Category Gender and Education in China


With the admission of young women to Beijing University in 1919 and the creation of the Beijing Women’s Higher Normal School in the same year – thus sanctioning the principle of higher education for women – the initial period of women’s public education in China that began with the opening of the Chinese Girls’ School in 1898 came to a momentous close. This study has sought to analyse the discourses involved in this project and to link them to wider issues of national and cultural identity, shifting notions of masculinity and femininity, and the nature of China’s modernization process itself during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In particular, the study has focused on one particular, and pervasive, strand of thinking – referred to in the book as ‘modernizing conser­vatism’ – that transcended the political divide of the 1911 Revolution and under­pinned much of the discourse in the newspaper, periodical, educational and women’s press at this time. Such a way of thinking assumed that education for women should primarily aim at rejuvenating women’s ‘ traditional’ virtues (while ‘correcting’ their character deficiencies) and combining them with a dose of modern knowledge that would enable the cultivation of skilled, diligent and efficient household managers – all in the cause of family harmony, social stability and national prosperity.

This is not to say, of course, that there were not alternative and more radical discourses on women during this period. During the last years of the Qing monar­chy, for example, Chinese radicals in Japan and France who were attracted to anarchist thought approached the ‘woman question’ from strikingly new angles. He Zhen, a prominent female activist studying in Japan who, with her husband Liu Shipei (1884-1919), both founded the Society for the Study of Socialism in 1907 and published its journal Tianyi bao (Natural Justice), was one of the first to focus particular attention on the exploitation of women by other women. In an article published in Tianyi bao in 1908 He Zhen argued that certain groups of women (e. g. the well-to-do madam [taitai] or the mother-in-law) displaced the oppression they experienced at the hands of men onto other women (such as maidservants or adopted daughters-in-law [tongyangxi]).1 Another (anonymous) contributor to Tianyi bao in 1908 intriguingly suggested that Chinese women’s enmity towards men was deeper than their hatred of the Manchus, and that they were participating in the anti-Manchu movement only because they had been told

by men that the Manchus constituted the principal enemy.2 A voluntarist strain also characterized the writings of female activists in Japan such as Chen Xiefen; as discussed in Chapter 2 she expressed an extraordinary confidence that Chinese women had the character and potential to become superior revolutionaries in comparison with men.

Likewise, in contrast to the critical discourse on women that was such an ubiquitous feature of the modernizing conservative agenda on female education, a contributor to the Chinese anarchist journal published in Paris, Xin shiji (New Century), noted in 1908 that the character of women had six unique aspects – compassion, sense of honour, perseverance, natural intelligence, ability to work hard and capacity for love – that made them superior to men.3 Even in non­revolutionary journals published in China, radical ideas on women might appear. A 1907 article in Beijing nubao (Beijing Women’s News), for example, pointed out that women were always being judged by the standards set by men, and were only considered autonomous moral beings once they spoke and acted like men; yet this would mean, the article continued, women behaving immorally – such as engaging in violence and war – whereas in fact women’s behaviour and outlook were more in tune with ‘natural morality’ (tianli).4 Such a view not only antici­pated a strand of late twentieth-century feminism but also shared assumptions held by some Chinese male literati during the seventeenth century who consid­ered that women’s very seclusion from the sullied male world of public affairs made them potentially morally and intellectually superior and their writings more sincere.5 It is now accepted that the radical gender discourses of the New Culture/May Fourth period symbolized by the advocacy of women’s emancipa­tion and equal rights (so long assumed to be an unprecedented development) had their roots in the late Qing, especially in the writings of Chinese anarchists.

However, in focusing on educational thought in particular (which gender historians generally tend to ignore or gloss over) and treating the years from the 1890s to the May Fourth Movement in the late 1910s as an important and signifi­cant period in its own right,6 the book has sought to demonstrate that the modern­izing conservative discourse on women’s schooling in the newspaper and periodical press was just as, if not more, prevalent. It had three sources of inspiration, drawing not only on the indigenous statecraft tradition that attributed a key role to women as the guarantors of household virtue and prosperity, but also on the examples of Japan and the United States. In Japan, the ideas of female educators such as Shimoda Utako (1854-1936) who used the ‘invented’ notion of ryosai kenbo (good wife and wise mother) to highlight the public significance of the model housewife as the foundation of a strong nation and orderly society struck a chord with Qing officials and educators at the turn of the century. In their emphasis on the need for girls’ schools to instruct their pupils in the required household skills, Chinese edu­cators and commentators frequently in the early years of the twentieth century also referred to practice in the United States, where domestic science since the late nineteenth century had increasingly become a core element in the curriculum for girls’ schools – a development that influenced many Chinese women who studied there in the 1900s and 1910s such as Hu Binxia, a future editor from 1916 to 1919 of Funu zazhi (Ladies Magazine), the longest running women’s journal during the Republican period.7 The two foreign examples were, in fact, linked by the fact that Japanese female educators and promoters of the ryosai kenbo ideal such as Tsuda Umeko had also studied in the United States during the late nineteenth century.8

The ‘modernizing conservative’ agenda on women’s education also has to be seen within the larger context of ‘behavioural modernization’. Such a project began to animate official and intellectual elites during the late 1890s and early 1900s as they frantically addressed the crisis of internal decline and the external threat of an ever more dangerous foreign imperialism. An obsession with ‘reforming’ the people’s ‘uncivilized’ behaviour and ‘unseemly’ customs became especially noticeable in the wake of the Boxer uprising in 1900-1901, and in the quest to mould a disciplined and diligent populace women became a principal target, since in the eyes of bureaucrats, educators, reformers and commentators in the press ‘unproductive’, ‘superstitious’ and ‘ignorant’ women were the root cause of China’s ‘backwardness’. From the start, therefore, many subscribed to the view that public education for girls should train a new generation of rational, hardworking, thrifty and selfless household managers equipped with a wide range of domestic (and modern) skills and inculcated with the necessary ‘womanly’ virtues of obedience and modesty. Such a scenario was considered the indispens­able foundation on which household unity and prosperity, social stability and national progress depended.

Not surprisingly, within this context, discourse on the behaviour, attitude and even dress of women in general (both within the household and in public) in the early twentieth century was a barometer of wider hopes and fears concerning the national condition and the country’s future (it might also be noted that an emphasis on women’s failings in this discourse in many ways symbolized men’s insecurity and guilt about themselves faced with the country’s growing weakness vis-a-vis the foreign powers). Moreover, from the time public education was first made available to girls at the turn of the century the ‘disorderly’ and ‘unre­strained’ behaviour of highly visible female students (who constituted an entirely new social category) became for modernizing conservatives a particularly sensitive touchstone for their ambivalent feelings and anxieties concerning the implications of social and cultural change during this period. Republican elites after 1912 were even more obsessed with ‘behavioural modernization’ than before, and it is no coincidence that the critical discourse on the female student concurrently became ever more shrill.

While this modernizing conservative discourse on women’s schooling in the newspaper and periodical press – too often overlooked in the teleological metanar­rative of social and cultural change in this period that has conventionally focused on the growing and inevitable radicalization of thought – spoke more about its authors’ own uncertainties faced with modernizing change (in much the same way as the championing of education for women, companionate marriage and the con­jugal household by radical male intellectuals during the May Fourth Movement was more about fashioning and enhancing their own self-images and identities)9, it also represented an attempt on the part of bureaucrats, educators and (mostly male) intellectuals to retain their monopoly as the arbiters of socio-cultural change and their right to define and formulate women’s image and role in the quest to equip China to meet the challenges of the modern world. The ever more alarmist tone after 1912 indicated that the control and guidance of women’s education were slip­ping away from them. After all, the speed with which public education for women was formally sanctioned and implemented in early twentieth-century China is sometimes overlooked (in the same way that the speed with which the Confucian Classics were eliminated from the curricula of modern primary and secondary schools between 1910 and 1912 is also overlooked).10 Thus only a few years after the first privately run Chinese schools for girls appeared at the turn of the century, the Qing government permitted the creation of primary and teacher training schools for girls; by 1912, with the establishment of the Republic, secondary edu­cation for girls was formally allowed, and in 1919 higher-level education for women was officially sanctioned when Beijing Women’s Higher Normal School was opened and women were allowed to enrol at Beijing University, the most pres­tigious higher institution of learning in the land.

Comparison with Japan is instructive. The admission of women to Beijing University, for example, came just six years after a small number of women were informally allowed to enrol at Tokyo Imperial University in 1913, even though the Japanese government’s sanction of public education for girls predated that of China’s by over three decades (in 1871 the new Meiji regime in Japan mandated 16 months’ compulsory schooling for both sexes, extended to 3 years in 1880 and 6 years in 1907). The provision of higher-level education for women in Japan was likewise not much in advance of Chinese practice. Thus although the first insti­tution to qualify as an institution of higher learning for women – Tokyo Women’s Normal School (joshi shihan gakko – was founded as early as 1875 (becoming, in 1884, Tokyo Women’s Higher Normal School), until the end of the Second World War Two only two additional higher normal schools were founded; furthermore, by 1937 there were still no government or private universities for women in Japan (although there were 42 private colleges, 12 of which were Christian), a situation not rectified until after 1945, when also the admittance of women to men’s universities was finally officially sanctioned.11

The fact that the modernizing conservative discourse on women’s education after the turn of the century became ever more critical of the students’ behaviour and outlook, as well as more insistent on the necessity and importance of skilful household management, indicated that they were precisely not behaving in ways laid down by officials, educators and intellectuals or subscribing to the latter’s assumptions about the purpose and rationale of women’s education.12 No matter how exaggerated this critical discourse may have been, however, it does provide an intriguing glimpse into how young girls and women (at the grassroots level, as it were) responded to new educational opportunities available to them. This is important because we still have little tangible sense of what the newly opened pub­lic space of education from the turn of the twentieth century on actually meant for women. Autobiographies and memoirs tend to concentrate on literary, political or revolutionary careers, while gender studies of the period focus on the writing and activities of individuals or particular groups, the deconstruction of literary texts, and political activism during the May Fourth Movement itself.

Also, there is no equivalent of the survey carried out in 1921 amongst male students (both married and unmarried) from several normal and middle schools seeking their views on marriage. In that year a questionnaire was sent out to 1,500 students (631 replied) asking those already married about the circum­stances of their marriage and opinions about their wives, and those not yet mar­ried what kind of woman they would like to marry.13 Only 6 of the 184 already married had freely chosen their partners; a reason why those already married expressed dissatisfaction with their marriage was that their wives did not have much knowledge (which might include social skills, competent running of the household and being able to assist their husbands) and were thus not good com­panions. Significantly, those expressing satisfaction with their marriage (61 out of 184) cited as the principal reasons that their wives managed the household well and that they were of a ‘gentle disposition’ (wenhe), as opposed to being ‘frivo­lous and skittish’ (qingbo tiaota) or ‘putting on airs’ because of their education. Reporting on these results in Dongfang zazhi, the sociologist Chen Heqin (1892-1982) declared that it was no surprise that male students valued domestic skills in their wives since many female students of the day, he lamented, do not take domestic science seriously because they ‘misunderstand’ the meaning of household management and regard it as ‘slave labour’ (nuli de laoku gongzuo).14 The match between the attitudes of these particular male students and the modernizing conservative discourse on women’s education is striking.

A reading between the lines of this discourse, however, provides us with a way (albeit only indirectly) of hearing the voices of female students themselves during the early years of the twentieth century (and before the May Fourth period). It is clear that young women became more assertive and expressed their individuality in a bewildering array of dress and hairstyles. Their notions of what education could offer them were directly opposed to the assumptions of those who demanded that women’s education instil virtues of deference, compliance and modesty while also providing the necessary knowledge and skills for women to fulfil their ordained role as managers of the household. Their disdain of domes­tic science, involvement in school protests and strikes, and confident participa­tion in public exhibitions, displays and national relief campaigns clearly demonstrated their contestation of this conservative discourse. Such a variety of response amongst young women to new educational opportunities before the May Fourth period needs to be highlighted and further explored, since it has been hith­erto overlooked by, or submerged within, more dominant narratives focusing on the involvement of female students in patriotic demonstrations and strikes after 4 May 1919, the championing of women’s rights by male radicals during the New Culture Movement after 1915, and the evolution of organized women’s move­ments under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang (Nationalist Party) after the early 1920s.

Finally, echoes of this early twentieth-century modernizing conservative discourse continued to reverberate throughout the rest of the century. The critical discourse on the female student, for example, anticipated in subsequent decades a focus on women’s behaviour as a prime object of criticism at times of political, cultural and social upheaval. During the 1920s and 1930s a certain kind of urban and educated woman (the ‘new woman’) was portrayed in the newspaper press and in film as the very epitome of selfishness, frivolity and hedonism, and a deeply disturbing symbol of modern civilizational decadence.15 A particular con­cern in the 1920s was the ‘unnatural’ proclivity of some educated women to adopt ‘singlehood’ (dushen zhuyi); such an outlook that preferred career success to giv­ing birth, in the words of one critic, was ‘unbalanced’ and ‘contrary to human nature’. Women who adopted singlehood, the critic bewailed, had become like ‘the third sex’ (disanxing) and had abandoned all those virtues which were the special hallmark of women and such a comfort to men when they returned home – kindness, docility and empathy – and instead had become arrogant, opinionated and hardhearted.16 At the same time, male reformist intellectuals – feeling increasingly marginalized by an authoritarian and technocratic state – were much preoccupied with delineating the ‘correct’ moral attributes of the ‘modern woman’ as a way of reclaiming their ‘ role as enlightened moral guardians and therefore leading advisers to the nation’.17 Such an agenda echoed the earlier con­servative attempt in the 1910s to regain the initiative in determining the direction of women’s education and prescribing the ‘appropriate’ behaviour of female stu­dents. After the Guomindang came to national power in 1928, and determined to restore social order after the upheavals of the Northern Expedition in 1926-1927 that had witnessed the mobilization of peasants, workers, students as well as women, politically active and ‘unfeminine’ women became a particular target of attack as the unsettling symbol of a ‘world turned upside down’.18 During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, women’s sexuality and ‘bourgeois’ tastes in clothes were perceived by puritanical Red Guards as the concrete manifestation of ideological backwardness and class betrayal.19 Sometimes these hostile atti­tudes could have deadly consequences. In the backlash against politically active women in the wake of the Northern Expedition, women with bobbed hair (a sym­bol of ‘dangerous’ gender radicalism) were subject to vicious physical attacks and torture or were brutally killed, while during the Cultural Revolution many women were subject to humiliating public criticism or even worse.

