanger’s reception in 1922 China. Wu focused on the chapter “Women’s Struggle for Freedom,” which discussed infanticide, because of its relevance to the long-standing practice in China. In particular female infanticide was often practiced in China. Western discourses on infanticide reiterated arguments of China being “stagnant” and “uncivilized.”103 Sanger assessed infanticide globally, noting its practice by the native tribes of North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, Japan, India, China, early Greece and Rome. Sanger remarked that despite the advent of civilization, and regardless of religious and intellectual condemnation, infanticide was still practiced, and that “Chinese midwives are extremely skillful in producing early abortion.”104 Se Lu (瑟盧) also praised Sanger’s use of the scientific method to prevent infanticide, abortion, and other inhumane methods of reducing undesired births.105

Sanger encapsulated woman’s desire for freedom in the expression “feminine spirit.” A woman rebelled, according to Sanger, when her spirit was inhibited by unwanted pregnancies and caring for too many children: “Where laws, customs and religious restrictions do not prevent, she has recourse to contraceptives. Otherwise, she resorts to child abandonment, abortion and infanticide, or resigns herself hopelessly to enforced maternity.”106 These violent means of curtailing reproduction appeared – according to Sanger – only under great economic pressure. However, the last sentence in the above passage – about resignation to enforced maternity – is missing from the Chinese translation.

Perhaps, as Yun-chen Chiang points out, this was merely a loose translation of Sanger’s notion of voluntary motherhood. Or perhaps it reflected the reluctance of The Ladies’ Journal – which preferred the contemporary Ellen Key’s motherhood movement107 – to fully endorse Sanger’s message. Ellen Key promoted motherhood in connection with race-regeneration. The Chinese translation ends with a discussion of the right of the mother to determine when pregnancy occurred, but omits Sanger’s more radical position on “the right of marriage without maternity.”108 Chinese authors only endorsed Sanger’s recommended exemption from motherhood for certain dysgenic categories of people. Indeed, what was missing entirely from the Chinese version in the last two paragraphs, was the possibility of not choosing motherhood at all, an option suggested by Sanger in the original version as a way to free women from their reproductive burden:

Society, in dealing with the feminine spirit, has its choice of clearly defined alternatives. It can continue to resort to violence in an effort to enslave the elemental urge of womanhood, making of woman a mere instrument of reproduction and punishing her when she revolts. Or, it can permit her to choose whether she shall become a mother and how many children she will have. It can go on trying to crush that which is uncrushable, or it can recognize woman’s claim to freedom, and cease to impose diverting and destructive barriers.109

The Chinese translation states only that: “There is another way to give a mother freedom: to ensure she has a legal right to contraception.”110 A translator’s choice and a slight change or omission of a sentence or word enables new meanings to emerge; in this case the translator whittled Sanger’s radicalism down to fit in the more dominant view on eugenic motherhood inspired by Ellen Key preferred by the editors of The Ladies’ Journal. Wu, like many Chinese translators of her time, demonstrates a high degree of creative license in an attempt to ease the cultural differences between Sanger’s message and Chinese practices and culture.

Other new scientific discourses were emerging in Republican China at the same time as Sanger’s. Tani Barlow argues that appropriated western paradigms took on “a different discursive force” in the treaty ports of China, and that this appropriation of western knowledge was conditioned by the local political context. Barlow contends that Chinese intellectuals “redeployed and excessively privileged modernist discourse from social and biological science that acted as a sort of universal knowledge.”111 This appropriation of modern western scientific knowledge gave Chinese intellectuals legitimacy as modern scholars. However, as Lydia Liu points out, processes of cultural translation are quite complex, and besides appropriation and domination resistance are also observable.112 Wu Jing’s selective translation also reveals this type of resistance to a particular kind of radical thought, and also reflects Liu’s assertion that ideas were converted by their new uses in China.

