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