Furthermore, the ideas, assumptions and prescriptions (at times paradoxical) concerning women’s roles in society that were revealed in the early twentieth – century modernizing conservative discourse on women’s education were to resur­face time and again in the gender discourse of subsequent decades. Despite the commitment of the early Chinese Communist Party to women’s emancipation and gender equality, for example, continuing patriarchal practices and attitudes within its organization meant that early female activists such as Wang Huiwu and Xiang Jingyu played very much a subordinate role (significantly, women were unable to gain official delegate status for the party’s first four congresses).20 During the Nanjing decade (1927-1937), the contradictory social expectations of women – they were expected to be educated and physically fit but also domestically inclined – paralleled the earlier tension in the rationale for women’s education in the early years of the century that called for the training of compliant household managers and physically active citizens. In the late 1920s, too, the prominent writer and journalist Zou Taofen (1895-1944) promoted a cult of domesticity in the pages of his journal Shenghuo zhoukan (Life Weekly) that exalted the importance of home economics, childrearing and household beautification, recalling in effect the discourse of the 1910s; it is no coincidence that such a cult occurred precisely at a time when women were beginning to make inroads into higher education and the professions.21

In a recent study of the ways in which a ‘national’ identity was ‘created’ for Manchukuo by Japanese and Chinese officials and ideologues in the 1930s, P. Duara argues that the model of the self-sacrificing woman (xianqi liangmu/ryosai kenbo) was exalted as a symbol of cultural authenticity as opposed to the independent and revolutionary woman, a model of womanhood that had been pervasive during the first two decades of the twentieth century.22 In fact, the origins of the former model lie in the early twentieth-century discourse on women’s education.23 The early twentieth-century discourse on female student dress as a barometer of the national condition likewise anticipated the heated discussions concerning the national significance of the female qipao (long gown) in the late 1920s and 1930s.24 In post-1949 China, the importance attached to the ‘socialist housewife’ in the ‘Five Goods’ campaign of the mid-1950s, which encouraged women to pay attention to domestic thrift, hygiene, childcare and support of their husbands’ labour, directly linking housework with the construction of a socialist society;25 the renewed discussion of ‘ natural’ female attributes and ‘ proper’ feminine behaviour in the 1980s (partly in reaction against the ‘androgynization’ of the Cultural Revolution period);26 and even the contemporary suspicion of the independent career woman – with the Chinese term for a successful professional women, nuqiang ren (originally a positive reference to ‘heroic’ women) now taking on negative connotations27 – all echo attitudes displayed in the heated and endlessly fascinating early twentieth-century debate on women’s education.

The ambivalent figure of the female student

While condemnation of the ‘undisciplined’ and ‘arrogant’ behaviour of female students had been a constant feature of discourse in the newspaper and periodical press in the early years of the Republic, demonstrating an unease with the way women’s education was developing, so newspaper stories about female students during the May Fourth period (late 1910s and early 1920s) likewise bespoke an ambivalence about the consequences of women’s schooling. There was an almost voyeuristic, even morbid, interest, for example, in suicides involving female students – the causes for which either seemed to accord with traditional assumptions about women’s ideal behaviour or stemmed from more spontaneous, passionate or angry responses to perceived personal insults (which might arouse both admiration and alarm in equal measure).

Examples of the former included suicide cases reported by district magistrates to the Internal Affairs Ministry (neiwubu) applying for official commendation of ‘chaste and loyal’ behaviour (see Chapter 4).64 All of them were graduates of modern schools and described as ‘ gentle and virtuous’ (xianshu, shufang), who were extremely solicitous of their husbands’ welfare and whose absolute devotion to their husbands prompted them to commit suicide after their husbands’ deaths – and thus, in the view of district magistrates, deserved the title of ‘chaste heroine’ (liefu).65 Li Yi, from Miyun district, was a 29-year-old graduate from a higher primary school and was married for nine years before committing suicide in 1921 shortly after the death of her husband; Song Qu, from Ningjin district, who swallowed poison in 1923 after her husband’s death, was described as not only intelligent and versed in cultural and moral learning (conghui shi wenyi), but also as skilled in accounting and bookkeeping (kuaiji) and on whom her husband could totally rely for everything to do with household management and correspondence; Zhang Yu, a 28-year-old from Ninghe district and a graduate of the district girls’ school, committed suicide barely two years after marriage. The reports on Song Qu and Zhang Yu also drew attention to the fact that during their respective husbands’ illnesses and after all kinds of modern medicine had failed, they cut pieces of their own flesh to make medicinal soup (a pervasive theme in traditional Confucian hagiography of virtuous women, usually illustrating the concern of a daughter or daughter-in-law for the health of aged parents or parents – in-law).66 A more ambivalent case (in the eyes of the readership) was that of two female cousins (both graduates of modern schools) in Tianjin who were devoted to one another and were inseparable. In 1926, when the father of one of the cousins arranged for his daughter to marry a local banker and rejected her plea that her cousin might live with her in the marital household, the two cousins com­mitted suicide the day before the wedding ceremony. The report of the suicide in a Tianjin pictorial devoted much space describing the devotion and inseparability of the two cousins, perhaps tapping into the disquiet felt by many commentators since 1912 over the trend of ‘same-sex love’ in girls’ schools.67

Examples of the latter included the case of a middle school graduate in Tianjin who swallowed poison in 1924 after her fiance broke off their engagement.68 One of the more notorious suicide cases involved a student at the Beijing Higher Women’s Normal School. In May 1917, according to the contemporary press, she committed suicide (by swallowing poison) out of shame after a teacher there had reportedly – according to an anonymous campus poster – told her and some of her classmates that in recognition of their impressive schoolwork they could become her husband’s concubines after graduation.69 The spontaneous and dramatic response to personal humiliation by educated young women such as the two noted here aroused a certain fascination but also ambivalence, given the frequent criti­cism in the periodical press of the ‘over the top’ sensitivity of female students to any perceived slight or insult. (It might also be noted here that the attitude of the Beijing teacher demonstrated a continuing and widely held assumption that ado­lescent girls sought an education merely in order to gain an entree into a life of idle leisure.) An alternative, but equally dramatic, response by female students to an ‘undesirable’ environment was that adopted by two Beijing middle school pupils in 1921; apparently disillusioned with the ‘sordid’ world around them, they secretly left school and travelled to Hangzhou (Zhejiang province), where they cut their hair and became nuns.70

The newspaper press also frequently reported on the transgression of accept­able behaviour by female students who wilfully ‘ misunderstood freedom’ (wuhui ziyou) by mixing with bad company (usually male) or spontaneously entering into a relationship with someone they barely knew. Such behaviour was frequently described as ‘promiscuous and decadent’ (yindang) in the press, an expression

that rarely, if ever, was used to describe men’s ‘transgressive’ behaviour. Typical examples were those of the female student in Guangzhou in 1917 who, although already betrothed to someone, gallivanted with a variety of men and eventually got pregnant by a soldier (whom she subsequently secretly married);71 and the student from Hankou in 1921 who conspicuously and regularly visited the theatre and entertainment area of the city and, one month before she was due to gradu­ate, went off with someone she had met on her carousels.72 Sometimes tragedy ensued. In Fanshui, Henan province, an 18-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy who were studying in the same school in 1921 decided to secretly marry. The girl’s father had already arranged for her to be married to a local bigwig, but when the daughter refused to go along with the arrangement, the enraged father shot her.73 Such stories vicariously played to assumptions (both spoken and unspoken) that had since the beginnings of women’s public schooling identified female students with promiscuity in particular and dangerously unrestrained public behaviour in general, thereby reinforcing the notion held by many that female education was potentially a ‘dangerous path’ [weitu] – a description first used in 1913 and 1914 when journals referred to the fear of parents that women’s education merely encouraged girls’ extravagant tastes or stimulated a ‘hankering after westernisa­tion’ (xinzui Ouxi).14 Newspapers from the first year of the Republic, in fact, titillated their readership with reports on adolescent female students either being ‘seduced’ by older men to become their mistresses,75 or actively and provocatively flirting with men after school hours.76 In some cases, the fact that an adolescent female student engaging in a ‘transgressive’ relationship with a man while at school might actually be recently widowed added to the frisson.11

Finally, despite Xie Wanying’s confident assertion in September 1919 that female students were now ‘socially acceptable’ and ‘responsible’ in their behav­iour and outlook, it is clear that they continued to transgress the norms prescribed by bureaucrats, educators and intellectuals. Thus in early 1918 the Education Ministry felt compelled to issue a directive to the provinces, noting that:

As most of the girl students in the various provinces have assumed diverse forms of dress, and have behaved according to their own fancies, for the sake of uniformity and discipline, we have fixed the following five regulations.78

Such regulations insisted that girls not cut their hair short, not leave school premises without special leave or walk about on the streets in groups, not embark on ‘free choice’ marriage without parental permission, and not attend a boys’ school if over the age of 13. The directive, however, also forbade the practice of footbinding, indicating that not all female students escaped the control of more ‘traditional’ parents. Xie Bingying, for example, notes in her autobiography that when she attended the Datong Girls’ School in Changsha (Hunan province) in 1918 she was not alone in having bound feet. Likewise, when Zhang Yuyi attended a girls’ school in Suzhou (Jiangsu province) in 1912 many of the stu­dents (aged between 12 and 15) had bound feet.79 Barely three years later, in 1921, the Education Ministry again had to reiterate its demand that the behaviour of female students had to be more strictly regulated because of their proclivity to do ‘what they pleased’. Schools were once again instructed to ensure that students did not cut their hair short, indulge in free-choice marriage or absent themselves without permission.80

Despite these directives, and even though students were indeed expelled from school for cutting their hair short,81 the ‘bob’ continued to remain popular amongst female students during the early 1920s. Even in a less cosmopolitan centre (at least compared to Shanghai) such as Tianjin, a locally published pictorial noted in 1926 that short hair was seen as the very ‘height of fashion’ (zui shimao zhi liu) amongst female students, a phenomenon that only caused ‘gender confusion’ (especially, the pictorial observed, as female students also persisted in donning the long straight gown [changpao] traditionally worn by men).82 In many ways, therefore, female students remained just as ‘uncontrollable’ in the eyes of modernizing conservatives as they had been when public schooling for girls had begun in the early years of the twentieth century.

Discourses of domesticity in the May Fourth period

Throughout the May Fourth period, from the late 1910s to early 1920s, educators, reformers and general commentators emphasized the importance of domestic sci­ence for women’s education, indicating a continuing and nagging fear that had taken root almost from the very beginning of public education for girls. Such a fear centred on the perceived tendency for the direction of women’s education to escape the control of male intellectuals. It is significant, for example, that the Beijing Women’s Higher Normal School not only had a separate faculty of home eco­nomics, but also required students in the other two faculties of sciences and the arts to take courses in domestic science.31 A contributor to Jiaoyu zazhi also noted in 1919 both how new the discipline of domestic science was and how little appreci­ated it was amongst the public. Yet, he continued, the material and spiritual advance of the household (the aim of domestic science) was absolutely essential in the ‘battle for survival’. He urged girls’ schools to pay more attention to the culti­vation of domestic virtues – cleanliness, punctuality, hygiene, orderliness.32

At commemorative events staged by girls’ schools, which could attract huge audiences, teachers and dignitaries always made a point of emphasizing the importance of domestic training. Such was the case with a girls’ school in the cap­ital of Jiangxi province, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in October 1919. Several thousand men and women attended the event and heard speeches from local dignitaries and former students expressing the hope that more girls’ schools would be opened to ‘create (zaojiu) virtuous mothers and good wives’. One female educator urged her peers (nu tongbao) not to indulge in ‘extravagance’ (shehua) but rather to concentrate on ‘practical learning’ (shixue), an expression often used at this time to refer to the acquisition of domestic skills, while the male principal of the school, Cai Jingbao, argued that households and society in the future could only be improved with the training of creative, hardworking and per­severing ‘virtuous mothers and good wives’ (xianmu liangqi).33 Significantly, a lower primary school reader for girls first published by the Commercial Press in Shanghai in the 1910s, and in wide use during the 1920s and 1930s, contained a lesson on the meaning of marriage that encapsulated all the features of a woman’s perceived ideal role and character (i. e. as the faithful helpmate of her husband and guardian of the household):

Xu Sheng was fairly young and was a wastrel. His wife, Lu Rong, often tried to persuade him to study. Every time he behaved badly she would bring him to his senses with her tears. Lu Rong’s father, knowing the situation, became very angry and offered to find her another husband. She replied that the way (dao) of marriage was never to separate and remarry. Xu Sheng was so moved by this that he began to exert himself more in study. Finally, he made something of himself.34

