Deng Yuzhi (b. 1900)

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Deng Yuzhi (b. 1900)

Radical feminist who took an active role in China's May 4th Revolution of 1919 and, through her work for the Young Women's Christian Association, improved working conditions for women, particularly in factories, while also organizing night schools that became a forum for feminism throughout China. Name variations: Cora Deng; Teng Yü-chih. Pronunciation: Ding YOU-zhee. Born Deng Yuzhi in Shashi, China, in 1900; daughter of a government official; attended Zhou Nan Girls' Middle School, Fuxiang School for Girls, Jinling College in Nanjing, and one year at London School of Economics; married but separated shortly afterward, in 1919; no children.

Orphaned at age ten (1910); sent by grandmother to Fuxiang School for Girls, where she joined the YWCA; as president of the student self-government association, became organizer in the May 4th Revolution (1919); forced into an arranged marriage, left her husband and his family to attend Jinling College in Nanjing (1919); pursued by her husband's family, fled to Shanghai where she worked several years for the YWCA; attended the London School of Economics (1929–30); returned to China, appointed head of the YWCA's Bureau of Labor (1930); began organizing night schools throughout China to raise women's political, social, and feminist consciousness; collaborated with the Chinese Communist Party (1930–40s); appeared with Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square on the occasion of the founding of the People's Republic of China (1949); served in numerous organizations and as general secretary of the YWCA.

For a girl born in 1900 in the city of Shashi, China, Deng Yuzhi had unusual exposure to radical social ideas. Her father was a government official and a strict Confucian, but he was also a social progressive, who cut off his queue (pigtail) and joined the Anti-Footbinding Society. When Deng was eight, the family moved to Changsha, the most prominent city in Hunan province, and a political, cultural, and educational center known for its radicalism since the 1890s. The first government-sponsored schools for girls had been established only in 1906, and her parents were enthusiastic about the new opportunity for Deng and her sister, who were enrolled in the progressive Zhou Nan Girls' Middle School. According to Deng, "My parents wanted to send us to a modern school because the atmosphere in Changsha was very progressive at the time." Zhou Nan's students were known for their public defiance of traditional female roles. They bobbed their hair and appeared in public unescorted, shocking older Chinese. A number of Zhou Nan students, including Yang Kaihui (second wife of Mao Zedong ), Xiang Jingyu, Cai Chang and Ding Ling , later became leaders in the Chinese Communist Party.

Deng was still a young child, when her father became ill with tuberculosis. When she was only ten, both her parents died, and she went to live with her grandmother, a devout Buddhist who was converted to Christianity after witnessing the kindness of the missionaries who treated her son at Yale Hospital in Changsha. Her granddaughters became Christian as well.

After graduation from the Zhou Nan Middle School, Deng was sent to Fuxiang School for Girls, where she learned English, became familiar with Western culture, and joined the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the beginning of a long affiliation. The YWCA belongs to the great era of Christian missions, when its outposts were established in more than 30 countries. The institution had been founded in London in 1855, by Emma Robarts and Mary Jane Kinnaird . Robarts wanted to help the thousands of young women pouring into cities, looking for work, who became victims of the harsh labor conditions of the early Industrial Revolution, while Kinnaird was particularly concerned about African slaves and Indian women whose status was unprotected; the two joined forces to found an organization run by women and for women. Broadly ecumenical in its philosophy, the YWCA quickly evolved from evangelism to social gospel, particularly as teachers, administrators, and social workers came into contact with women around the world. Although conditions were grim in European and American slums, they were grimmer still in China, India, Africa, and the Middle East where women had fewer rights, and the efforts of the YWCA to improve their status drew individuals like Deng Yuzhi into its ranks.

Deng Yuzhi was president of the student self-government association at Fuxiang School for Girls when the Revolution of May 4, 1919, erupted. The battles of World War I had ended the previous year, and, in the final settlements at the Versailles Peace Conference, parts of China were ceded to the Japanese. When news of this reached the public, Chinese students joined in demonstrations, and campuses throughout the country were soon engaged in the boycott of Japanese goods. At Fuxiang, Deng played a major role in demonstrations throughout the spring and summer, taking to the streets with her classmates, making speeches, and exhorting local shopkeepers not to buy Japanese goods.