The opening article of the Special Edition on Birth Control in The Ladies’ Journal highlighted Sanger’s advocacy of a mother’s freedom to choose when she wanted to have a child.113 Sanger’s ideas from Woman and the New Race, where she stressed “voluntary motherhood” and decried woman’s role as an “incubator” are echoed here: a mother’s freedom is depicted as an important responsibility to the development of the new race. The unknown author likened people to animals and plants, who delivered “fine and healthy” (youliang 優良) offspring for a better mankind.114 In Woman and the New Race Sanger herself remarked upon the continuities between the animal and human kingdoms, describing traits of mothers that “stand out also as the characteristics by which the progress of species is measured.”115 The Chinese article contained Sanger’s call for “better babies, better education and better political and international organizations.” The author praised Sanger’s commitment to liberating poor women from bondage, a major racial theme for Sanger:116 “Womanhood shakes off its bondage. It asserts its right to be free. In its freedom, its thoughts turn to the race.”117

Feng Qiao (風峰), who explored Sanger’s impact on birth control in Japan, also discussed woman’s liberation or a mother’s freedom. While “Feng Qiao” had been used before as a female pseudonym by writer Zhou Jianren,118 in this case it was employed by Chen Wangdao (陳望道), the editor of Women’s Review.119 Male feminists frequently crossed gender boundaries by using female pseudonyms to mask their own gender and to assume a female voice. The impersonation of female writers allowed male authors to promote their feminist agenda more efficiently among female readers. The affective performance of a gendered voice functioned as a sort of legitimacy. But in effect this was still a male perspective reflecting a man’s view of feminism.

This article also promoted contraception to women by appealing to their desires for self-realization and liberation.120 One can see that for Chen Wangdao, as for Sanger and Chen Dewei, individualism, women’s choice, and self-help were all significant values. Chen echoes Sanger’s urgency in her plea to women, and like Sanger also criticizes mothers. Chen Wangdao published five articles on birth control around the occasion of Sanger’s visit. Even before Sanger’s arrival, Chen had shown himself in favor of neo-Malthusianism over Malthusianism, and warned that one should not attempt to preserve chastity by rejecting birth control. For him contraception was necessary for several reasons: hygiene, eugenics and free love. The comparison with the animal world gave Chen the ammunition he needed to uphold his philosophy of love: while the sole purpose of sex for the “inferior” animals was reproduction, human sexual contact had an additional function: a love that was evolved.121 Liberal writers like Chen Wangdao, Zhang Xichen and Zhou Jianren believed that love elevated humans. Chen was critical of the Japanese government‘s censorship of Sanger’s visit disputing its prohibitive policies relegating contraception advocacy to “an offense” and “a conspiracy to endanger the country.” Japan’s pro-natalist policies were especially troubling for Chen, who remarked on the vicious cycle between population and war: “for war one needs a numerous population, for population one needs war.”122

Sanger’s promotion of birth control found resonance mostly in intellectual circles in both Japan and China, since those were the types of people she came into contact with during her Asia tour, and because they were more likely to employ contraception. Other writers disputed the eugenic fear of diminishing offspring of intellectuals as symptomatic of the entire state of China’s population:

They name this a great crisis for China, because they believe that the offspring of intellectuals are youzhong (優種)“the superior race.” If the eugenic race diminishes, is it not a great loss for the nation? We believe that in order to consider the weakness and strength of a nation one has to see how the majority of the population is. If one only focuses on a minority, this disregards the majority of people. Thus it is unavoidable that it unsettles people to think of the privileged class that people utterly detest. All traitors come out of the intellectual circles. Considering all this, to give birth to fewer candidates to become traitors, is definitely a good idea.123

This critique showcases class-based fears of racial extinction and privileges certain groups of people as more eugenically fit than others. It can be understood as a leftist criticism of the elitism embodied in eugenics. The article criticizes birth control as a distracting solution from China’s problems:

The majority of Chinese say infant mortality is so high. Many of the suffering folk endure diseases, calamities that destroy the deficient; there are hundreds of diseases and thousands die of natural causes. They really don’t need birth control, as it cannot solve their problems. The marrow of the fruits of hard toil of many grieving folk is being greatly extorted and exhausted. The social economic system that makes radical trouble in some circles is the aggression of imperialism. It is the oppression of warlords, bureaucrats, and landlords and of despotic gentry that wreaks havoc nowadays. Not to be radical, but to superimpose birth control on common folk’s beliefs is superfluous.124

The author rejected contraception as a cure for China’s ills, and found that people were subjected to multiple forms of oppression: the oppression of the economic system, of imperialism, of landlords, and of warlords. Certainly the implication was that a change in the economic system would bring about change in people’s lives. For many leftist intellectuals, there was a clear incompatibility between the tenets of eugenics – with its emphasis on the talented people – and its targeting of the lower classes for the implementation of eugenic measures, considering that the necessary radical change could only emerge through revolution from below.