It was for this reason that many commentators (including those writing in pro­gressive or radical journals) throughout the May Fourth period continued to assume that education for girls would always be different from that of boys. Thus in an article on the ‘ question of women’ (nuzi wenti) published in the foremost radical journal of the time, Xin qingnian (New Youth), Liang Hualan tortuously argued that equality in education did not mean girls being taught the same sub­jects as boys.35 What Liang had in mind was equality of treatment as human indi­viduals (renge zhi pengdeng); thus if young men had access to higher education, so should young women. However, because of ‘biological differences’, Liang continued, women should be channelled into humanities and men into the sciences. He also warned that women in Europe and America were beginning to ignore biological differences and were ‘unnaturally’ studying technology (such as

Katherine Stinson and her involvement with aviation).36 Liang then got to the gist of his concerns; in China, he declared, the education women received had to inculcate the xianmu liangqi ideal so that they could in the future fulfil their responsibility to the state by ‘assisting husbands and instructing sons’ (xiangfu jiaozi) – the phrase identical to that used by late nineteenth-century male and female reformers championing women’s education. He confidently predicted that if Chinese women’s innate virtues of ‘compliance’ and ‘service’ (fucong) were consolidated and developed in education, they would enhance China’s interna­tional reputation and occupy ‘the top rank of women in the world’ (at a time, Liang ruefully acknowledged, when China has to look to the West for its scien­tific knowledge). For Liang, in the final analysis, it was precisely because women in China were becoming more educated and beginning to gain access to higher levels of learning that the xianmu liangqi ideal had to be taught.37

Another article in Xin qingnian attributed the superiority of the West to its cultivation of worthy mothers who ‘assisted their husbands’ (xiang qi fu) and guided their children. Such ‘worthy’ mothers, the article lamented, were not like the Chinese female student of the present who merely had a smattering of scientific knowledge and was obsessed with Western fashions. The author of the article called on Chinese women not to be ‘corrupted’ by the educated and ‘loose’ (ziyou) women of the day, and insisted that China’s worthy mothers of the future had to be morally upright and the possessor of ‘household management skills’.38

Even an educational reformer and progressive such as Cai Yuanpei insisted on an appropriate education for girls that would perfect their domestic skills. In a speech given at the Shanghai Patriotic Girls’ School in 1917, Cai began by announcing in grandiose terms that the aim of the school was to cultivate ‘com­plete individuals’. Cai told his audience that a combination of physical, intellec­tual and moral education would enable female pupils to transcend their normally dependent, parasitic and superficial natures. In the process, Cai continued, girls would become more autonomous, but he warned that such autonomy was not to be misunderstood – female students should not become haughty and arrogant and think highly of themselves (aoman zifu). This led Cai to the core of his argument. Having begun his speech by claiming that women’s education should create all­round and confidently autonomous individuals, Cai concluded, paradoxically, that it would be scandalous if girls, once educated, disdained or were incapable of performing household tasks. In Cai’s view, modern schools should not be seen by girls as a means of escaping their ‘natural duty’ (tianzhi) of household manage­ment but rather should be welcomed as the primary site in which girls would perfect their household skills with new knowledge (chemistry, he noted, would enhance their culinary skills by giving pupils an insight into which kinds of food would be beneficial for health). ‘ To abandon household affairs’ , Cai solemnly informed his audience, ‘did not accord with proper principles’.39

In a lecture to the Zhejiang Provincial Women’s Normal School in 1921, a certain Jiang Qi insisted that educational policy would always have to take into account a specific female agenda.40 Jiang was not opposed to co-education per se or the idea that girls should receive as much education as boys. However, Jiang continued, since girls differed from boys, both physiologically and mentally, they had to receive a different kind of education (Jiang cannily argued that an educa­tion designed to make everyone the same would be unacceptable to those who championed the ‘new education’ tailored to the individual).41 Jiang then went on to maintain that the aim of women’s education to produce xianmu liangqi accorded with progressive views since such women, by their very definition, would possess a range of economic and intellectual skills; for this reason, Jiang noted, the term gongmin (citizen) could be used instead of xianmu liangqi since it more accurately reflected the social and national significance of their role as household managers and educators of future citizens, a role, in Jiang’s view, that accorded with women’s character and abilities.42 One of the household skills Jiang focused on was cooking; disagreeing with those who since the May Fourth Movement had insisted that women were not family slaves and hence were not obliged to cook, Jiang argued that cooking was, in fact, ‘honourable labour’ (sim­ilar to handicrafts) and that it required knowledge of hygiene and economic know-how. Thus, Jiang concluded, the culinary arts, along with other domestic skills, must always constitute the core of the curriculum for female education.

It is worth noting here also that the biological essentialism to which Jiang subscribed in his talk was pervasive during this period. One year later, in a lecture delivered at the Beijing Women’s Higher Normal School, Liang Qichao reiterated the essentialist views that he had first raised in his 1897 essay on women’s education (see Chapter 1).43 As with the case of the contributor to the journal, Xin fund (New Woman), also in 1922 (see Chapter 4), Liang declared that certain innate features of women’s character and mental outlook equipped them to perform certain occupations better than men. In particular Liang argued that whereas women’s ‘creative talents’ (chuangzao li) were not as developed as men’s, women’s ‘organizational skills’ (zhengli li) were superior to men’s.44 He suggested that there were four kinds of profession ideally suited to women because of their innate characters (and in which they would not therefore compete with men): the study of history (because women were more ‘ patient’ and adept at organizing research time), librarianship, accountancy (because women were more ‘meticulous’ and ‘orderly’), and journalism (because women were more likely to be impartial and would be better able to elicit cooperation from their interviewees).45

Other commentators, such as Zhu Xue, simply argued that women’s innate ‘meticulousness’ equipped them to be ideal primary school teachers (which he referred to as ‘mothers for producing citizens’).46 Another contributor to Jiaoyu zazhi agreed, declaring that since men were by nature ‘rough and crude’ (cubao), quick-tempered, and impulsive (fuzao), they were potentially worse primary teachers than more circumspect (jinxi), compassionate (cishan) and mild- tempered (wenhe) women.47 Clearly, such essentialism was a response to a situation that suggested girls and young women thought and acted rather differently. As a frequent contributor to Jiaoyu zazhi, Jia Fengzhen, noted in 1920, female students were increasingly resentful at having to study domestic science and household skills at school; they wanted to study the same subjects as boys, Jia observed, so that there would be no preordained differences in their life

trajectories. Such a view, Jia opined, was misguided; although girls’ intellectual abilities were not necessarily inferior to those of boys, neither should they forget that the ideal of ‘worthy mother and good wife’ was not a social construction dreamt up by reactionary educators but rather described a natural and inevitable role for women that no female student could ignore.48 The primary role of women as skilled and ‘professional’ household managers had become so entrenched by this time in the minds of writers and educators that an a article in the Fund zazhi in 1921 detailing the division of labour within the ‘new’ and ‘progressive’ nuclear family (xin jiating) accepted as a given that the wife managed everything within the household (education, finances, hygiene).49

Not all commentators were in agreement over this. A certain Ms Tao Yi, in a 1924 article in Fund zazhi, although criticizing female students at university (as most did at this time) as pleasure-seeking and extravagant ‘new-style young madams’ (xinshi de taitai xiaojie), also called for an education that would trans­form girls into ‘complete persons’. This meant above all else providing girls with the same education as boys; while Tao did not object to the teaching of domestic science at school, for example, she did object to it being a subject that was solely taught to girls. Such a situation, Tao observed, meant that girls were simply trained as ‘hired labourers within the household’ (jiating de gugong); women’s education, she concluded, had to avoid simply turning out ‘lopsided’ or ‘unbal­anced’ people (jixing de ren), by which she meant women defined solely by their household role (it was precisely for this reason that Tao urged universal co-education so as to eliminate once and for all any notion of a unique ‘women’s’ education).50

Such a view, however, was very much a minority one in the periodical and women’s press. Far more ubiquitous was the approach taken by a 1920 article in Fund zazhi, which argued that just as officials or soldiers were considered pro­ductive (rather than being perceived as mere consumers) to the extent that they guided or defended the country, so women within the household were productive because their management skills enabled the household to prosper.51 Thus, the article declared, if a female textile worker neglected household management and her duties to in-laws and children, spending money and time on herself, she was in reality a consumer; on the other hand, a woman who remained at home (and thus did not ‘produce’ anything) but who skilfully and efficiently managed the household was in effect the productive one (the author referred to the concept of ‘indirect productivity’, which allowed husbands to pursue productive work with­out being encumbered by any worries – an idea first mentioned, as we saw in Chapter 3, by Qian Zhixiu in late 1911). The female textile worker who disdained household duties, however, was not the worst of ‘unproductive’ women castigated by the article. After nuns, prostitutes and actresses, the very epitome of unpro­ductivity, the article concluded, was ‘bogus civilized women’ (jia wenming de fund).52 Such women, according to the article, were educated females who, on the surface, seemed to be productive but in reality were the worst kind of consumer; they might be proficient in Chinese and dextrous in the writing of letters, the arti­cle continued, but they could not cook, sew or manage household accounts.

Echoing criticisms of female students from the first decade of the twentieth century, the article condemned these women for indulging in ‘laziness and unre­straint’ (landuo fangzong), and putting on airs in public by wearing spectacles and high-heeled leather shoes, and smoking cigarettes. Such a phenomenon, the arti­cle concluded, gave girls’ schools a bad name and inhibited parents from sending their daughters to school.

For some commentators, in fact, the independent ‘new woman’ was precisely the person who assiduously sought to learn about domestic skills in order to avoid dependence on a husband for advice and guidance in the management of the household,53 as opposed to the ‘new woman’ referred to by Hu Shi in a speech he gave in 1918 at the Beijing Women’s Normal School. Hu Shi, generally consid­ered to have been the first Chinese intellectual and writer to use specifically the term ‘new woman’ (xin fund),54 had in mind a person who was independent and did not respect separate spheres, thereby transcending completely the ‘virtuous mother and good wife’ ideal.55 A far more pervasive attitude at this time in the women’s press, however, was represented by the contributor to Fund zazhi in 1920. Echoing the writer in 1912 who had first described household duties as a professional vocation (see Chapter 3), the female author, Cheng Shuyi, referred to the traditional aphorism ‘ men rule the outer [sphere], women rule the inner [sphere] ’ (nanzi zhi wai ndzi zhi nei) to explain that such an arrangement did not imply female inferiority but rather signalled a rational ‘division of occupational specialty’ (zhiye de fenke).56 In a similar vein, another article in the same year argued that the ‘new woman’ was one who transformed herself from a xianmu liangqi (worthy mother and good wife) totally under the control of a man to a ‘genuine’xianmu liangqi who autonomously exercised management duties within the household.57

An intriguing insight into the assumptions concerning the purposes of women’s schooling is provided by the preface to an anthology of ‘model letters’ written by girls and that served as a school textbook reader and ethics guide.58 First pub­lished in 1926, the preface to the anthology cited the traditional ‘four virtues’ (si ’de) of women first championed by Ban Zhao (of appearance, dress, work and learning), and declared that Chinese women of the present likewise needed to possess ‘four virtues’. The first virtue (furong: appearance) connoted a ‘regular and correct’ (yirong duanzheng) demeanour, ‘proper and gentle’ (juzhi dafang) behaviour, a ‘tranquil and calm’ temperament, and ‘sweetness’ of speech (yuyan piaoliang); the second virtue ( fushi: dress and adornment) referred to both a woman’s ‘regular’ personal clothing (yishang qingzheng) and her aesthetic skills in matching household colours; and the third virtue (fuzhi: occupation) referred to a woman’s production of exquisite handicrafts (chuangzao jingmei) and her detailed economic management of all aspects of household life (baifan jingji). On the fourth virtue (fuxue: learning), the author of the preface laid down the precise boundaries of what women’s education entailed:

Women’s learning is not initially about aspiring to reach stupendous heights in

the natural and physical sciences, nor is it about becoming proficient in foreign

languages, but rather is about seeking a certain level of knowledge of Chinese literature and art so that they can write simply and clearly without vulgarity, and then add a little embellishment to the characters through their instruction in calligraphy. It will not be difficult to educate such a girl, and with a female education such as this there will be no more worries or anxieties.59

Against this background of domesticity discourse it is no coincidence that during the early years of the Republic articles began to appear on the thought of the Swedish feminist Ellen Key (1849-1926), whose valorization of motherhood led her to argue that marriage and the family were the central focus of a woman’s life, and that work outside the home made women sterile or incapable of bringing up children.60 As early as 1906 translated excerpts from Key’s book The Century of the Child (1900) had appeared in China’s first modern educational journal, Jiaoyu shijie (Educational World),61 while excerpts from her other major work, Love and Marriage, appeared in Funu zazhi in 1920.62 In the same year a contributor to Dongfang zazhi, Yan Bin, praised Ellen Key’s concept of motherhood, referring to her as a ‘pure feminist’ (chuncui de nuzi zhuyizhe) in opposition to socialist fem­inists because she accepted that the natures of men and women were different and recognized the necessary division of labour between the two. Yan drew attention to Key’s emphasis on motherhood (muzhi) as the pre-eminent focus of a woman’s life (based on solid scientific, psychological and biological evidence) and her argument that it was unnecessary for women to seek economic independence.63

Co-education and higher education for women

Although the practice of co-education at primary level had been sanctioned by the new Republican education system of 1912, most schools during the early years of the Republic continued to be segregated according to gender (school statistics that were reported to Beijing from the provinces consistently differentiate boys’ and girls’ schools).8 Moreover, as noted in Chapter 3, the 1912 system clearly stated that secondary and higher levels of education were to be segregated. Contributors to women’s journals during the first few years of the Republic con­tinued to oppose the principle of co-education at higher levels or even the idea that young women should have access to some kind of advanced education. One such opponent in 1915 argued that if women received a higher education they would become a ‘wasted resource’ (feiwu), unable to manage the household prop­erly and hence contribute usefully to society,9 while another in 1918 warned that higher education for young women would only exacerbate their already existing ‘unrestrained arrogance’ (aozong).10 By October 1919, however, at the fifth annual meeting of the National Federation of Education Associations held in Taiyuan (Shanxi province) delegates insisted that there should be no theoretical or concrete differentiation between boys’ and girls’ education. The meeting, which also decided to downplay the emphasis on cultivating a militant citizenry (junguomin zhuyi) that had been an element in the educational aims promulgated in 1912 in favour of a more general aim of ‘cultivating complete individuals and developing a republican spirit’, argued that since all had equal educational rights under the Republic there should be ‘absolute’ co-education at all levels and that even within mixed schools there should be no separate classes for girls.11

This general principle notwithstanding, however, delegates at the same time suggested some key modifications. In the case of higher primary and middle schools, they noted, co-education might depend on local conditions and sentiment, as well as on student numbers (as well as insisting that girls in middle schools should always be taught ‘household affairs’ [ jiashi]). The delegates, in fact, were merely echoing the Education Ministry the previous year, which, while theoreti­cally approving the teaching of a wider variety of vocational subjects (such as business studies) at girls’ middle schools, had firmly insisted that domestic science should always form the core of the curriculum.12 While it was agreed that universities and other higher specialist schools should be co-educational, delegates also insisted that separate classes teaching domestic science must always be held for girls in normal schools (even if they were mixed).

