The Great Wall of China at Badaling, one of the sites Sanger visited in 1922

At the recent meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C., I braved the freezing weather to chair a panel entitled,

“Margaret Sanger in China: The Emergence and Trajectory of the Birth Control Movement in China, 1920s-1940s.

Three papers presented were:

“Missing Chapters in the Chinese Translation of Margaret Sanger’s Woman and the New Race,” given by Dr. Miao Feng of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (and a former graduate assistant with the Margaret Sanger Papers).

“Chinese Female Gynecologists and Birth Control Praxis and their Connection with Margaret Sanger’s Global Birth Control Movement in the Late 1920s and 1930s,” by Mirela David, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University. and

“Motherhood on Trial: Abortion and Birth Control in Shanghai, 1937-1950,” presented by Ling Ma, Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

From my perspective as a documentary editor focused on Margaret Sanger, these three papers offered a fascinating insight into the effects that Sanger’s trips had in China and how her message was received by the various groups in Chinese society.  Because our single-minded focus for the volume is Margaret Sanger, we follow where she leads us and once she moves on, we rarely have a chance to see how the seeds that she planted sprouted, who helped them along, and just what kind of fruit they produced.

The Chinese case is one where these insights are greatly needed. There is not a lot available in English on birth control in the pre-Communist period and were it not for the help of several skilled and imaginative Chinese-speaking research assistants (Mei-Ying Chiang, Mia Feng, and Jong Lee) it would have been far more difficult to contextualize Sanger’s dealings with China.

Margaret and Grant Sanger, en route to Asia, 1922 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Margaret and Grant Sanger, en route to Asia, 1922 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Each of the papers began with Sanger’s one-month trip to China, in April of 1922, following different threads to trace the impact of the trip on birth control activism there. A short recap of Sanger’s travels in China can set the stage:

Margaret Sanger had not planned on visiting China in 1922. She had been invited to conduct a lecture tour of Japan by the Kaizo, a progressive journal.  But when she arrived in San Francisco in February 1922 and applied for a Japanese visa,  the Japanese government refused to grant it. (For details on that event, see “Stay at Home Margaret!” in our 2008 Newsletter.)

With her ship scheduled to sail, Sanger appealed to the Chinese embassy for a entry visa, promising not to get off the ship when it docked in Yokohama. Of course, on the way, Sanger managed to garner enough support among the influential Japanese passengers on board (returning from the Washington Naval Conference), and she was allowed to disembark and to speak in Japan, although she was not permitted to discuss birth control in any public appearances.

On leaving Japan in late April of 1922, Sanger stopped in Korea and then spent about three weeks in China-a mixture of sightseeing and hastily arranged meetings with those interested in birth control.  Unlike her tour of Japan, Sanger had no contacts in China to help her organize her visit, and it was only at the end of the tour that she began making public speeches.  In China she found no restrictions on her speech, but also found a country in the midst of a civil war.  In her April 13, 1922 world trip journal she wrote:

The rumor is about that Chang Tso Ling has moved his troops a few miles from this city, but no one seems to care. Shangtung has been given back to China by the Japanese & they are removing their soldiers, but no one seems to care.
Left today for Ming tomb at Nankow, a queer little hotel in which to spend the night, clean but queer.
Then four coolies take one in a Sedan Chair for miles & miles through an arid dusty land, ten miles there & nine to return. These poor thin creatures walking all the way. I feel despondent & horrid, I keep wondering what is the good of being an old Civilization if this is what it gives its inhabitants at the end of two thousand years or more!

Sanger’s diary is the best source we have on her journeys in China.  Part travelogue, part record of her meetings and appearances, it provides a first-hand impression of the problems China faced and her visceral reaction to the poverty there.  Near the end of her stay in China, as word of her trip began to spread, she was invited to speak in Beijing and Shanghai. Later, in London at the Fifth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference, Sanger reported that professors at the National University had formed a birth control league, translated her pamphlet, Family Limitation, and were looking for physicians willing to open a birth control clinic in Beijing. She continued to correspond with activists in China, mostly in Beijing and Shanghai, and ensured that reports on efforts in China were presented at international conferences, and as articles in the Birth Control Review.

Sanger helped the Chinese movement grow, donating funds and working with Agnes Smedley. Smedley was an American journalist and communist who had helped Sanger organize German birth control clinics before she relocated to China in 1929. Smedley met with activists and advised Sanger on requests for financial and other support. It was Smedley who met with Dr. Buewi Chao and advised Sanger to support her clinical work. Smedley’s  biases against Christian missionaries in China led her to advise Sanger against supporting the Shanghai Birth Control League, which was founded by members of the YMCA.