At Fuxiang School, Deng's teachers were generally independent, unmarried women, whom she greatly admired. With the May 4th Movement, she became strengthened in her belief that she must set out on a new path, and declared her intention to "support myself and not depend on a father, husband, or son." Shortly after her high school graduation that year, her declaration of independence appeared to be short lived, when her grandmother informed her that she was to be wed, according to common practice, in a marriage arranged by her parents many years earlier. Wanting earnestly to continue her education, Deng extracted a promise from her in-laws that she would be permitted to finish college. As soon as the wedding had occurred and she was moved in with her husband's family, she found the promise broken. She fled her new home to take refuge at the Fuxiang School.

With the support of her former teachers, Deng was sent to Jinling College in Nanjing, one of a handful of colleges open to women, with only five or six faculty members and a hundred students. When the lawyer and family of Deng's husband discovered her whereabouts and insisted upon her return, the college president, Matilda Thurston , intervened and sent Deng to Shanghai in 1921. For the next few years, Deng Yuzhi moved frequently, working for the YWCA for two years in Changsha, then another two years finishing her education at Jingling, followed by two more years of work for the YWCA.

In Shanghai, Deng began a working relationship with Maud Russell , who had come to China with the YWCA in the mid-1910s. Russell believed that Christianity must be combined with socialism if it were to have any effect on the everyday lives of the Chinese. "Whatever little knowledge I had about socialism at that time was started by my contact with Maud," said Deng, "and her helping me read those famous books about social revolution."

In 1929–30, Deng Yuzhi's introduction to radical Christian socialism was reinforced by a year of study at the London School of Economics. Promoted by Sidney and Beatrice Webb , the school was the center of progressive socialism, and strongly influenced by freethinkers like George Bernard Shaw, who were then calling for a new social order that guaranteed workers rights and benefits.

As I went through the factories I saw the terrible living conditions and the long hours, the child labor, and all that…. I tried to describe why women were not able to earn their own living, why they were subject to oppression in the home as well as the factory.

—Deng Yuzhi

In 1930, Deng returned from England and became head of the YWCA Labor Bureau. Thousands of workers had moved to large industrial cities like Shanghai to work in factories, and the working conditions were appalling, especially for women and children. Women, who comprised two-thirds of the Shanghai workforce, were loaded on carts, pushed by burly men, early in the morning, to work 19-hour days in filthy and life-threatening conditions. The modesty of the YWCA's demands for reform give a notion of just how awful conditions were: The organization asked for one day off a week, 13-hour days, safeguards on machinery, and a minimum age for hiring children. Most factory owners, who averaged profits of 50–150%, saw these demands as outrageous. In China, human lives, and especially women's lives, were cheap.

Kinnaird, Mary Jane (1816–1888)

English philanthropist. Name variations: Lady Kinnaird; Mrs. Arthur Kinnaird. Born Mary Jane Hoare in 1816; died in 1888; married Arthur Fitzgerald Kinnaird, 10th baron Kinnaird (1814–1887, also a philanthropist).

In 1849, Lady Kinnaird edited Servants Prayers. Along with Lady Canning , she also sent aid to the wounded in the Crimea. With Emma Robarts , et al., Kinnaird was one of the founders of the Young Women's Christian Association.

In one attempt at reforming working conditions, the YWCA offered classes in the hope of "developing workers who would carry on Christian work," an approach doomed to failure because it did not address the fundamental problems. Deng Yuzhi began to suggest a different tack. Uneducated women could never be politically effective, she felt, and 80% of Chinese women were illiterate. In educating them about their condition, they would be motivated to demand change. Since many factories were owned by the Japanese, Deng's approach was also patriotic and nationalistic, a stance against the hated foreigners.

Like her actions during the May 4th Revolution, her leadership of the Labor Bureau was enthusiastic and intense. Deng Yuzhi established night schools for women in major industrial centers, offering courses in writing, mathematics, geography, history, and current affairs. The women learned James Yen's simplified form of writing, the 1,000 Chinese character method, and within a year they could read a newspaper and write simple letters.

Night-school classes were used to further a political agenda. With the help of several teachers, Deng wrote a text that explained "what imperialism was, how to be patriotic, why workers were oppressed, and why workers' lives are so inferior to those of the capitalists." Teachers organized discussions about Japanese imperialism, workers' rights, and women's place in society. Patriotic songs were sung and students were encouraged to join the National Salvation Movement, which advocated full independence for China. This blending of practical skills with nationalistic patriotism proved a potent combination, and the popularity of Deng Yuzhi's YWCA night-school program grew throughout the country.

