The beginnings of public education for girls

While it is true that public education for Chinese girls was first championed by Western missionaries, the impact on wider Chinese society represented by the first mission schools was limited. The first of such schools was opened in 1844 by Miss Mary Aldersey in the treaty port of Ningbo,1 one of five ports forcibly opened to Western trade, residence and Christian proselytization as a result of the Opium War (1839-1842). Most of those that were subsequently established were located in other treaty ports such as Shanghai (in 1849), Fuzhou (in 1851), Guangzhou (in 1853) and Amoy (in 1860). One of the first boarding schools for girls was opened by the Methodist Mission in Fuzhou in 1859. By the 1860s a number of missionary-run girls’ schools had also been opened in Tianjin and Beijing. The primary motivation for establishing these early schools was to train girls to serve as the future wives of Chinese pastors or as Bible women. Such schools, however, initially enrolled only foundlings or daughters of the destitute (especially as the schools did not charge tuition fees and provided free food and lodging). Numbers were small, often never exceeding five pupils – and even then they did not stay long, or the school itself was forced to close down.2 Regarded with suspicion and fear by elites and commoners alike, these early mission schools were thought of as ‘places of sorcery’ (yaomo shijie) in which girls might be kidnapped for nefarious purposes or ‘infected’ with a ‘demonic spirit’ (yaoqi).3

Significantly, it was only when the curriculum for missionary schools was gradually broadened after the 1880s that they began to attract a wider con­stituency. Originally offering Chinese-language instruction in simplified Christian and Confucian texts, as well as training in needlework and embroidery, missionary schools gradually introduced the teaching of English – often at Chinese insistence and not without opposition from some missionary educators who feared that such an addition to the curriculum would undermine the schools’ principal aim of Christian proselytization. The two missionary sisters who had run the Fuzhou Girls’ Boarding School in Fuzhou since 1859, for example, resigned in 1883 rather than implement the curriculum change insisted upon by Chinese Methodist leaders (many of whose daughters were being educated at the school).4 Interestingly, missionary educators were also to feel ambivalent about an addition to the curriculum that they initially championed themselves during the late nineteenth century – sports and physical education. At first taught in

boys’ schools in line with the missionary view that ‘effete’ and ‘sickly’ Chinese males needed to be made more robust, physical education was then introduced to girls’ schools with the aim of providing ‘useful’ exercise that would stand pupils in good stead for their future domestic lives.5 It was made clear, moreover, that such instruction should be consistent with the ‘proper’ (i. e. Anglo-American) notions of what constituted masculinity and femininity; not surprisingly, some Western missionaries expressed alarm when female pupils exhibited a proclivity to engage in ‘unseemly’ and ‘unfeminine’ activities such as track-running and rid­ing bicycles (rather than, for example, practising calisthenics).6

In any event, numbers of female pupils in missionary schools gradually increased; the fact, also, that they began to charge tuition fees from the 1880s on indicated that the schools were beginning to attract a wider social constituency. Thus the Shanghai McTeiyre School for Girls founded by Southern Methodist missionaries in 1892 was able to recruit ‘girls of the better classes’ whose parents were ‘able and willing to pay for having their daughters taught’.7 By 1902 the missionary journalist Young J. Allen reported that there were 4,373 girls in missionary-run educational institutions.8 Anxious not to alienate potential recruitment, missionary educators continued to stress that the aim of their schools was to train ‘model homemakers’.9 The ideal Christian woman, in the view of one such educator in 1899, was a ‘conscientious, judicious and self-controlled’ carer of children and the hardworking helpmate of her husband; another missionary, Dr Madge Mateer, insisted in 1898 that attendance at a missionary school did not spoil girls for home duties, and claimed that she had never heard a mother complain that her school-attending daughter was unwilling to ‘take up less congenial work at home’.10 As will be noted in Chapter 2, the situation was to be somewhat different for Chinese-run schools after 1900.

While missionary-run girls’ schools were clearly gaining more social accep­tance by the end of the nineteenth century, it was not until the 1890s, when China’s national crisis became particularly acute, that Chinese mainstream elite opinion began to focus clearly on the need to implement an indigenous system of public education for women. Already, following the Qing court’s forced acceptance of the loss of its traditional influence in Vietnam in 1885 as a result of China’s defeat by France (which subsequently consolidated its own colonial rule in Vietnam), anguished calls for institutional reform had been heard; it was at this time, for example, that the first suggestions for the establishment of con­sultative assemblies were made.11 A sense of national humiliation was felt even more keenly by officials and literati after China’s defeat by Japan in 1894-1895, which resulted in Japan gaining the same privileges in China’s treaty ports enjoyed by the Western imperial powers and a growing Japanese political and economic presence in Korea (which, like Vietnam, had been located within China’s sphere of influence in the past). By the late 1890s, with accelerated Western encroachment in China (known as the ‘Scramble for Concessions’) which pressured the Qing court to grant leasehold territories to Germany, Russia, Britain and France, there were real fears that China was on the verge of being partitioned wholesale.12

In such a context education became a primary focus of reform interest. Although the detailed proposals for a three-tiered modern school system advanced by Li Duanfen (1833-1907), a vice-president of the Board of Punishments and a former education commissioner in Yunnan province, in 189613 and by Kang Youwei in 1898 did not explicitly refer to the education of girls, other reformers included references to female education as part of their proposed reform agenda.