Finally, delegates recommended that vocational schools would have to remain segregated, since men and women’s occupational aims were different.

Such an assumption clearly underpinned the thinking of the Education Ministry a few months earlier, in May 1919, when it issued regulations on women’s higher normal schools (although the new Republican government had already sanctioned the creation of women’s higher normal schools in 1912). Anxious that students in these schools learn the appropriate domestic skills, the Education Ministry insisted that they have faculties of domestic science (jiashi) in addition to those of arts and sciences.13 In the same month the Education Ministry felt compelled to issue a directive to all girls’ middle schools instructing them to pay more attention to the teaching of domestic skills.14 Citing the Confucian classical text Daxue (Book of Great Learning), which ordained that ‘the governing of the state and the pacification of all under Heaven must begin with the ordering of the household’ (zhi guo ping tianxia bi yi qijia wei xian), the Ministry reminded schools that orderly households could only be guaranteed if girls diligently studied domestic skills.15

Shortly after the May 1919 regulations were promulgated, Beijing Women’s Higher Normal School was established, the first official higher education institu­tion for Chinese women (it was actually a revamped lower normal school origi­nally created in 1908 under the direction of Fu Zengxiang, who had earlier founded the Beiyang Normal School for Women and who was currently Education Minister).16 Before 1919 the few higher education institutions avail­able to women were mostly run by Western missionaries. These included Yanjing Women’s University in Beijing (1908), Huanan Women’s University in Fuzhou (1914) and Jinling Women’s University in Nanjing (1915).17 By the end of 1918, however, commentators as well as prominent Beijing University (Beida) intellec­tuals were calling for co-education in higher education. In November 1918 Kang Baiqing in the pages of Funu zazhi argued that co-education at higher levels would raise the collective cultural level of the nation; Kang also suggested that the mixing of the sexes would mutually benefit each one, with males’ natural ‘robustness’ being suitably tempered and girls’ natural ‘timidity’ being trans­formed into the required self-confidence.18 In December 1918 Li Shizeng (1881-1973), a Beida faculty member and well-known anarchist who had encouraged Chinese overseas study in France before 1914 and was to help set up an even more ambitious work-study scheme for Chinese students in France in 1919,19 urged university authorities to register women; in the spring of 1919 Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), the Chancellor of Beida, openly praised the Western practice of allowing men and women to study together in the same colleges.20 In August 1919 a young woman originally from the remote western province of Gansu, Deng Chunlan (1898-1982), and whose brother was studying at Beida, published in two prominent newspapers a letter she had written to Cai Yuanpei requesting permission to enrol at the university.21 Cai responded in January 1920 by declaring that he would allow qualified female students to enrol; the next month three female students were admitted as auditors, shortly followed by six others (one of whom was Deng Chunlan).

These nine students were thus the first women to attend the most prestigious higher-level institution in the land. The 9 women were aged between 19 and 28 (2 from Jiangsu, 2 from Sichuan, and 1 each from Guizou, Zhili, Anhui, Gansu and Zhejiang); 6 registered to study philosophy, 2 to study English and 1 to study Chinese.22 An article on co-education at Beida published in July of that year in the journal Shaonian shijie (World of Youth) cited the views of several of this first group of female students, indicating that they had a clear view of themselves as a pioneering vanguard.23 A contributor to Jiaoyu zazhi ecstatically declared that the admittance of female students was an ‘earth shattering event’ entirely unprece­dented in China’s history.24 Other articles on co-education were more non­committal, such as the one by Jia Fengzhen in 1920, who simply outlined the arguments for and against that were prevalent in the West (noting that in Europe educators were generally against the idea, whereas in the United States they fully implemented it).25 Be that as it may be, February 1920 is a significant date in the history of women’s education in China. The event was made even more dramatic by the hiring – in the same month – of Beida’s first female professor, Chen Hengzhe (1890-1976), to teach Western history. Chen Hengzhe, also known as Sophia Chen, had attended the Shanghai Patriotic Girls’ School from 1904 to 1907; in 1914 she was amongst the first group of Chinese women to be awarded a Boxer Indemnity scholarship to study in the United States. She graduated from Vassar College in 1919 and the University of Chicago in 1920, where she received a MA.26

The numbers of women entering higher education grew only slowly, however, in subsequent years. Numbers before 1920 were negligible. In 1912-1913, for example, there were 176 women in higher-level educational institutions (com­pared to 41,633 men); in 1914-1915 the total had dropped to 174 (34,380 men).27 By 1923, there were 847 women in universities and higher specialist schools (compared to 34,033 men), constituting nearly 2.5 per cent of the total enrolment; most female students were concentrated in the Beijing metropolitan area (see Table 5.1), with 30 women at Beida (compared to 2,246 men), 16 at Beijing Normal University (compared to 794 men) and 23 at Nankai University in Tianjin (compared to 794 men). Five years later, in 1927-1928, the total had increased to 1,485 (male enrolment had dropped to 17,285) and women constituted 8.5 per cent of the total enrolment.28 At Beijing University itself, the numbers of female students increased from 30 in 1923 to 61 in 1926 (constituting 3.3 per cent of the student body).29 The growth of women’s education at lower levels during the 1920s, by way of contrast, was far more substantial. In 1929-1930, for example, there were 1,167,188 girls in lower primary school (compared to 7,118,581 boys), constituting 16.4 per cent of the total enrolment, and 136,857 girls in higher primary school (compared to 774,082 boys), constituting 17.68 per cent of the total enrolment. Provinces with the largest numbers of female pupils at primary school included the traditionally wealthy and developed provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, as well as inland provinces such as Hunan and Sichuan. Yet even the poorer provinces of Yunnan (in the southwest) and Shandong (in the north) registered progress; in Yunnan there were 13,623 girls in lower primary school (7.1 per cent of the total) and 4,301 in higher primary (16.5 per cent of the total),

Table 5.1 Number of students in higher level education, 1923





% of female enrolment









































































































































Source: Chen Qitian, Jindai Zhongguo jiaoyushi, 274-276.

while in Shandong there were 48,688 girls in lower primary school (12.6 per cent of the total) and 6,771 in higher primary school (10.36 per cent of the total).30

The ‘woman question’ and education in the May Fourth period

In September 1919, at the height of intellectual debate and student protest that has come to be known as the May Fourth Movement (or in its wider cultural ramifi­cations, the New Culture Movement), a female student by the name of Xie Wanying contributed an article to the Beijing newspaper, Chenbao (Morning Post), that provided a genealogy of the ‘modern’ Chinese female student.1 Arguing that attitudes towards the new phenomenon of the female student since the turn of the century had evolved in three stages, Xie noted that initially female students had been perceived as the hallmark of civilization, successfully emulat­ing their Western counterparts and gaining society’s approval and respect. Then, as numbers grew, public attitudes became increasingly negative as the students’ attitude and actions diverged from that of their ‘responsible’ Western counter­parts; with their inflammatory talk of gender equality and undisciplined behav­iour, Xie claimed, the words ‘female student’ had become synonymous with everything ‘not good’ (buliang) about the ‘woman’s world’ and girls’ schools were regarded as ‘places to cultivate female vice’ (nuzi zui’e zaochengsuo). The result of such perceptions was that female students were reviled by society and parents became increasingly reluctant to send their daughters to school. However, Xie gleefully exclaimed, this second attitudinal stage had in recent years given way to one characterized by renewed respect for female students because they were less ‘undisciplined’(fangzong) and ‘disruptive’ in their behaviour and had learned to ‘regulate’ their outlook from one of ‘superficial flightiness’ to ‘firm steadfast­ness’ (wenjian).

For Xie, then, it was only when her peers behaved more moderately and respon­sibly that they would meet with society’s approval. The advice that Xie then prof­fered to her fellow students indicated what kind of behaviour and attitude she had in mind. She advised female students, for example, not to be too arrogant or coquettish (feiyang yaoye) in the future and to dress ‘moderately’ at all times (wristwatches were to be the only adornment allowed!). They were also to avoid ‘aiming too high’ and saying things that offended others or that were not ‘compat­ible’ with national conditions. Finally, Xie insisted that henceforth female students must concentrate on acquiring practical knowledge, such as domestic and house­hold skills and child psychology, rather than ‘spouting empty words’; instead of frequenting ‘riotous and motley’ places of entertainment such as amusement

arcades and theatre (which would ‘disrupt’ their ‘spiritual’ equilibrium), they should attend more sober and uplifting occasions such as museum exhibitions or botanical garden displays and should at all times (if not absolutely necessary) avoid mixing individually or in groups with males so as to pre-empt untoward public suspicion.2 Xie’s article provides an intriguing insight into how female stu­dents possibly behaved during the last years of the Qing monarchy and early years of the Republic and suggests that the female students who participated in May Fourth demonstrations and student organizations may have been very different (or at least were perceived to be different) from the apparently assertive, anarchic and unconventional students of a few years earlier. Perhaps they needed to be in order to be accepted by their male counterparts. Not coincidentally, an article in the same newspaper that appeared a few months earlier in the wake of the May Fourth protests had praised the ways in which ‘orderly’ and ‘disciplined’ female student organizations had worked with their male counterparts, contrasting their cooper­ative outlook with the ‘unruly’ women’s suffrage groups in 1912-1913.3 The for­mer pupil of a girls’ school in Tianjin likewise remembered decades later that at this time (in 1921) her peers were expected to be – and were – responsible and public-minded ‘servants of society’, and that the regulations of the school’s ‘young female brigade’ (younu tuan) enjoined members to be loyal (zhongyi), helpful (zhuren), courteous (haoli), obedient (fucong), hardworking and thrifty (qinjian), pious and devout (qianjing), and clean and tidy (qingjie).4

Furthermore, Xie Wanying’s positive assessment of the contemporary female student received public affirmation when, barely a month after her newspaper article, the fifth annual meeting of the National Federation of Education Associations (quanguo jiaoyuhui lianhehui) held in Taiyuan (Shanxi province) agreed that universities might become co-educational. The most dramatic imple­mentation of such a ruling occurred the following year, when, in February 1920, nine female students became the first to attend Beijing University when they enrolled to audit a number of courses.

This chapter seeks to investigate the extent to which the modernizing conserv­ative agenda on women’s education influenced the debate on women’s university education, as well as the ways in which it continued to underpin the representa­tion of female students’ behaviour and actions during the height of the New Culture, or May Fourth Movement, in the late 1910s and early 1920s. According to most Chinese historians of this period, the late Qing educational aim of liangqi xianmu continued to influence officials and educators during the ‘reactionary’ rule of Yuan Shikai; things only began to change with the May Fourth Movement and the call for gender equality in education.5 In fact, as this chapter will demon­strate, parallel to the radical May Fourth discourse on women’s rights that has conventionally monopolized the attention of both Chinese and Western historians, the assumption that women’s education had to be different because of their vital role in running the household continued to be a feature of official and public discourse throughout this period.6 Such a view characterized the approach of a pioneering history of Chinese women by Chen Dongyuan that was published in 1928. In the last section dealing with the May Fourth period up to his own time

Chen was at pains to point out how irresponsibly female students behaved in not taking seriously their future duties as wife, mother and manager of the household. Although it was right and proper, Chen admitted, that the title of ‘new woman’ (xin funu) was deemed a more appropriate description than the previous one of ‘worthy mother and good wife’ (xianmu liangqi) to represent women’s aspira­tions, this did not mean, he insisted, that young women could dispense with knowledge of domestic and household skills.7

Female students ‘behaving badly’

The prescriptions of officials, educators and commentators notwithstanding, it is clear that anxiety continued to prevail over the prospect that girls and young women would ‘misunderstand’ the rationale and purposes of women’s schooling so carefully delineated by the former. The increasingly acerbic critical discourse on female students’ dress, behaviour and attitudes after 1912 in the newspaper, periodical and women’s press clearly showed that female students were not, in fact, ‘behaving’ in ways laid down by modernizing conservatives. For the histo­rian, such a critical discourse can be read in two ways. First, the denunciation of ‘frivolous’, ‘unrestrained’ and ‘disorderly’ behaviour of female students spoke more about commentators’ own ambivalence and uncertainties at a time of social and cultural change, one of the most striking examples of which, as we have seen, was women’s growing visible presence in society. Second, however, no matter how exaggerated or even paranoid this critical discourse may have been, by reading between the lines it does provide a fleeting and intriguing glimpse of how, and in what ways, girls and young women responded (at a grassroots or even mundane level as it were) to new opportunities available to them in the public sphere before the May Fourth political demonstrations of 1919. This is an aspect of early twentieth-century gender history that has generally been overlooked, as studies have tended to focus on the writing and revolutionary activities of individuals (such as Qiu Jin) or groups (such as Chinese female students in Japan at the end of the Qing), the deconstruction of a few literary texts (such as late Qing novels) in order to discover how new images of women were being reconfigured or invented, and political activism during the May Fourth Movement itself and the accompanying radical discourse on women’s emancipation in progressive journals such as Xin qingnian (New Youth).