Had it not been for Deng's Christian affiliation, the night-school program would have been prohibited by the Guomindang, the ruling political party then governing China. The Guomindang was adamantly opposed to social change, particularly of a radical or Marxist nature, and had outlawed the Chinese Communist Party. Despite this prohibition, the Communists thrived, partly because many felt only radical change could reform China. Deng's night schools were a perfect solution to the party's problem of reaching a wider audience. Deng and her teachers were devoted to radical reform, and since her relations with the Guomindang were amicable, socialist philosophy was allowed to be taught in her schools without government interference. Trusted by the Guomindang, Deng Yuzhi occupied a unique position, as a radical Christian also courted by the Communists.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Deng increasingly collaborated with the Communists whose power in China was growing. "The YMCA and YWCA are not churches," she explained. "They are social organizations with membership among the masses. So we got in touch with the more progressive groups, including the underground communist group. They wouldn't tell you they were Communists, but they would appear as patriotic workers. That we would welcome." By enlisting the help of party cultural workers and members to teach at the schools and to give special programs, she made the night-school program a vital link between the party and the people. She saw both the YWCA and the Communists as fighting for a free China, a bond more important than ideological differences. Wrote Deng:

What held us together was that we wanted to be an independent country managed by our own people. That was in accordance with the communist idea of a free China as well. So on those terms we worked together. As far as religious beliefs are concerned, they were atheists and we had our own beliefs. They didn't ask us to become atheists and we didn't ask them to become Christians. Zhou Enlai made it very clear to us, "You go on with your own religious activities and we are atheists. But we won't bother you. That's your freedom."

Deng Yuzhi's blending of Christianity and Communism was not without precedent. Karl Marx borrowed much from his own Judeo-Christian heritage when formulating his social doctrine, and the Gospel was full of admonitions to share with the poor and help the oppressed, themes that Marx echoed. Fusion of these two Western ideologies seemed natural to Deng who never joined the Chinese Communist Party. "I was a Christian," she said, "so how could I be a communist?" She no doubt recognized that if she joined the party, her agenda for women's liberation would be subjugated to the requirements of the revolution. Male revolutionaries were generally more devoted to the overthrow of the current government than to furthering a feminist agenda.

Following the end of World War II, civil war broke out in China between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party. Eventually the Guomindang was forced to flee to Taiwan, and the Communists took over, establishing the People's Republic of China. For two decades, Deng Yuzhi had been a revolutionary force in the country. As a Christian, her position could have been difficult, if not impossible, in the nascent People's Republic, had it not been for the service provided by the network of YWCA night schools in raising feminist consciousness. On October 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong appeared on a reviewing platform in Tiananmen Square to celebrate the founding of the People's Republic, Deng Yuzhi was there as an honored guest. She was also invited to participate in meetings establishing the All-China Federation of Women and to join the People's Political Consultative Council.

Despite this acceptance, the Cold War made a neutral stance regarding the YWCA difficult. On January 8, 1950, the People's Republic of China confiscated the American consulate, and by July the last Americans had left the country; soon all the Western institutions that once operated in China, including missionary schools, churches, and other foreign institutions, were closed—except for the YWCA, which continued to function. Walking the line of radical Christianity, Deng managed to be tolerated by the new Communist government as she had by the Guomindang.

For Deng Yuzhi, long regarded as a radical, relations with the YWCA itself were not always easy. In 1950, she decided to attend the World Peace Conference in Warsaw, a meeting that the international YWCA decided to boycott. Deng felt strongly that her presence was required as a Chinese Christian, and she not only attended this conference but a second held in Warsaw in 1953. Despite these philosophical differences, Deng was ultimately promoted to general secretary of the China YWCA, which continued throughout the Cold War and the Cultural Revolution. Remaining a practicing Christian with a radical agenda, she was responsible for improvements in women's working conditions in the factories, including shorter hours, higher wages, vacations, and medical and child care, which became more common in the People's Republic. While some might label Deng as a compromiser, a more apt label is that of independent feminist. From the time of its founding, YWCA members maintained a notable independence that foreshadowed the women's liberation movement in a later era.


Boyd, Nancy. Emissaries: The Overseas Work of the American YWCA 1859-1970. NY: The Women's Press, 1986.

Honig, Emily. "The Life and Times of Deng Yuzhi (Cora Deng)," in Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Strobel, eds., Expanding the Boundaries of Women's History: Essays on Women in the Third World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 122–143.

Hunter, Jane. The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

Reed, James. The Missionary Mind and East Asia Policy, 1911–1915. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, 1983.

Varg, Paul A. Missionaries, Chinese and Diplomats: The American Protestant Missionary Movement in China, 1890–1952. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia