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.