One recurrent theme in this critical discourse on female students was their extravagant exhibitionism. Students in Shanghai were condemned for preferring to wear foreign silks and satins, and to dress in ‘foreign styles’ (high collars, ornate buttons and patterns).102 Also, in an apparent ‘vain quest for beauty’, female students wore tight-fitting undergarments (described as the latest discovery in the ‘female student world’) that ‘flattened their breasts’ (shuru); such restrictions, in the words of a school principal, impaired their future reproductive role and ultimately threatened racial oblivion.103 In 1920, at the height of the May Fourth period, another commentator, in addition to calling on students to cease binding their breasts, urged that they refrain from wearing elaborate earrings (which made them look like ‘backward’ African women).104 Students were also reported to be experimenting with a ‘bizarre’ and ‘outlandish’ variety of hair­styles – in addition to ‘bobbing’ their hair, they might arrange their hair in ‘buns’ or ‘coils’, or cut it in front according to a selection of fringe styles. As if these were not bad enough, students insisted on sporting fancy gold-rimmed spectacles (even if they were not short-sighted) and high-heeled leather shoes out of an ‘obsessive’ desire to be ‘fashionable’.105 (The attraction to spectacles amongst female students may have been due to more than just a desire to be fashionable. Zeng Baosun recalls in her memoirs that although she was short-sighted her family did not allow her to wear glasses when she attended the Wuben Girls’ School in 1905;106 the wearing of spectacles by adolescent girls may very well have been a gesture of rebellion against parental authority.) A foreign observer in 1916 likewise referred to the ‘outlandish’ and ultra-stylish dress of the ‘fast set’ amongst the young women of Shanghai; such dress included ‘tight trousers, short tight jackets with short sleeves, and very high collars’, as well as (in the winter) ‘worsted caps, usually trimmed with coloured ribbon or artificial flowers’.107

Significantly, while critics often remarked that female students resembled pros­titutes or ‘frivolous’ fashionable women of the day because of their conspicuous ostentation, garish dress and lack of self-dignity (on the eve of the 1911 Revolution the Board of Education had also implied such a comparison when it publicly rebuked ‘seductively made up and dressed’ [ye] female students),108 others noted that influences could work the other way round. In 1912 one commentator noted that prostitutes in Shanghai, with their foreign clothes, short hair and coquettish demeanour, were aping the fashion and manners of female students (not only out of a desire to follow the ‘latest’ fashions, but also to appropriate student status), while one year later another critic maintained that female students dressed so garishly in the competition amongst themselves to see who could ‘outdress’ the other that they attracted the admiring attention of prostitutes, who sought to emulate their appearance.109 A Shanghai newspaper supplement specializing in sensationalist news noted in 1917 that even ‘low class’ prostitutes (yeji: literally, ‘wild chickens’) sought to imitate the appearance of female students (by wearing, for example, leather shoes and gold-rimmed spectacles, and tying their hair with ‘gaily-coloured ribbons’).110 Such a phe­nomenon could have inconvenient consequences for students; a newspaper report in early 1913 from the provincial capital of Anhui province described how female students from a women’s normal school were constantly being harassed or apprehended by police as suspected prostitutes (the normal school was apparently within the vicinity of a local brothel).111

The haughty and arrogant attitude of female students, as well as their ‘unre­strained’ behaviour were also a cause of concern. One writer complained that girls sought education merely for status and image, wallowing in ‘extravagance and showiness’ (shechi huali) instead of being seriously committed to the acquisition of household skills. Furthermore, they were apparently more interested in discussing international affairs than household management, while their ‘yearning to be westernised’ (mu ouhua) had the unfortunate result that some of them were becoming more proficient in English than their native tongue.112 As one irate commentator noted in 1917, girls’ schools were nothing more than ‘manufacturing plants for high level wastrels’ (gaodeng youmin zhi chuangzao chang), since students picked up the bad habit of disdaining household work.113

The extrovert behaviour of female students especially outraged observers. They were often perceived to be acting with ‘reckless abandon’ (fangdang) as if they had just been released from prison and in the process breaking every convention and taboo.114 One example of such reckless behaviour, one commentator had noted as early as 1912, was the indulgence of female students in ‘same-sex love’ (tongxing zhi aiqing) out of a ‘perverse’ desire to be unconventional.115 Xie Bingying recalls in her autobiography that at the Xinyi Girls’ School in Yiyang (Hunan province) she attended in 1920 at the age of 14, all her friends ‘paired up in couples’ and that when they slept together in the dormitory it was called ‘marriage’. Xie herself had to stave off the advances of several female admirers but was still forced by other classmates to sleep in the same bed with one of them.116 (‘Unhealthy’ bonds amongst female students were not the only source of disquiet at this time. By 1922 the Funu zazhi was publishing articles on ‘women who looked like men’. Such women dressed in men’s clothes, smoked and drank, preferred to work in the outside world of men rather than sew or cook at home, and were sexually attracted to both sexes.)117 If these were not enough, female students were accused of being irascible, aggressive and egotistical; one outraged critic described them as ‘young ruffians’ (e’shao) because of their tendency to make rude comments and engage in mocking laughter at the expense of passers – by, to grab seats for themselves in libraries and teahouses in an ‘unfeminine’ way, and to ‘brazenly’ travel alone.118 Alarm at girls ‘dressing’ as boys and how such girls could undermine social and gender order can be seen in sensationalist news reports such as the one in 1913 that recounted the audacious behaviour of an adolescent girl who disguised herself as a boy to ‘inveigle’ herself into a boys’ middle school in Shanghai; after several months she apparently ‘coerced’ a male student to abscond with her to a neighbouring town, where they embarked on ‘a reckless spree of wild abandon’ (hutian hudi).119

One critic, Piao Ping, attempted to draw a psychological profile of female students to explain their unconventional behaviour, arguing that although outwardly they seemed strong and confident, they were in fact inwardly weak. This apparently was due to the fact that female students were not fastidious enough about their diet, hygiene and physical fitness, and hence they tended to be rather frenetic and nervous in their dispositions. Also, Piao Ping continued, whereas in the past women were accustomed to controlling their feelings and maintaining an aura of serenity even if in mental turmoil, young women (and female students in particular) of today were now more prone to express their irritation or dissatisfaction, as well as taking offence on the slightest pretext. Female students of today, Piao Ping gloomily concluded, do not get on with each other, are immodest, and disrespectful towards teachers and parents (who were simply viewed as ‘meal tickets’). Harking back to the warning made in a women’s journal in 1911 (see Chapter 3) that a deficiency in household skills threatened the future of the country, Piao Ping warned that if the behaviour and attitude of female students did not change, an expansion of women’s education would only result in the disintegration and collapse of families.120 In the same year Piao Ping published a series of articles criticizing trends in the West, where women were increasingly going out to work; such a trend, in Piao Ping’s view, led to the decline of morality amongst women, which not only threatened the stability of the household but also resulted in an increasing attraction to ‘singlehood’ (bao dushen zhuyi). Women would be far more productive and useful to society, Piao Ping concluded, if they were trained to ‘manage consumption’ within the family via their expertise in hygiene, cooking, sewing and budgeting.121

The participation of female students in school strikes and protests also indi­cated that they did not go along with the modernizing conservative agenda promoting deference and modesty amongst young girls. In 1912-1913 students at Beijing Women’s Normal School, for example, vigorously condemned the atti­tude of their principal, Wu Dingchang, who believed women should be educated primarily in household skills and apparently restricted the number of newspapers they could read; they wrote a letter of complaint to the Education Ministry and some students withdrew from the school.122 The students also published an open letter in the press, calling into question Wu’s personal morality (noting that he kept a concubine, physically abused his wife and had embezzled funds when he was principal of Beiyang Women’s Normal School before 1911).123 At the Number Two Provincial Women’s Normal School in Jinan (Shandong province) more than 60 students went on strike in 1915 after the principal had disciplined them for criticizing the eating arrangements; they marched on the offices of the local police bureau to publicize the principal’s ‘arbitrary’ treatment of students.124 Students at foreign-run missionary schools were likewise not adverse to protesting against ‘unfair’ treatment by teachers. At the Shanghai McTyeire School, for example, over 80 students went on strike in 1915 in protest against the ‘tyrannical’ American principal.125

Just as educational discourse before 1911 had tended to lay the blame for China’s decline on the shoulders of women, it seemed that many educators and commentators after 1912 attributed moral laxity and social disorder to the ‘failings’ of women who had received a modern education.126 Female education, one writer angrily thundered, was not meant to usher in a ‘Paris-style society’ – an expression used at this time to denote ‘extravagance’ and ‘debauchery’ – but rather to train dutiful and diligent wives and mothers.127 Another commentator went so far as to maintain that increasing levels of extravagance amongst young women were a principal cause of growing crime rates in China, as men resorted to ever more desperate measures in order to satisfy their insatiable demands.128 The condemnation of female students in the periodical and women’s press was frequently echoed by school principals. A typical example was the principal of a school in Wuxi (Jiangsu province), Duan Hua; she not only harangued her stu­dents in 1915 for wearing their hair in buns and sporting leather shoes, but also for displaying an ‘arrogant’ and ‘self-satisfied’ outlook.129 Interestingly, critics of female student behaviour often referred wistfully to the West, where more cau­tious and ‘sensible’ attitudes towards women’s emancipation were beginning to prevail, while in China, apparently, women were perversely demanding more equality.130 This contrast between a ‘conservative’ West and a ‘radical’ China is an intriguing inversion of the usual view adopted by Chinese radical intellectuals during the May Fourth (or New Culture) Movement.

As the grumblings of discontent about the direction of women’s education became ever more vociferous during this period, so the importance of household management became increasingly viewed as the essential panacea to guarantee social stability. If girls did not study embroidery, cooking, sewing and even horticulture, one journal article remarked in 1917, family independence and harmony – the bedrock on which a prosperous and well-ordered society depended – would be under threat (especially as the independent family household was compared to a ‘small government’ [xiao zhengfu] whose stability entirely depended on a woman’s budgeting and household skills).131 Given the fact that the family, in the view of another more gloomy observer, was always a potential ‘battleground’ of internal conflict pitting husband against wife, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and father against son, it was more imperative than ever that women be provided with the training necessary for them to play their essential harmonizing role in the family.132 Such a refrain, however, clearly indicated that the modernizing conservative agenda on women’s education133 was not being implemented, although, as the next chapter will show, it continued to influence discourse during the height of the May Fourth Movement.

Discourses of female behaviour and education

The response of officials, educators and newspaper/periodical commentators to this growing public presence of women and, in particular, female students has to be placed in the larger context of ‘behavioural modernization’ that had become a concern of reformers in the post-Boxer Uprising period (see Chapter 2), and which continued to occupy the minds of Republican government and intellectual elites. In many ways Republican elites envisaged a more thorough surveillance of popular culture than had been the case before in their quest to make China a well – ordered and ‘civilized’ member of the world community.36 Such a quest also underpinned urban reform (a process that likewise had begun during the last years of the monarchy) as bureaucratic and social elites in the cities sought to ‘remake’ urban space as an ordered, hygienic and cultured environment (which included, in many cases, clamping down on what was perceived to be ‘backward’ street culture).37 Beginning in 1912 provincial and educational elites began creating popular education associations with the aim of ‘improving customs’ by supervis­ing all forms of popular entertainment and reading matter. By 1915 there were over 200 such associations throughout the country.38 Taking the lead from these semi­official organizations, the Republican Education Ministry in 1915 set up a popular education research association (tongsu jiaoyu yanjiuhui) of its own with the remit to oversee the ‘improvement’ of novels, plays, songs and public lectures (as well as to check up on films and phonograph records).39 The association enlisted representatives from the Education Ministry and the Beijing Police Bureau, as well as administrators from various higher institutions of learning such as Beida.