Lastly, the editor of The Ladies’Journal, radical liberal intellectual Zhang Xichen(章錫琛),125 debated the eugenic quality of birth control with biologist Chen Jianshan (陳建山)126 who feared actively implementing birth control would amount to race suicide. Chen’s eugenic concern was that only the upper class practiced contraception, which resulted in diminishing the superior race.127

While acknowledging that initially “superior people” would practice contraception while the “multiplication of those without reason” continued, Zhang postulated that the practice of birth control could trickle down to the lower classes, where it would acquire a “greater social value.”128 Zhang also agreed on restricting the reproduction “of the social status that is genetically predisposed not to give birth to good elements,” meaning “[the] sick.”129

Zhang also inserted race into his attack on Chen Jianshan. Chen had echoed “white pessimists,” who predicted that the birth rate of the white population would regress, while the yellow and black populations increased. Chen assented to this logic according to which “more people, meant more excellent people, while less people meant less excellent people. White people preserved an unnatural state. We people of color should return to a natural state.”130 Reproduction was an intrinsic part of racial survival theories that were taken as valid scientific facts and transcended racial boundaries to extend to the yellow race.

Following an anticolonial logic, Zhang countered emphatically: “Does the world only belong to white people? Not also to black and yellow people?”131 Indeed, there was little relevance to the Chinese situation in rehashing statements of European anxiety about the unrestricted reproduction of other races. Zhang also dismantled ideas of Chinese superiority based on clan lineage: “As we can see the races that have produced more children are not necessarily superior.”132 Eugenic argumentations about quality over quantity undermined theories where racial survival lay in the propagation of a race’s numerous descendants. Witnessing the domination of Europeans – who did not have large populations – both globally and at home, convinced Chinese authors to accept these discourses. Zhang (aka Se Lu ) asked emphatically: “Why is it that great nations such as England, France have small populations?”133 Like Sanger, he emphasized quality over quantity of the population. His solution was to rely on eugenics (renzhong gailiangxue 人種改良學), “the science of racial betterment” to implement birth control for the benefit of the nation. According to Se “racial strength does not lie in great numbers, but in their superiority” (youliang 優良).134 Se also disagreed with the nationalists, who opposed birth control, out of their fear that “if the population shrinks, the nation will weaken,”135 and could ultimately be destroyed. Se stressed that neo-Malthusian practices contributed to both “personal happiness and social health” by preventing venereal disease and crime.136 This is an instance in which a selective combination of Sanger’s radical ideas and Ellen Key’s notion of individual happiness coexisted in the arguments of Chinese liberals.

Other strands of eugenics discourse conflicted directly with traditional Chinese culture. Se Lu saw an incompatibility between Malthusianism and the Chinese traditional marriage system of taking multiple wives.137 Se’s critique of polygamy and early marriage showed how eugenics could be deployed as a critique against patriarchal and Confucian structures.”138 The use of eugenics as a scientific tool to demolish Confucian elite structures stood in marked contrast with Western eugenic emphasis of the talented class and racial apprehensions.139 Responding to Confucian chastity defenders, Se showed the double standard of two different moralities divided according to gender lines in China that ascribed chastity only to women. Instead Se advocated sex education for both sexes. He contended that birth control was unrelated to chastity,140 thus downplaying conservative critiques of sexual liberation.

Lastly Se was a feminist concerned with how reproduction encumbers women’s economic independence. He lamented the recurrent cycle of pregnancies and births that young mothers endured. He saw a choice for women: “either be an organ for making babies,” or take the chance to get an education, serve society, and be economically independent. Though unattributed, this was a direct reference to the two choices espoused by Sanger in Woman and the New Race. Se, like Sanger, advocated birth control for women’s liberation and racial improvement, and deemed racial suicide theories ridiculous. He felt that women should have the freedom to decide their own reproduction, as well as freedom of love and marriage.141 In particular Sanger’s feminist ideas appealed to Se. Se was aware that reproduction greatly affected gender hierarchies and ideologies, especially in terms of economic independence, where he decried the slave-like state of women.142


