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.