As part of its task to reform customs and behaviour, the association not only addressed open letters to writers urging them to practice self-censorship and stop producing ‘salacious’ novels that ‘damaged social mores’ and encouraged immoral behaviour,40 but also regularly drew up lists of novels and labelled them as superior, average or inferior. Those labelled inferior were to be banned, although the associ­ation’s authority was clearly limited; in 1917 it complained that a book banned in Beijing simply ‘reappeared’ in other cities such as Shanghai.41 Significantly, novels that dealt with the ‘hidden’ lives of female students were ranked along with other ‘lewd’ or ‘pornographic’ publications – such as Seyu shijie (The World of Sex) – as the very epitome of decadent reading material (to which, in the view of one women’s journal, female students were especially susceptible),42 and hence deserving to be banned.43 An example of the former (which was in fact banned) was a 1915 novel entitled Nuxuesheng zhi mimi ji (The Secret Record of a Female Student) by Ye Shaoqin. Described in the preface as a novel of ‘emotional pain and suffering’ (kuqing xiaoshuo), the (male) author ‘packaged’ his novel as the intimate confession (chanhui) of an adolescent female student looking back regretfully on her impetuous and irresponsible infatuation with a fellow male student whom she subsequently secretly marries; she finally realizes her mistake and how she has ‘misunderstood freedom’ (wujie ziyou) before leaving him.44 A book deemed supe­rior, by way of contrast, was an advice manual on the improvement of household management; it included an anecdote of a Chinese woman so inspired by the spot­lessly clean house of a Western missionary that on her return home she embarked on a campaign to put ‘her own house in order’ (zhijia zhixu), which entailed not only dusting, cleaning and rearranging furniture in an orderly way, but also forcing her husband to quit smoking opium in the home and to find a job.45

In addition to popular education associations, a wide network of officially sanctioned popular lecture institutes (tongsu jiaoyu jiangyansuo) was also created with the aim of ‘enlightening the people’ and ‘reforming society’.46 Totalling over

2,0 nationwide by 1916-1917, these lecture institutes sought to persuade peo­ple to divest themselves of ‘uncivilised’ habits such as throwing garbage or uri­nating in the street, pushing and shoving while getting on trains, and shouting in public.47 A more elaborate list of behavioural ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ that was to be taught in schools was drawn up in 1913 by the educator, Jia Dianzhi, in the pages of Jiaoyu zazhi, and its sheer range indicated the extent to which the populace was to be ‘remade’ as Republican citizens. Thus at home students were to be taught the importance of respecting elders, being quiet during the night, rising early in the morning and storing rubbish in the appropriate containers. Outside the home, youngsters were to be taught not to go outside sparsely dressed, not to buy and eat foodstuffs on the street, not to mistreat animals, not to urinate on the streets, not to sing loudly or engage in vulgar chatter in public, not to vandalize public prop­erty (such as park benches), and not to enter someone’s house without knocking first; at the same time, they were to be taught the importance of displaying the national flag outside the main gate of public buildings (especially when celebrating national holidays such as the anniversary of the October 1911 uprising) while also showing respect to foreign flags, being polite to foreigners, valuing time and punctuality, and always giving way to soldiers passing in the street.48

Against this background of ‘behavioural modernization’ in the early Republic, women were once again, as they had been during the last decade of the monarchy, to be a principal focus of the project. It is no coincidence, for example, that the reports on ‘evil’ and ‘backward’ customs (e’fengsu or e’xi) that frequently appeared in the periodical and women’s press in the early years of the Republic (and which needed to be eliminated) for the most part referred to women’s activ­ities and past-times.49 One of the first acts of new municipal authorities in Shanghai after the Revolution was to target the ‘evil custom’ of female shamans and ‘ignorant’ women’s faith in their ability to cure sickness. In October 1912 they ordered that a survey be carried out recording the names and addresses of all shamanesses in the city, who were to be compelled to earn an alternative liveli­hood. Now that China is a Republic, the Shanghai authorities opined, it could certainly not tolerate such ‘bad customs’.50

Given also the alarms raised in the wake of the 1911 Revolution concerning the behaviour of adolescent girls and women (see Chapter 3), the new Republican government in Beijing attempted to impose prescriptions for the ‘ proper’ behaviour of women. The tone was set by a newspaper editorial at the beginning of 1913 that attributed to women virtually sole responsibility for guaranteeing the moral health of society. It was thus more important, in the view of the editorialist, to ensure moral integrity/chastity (zhencao) amongst women than men, especially at a time when old ways and conventions were breaking down. Young women, the editorial concluded, had to be ‘whiter than white’ and should thus on no account be ‘reckless and unrestrained’ or ‘give vent to carnal desires’ (zongyu).51 In May 1913 members of the newly elected National Parliament declared that the encour­agement of chaste and filial behaviour amongst women was crucially urgent to restore social order and end the current malaise of ‘moral confusion’.52 The following year, echoing decisions made by the new Meiji government in Japan after 1868 to restrict women’s public activities,53 the government issued public order regulations that listed women amongst several social groups (soldiers, monks, primary school teachers) forbidden from joining political associations.54

More significantly, however, the government at the same time issued regula­tions for a system of ‘commendation’ (baoyang) designed specifically to foster ‘virtuous’ behaviour amongst women. Modelled on practices that had been fol­lowed during the Ming and Qing dynasties to reward chaste women (by having local ceremonial arches erected in their honour, imperially inscribed plaques attached to household gates, and commemorative tablets placed in Shrines to the Chaste and Filial),55 the regulations listed eight categories of women deserving of commendation: those who exhibited outstanding filial behaviour, those who were ‘chaste and upright’ (jielie zhencao), those who acted ‘righteously’, those over 60 years of age famed for their virtue, those involved in charitable work, those who had contributed more than 1,000 dollars to the ‘public interest’ (gongyi), those who championed ‘hard work and thriftiness’ (qinjian), and those over 100 years old.56 These regulations were revised and reissued in November 1917, with added criteria qualifying for commendation being merit earned in ‘arts and crafts’ ( yishu) and the ability to maintain harmonious relations (muyin) with in-laws and relatives.57 Candidates for commendation could be living or dead, and their names could be submitted to local magistrates by a son, grandson or other relative. On checking the facts, magistrates were then to inform the President, who would thereupon issue an inscribed plaque (bian ’e) stamped with the President’s seal in gold or silver. Such an honour, however, did not come free; a commendation fee of six dollars had to be paid in advance by the proposer.58 This commendation system continued well into the 1920s; a 1922 article in Fund zazhi claimed that the Internal Affairs Ministry each year received several thousand proposals of commendation for chaste and loyal behaviour.59 The Internal Affairs Ministry itself regularly published lists in its official journal of chaste widows and ‘heroic women’ who had committed suicide on the death of their husbands or after being


Reports on commendation from district magistrates in Zhili province to the Internal Affairs Ministry in Beijing between 1915 and 1924 indicate that much value was placed on ‘appropriate’ filial behaviour towards husbands, parents and in-laws.61 Such behaviour in some cases involved suicide, such as that of a Ms Wu Liang in Wen’an district who starved herself to death in 1916 at the age of 26 following the death of her mother (the magistrate also noted that she had faithfully served her parents-in-law and maintained harmonious relations with her sisters-in-law),62 or of a Ms Dong Guixiu in Yanshan district who similarly starved herself to death in 1919 after the death of her father. From an early age, it was reported, Dong had been ‘kind and gentle’ (shuxian), ‘circumspect’ (jin) and ‘compliant with the rules of the inner household’ (shou guixun); anxious that she was not serving her parents as well as she might, she devoted all her time to caring for her father when he fell ill. On his death she simply refused to eat or drink.63 In other cases, such as that of the two sisters in Renqiu district in 1917, Bian Jiahui and Bian Jiayi, devotion to the ‘filial way’ (xiaodao) meant remaining at the parental home looking after a sick mother; the sisters (both unmarried) died prematurely at the ages of 37 and 27 respectively of ‘exhaustion’. Another report in 1922 referred to the 54-year-old Wang Yurong in Wanping district, who had been persuaded by clan elders not to commit suicide after the death of her father 40 years earlier in order that she could continue caring for her mother and siblings, as well as managing the household.64

An appeal to traditional values and virtues at this time was also bolstered by reference to new foreign models. In the wake of the Republican Revolution, for example, the Funu shibao (Ladies Times) praised the inspiring example of George Washington’s mother, who was hailed as the epitome of frugality and self­lessness, and who insisted on continuing to live in the simple family home (rais­ing chickens and growing mulberries) even after her son became President.65 As such, Washington’s mother joined the pantheon of indigenous maternal models, such as the mother of Mencius, who had been praised in late Qing school readers and who continued to be upheld as an ideal model of maternal virtue in the peri­odical and women’s press during the early Republic.66

Furthermore, throughout the early years of the Republic educators promoted the ‘professionalization’ of household management. Housework was portrayed as a profession (zhiye) equivalent to any other, with educational officials such as Jiang Weiqiao – who before 1911 had equated female education solely with instruction in domestic skills – now buttressing his argument in 1917 with the claim that competence in such skills was considered a professional vocation in the West (especially in American schools).67 Women’s journals such as Fund zazhi and Zhonghua fundjie (Chinese Women’s World), as well as specialist periodicals on the household such as Jiating zazhi (English title: ‘The Home Companion’), provided information on how to understand the psychology of children, become familiar with household germs, keep courtyards tidy, maintain household appli­ances and tools in good working order, and arrange furniture in the ‘proper’ way (and even how to keep pets!). Such journals also published translated articles from American and British middle-class women’s magazines to confirm further the importance of skilled domestic management and to cloak the idea with added legitimacy; one such article reported on a nationwide competition in the United States to discover and honour the wife who had most successfully furthered her husband’s career by means of frugal housekeeping.68

For Hu Binxia, who had studied in Japan and the United States before 1911 (see Chapter 2), and became a deputy editor of Funu zazhi in 1915, the American household was the model to which all countries should aspire because it represented a peaceful and prosperous environment presided over by a skilled housewife and to which husbands could return without trepidation.69 As one writer observed in 1918, the meaning of housework was very different from that of the past, when it connoted drudgery and subservience; rather, it now represented a vital contribution to the national interest – so vital, the writer continued, that the woman’s role in the household was as significant for national well-being as a man’s role in the army.70 Another commentator in 1912 equated the role of a good housewife (liangqi) with that of a good prime minister (liangxiang); both were needed to ensure the country’s revival.71 Wang Jieliang, in his description of the ideal household (as one in which rooms were spotlessly clean, furniture neatly arranged, and meals nutritional and taken at regular times), maintained that household budgets were comparable in importance to government budgets.72 In 1916 Zhi Zhishu, a graduate of Nanjing Women’s Normal School and a primary school teacher, also gave detailed advice in the pages of Fund zazhi on how to balance expenditures and income of the house­hold budget, assuring her readers how satisfying (and crucial) such a task was.73

Not surprisingly, women’s personal hygiene and deportment within the home became a matter of public discourse at this time; a women’s journal such as Zhonghua fundjie, for example, advised women to rise early, wash their teeth and faces properly, refrain from smoking and exercise before breakfast.74 The extent of a woman’s sensitivity to, and knowledge of, household hygiene, in fact, was linked to wider social concerns, with one writer blaming Chinese women’s sloppy inattention to hygiene and cleanliness within the home for the country’s filthy and rubbish-strewn streets; such a state of affairs, the author sadly mused, meant that China ranked very low in the international hygiene stakes.75 (Such assumptions about women’s lack of cleanliness were not shared by Xie Bingying, who attended an all-boys’ school in her home village of Xietuoshan, Hunan province, in 1916. In her memoirs, she remembered with disgust the male teacher’s lack of personal hygiene, adding that ‘I naturally cared more about cleanliness than the other boys did’.)76 Sometimes, intimate advice was offered that was geared to a woman’s appearance. Thus the first issue of Jiating zazhi advised women on how to preserve the lustrousness of their hair, how to keep the face wrinkle-free, and how to keep hands fresh and beautiful looking.77

The importance of domesticity and the role of girls’ schools as the site in which domestic skills would be acquired were underscored in reports of individual schools that were published in the educational press, as well as in Republican school readers. Hou Hongjian’s 1915 report on the Conscientious Will Girls’ School (jingzhi ndxuexiao) in Wuxi that he had founded in 1905 (see Chapter 2), for example, made a point of illustrating how closely the school followed the 1912 curriculum for women’s education (he was also keen on showing how well regulated students’ behaviour was, claiming that all the girls wore simple and plain clothes, either had their hair done in neat braids or buns, and refrained from raucous laughter and chatter to and from school).78 Hou noted that the school took seriously the teaching of domestic science, embroidery and horticulture; it also provided practical training in household management that involved students cleaning rooms, doing the washing, gardening and compiling accounts (for the school’s ‘sales department’, which was responsible for marketing handicraft items made at the school). Hou also had plans to add a ‘kitchen laboratory’ to the school premises in which students would gain knowledge about international, as well as a wider variety of domestic, culinary techniques and skills.79 As Hou would observe a year later, such training would produce future ‘household talent’ (jiating zhi rencai) for the country.80 A journal published by the Jiangsu Number Two Provincial Women’s Normal School likewise drew attention to the practical lessons it gave in cookery and horticulture,81 as well as urging girls not to view household duties as a ‘mean occupation’ (jianye).82

Many of the assumptions about the rationale and ‘ proper’ aims of women’s education in the periodical press were echoed by some female students them­selves. Thus in an anthology of prize Chinese essays written by female students and published in 1916,83 two of the contributions (by students in Jiangsu Number Two Provincial Women’s Normal School in Suzhou) began by justifying the cre­ation of a wide network of girls’ schools on the grounds that it was women, rather than men, who were to blame for China’s weakness.84 One of the students, Wang Shiwei, argued that Chinese women were ignorant of their ‘responsibility’ (zeren), but what exactly did Wang have in mind? It was, in fact, a responsibility set entirely within the context of the household:

China has a population of 400 million with women comprising half; but with such a half being like rotting bushes and trees as to be virtually good for nothing, then the decline of the country is inevitable. Moreover, the male half of the population is thereby unable to shoulder completely its duties. Women are the mothers of future citizens. If there is no maternal education the aim of training good citizens and strengthening the nation is unobtainable.