There are two temporal components to the debates on birth control in China. First they ensued as a result of Sanger’s highly publicized visit. In this sense the debates in China were occurring simultaneously with the debates elsewhere around the world animated either by direct contact with Sanger or through translation. The other temporal component relates to the theoretical issues embedded in these debates: the use of Malthusian and eugenic arguments gave the birth control movement an aura of future-oriented progressivism. But this is precisely the point where the disagreements occurred. Even though many Chinese intellectuals saw the wisdom of implementing birth control for improving women’s health, they did not believe that birth control could be an effective solution to other pressing social issues in the future. The interest in birth control in the early 1920s among prominent intellectuals such as Hu Shi, Zhang Xichen, and Zhou Jianren did not translate into practice at that moment, the reality of which sexologist Zhang Jingsheng – who urged the implementation of birth control measures – was fully aware.143

I contend that while Chinese writers translated, they also debated birth control in view of China’s social and political challenges of the time and inflected new meanings onto these concepts that served as vessels. Thus, eugenics was not a timeless concept whose meaning is uniform in time and across space. Its meaning becomes embedded in the particular local historical circumstances in the interwar warlord period in China, which allowed for heated intellectual debates through the lack of centralization and censorship that was more formalized after the Nationalists came to power in 1927.

These debates also form a key moment in women’s reproduction becoming salient to China’s national future, and its social and political development. Chinese radical intellectuals, initially fascinated by the power of individualism, were now linking women’s reproductive bodies to class, as well as national and racial improvement schemes, which eventually displaced individual choice altogether in the 1930s and beyond. This particular displacement of women’s rights to make their own reproductive choices becomes evident once women’s reproduction becomes subsumed in eugenic arguments for population control. This enabled most intellectuals to involve women’s reproduction in a dialectic move: they understood advocating birth control for a woman’s individual bodily well-being and race improvement, while simultaneously agreeing that birth control could be a part of solving dire social ills – but not the only solution, as Sanger proposed. The social, racial and national dimensions of reproduction elided the fact that reproduction was a matter of the individual, because the intellectuals agreeing with Sanger did not just make an argument for women’s benefit, but also for the social and national benefit. Sanger had some ardent supporters in China that internalized the eugenic underpinnings of her birth control advocacy. As for her political-minded detractors, Marxism and nationalism seemed more convincing means than birth control to shape China’s future. Most Chinese intellectuals agreed that China needed to make progress, but they could not agree how to achieve it. While socialists hoped redistributing wealth would improve the overall social environment including disease and poverty, nationalists saw population as a resource for racial continuation. Finally the displacement of women’s reproductive rights by class politics was mostly made possible by the fact that most Chinese intellectuals who debated birth control were male feminists. The few women’s voices on these issues saw no incompatibility between socialist activism and advocating contraception. However, ironically, these very women were the ones with whom Sanger – much to her disappointment – was not able to connect during her visit.


1 Gai Zun, “Shengzhi de jiezhi” [“Control of Reproduction”] Minguo Ribao (MGRB) [Republican Daily], Funü Pinlun FNPL [Women’s Review] 38 (1922): 1.

2 Xia, Gai Zun (1886-1946) was the editor in chief of Kaiming Shudian from 1926. Xu Youchun and et al. ed., Minguo renwu da cidian [Dictionary of Figures of Republican China] (Hebei: Hebei Renmin Chubanshe, 1991), 658. Xia Gaizun also edited two journals Wenxin (1934) and Yuebao (1937). Sometimes the articles do not contain the full name of their authors, as was the case here. I have identified Gai Zun as Xia Gai Zun a renowned editor and contributor to Women’ Review. Another example of this practice is when Zhou Jianren is only mentioned as author by his first name Jianren, omitting his last name.

3 Frank Dikötter, Imperfect Conceptions: Medical Knowledge, Birth Defects, and Eugenics in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 108.

4 Ibid., 74.

5 Juliette Yuehtsen Chung, Struggle for National Survival: Eugenics in Sino-Japanese contexts, 1896- 1945 (New York: Rutledge, 2002), 112.

6 Ibid., 62.

7 Tani Barlow, “Wanting Some: Commodity Desire and the Eugenic Modern Girl” in Women in China, The Republican Period in Historical Perspective, eds. Mechthild Leutner, Nicola Spakowski (Muenster: Lit Verlag, 2005), 325.

