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