chapter  6
‘Tradition within Modernity’: Women and Patriarchal Regimes in Interwar East Asia
Pages 32

This chapter seeks to understand a patriarchal conception of woman as the figure of ‘tradition within modernity’ in China, Japan and the puppet state of Manchukuo. In this conception, women were expected to embody ‘the truth’ or ‘the Way’ of East Asian civilization. Although this was a deeply conservative conception, it was also a dynamic one. Surrounded by emergent conceptions and new habits of working women in the urban public sphere, the figure was principally an effort by political regimes in these societies to contain the effects of these historical developments by a controlled adaptation of the behavior of women. Many women also drew on this conception of ‘tradition within modernity’ in their self-formation. But they often approached this ‘pedagogy of the self ’ in creatively adaptive ways and found unexpected opportunities for advancement and freedom. Toward the latter part of this chapter, I study the recorded narratives of a group of women in the 1930s belonging to the redemptive society called the Morality Society or Daodehui in Manchukuo to illustrate this approach. In 1997, over 50 years after the collapse of Manchukuo, I had the oppor-

tunity to visit and interview one of these women, whom I shall call Mrs Gu, in Taiwan. Born in 1915, Mrs Gu lived in Manchuria until the communists took over the mainland; she then moved to Taipei. Here she re-established the Morality Society, and was its vice-president at the time of our meeting. Today in Taiwan, although the Wanguo Daodehui still holds international conferences, imparts moral education, and owns some splendid property, it is much reduced in scope and has become primarily a daycare provider and a women’s recreation organization. Its role has been affected by changed ideas regarding the role of women and by the much more spiritually charismatic and socially active Buddhist societies. Nonetheless, Mrs Gu remained a highly dedicated and passionate activist

for the cause. As she recounted the story of her life in the organization, surrounded by several attentive younger members, her pride and reverence for this form of self-sacrificing activism, superior to any political loyalty, became evident. Let me present some of her own words to sound out the ironies in the concept of ‘tradition within modernity’:

In 1933, I joined the Daodehui, when I was 18 years old. Since my childhood, I have had a strong and independent personality and did not want to suffer the restraints of the old family system. I believed that women should be independent (zili), not be dependent on parents, husbands, or children. I never wanted to marry. At that time, my father was the village headman and since he had

many connections with the KMT, he was arrested by the Japanese. I was very anxious, but luckily there was a member of the Daodehui called Mr Zheng Zhidong, who knew a Mr Ono in the military police (xianbingdui). Through him, we were able to secure my father’s release and save his life. Upon his release, we all joined the Daodehui. After this event, I was sent to Shenyang to receive training for six months. During the day, we turned the mill, washed the floors, cultivated patience, and in the evenings we studied the lectures. We certainly did not believe the kind of talk about ‘virtue lay[ing] in women not having talents’. Once a group of seven of us (five girls, one man, and one leader) went

out on a lecture tour and met some bandits on the way. We were terrified, and the young girls fled, but our leader lectured to them about Confucius’s teachings, changed their hearts (ganhuale) and succeeded in getting them to give up their habits. In 1934 and 1935, every locality set up branches of the Society. I also resolved to set up ten lecture units. I already had a small reputation by then. When I was in Daxiguan, a scholar (xiucai) wrote a poem for me. I returned to Shenyang after spending three years in a humble store. I lectured so much that I lost my voice. … In 1939, I was a lecture manager and lectured on the importance of

female virtue (fudao), breast-feeding (rudao), women’s education, and prenatal education (taijiao). I told my listeners that women should go out and suffer in order to be happy, should preserve the good heart in order to establish resolve and achieve great results. … After Japan’s defeat, I advocated the takeover of the Japanese shrine

(lingmiao) for the Society as its Welfare Center, and spent money to establish the management council. When the new government took over the shrine, I protested the confiscation daily, saying ‘those who want to make revolution may have their heads chopped and their blood may flow, but they will not abandon the Northeast’. The committee to oversee the reconstruction of postwar northeast China had no choice but to return the shrine to us. Later, even Mrs Chiang Kai-shek summoned (zhaojian) me in recognition of my efforts. … The Society was popular in Shandong and Huabei and there were 58 units in the city of Shenyang alone. What it meant by Datong is world peace and opposition to struggle. It is a moral force (wuxingde wuqi; literally a formless weapon). It cultivates the public heart (gongxin): to give up the private and preserve the public for the sake of the greater self and the masses. When people are old, we realize that truth is in public service. Women should be wise mothers and virtuous wives.