A poster advertising the Hong Kong Morning Post's coverage of Sanger's 1936 appearance.  From Edith How-Martyn's scrapook (MSPP)

A poster advertising the Hong Kong Morning Post’s coverage of Sanger’s 1936 appearance. From Edith How-Martyn’s scrapbook (MSPP)

While Sanger was keen to return to China, she was stymied. Her 1936 tour was cancelled when she fell ill in Hong Kong and had to return to the United States.  Edith How-Martyn, who had accompanied Sanger, continued on to tour China, but Sanger had no option. How-Martyn was a British activist working for the Birth Control International Information Centre, who traveled the world working to establish birth control movement and services in government and hospital settings. In 1937, Sanger tried again, but made it only as far as Japan before the Japanese invasion of China made the trip impossible.

Sanger did not have as close a working relationship with Chinese activists as she did with those in countries like Japan and India. But despite this, her impact on the Chinese movement was critical, as the papers demonstrated.

Mia Feng’s paper described her ongoing research on the Chinese translation done of Sanger’s feminist Woman and the New Race, which shows that the Chinese intellectuals who published the work after Sanger had left China excluded some of the chapters.  It appears that the exclusions were political in nature–and that the Chinese were not interested in Sanger’s ideas on birth control as a tool for working-class empowerment, and a means to curtail overpopulation and efforts to cheapen labor costs. They also excluded the chapters that focused on immigration and birth control.

Mirela David looked at how Sanger’s message and her tactics were interpreted and followed by Chinese obstetrician/gynecologists. She traced a movement in the 1930s headed by women doctors that emphasized practical birth control, the creation of clinics, efforts to educate the public on the health and eugenic effects of birth control, and efforts to include it in public health programs–a program that looked remarkably similar to Sanger’s efforts in the United States in the same time period.

There were differences, of course. In China, women doctors were far more engaged in the birth control work than in America. These physicians were the leaders of the movement in China, opening clinics and offering women education on contraceptive methods.  Partly this was a result of government policies that shunted many female physicians into reproductive medicine, but Ms. David also argued that it was a resaction to the daily experiences of these doctors, who were faced with the concerns of working-class patients who had little access to health care.  Sanger was similarly inspired by her own work as a nurse in the Lower East Side of New York, as were many other activists in the United States and other countries.  In the United States, it was lay women who led the movement, hiring both male and female doctors to operate their clinics, in a state where the government was much less sympathetic to expanding the use of birth control.

Ling Ma’s paper, “Motherhood on Trial,” took a different tack, focusing on the impact of feminism and the state on women doctors and working-class women. She found that as the state adopted birth control practices, feminists focused on fighting for the right to abortion. Ma showed that while she was actually in China, Sanger’s appearances were often for elite male intellectuals and eugenics crowds, and that while she did not speak on the feminist rationales for birth control (focusing, much like in Japan on overpopulation and its relationship with war), but the feminist press discovered Sanger’s writings after she left, publishing her works in translation in the summer of 1922. She viewed Sanger’s 1922 visit in the light of China’s New Culture Movement, pitching birth control as an alliance of science, progress and women’s emancipation.

Sanger was not in China long, and compared to many other countries, she did not have an active role in shaping or working with Chinese birth control activists. Only a few of the influential doctors mentioned in Mirela David’s paper and feminists discussed in Ling Ma’s work had ever communicated directly with Sanger. But her example, covered widely in the press in 1922 presented a picture of a New Woman, conducting a campaign for women’s rights and health that sparked interest and debate among intellectuals, feminists, and physicians in the 1920s and 1930s.

The infant ward at Peking Women’s Hospital ca. 1917-18. (Sidney Gamble Papers, Duke University)

Sanger knew that she had not made the connections in China that she wanted to. She found male intellectuals, easy to locate at Peking Union Medical College, many of whom she described as “anti-Christian,” and then organized speeches for them and for their colleagues. Sanger addressed a large gathering of male academics at the Nanking University, claiming to have seen only a few women here and there. She also spoke to the nurses, doctors and their wives at the Peking Union Medical College apparently on birth control methods. In Shanghai she spoke to the Family Reformation Association, an audience she described as “men women  & children” noting that “The women seemed to attend for some reason but not for the B.C. message.” She also spoke to the Japanese Club of Shanghai. On leaving China for Singapore, she admitted “I was not able to meet enough Chinese women to please me.” and blamed foreign missionaries for women’s focus on “Church and welfare work” asides from  a “free love movement” in Peking.

As we research Sanger’s global birth control work, we find more an more signs that her early appearances and efforts to build a cooperative international birth control movement bore fruit in places that one would least expect.


For more on Sanger’s trip to China and Japan, see Sanger’s “Birth Control in Japan and China,” a speech she gave in October 1922 on her return to the United States. For a series of stunning photographs from Japan and China taken by Sidney B. Gamble, see Duke University’s Digital Collections