Wang went on to note that if only women could transform their petty feelings of resentment into a more general attitude of indignation vis-a-vis the parlous state of the nation, they could then apply themselves to study and gain knowledge, the purpose of which ultimately would be to facilitate men’s contributions to the public sphere:

With women’s learning extended, their knowledge will be perfected. With their knowledge perfected, the way to saving the country will have been found. This will allow the washing away of all shame and the avenging of all wrongs (i. e. experienced by the country), thereby fulfilling women’s respon­sibilities. With regard to the family, women will be able to reform the house­hold and educate their children; with regard to society, they will revitalize education and stimulate economic prosperity, so that men will be able to devote themselves fully to national affairs – either through officialdom, the military or diplomacy (emphasis mine).85

Other essays underlined the importance of women’s role in household management, and insisted that since the household was the ‘microcosm of the state’ (guojia zhi suoying), girls’ schools had to concentrate on the teaching of domestic skills.86 Another student, from Tai district (Jiangsu province), criticized her peers for becoming ‘intoxicated with the new learning’ (zuixin xinxue) and behaving in an arrogant and ‘puffed up’ (pengsong) way. What they should realize, she advised, was that domestic skills such as embroidery and cooking had to be taught at girls’ schools so as to prepare students for their future role as household managers.87

Early Republican school readers and teaching manuals for girls also preached the virtues of ‘ correct’ personal deportment and behaviour, as well as of domestic efficiency. The Nuzi guowen jiaoke shu (Chinese Reader for Girls’ Lower Primary Schools), first published in 1914 and reprinted eight times by 1921, advised its young audience that:

An unkempt and disheveled appearance is harmful to health and one’s bearing.

Therefore one’s hair must be constantly combed and face constantly washed.

Efforts should always be made to keep clean and tidy.88

A teaching manual for ethics in girls’ higher primary schools, published in 1915, recommended that girls were to bathe frequently, and to ensure that clothes and dishes were always kept scrupulously clean.89 By the 1920s, in fact, specialized textbooks on women’s fitness and personal appearance began to be published; one such textbook, published in 1924 with the title Nuzi meirong yundong fa (Ways for Women to Exercise for a Beautiful Appearance), stressed the aesthetic value of having regular facial features, clean white teeth, well-developed breasts and smooth skin devoid of body hair.90

Republican school readers also continued to stress the importance of a respectful and obedient attitude (towards parents, husbands and in-laws) amongst girls, as well as reinforcing the notion of separate spheres. One of the lessons in the Reader for Girls’ Lower Primary Schools depicted a son helping his father in the fields, while the daughter diligently cleans and dusts the home.91 It should be reiterated, however, that the Republican household manager was to be very differ­ent from the ‘sequestered’ occupant of the ‘inner chambers’. Lessons portrayed, for example, a socially confident daughter greeting and seeing off guests at the entrance to the house, as well as a serious-minded girl reproaching her neighbour for tolerating an untidy and unhygienic household.92 This ‘proselytising’ role of the new household manager was captured in one lesson depicting a group of women enthusiastically seeking advice from a model housewife.93 Girls were also depicted as the protectors of ‘public virtue’ (gongde), one example of which was instructing friends that it was wrong to pick the flowers in a public park.94 More significantly, one Republican school reader described the running of a smooth household in military terms; a lesson entitled ‘Honouring the Military’ (shangwu) advised women to cultivate a ‘forceful’ and ‘martial’ outlook in the home.95 (An article several years later appearing in Jiaoyu zazhi explicitly compared women’s ‘naturally-ordained’ and self-sacrificing role as household manager with men’s

duty to devote their lives through military service to the protection of the country.)96 Messages, however, might be somewhat mixed as well. Thus a teaching manual for ethics in primary school insisted that girls were to be taught to adopt a ‘com­petitive spirit’ in life; it also, paradoxically, pointed out that girls had to be ‘obliging and compliant’ (wanshun), as well as ‘faithful and chaste’ (shoujie). Again, while the manual declared that girls should be taught that everyone should have a profession, lessons made clear that the appropriate occupations for women were limited to nursing, primary school teaching, embroidery and sericulture.97

A paradox existed in this modernizing conservative discourse on women’s edu­cation, however. While some had explicitly drawn a negative picture of women and justified female education in terms of correcting their ‘ character deficiencies’ and equipping them with the appropriate training that would allow them to ‘rediscover’ their ordained role as household managers, others evaluated women’s ‘natural’ char­acters and inclinations in a more positive way (in comparison to men) as a justifi­cation for household training, which, in turn, led to the notion that women were more suited to certain tasks outside the home as well. In a series of articles in 1911-1912 on girls’ schools, a Shanghai schoolteacher, Li Tinghan, after having criticized the arrogant attitude of contemporary female students whose elevated view of themselves meant they spurned instruction in their ‘natural’ duties of cooking and embroidery, proposed a curriculum that would provide instruction in such skills as accountancy and design; the acquisition of such skills, Li argued, would enable female students in the future to become ‘talented people in society’ (shehui zhi rencai) rather than merely ‘worthy mothers and good wives’.98 Li declared that because girls were naturally more ‘solemn and calm’ (jingmu) and ‘meticulous’ (jingxi) than boys, they would be especially suited to work as accoun­tants, secretaries and designers, as well as being able to work in such public places as libraries and banks.99 (Li also paradoxically asserted that girls’ schools had to both inculcate a ‘spirit of obedience’ [fucong zhi xingzhi] amongst their pupils since they would all have to obey someone when they became older and to strictly supervise pupils’ movements and behaviour, yet also urged that girls be taught how to be ‘coura­geous and resolute’ [guogan] and rid themselves of their dependent natures’.)100

By 1922 a writer was imagining even wider opportunities for women in the public sphere on the basis of their supposed ‘innate’ characters. In an article pub­lished in Xin funu, Zhi Jie opined that women’s ‘gentle and meek’ (roushun) natures inclined them to be more polite and tactful than men, and hence more suitable to work with the public (as telephone operators, in post offices and on the railways for example); their innate sense of ‘meticulousness’ would make them superior accoun­tants; their superior memories and ability to express themselves clearly would equip them to be skilled lawyers; and, finally, their natural patience would make them more appropriate train or bus drivers because they would avoid accidents.101

Girls’ schools in the early Republic

Given the political instability of the period and frequent bouts of domestic armed conflicts, especially after 1916 when central power from Beijing following the death of President Yuan Shikai began to ebb in favour of provincial and local mil­itarists, the growth of women’s education was remarkably steady. However, in terms of numbers of schools and students, it lagged far behind that of boys. Thus while the total number of female students increased from 141,130 in 1912-1913 (4.81 per cent of the school population) to 417,820 in 1922-1923 (6.32 per cent of the school population), the total number of male students increased from nearly three million to just over six and a half million during the same period5 (see Table 4.1). At the primary level (principally primary schools and a smaller number of lower vocational schools) the number of girls increased from 130,808 in 1912-1913 to 164,719 in 1916-1917, whereas the number of boys increased from 2,662,825 to 3,678,736 in the same period (see Table 4.2). By 1923 the primary

Table 4.1 Number of female students, 1912-1923 (number of missionary school students not included)


Female students (male students in brackets)

Girls’ schools

% of school population


141,130 (2,933,387)




166,964 (3,643,206)




177,273 (4,075,338)




180,949 (4,294,251)




172,724 (3,974,454)




417,820 (6,615,772)


school enrolment for girls totalled 403,742 (6.19 per cent of the total)6 (see Table 4.3). Interestingly, the proportion of girls at secondary level (which com­prised normal, middle and higher vocational schools) was slightly higher, although absolute numbers did not increase significantly – from 10,146 in 1912

Year Primary level Students Secondary Students


Table 4.2 Primary and secondary level school enrolment for girls, 1912-1917 (figures for boys’ schools in brackets)































1915 –










1916 –










Source: Huang Yanpei, ‘Zhongguo ershiwu nianjian quanguo jiaoyu tongji de zong jiancha’, Renwen, 4.5 (15 June 1933), 13-17, 18-20.

Table 4.3 Number of female students in primary school, 1923 (number of boys in brackets)


Lower primary

% of total enrolment

Higher primary

% of total enrolment


4,172 (75,048)


767 (4,801)



22,265 (497,414)


1,338 (33,486)



17,448 (275,703)


2,240 (25,140)



4,157 (51,262)


643 (5,919)



4,161 (42,029)


769 (4,028)



15,797 (712,250)


1,807 (36,632)



6,522 (250,617)


1,036 (21,512)



129,889 (608,305)


2,792 (37,737)



36,019 (317,124)


5,583 (35,373)



4,391 (69,056)


728 (17,442)



5,595 (180,260)


420 (22,345)



3,713 (115,335)


719 (25,077)



19,781 (354,145)


2,847 (33,519)



6,620 (183,542)


1,371 (14,417)



22,805 (256,924)


1,569 (32,518)



3,544 (185,415)


1,469 (16,346)



1,832 (99,978)


88 (12,011)



86 (2,980)


— (468)


29,209 (495,716)


4,684 (45,431)



11,843 (300,101)


2,253 (62,220)



6,729 (152,325)


872 (23,811)



7,766 (147,494)


915 (22,654)



2,728 (50,629)


131 (11,765)



973 (14,448)


99 (1,402)



144 (7,799)


— (435)


371 (9,916)


42 (808)



368,560 (5,445,815)


35,182 (547,297)


(9.77 per cent of the total) to 11,824 in 1922 (6.46 per cent of the total).7 In 1923, moreover, there were only 3,429 girls at middle school, compared to 100,136 boys, and 6,724 at normal school compared to 31,553 boys (see Table 4.4).

The numbers of schools for girls during the early Republic were also dwarfed by those for boys. Thus whereas the number of girls’ schools rose from 2,389 in 1912 to 3,461 in 1916, the number of boys’ schools increased from 84,883 to 117,658 in the same period.8 The provincial distribution of girls’ schools in the early years of the Republic, however, revealed that it was not only the traditionally more wealthy provinces that supported female education. In 1914, for example, while the metropolitan province of Zhili came first with 445 girls’ schools, and the prosperous coastal provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang third (331 schools) and sixth (266 schools) respectively, the relatively poorer province of Shandong came fourth with 323 schools and the inland province of Sichuan (not as exposed to foreign influences as the eastern coastal provinces) second with 442 schools.

Table 4.4 Number of female students at middle and normal schools, 1923 (number of male students in brackets)


Middle school

% of total enrolment

Normal school

% of total enrolment


823 (4,646)


271 (541)



46 (7,434)


635 (2,212)



154 (3,558)


413 (2,051)



— (960)

151 (1,006)



35 (594)


116 (200)



92 (6,199)


365 (1,921)



— (3,036)

187 (1,420)



— (6,910)

813 (2,629)



953 (8,263)


770 (2,751)



18 (1,920)


402 (1,335)




108 (1,696)



111 (3,662)


177 (1,003)



120 (5,011)


451 (2,498)



186 (5,338)


136 (807)



86 (8,867)


771 (1,856)



— (1,829)

50 (656)



— (777)

49 (664)



— (85)


— (9,581)

498 (1,517)



468 (8,639)


193 (1,208)



— (3,921)

— (641)


157 (2,783)


40 (1,345)



— (1,664)

38 (227)



— (178)

— (121)


— (102)

— (87)


— (99)

— (76)


3,249 (100,136)


6,724 (31,553)


More significantly, the culturally and economically ‘backward’ southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou reported totals of 248 and 145 girls’ schools respectively in 1914, considerably more than the coastal provinces of Guangdong (76 schools) and Fujian (30 schools) (see Table 4.5). In 1923, nevertheless, out of the country’s total of 1,811 counties (xian), 423 had still not established a lower primary school for girls, while 1,161 did not have a higher primary school for girls.9 Statistics on the number of students who dropped out of primary school in any one year, however, suggest that although female enrolment was small compared to male enrolment during the early Republic more girls were actually staying on at school. In 1914-1915, for example, 178,669 boys dropped out of lower primary school (compared to 10,674 girls), while 31,122 boys dropped out of higher primary school (compared to 1,807 girls).10 A similar situation pertained in 1916-1917; 151,585 boys dropped out of lower primary school (compared to 7,900 girls), while 12,628 boys dropped out of higher primary school (compared to 1,611 girls).11

The gender gap was even more striking in the enrolment figures for individual provinces. In the metropolitan province of Zhili (renamed Hebei in the 1920s),

Table 4.5 Number of girls’ schools, 1912-1914 (boys’ schools in brackets)






321 (12,255)

387 (13,043)

445 (14,196)


172 (4,275)

258 (5,037)

296 (5,420)


28 (443)

31 (509)

47 (631)


31 (298)

41 (344)

56 (910)


83 (5,113)

197 (9,925)

323 (13,168)


44 (4,626)

83 (6,074)

83 (6,251)


222 (5,551)

259 (7,557)

175 (9,121)


275 (5,068)

263 (5,301)

331 (5,651)


38 (1,419)

25 (987)

34 (1,101)


59 (3,083)

69 (4,244)

73 (3,896)


11 (978)

19 (1,137)

30 (1,522)


231 (5,930)

249 (6,296)

266 (6,270)


160 (7,132)

194 (9,510)

171 (8,874)


96 (3,983)

131 (5,441)

157 (6,720)


26 (1,985)

68 (3,037)

128 (4,433)


1 (1,024)

9 (1,154)

12 (1,282)


– (60)

– (72)

– (80)


225 (11,738)

340 (13,852)

442 (14,509)


32 (3,217)

51 (3,340)

76 (4,975)


41 (1,490)

64 (1,972)

75 (1,914)


201 (3,752)

252 (4,506)

248 (5,010)


79 (959)

114 (1,226)

145 (1,434)


13 (396)

18 (476)

18 (456)


– (90)

1 (150)


2 (127)

Source: JYZZ 14.3 (March 1922).

for example, whereas school enrolment for boys in 1916 (totalling 506,997) comprised 32.84 per cent of the male school-age population, for girls (totalling 12,834) it comprised 1.24 per cent of the female school-age population. Of the 119 districts in the province, only 59 registered female enrolment in schools above 1 per cent of their female school-age populations (the highest being 8.73 per cent); on the other hand, 35 districts registered male enrolment in school above 40 per cent of their male school-age populations.12 In Sichuan province there were 13,469 lower primary schools for boys (415,778 students) in 1916, but only 363 for girls (20,239 students). At the higher primary level in this year there were 764 schools for boys (41,911 students) and 72 for girls (2,367 students).13 Even in the capital, Beijing, the gender gap was noticeable. At the end of 1916 the Beijing Education Bureau issued figures for lower and higher primary school enrolment in 1915-1916. Whereas there was a total of204 lower primary schools for boys (18,971 students), there were only 23 such schools for girls (2,452 students); a similar disparity existed at higher primary level, with 50 schools for boys (3,644 students) and only 13 for girls (254 students).14

Figures for Zhejiang province in the early years of the Republic also indicate that there was only a small increase in lower-level education for girls compared to boys. Thus, for example, while the number of lower primary (or citizen) schools for girls increased from only 162 (5,196 students) in 1912 to 193 (7,233 students) in 1916, those for boys increased from 5,196 (223,739 students) to 7,233 (279,675 students) in the same period (see Table 4.6). Statistics on educational expenditures for Zhejiang province during the same period likewise indicate a slow expansion of female education, although overshadowed by that of education for boys. Thus while expenditures on girls’ lower primary schools in the province increased from approximately 31,500 Chinese dollars in 1912 to nearly

60,0 Chinese dollars in 1916, those on boys’ lower primary schools increased from nearly 1.2 million to 1.5 million Chinese dollars during the same period (see Table 4.7). Intriguingly, however, while expenditures on girls’ higher primary schools increased during these years, those on boys’ higher primary schools actually decreased slightly.