8 Frank Dikötter, Imperfect Conceptions, 3.

9 Ibid., 104-112.

10 Ann Farmer. By their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 7-9.

11 Ibid., 12.

12 Stern, Alexandra Minna. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley, CA, U.S.A.: University of California Press), 2005.

13 Margaret Sanger, World trip journal 1922 (n.p., April 11-12, 1922), 101-102, Margaret Sanger Papers Project (MSPP), New York University, New York.

14 Hu Shi, Riji quanpian [Complete Diary] (Anwei: Anwei Jiaoyu Chubanshe, April 15, 1922), 627-628. Jiang Menglin (1886-1964), an educator and politician was to become the president of Peking University. Jiang obtained his Ph.D from Columbia University under the guidance of John Dewey.

15 Yu Lianshi, “Minguo shiji chengshi shengyujiezhi yundong de yanjiu- yi Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing wei zhongdian” [“Research on Republican Urban Birth Control Movement- with a Focus on Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing”] (Ph.D Diss. Fudan University, 2008), 80.

16 Ibid. (np .,April 16-19, 1922), 105-108. Hu Shi (1891-1962) was a professor at Beijing University who promoted the use of vernacular and western learning.

17 Margaret Sanger, World trip journal 1922 (n.p., April 16, 1922), 105.

18 Ibid., 112.

19 Hu Shi, Riji [Diary], 627-628.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Margaret Sanger, Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 341.

23 Margaret Sanger, “Shengyu jiezhi di shenme yu zeyang”[“The Ins and Outs of Birth Control: Past, Present and Future?”], trans. Hu Shi, Funü Zazhi FNZZ [The Ladies’ Journal] Chaner Zhixianhao [The Birth Control Number] 8, no. 6, coll. vol. 32(1922): 14946.

24 Margaret Sanger, “Shengyu jiezhi di shenme yu zeyang” [“The Ins and Outs of Birth Control: Past, Present and Future?”], MGRB [Republican Daily], FNPL [Women’s Review] 43 (1922).

25 Ibid., 2.

26 Ibid., 2-3.

27 Ibid., 3.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Chen Da, Population in Modern China (New York: Octagon Books, 1974), 76-77 quoted in Frank Dikötter, Imperfect Conceptions, 113.

31 Margaret Sanger, “Shengyu jiezhi” [“The Ins and Outs of Birth Control”], 4.

32 Ibid.

33 Margaret Sanger, “Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda,” The Birth Control Review 5 (October 1921), Margaret Sanger Microfilm: MSMS70: 913, MSPP.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Esther Katz, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 2 Birth Control Comes of Age 1928-1939 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 254.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Chen Haicheng graduated from Kyoto University in Japan. He became a professor at Jiangnan University of Law and Politics. Xu Youchun and et al. ed., Minguo renwu [Dictionary of Figures], 1048.

42 Margaret Sanger, World (April 25th 1922), 119.

43 Ibid., (April 30th 1922), 121.

44 Ibid.

45 Chen Haicheng, “Huijian Shanke Füren yihou di zaji” [“Memories from Meeting Mrs. Sanger”], Shishi Xinbao [China Times], Xue Deng [Lantern Knowledge] 4 17-19 May 1922).

46 Irene Corrbally to Margaret Sanger, May 1, 1922, LCM, MSPP.

47 Margaret Sanger, World, (April 27th 1922), 120

48 Margaret Sanger, My Fight for Birth Control (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Incorporated, 1931), 264.

49 Margaret Sanger, “Families and Famine in China,” The Birth Control Review (October 1921).

50 Chen Haicheng, “Huijian Shanke” [“Memories from Meeting Mrs. Sanger”].

51 Margaret Sanger, “Sanggeer Füren zai Shanghai Jiating ri xin hui de jiangyan” [“Mrs. Sanger’s Lecture at the Shanghai Association of Family Reformation of China”], FNZZ [The Ladies’ Journal] Chaner Zhixianhao [The Birth Control Number] 8, no. 6 (1922): 14953.

52 Margaret Sanger, “Sanggeer Füren zai” [“Mrs. Sanger’s Lecture at”], 14953.

53 Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State 1915-1953 (London: University of California Press, 2003), 4, 37.

54 Margaret Sanger, “Sanggeer Füren zai” [“Mrs. Sanger’s Lecture at”], 14953.

55 Ibid.

56 Chen Haicheng, “Huijian Shanke” [“Memories from Meeting Mrs. Sanger”].

57 Yu Qingtang (1894-1949) was a graduate of Columbia University, and a student of John Dewey’s. 1922 she returned to China and became a professor at Daxia University in Shanghai advocating mass education. Xu Youchun and et al. ed., Minguo renwu [Dictionary of Figures].

58 Huang Youpei to Margaret Sanger, April 24, 1922, MSPP.

59 Sanger, World (April 30th 1922), 122.

60 “Sange Füren zai Beijing shi de shying” [“Mrs. Sanger’s Picture While in Beijing together with Her Translator Hu Shi”], MGRB [Republican Daily], FNPL [Women’s Review] 39, (1922): 2.

61 Yu Lianshi, “Minguo shiqi chengshi” [“Research on Republican Urban”], 13.

62 Zhang Jingsheng, “Aesthetic Outlook of Life,” (1998 [1924], 81-82) in Leon Rocha, “Sex, Eugenics, Aesthetics, Utopia in the Life and Work of Zhang Jingsheng,” University of Cambridge Thesis, 2010, 117, note 207.

63 Chen Dewei was part of Funü Wenti Yanjiuhui [Research Society for Women’s Problems], along with other journalists, editors, such as Zhou Zuoren, Zhou Jianren, Xia Gaizun, and Zhang Xichen. The members of this society met every month to discuss women’s issues starting with 1921. Li Zongwu, Wu Juenong, “Funü wenti yanjiuhui jianzhuang,” Jiande Chufanhui Yuekan [Research Society for Women’s Problems Periodical] 3, no. 5 (1921).

64 Chen Dewei, “Yi ge linshi de dongyi” [“A Provisional Motion”], MGRB [Republican Daily], FNPL [Women’s Review], Shengyu jiezhi wenti hao [Special Number on Birth Control] 40 (1922): 4.

65 Chen Dewei, “Shengyu Jiezhi yu lianai” [“Birth Control and Love”], MGRB [Republican Daily], FNPL [Women’s Review], Shengyu Jiezhi wenti hao [Special Number on Birth Control] 40 (1922): 1.

66 Frank Dikötter, Imperfect Conceptions, 110-111.

67 Chen Dewei, “Shengyu Jiezhi yu lianai” [“Birth Control and Love”], 1.

68 Chen Dewei, “Yi ge linshi de dong e” [“A Provisional Motion”], 4.

69 Ibid.

70 Ibid. Two Chinese birth control societies appeared in 1922: the first one, Chaner Zhixian Yanjiuhui [“Birth Control Research Society”] was organized by students at Beijing University who were inspired by Sanger’s lecture. Frank Dikötter, Imperfect Conceptions,110-111. This was the organization mentioned by Chen. The second organization was founded in Suzhou, Zhonghua Jieyu Yanjiuhui [“Chinese Research Society for Birth Control.

71 Nancy Stepan, The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 10.

72 Gai Zun, “Shengzhi de jiezhi” [“Control of reproduction”], 1.

73 Margaret Sanger, “Sanggeer Füren zai Shanghai Jiating ri xin hui de jiangyan” [“Mrs. Sanger’s Lecture at the Association of Family Reformation of China”], 14953.

74 Gai Zun, “Shengzhi de jiezhi” [“Control of Reproduction”], 1.

75 Ibid.

76 Ibid.

77 Frank Dikötter, Imperfect Conceptions, 69.

78 Ibid.

79 Ke Fu, “Cong Shanke Füren shuoqi” [“From Mrs. Sanger’s Writings”], Dongfang Zazhi [Eastern Miscellany] 5 (n.d.): 13.

80 Christina. K. Gilmartin, Engendering the Chinese Revolution: Radical Women, Communist Politics, and Mass Movements in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 57.

81 Wang Jianhong, “Birth Control for the Preservation of Love,” Women’s Voice in Christina K. Gilmartin, Engendering the Chinese Revolution, 57.