One of the first to raise the issue was Song Shu (1862-1910), a little known scholar-reformer, teacher and newspaper editor who had studied at the prestigious Longmen Academy in Shanghai (and where he had read translations of Western works).14 In his collection of reform proposals entitled Biantongpian (Writings on Adaptation) and composed in 1891, Song lamented the fact that illiteracy amongst women in China was worse than in India (never mind Japan!) and urged the creation of (separate) schools for all boys and girls aged between 6 and 13.15 He suggested that such schools be funded by district administrations and village communities, with teachers being chosen by assemblies of local notables. Song Shu did not elaborate on the curriculum such girls’ schools would teach, other than to note that it should incorporate the best of ‘Western’ learning. What he was certain about, however, was that there was a more pressing need to open girls’ rather than boys’ schools because of the importance of mothers in the upbringing of children.

Not coincidentally, the first proposals for female education in the 1890s were invariably accompanied by denunciations of footbinding on the grounds that it made women physically weak and immobile.16 Although Western missionaries are often credited with taking the lead in calling for an end to the practice (after initial reluctance to raise the issue out of a concern not to alienate male elites), with an anti-footbinding society being founded in Amoy (the Heavenly Foot Society) by John MacGowan and his wife of the London Missionary Society in 1874,17 the reformers of the 1890s were able to draw on a tradition of indigenous condemnation of the practice from the time it had started to become widespread amongst elite women in the tenth century. Qing rulers (unsuccessfully) attempted to ban footbinding in the 1660s, while in the early nineteenth century Li Ruzhen (1763-1830) satirized the practice in his novel Jinghua yuan (Flowers in the Mirror) and other scholars such as Qian Yong (1759-1844), Yu Zhengxie (1775-1840) and Gong Zizhen (1792-1841) fiercely condemned footbinding as a sadistic and inhuman custom contrary to all Confucian teachings.18 Furthermore, it was not until 1895, when Alicia Little, the wife of a British mer­chant, organized the Natural Foot Society (tianzu hui) in Shanghai that a more concerted Western-run campaign against footbinding took off, a campaign that tended to stress improvement to health rather than to link an end to the practice with women’s emancipation per se.19 In the 1890s, too, missionary journals such as Wanguo gongbao (Globe Magazine) frequently attacked the custom.

By this time, however, Chinese reformers were already linking their opposition to footbinding with the cause of national self-strengthening. As early as 1883 Kang Youwei proposed to establish an anti-footbinding society in Guangzhou (although it was not until several years later that it got off the ground); two other such societies were founded in 1894 (in Guangdong province) and 1895 (in Shanghai). Between 1897 and 1911, according to one scholar, at least 47 anti­footbinding societies appeared, mostly located in urban areas and founded by men, although three (including the Hangzhou Anti-Footbinding Society of 1903) were established on the initiative of women.20 A variety of reasons were given to end footbinding in the 1890s – it made women immobile and hence less able to flee marauding bandits or the ravages of natural calamities; it made women less productive in the home or in textile factories (the latter point being especially made by the important Qing official Zhang Zhidong in 1897 and reflecting the emerging phenomenon of female workers in modern textile mills);21 and it con­travened natural maternal instincts and harmed mother – daughter relationships.22 A 1905 report on a meeting of the Natural Foot Society in Shanghai that appeared in the Chinese newspaper Jingzhong ribao (Alarming Bell Daily) observed that footbinding was more harmful to women’s health than the Western practice of corseting women’s waists.23 As such, the report lamented, it jeopardized the future of the Chinese race and was a source of debilitating ‘national shame’ (guochi).24 In discussing women’s importance for the nation, the report interestingly deployed the metaphors of technology and industry. Thus women were likened to machines (jiqi) in their function as the ‘manufacturers’ (chuangzao) of the race; just as machines had to be scrupulously maintained (e. g. wheels and gears had to be sufficiently lubricated) in order to operate smoothly in the manufacturing process, so women had to be physically fit to improve the race. The bound-footed Chinese woman, the report mused, was nothing more than a broken-down machine. Such machine metaphors were also to be a feature of educational discourse in general at this time. Whereas, for example, education had conventionally been described in terms of the ‘cultivation’ of moral virtues (akin to the cultivation of plants), by 1910 one commentator referred to education as ‘a factory that produces citizens’, while another in 1912 likened the newly established Republican Education Ministry to a ‘manufacturing plant’ and students as ‘manufactured products’ (education officials and teachers who did not do their job properly were described as ‘useless machinery producing defective goods’).25

Overall, then, campaigners emphasized the deleterious physical weakness amongst women caused by footbinding and the threat this posed to the viability of the Chinese race and nation; its abolition was seen as an absolute prerequisite for the development of women’s education. These notions were certainly evident in the two major proposals for women’s education before 1898 advanced by Zheng Guanying and Liang Qichao. In many ways, also, the rationales they gave for opening girls’ schools and the assumptions underpinning their arguments were to set the terms of the debate on women’s education for the next two decades.