In addition to the growing numbers of female students (albeit small when compared to those of boys) in the early Republic there was a larger presence of

Table 4.6 Number of primary schools for girls in Zhejiang province, 1912-1916 (figures for boys’ schools in brackets)


Lower primary


Higher primary



162 (5,196)

8,186 (223,739)

62 (671)

1,708 (27,974)


163 (5,654)

8,839 (244,610)

75 (704)

1,880 (31,708)


180 (5,609)

14,484 (248,504)

77 (682)

2,221 (29,375)


180 (6,441)

10,557 (278,087)

79 (641)

1,842 (29,301)


193 (7,233)

11,147 (279,675)

84 (650)

2,147 (31,423)

Source: Jiaoyu chao, 1:1 (1919), diaocha baogao, 87-89.

Table 4.7 Expenditures on primary schools in Zhejiang province, 1912-1916 (in Ch. dollars)






Lower primary (girls)






Lower primary (boys)






Higher primary (girls)






Higher primary (boys)






Source: Jiaoyu chao 1.2 (1919), diaocha baogao, 79-80.

female teachers. This is borne out by the noticeable increase in the number of female students at normal school during the first years of the Republic. By 1915, for example, there were 96 normal schools for girls (with 7,904 students), compared to 135 for boys (and 18,775 students).15 In fact, most secondary-level schools for girls in this period were normal schools; in 1913-1914, out of 131 secondary – level schools for girls, 101 were normal schools, while in 1916-1917 74 of the 98 secondary-level schools for girls were normal schools. Although the number of normal schools for girls fell in subsequent years (74 in 1916 and 61 in 1917), nevertheless in 1923 there were 6,724 female students at normal school, constituting 17.5 per cent of the total normal school enrolment (in the same year the number of female students in primary and middle schools constituted 6.19 per cent and 3.14 per cent respectively of total enrolment).16 Now, whereas during the last years of the Qing many teaching positions in girls’ schools had been filled by men, it became increasingly common for such schools to have virtually an all­female staff. A report on the Beijing Number One Girls’ Middle School by an education inspector in 1914, for example, noted that all the staff (with the excep­tion of one man teaching Chinese) were women.17 Provincial statistics also indi­cate an increase in the number of female teachers; in Zhejiang, for example, the number of female teachers at higher primary schools increased from 223 in 1912 to 370 in 1916 (the number of male teachers at the same level only increased from 2,928 to 3,032 during the same period).18 In fact, the phenomenon of young women travelling to different places around the country or within a province to take up teaching posts was specifically referred to in a 1915 article on migration amongst Chinese women, which described them as ‘new pioneers’ opening up remote areas.19 The article noted that 110 female normal school graduates had recently arrived in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang from Zhili, Shandong and even as far afield as Sichuan.

The province of Heilongjiang, in fact, witnessed a growing number of female graduates taking up teaching positions. A 1915 report on more than 30 district girls’ schools in the province noted that many of the teachers and principals were female graduates of either normal schools or training institutes.20 The report on the province also indicated that women continued to play an important role in the establishment and running of schools, as had happened in the late Qing. In particular, husbands and wives, or daughters and fathers often shared responsi­bilities. Sometimes, as in the case of two lower primary schools in Lanxi district (xian), the wife or daughter served as school principal (xiaozhang), while the husband or father served as administrator (shiwuyuan or guanliyuan). In Zhaodong district the local magistrate established a primary school for girls and hired a graduate from Beijing Women’s Normal School as the principal teacher, while her husband was employed as the general administrator. In some cases, the positions were reversed. Thus in Baiquan district the principal teacher of a girls’ school was an ‘old Confucian scholar’ (laoru) while his wife served as adminis­trator. Wives of district magistrates were also active as principals of girls’ schools (in Neihe and Nenjiang districts, for example).

Tantalising scraps of evidence also indicate that women in general were actively seeking knowledge outside the home during this period. The education inspector of Fujian province in a 1913 report, for example, noted the regular pres­ence of women amongst the crowds (up to 900 in total) that listened to weekly public lectures given by a popular science lecture association in the provincial capital.21 A 1919 official report on the public library in the provincial capital of Shaanxi province, which listed the occupational background of its readers, included a separate category for women (funu); on average a total of 116 women apparently visited the library each month between June 1918 and August 1919 (in some months there were over 200).22

The growing visibility of women in public education was matched by a corre­sponding increase in the numbers of women employed in industry. Central government statistics published in 1928 indicate that the number of female work­ers increased from 239,790 (36.2 per cent of the total) in 1912 to 245,076 (37.8 per cent of the total) in 1915 (see Table 4.8). There was a drop in the official figures after 1915 due to the fact that not all provinces submitted reports (a problem that also plagued the gathering of educational statistics at this time); in 1919, for example, a total of 183,589 was listed (constituting, however, 44.7 per cent of the reported total number of factory workers).23 Overall numbers of female workers, however, clearly increased in subsequent years. In 1930 the Ministry of Industry and Commerce established by the Nationalist (Guomindang) government that had been inaugurated in 1928 gave a figure of 374,117 female industrial workers for 29 cities in 9 provinces, while in 1934 a total of 421,805 was given for

Table 4.8 Number of factory workers, 1912-1916



















Sources: Wang Qingbin (ed.), Diyici Zhongguo laodong nianjian, 549; Yang Xingfu, ‘Funu laodong wenti’, 36-37.

all 23 provinces.24 It is interesting that this latter total is not much more than the reported total of female students in 1922-1923 (see Table 4.1). It is also worth noting that more detailed reports on local economies published in the women’s press during the early Republic likewise present a picture (especially in central and south China) in which women were highly visible in a wide range of occupations outside the home. A report by a native of Wujiang (Jiangsu province) in 1915, for example, noted that women in the region not only were engaged in silkworm breeding, silk spinning, cotton weaving, fishing and agriculture (even renting out their labour individually or in groups if their husbands had no land of their own), but also ran small-scale enterprises (restaurants, wineshops, foodstores, teashops, cigarette kiosks).25 A report from Shaoxing (Zhejiang province) in 1916 also noted that women ran small businesses (foodstuffs, tools, fishing nets), as well as operating boats taking goods to market.26

Adding to the growing visibility of women in early twentieth-century China (especially in urban areas) was the marked increase in the number of prostitutes. Recent studies of Shanghai, for example, point to a dramatic change in the pro­file of prostitution as population growth (principally due to increasing numbers of incoming migrants)27 fuelled the ‘commercialisation of sex’, whereby larger numbers of both licensed and unlicensed prostitutes catered to the demands of emerging middle – and working-class clienteles.28 In an 1871 survey of the British-controlled International Settlement in Shanghai by a British doctor a total of 1,612 prostitutes was given; in the same year a survey of the French Concession in Shanghai gave a total of 2,600 prostitutes. In 1915 an investigation carried out by police authorities in the International Settlement came up with a total of 9,791 prostitutes.29 Another estimate for all of Shanghai in 1927, which included licensed and unlicensed prostitutes, gave the extraordinary figure of 120,000!30 Extrapolating from the available data, one historian estimates that average numbers of prostitutes in Shanghai increased from 5,500-6,000 (in 1875) to 15,000-20,000 (in 1920).31 In Beijing, following the new Republican govern­ment’s decision to legalize prostitution, brothels became the equivalent, in the words of a recent study, ‘of Western elite social and sports clubs’ where all kinds of political and commercial deals might be made.32 The numbers of women working in such brothels increased from 2,996 in 1912 to 3,962 in 1923.

A study of Guangzhou, however, insists that the total number of prostitutes may have fallen in the Republican period.33 Thus while one Republican writer estimated that the number of ‘high class’ courtesans (shuyu) alone in the mid – and late Qing totalled 5,000, the Guangzhou Municipal Government in the 1920s sug­gested that the total number of licensed and unlicensed prostitutes in the city amounted to between 3,500 and 4,000.34 What is perhaps more significant than actual numbers, however, is the fact that from the late nineteenth century onwards prostitutes, whether of the courtesan or streetwalker variety, were occupying an ever expanding public space as they became the subjects of an emerging print and pictorial press. Visual representations of Shanghai courtesans in pictorials such as Dianshizhai huabao (published between 1884 and 1898) or in sensationalist entertainment newspapers (xiaobao), for example, highlighted their public persona moving freely across the city and interacting openly with male lovers; they became in effect the symbol of a new urban lifestyle that fascinated and alarmed (primarily) male readers in equal measure.35

‘Unharnessed fillies’

The modernizing conservative agenda on women’s education in the early Republic

In January 1915, on the eve of the New Culture Movement that was to launch an ‘iconoclastic’ assault on the Confucian tradition, a Shanghai teacher, Yu Tiansui, wrote an article on women’s education for the first issue of Funu zazhi (The Ladies Journal).1 Echoing the alarm already expressed in 1912 by the female political activist and suffrage campaigner Tan Sheying, Yu argued that advocates of women’s rights had gone too far and insisted that female students should aspire to roles befit­ting their ‘natural’ abilities and qualifications. Even in America, Yu continued, where women’s rights (nuquan) were most prevalent, women took seriously their duties towards their husbands – encouraging, supporting and looking after them. Yet in recent times, Yu continued, ‘our calm-natured women (wo xing jing qingyi zhi nuzi) in China’ had been encouraged to engage in ‘anarchic’ and fruitless competition with men. If female students were stirred up in this way, Yu lamented, they would become like ‘unharnessed fillies’ (fan jia zhi ma) and would never return willingly to a more appropriate form of study geared to their innate talents (such as proficiency in handi­crafts) and virtues (such as patience and diligence).2 Like ‘unharnessed fillies’, Yu continued, girls and young women needed to be ‘restrained’; if allowed too much freedom they would become ‘dangerously reckless’. Yu’s sentiments, if not the metaphor, were shared by a contributor to another women’s journal that began pub­lication in 1915, Zhonghua funujie (Chinese Women’s World). In an article entitled ‘What I expect from our country’s women’, Liang Lingxian asserted that it was right and proper for women to provide help and support for their menfolk, and hence fool­ish to encourage them to ‘struggle’ with men for equal rights. Citing with approval trends in the West, Liang argued that a country’s level of civilization could be gauged from the extent to which its women set an example for others (ganhua li), referring specifically to their devoted service to husbands and households.3

The sense of alarm and dissatisfaction revealed in these articles pertaining to the direction of women’s education and the behaviour of female students had already begun to be expressed during the last years of the Qing dynasty (see Chapter 2), but it was to be during the early years of the Republic that such concerns attained fever pitch in the periodical and women’s press. As discussed in Chapter 3 this was a time of growing public visibility of women, and the figure of the female student became a particular object of discussion. In effect, female students represented an entirely unprecedented phenomenon – to the extent that

they constituted a new ‘social category’. Although a recent study has applied this label to the ‘career woman’ who began to emerge during the May Fourth period,4 it is perhaps more apposite in the case of the female student. This is because there were more female students than professional women at this time, their appearance predated the May Fourth period and they were the object of a far more prevalent discourse. Quite out of proportion to their actual numbers, female students became the obsessive concern of male and female commentators and educators alike, and, as this chapter will show, their ‘disorderly’ behaviour became a touch­stone for broader anxieties concerning the implications and consequences of social and cultural change during this period. Furthermore, the ‘modernizing conservative’ agenda on women’s education promoted by government officials, educators and male intellectuals in general can be seen as an attempt to regain control of the discourse and practice of the project that bureaucratic and intellec­tual elites feared had been slipping away from them during the last years of the Qing. It was also a key element in the larger process of ‘behavioural modernization’ begun during the last years of the monarchy and which was to result in more ambitious efforts by these elites during the early Republic to control popular culture.