82 Zhou Jianren, “On Birth Control Pertaining to the Struggle between the Two Sexes,” Dongfang Zazhi [Eastern Miscellany], 35, no. 5 (n.d.): 88. Zhou Jianren was a biologist, editor of the Commercial Press, and author of primary school biology books. He is the youngest brother of renowned writer Lu Xun. Zhou wrote articles on the woman problem, democracy and science, family reform, love, divorce, and on Darwin’s evolutionary theories. He assisted Zhang Xichen as editor assistant of The Ladies Journal. Xie Dexian, Zhou Jianren Pinzhuan [Zhou Jianren’s Critical Biography] (Chongqing: Chongqing Chubanshe, 1991), 80- 85.

83 Zhou Jianren, “On Birth Control, 88-89.

84 Ibid., 88.

85 Ibid.

86 Ibid., 89.

87 Shan Yongjun, MGRB [Republican, Daily] FNPL [Women’s Review] 41 (1922).

88 Ibid.

89 For more on neo-Malthusianism see Linda Gordon, who demonstrates how American utopian socialists got their birth control ideas from British Malthusians. Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 39. According to Gordon, Malthusianism establishes a direct connection between overpopulation and poverty, without taking into account class, gender, and race. Ibid., 40. Neo-Malthusianism is the more radical version of Malthusianism, which advocated the control of population and disputed the Victorian sexual system. Ibid., 46.

90 Shan Yongjun, (1922).

91 Margaret Sanger, “Woman’s Error and Her Debt,” Birth Control Review, International Number (August 1921), MSM S70: 0911-2.

92 Margaret Sanger, “Tonger zhixian zhi shi de kaocha” [“Inspecting the History of Birth Control aka Woman and the New Race”], trans. Wu Jing, FNZZ [The Ladies’ Journal] Chaner Zhixianhao [The Birth Control Number] 8, no. 6, coll. vol. 32 (1922): 14931.

93 Margaret Sanger, “Woman’s Error,” 7.

94 Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Brentano’s, Last modified 1920). http://www.bartleby.com/1013/18.html (accessed November 21, 2012).

95 Margaret Sanger, “Woman’s Error,” 7.

96 Chen Haicheng to Margaret Sanger, April 15, 1922, LCM, MSPP.

97 Margaret Sanger, “Woman’s Error,” 7.

98 Ibid.

99 Ibid.

100 Ibid.

101 Ibid.

102 Ibid., 8.

103 Hiroko Sakamoto, “The Cult of Love and Eugenics in May Fourth Movement Discourse,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 12, no. 2 (2004): 348.

104 Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (1920).

105 Se Lu, “Ertong zhixian yu Zhongguo” [“Birth Control and China”], FNZZ [The Ladies’ Journal], [Chaner Zhixianhao] [The Birth Control Number] 8, no. 6, coll. vol.32 (1922): 14825-14826.

106 Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (1920).

107 Ellen Key (December 11, 1849 - April 25, 1926) was a Swedish feminist activist, educator and writer. In her promotion of the Women’s Movement, Key viewed mothers as future of the race, being a believer in evolution and eugenics. Louise Sofia Hamilton Nyström, Ellen Key, Her Life and Her Work (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1913), xii.

108 Yung-chen Chiang, “Womanhood, Motherhood and Biology” in Translating Feminisms in China: A Special Issue of Gender & History, eds. Dorothy Ko and Wang Zheng (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. Ltd., 2007), 93.

109 Sanger, Woman and the New Race (1920).

110 Sanger, “Tonger zhixian” [“Inspecting the History of Birth Control], 14936.

111 Tani Barlow, “Zhishifenzi Chinese intellectuals and Power,” Dialectical Anthropology 16, no. 3/4 (1991): 211-212.

112 Lydia He Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937 (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1995), 20-25.

113 “Ying Sangeer Füren” [“Welcoming Mrs. Sanger”], FNZZ [The Ladies’ Journal] Chaner Zhixianhao [The Birth Control Number] 8, no. 6, coll. vol. 32 (1922): 14816.

114 Ibid.

115 Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (1920).

116 “Ying Sangeer” [“Welcoming Mrs. Sanger”], 14817.

117 Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (1920).

118 Pao-liang Chu, Twentieth-Century Chinese Writers and Their Pen Names (Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall&Co., 1977), 59.

119 Chen Wangdao was a Marxist and New Culture writer who opposed the old morality and advocated the new morality. Between 1920 and 1923 he was the editor of Funü Pinlun [Women’s Review], a supplement to Minguo Ribao [Republican Daily], where he published many articles regarding women’s liberation. Beginning with 1920 he was a literature professor at Fudan University. Chen Wangdao, Chen Wangdao Wenji [The Collected Works of Chen Wangdao] (Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 1979).

120 Qiao Feng, “Muxing zijue xian qu zhe Sangge Füren di xingjing” [“The Forerunner Mrs. Sanger Propagating a Mother’s Self Determination”], MGRB [Republican Daily], FNPL [Women Review] 37, (1922): 1.

121 MGRB [Republican Daily] FNPL [Women’s Review] 8, September 21, 1921 in Chen Wangdao, Lianai, hunyin, nüquan, Chen Wangdao funü wenti lunji [Love, Marriage, Women’s rights: The Collected Works of Chen Wangdao] (Shanghai: Fudan Daxue Chubanshe, 2010), 75-78.

122 Feng Qiao, “Shengyu jiezhi wenti” [“The Problem of Birth Control”] in Chen Wangdao, Lianai, hunyin [Love, Marriage], 89.

123 “Shangge Füren judi zhongyou” [“The Important Trip to a Once Visited Place by Mrs. Sanger”], Dazhong Shenghuo [People’s Life] 1 (n.d.): 003.

124 Ibid.

125 Zhang Xichen (1889-1969) initially coedited Dongfang Zazhi [Eastern Miscellany] until he took over the editorship of Funü Zazhi [The Ladies’ Journal] in 1921. In 1922 he started editing the supplement Xiandai Funü [Modern Women] of the Shishi Xinbao [Current events daily], but also the supplement Funü Zhoubao [Women’s periodical] for the Minguo Ribao [Republican Daily]. Wang Xin, “Funü Zazhi Yanjiu-Guanyu Zhongguo Xiandai Nüxing huayu de ge an fenxi” [Research on The Ladies’Journal-A Case Study and Analysis of the Language on the Chinese Modern Woman] (Ph.D diss., Beijing Shifan Daxue Yanjiushengyuan, 2009), 55-58.

126 Chen Jianshan was a biologist in Republican China. In his book Taijiao [Antenatal Training] (Shanghai: Shangwu Yinshuguan [Commercial Press], July 1925) Chen contemplated the influence of mother’s heredity on the fetus, congenital heredity, and the quality of reproduction. Chen Jianshan, like Cai Yuanpei, was interested whether fetal education could hypothetically contribute to the quality of the future race. Chen Jianshan favored eugenic theories stressing heredity.

127 Chen Jianshan, “Youshengxue he ji ge xing de wenti” [“Eugenics and Some Problems Related to Sex”], Minduo Zazhi< 5, no. 4 (1925): 56.

128 Zhang Xichen, “Du Chen Jianshan Xiansheng “Youshengxue he ji ge xing we wenti” [“Reading Mr. Chen Jianshan’s ‘Eugenics and Some Problems Related to Sex’”], Minduo Zazhi 6, no. 2 (1925): 8.

129 Ibid.

130 Chen Jianshan, “Youshengxue he ji ge” [“Eugenics and Some Problems”], 60.

131 Zhang Xichen, “Du Chen Jianshan” [“Reading Mr. Chen Jianshan’s”], 8.

132 Ibid.

133 Se Lu, “Ertong zhixian “ [“Birth Control”], 14826.

134 Ibid.

135 Ibid.

136 Ibid., 14825.

137 Ibid.

138 Hiroko Sakamoto, “The Cult of Love,” 348.

139 Ibid., 349.

140 Se Lu, “Ertong zhixian“ [“Birth Control”],14826.

141 Ibid., 14827-14828.

142 Hiroko Sakamoto, “The Cult of Love,” 348.

143 Yu Lianshi, Minguo shiqi chengshi” [“Research on Republican Urban”], 229.


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Mirela David is assistant professor in Modern Chinese History/WGST at the University of Saskatchewan. She holds a Ph.D. from New York University and two M.A. degrees: from Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen, Germany and The University of Bucharest, in Romania. Her dissertation “Free Love, Marriage, and Eugenics: Global and Local Debates on Sex, Birth Control, Venereal Disease and Population in 1920s-1930s China” was supported by the NYU GSAS Mellon Dissertation in History and the Provost Global Research Initiative Fellowship at NYU Shanghai. Her research examines eugenics in praxis, including birth control clinics and government control of venereal disease.