the Wuben Girls
In 1986 Wu Ruo’an, a former pupil at the Wuben Girls’ School in Shanghai – among the first public schools established for girls in China at the beginning of the twentieth century – reminisced about her experiences in the years following the school’s founding in 1902.1 Aged 97 at the time of her written memoir, and apparently still serving as the vice-chairperson of the executive committee of the Shanghai People’s Congress, Wu Ruo’an provided intriguing details concerning the school’s organization, curriculum and daily routine. Such details, moreover, also illustrate many of the general features, paradoxes and contradictory impulses that underpinned the project of women’s public education in China during its first two decades in the twentieth century.
The school’s creation was due to the private initiative of Wu Huaijiu, a member of Shanghai’s progressive gentry class who championed public education for women as part of an overall programme to strengthen the country in the wake of increasing exploitation by foreign powers and the growing political and economic enfeeblement of the reigning Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Wu Ruo’an noted that she herself entered the school with the aim of ‘studying to save the country and thereby reviving China’ (dushu jiuguo, zhenxing Zhonghua). At first limited to girls under 14, the school soon organized an additional section catering to older girls as a result of enthusiastic demand, a demand that was primarily met by private sponsors before 1907 – when the Qing government (after initial reluctance) formally sanctioned the official creation of primary and teacher training schools for girls and young women. As with many of the other pioneering girls’ schools at the time, the Wuben Girls’ School was initially housed in rented private buildings; temporarily closed during the social disorder as a result of the 1911 Revolution that overthrew the Qing monarchy and established a republic, the school reemerged under official auspices in 1912 and was renamed the Shanghai District Number One Girls’ Higher Primary School.
Wu noted that the dress regulations at the school (as with other girls’ schools founded at the time) were strict and that students were forbidden from wearing ‘fashionable clothes’ (shizhuang), prescriptions that were to be flouted continually in subsequent years. Also, while the (mainly) male founders of China’s first public schools for girls insisted on a rigorous segregation that would only allow women to be classroom teachers (with men serving as administrators and supervisors),
Wu remembered that two of her teachers (for Chinese and physical instruction) were men. Although the school’s curriculum was quite extensive, including as it did ethics, Chinese, foreign languages, arithmetic, history, geography, drawing and physical education, the school apparently paid particular attention to ‘household and family matters’ (jiating shiwu), with practical lessons being devoted to working up clothing material, examining the nutritional value of different kinds of food, and acquainting students with the correct way to ventilate rooms, use fuel and maintain household objects – all examined, Wu noted, ‘from a scientific perspective’. Wu likewise recounted that the students sometimes performed plays expressing patriotic and radical ideas – one play, apparently performed in English, was about the return of the British colony of Hong Kong to Chinese control, while another was concerned with women’s emancipation through the portrayal of female officials, police agents and teachers – but also noted that the school aimed to inculcate virtues of gentleness (wen), sincerity (cheng), industriousness (qin) and frugality (pu) and to concentrate on household education (with instruction on tailoring, cooking and hygiene) that would lay the foundation for the cultivation of future ‘virtuous wives and good mothers’ (xianqi liangmu).
This study seeks to explore the beginnings of public education for girls and young women from the time the first Chinese school for girls was opened in 1898 to the early 1920s, a period of dramatic social and cultural change that encompassed significant developments in reform thought during the 1890s, the Qing dynasty sanctioned political, administrative, social, economic and judicial reforms during the decade before its overthrow in 1911, and heightened intellectual debate during the May Fourth era (ca. 1915 to the early 1920s). Educational reform was a crucial aspect of the nation and state-building process that characterized this period.2 Hitherto, elite education had been primarily associated with training – in official or private academies (shuyuan) and schools (guanxue) – for civil service examinations based on extensive knowledge of the Confucian Classics.3 Central authorities never concerned themselves with more elementary forms of education providing basic literacy, and such avenues that did exist in pretwentieth-century China, such as community schools (shexue), charitable schools (yixue) and private schools (sishu) – all catering to boys – depended on the initiatives of local officials or communities.4 There was therefore virtually no institutional coordination between these more grassroot and often ad hoc arrangements and the elite channels of Confucian-based training for the civil service examinations, the principal aim of which was to serve as a recruitment pool for the government bureaucracy.5
In the wake of anti-dynastic rebellions in the mid-nineteenth century and increasing external pressure from Western imperialist powers intent on consolidating their economic privileges granted by unequal treaties, a few officials and scholars from the 1870s on proposed widening the curriculum of the civil service examinations; at the same time a number of specialist schools for the training of linguistic, technical and military expertise were created in the 1870s and 1880s. A greater sense of urgency, however, prevailed in the 1890s, when reformers began insisting on the need for a fully integrated three-tiered national school system (of primary, secondary and higher schools) that would promote both literacy training and modern forms of knowledge to a wider populace. One such reformer, Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a metropolitan degree holder and one of the driving forces behind the reform campaign of 1898 (known as ‘The Hundred Days’) designed to rejuvenate the monarchy and bureaucracy through the establishment of a consultative assembly and the abolition of a wide range of sinecure posts, suggested in 1898 that Confucian academies, as well as ancestral and clan temples, be converted into primary, secondary and higher schools under the administration and supervision of a national university in the capital.6
Although Kang’s proposal was temporarily forgotten amidst the political turmoil of 1898 that saw the Empress-Dowager Cixi regain the levers of power at the expense of her nephew, the Emperor Guangxu, and the subsequent revocation of most of the reform edicts promulgated during the Hundred Days period (although the new Imperial University, formally opened in December 1898, survived, eventually becoming Beijing University after the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of a republic in 1912),7 educational reform was very much on the agenda after 1900 following the disaster of the Boxer uprising (1899-1900). The Boxer movement, which began as attacks on the lives and property of foreign missionaries and their Chinese converts in north China and ultimately threatened the foreign legations in Beijing, had prompted foreign military intervention and occupation of the capital. During the uprising, also, provincial governors in the south had refused to go along with the Qing court’s support of the Boxers and its rash declaration of war against the foreign powers, while rebellions associated with both the reformers (such as Kang Youwei) who had fled into exile in 1898 and a new anti-monarchical movement organized by Sun Yatsen had broken out in central China. The Qing court, humiliated by the demands and sanctions imposed by the foreign powers as ‘ punishment’ for its support of the Boxers and shocked by internal threats to its legitimacy, sanctioned a programme of political, institutional and military reform after 1901.
Reiterating the suggestions first made in the 1890s, officials, scholars and educators (pointing to the examples of Western countries and Japan) increasingly linked the attainment of national unity, strength and prosperity with the creation of a national school system producing a disciplined and hardworking populace. As far as the Qing court and its government officials were concerned, such a school system would also consolidate the foundations of dynastic rule with its promotion of the virtues of loyalty and obedience. Progressive educators and gentry reformers, on the other hand, preferred to highlight the contributions a national school system would make in inculcating a more general patriotism, as well as in divesting ordinary folk of their ‘ backward customs’ and ‘ superstitions’ (so graphically illustrated, in the eyes of the educated elite, by popular support for, and participation in, the religious, ritual and magical practices of the Boxers) and equipping them with the skills necessary for China to compete economically on the international stage.8 By 1904 regulations for a national school system had been drawn up; in the following year the centuries-old civil service examinations were abolished and a new government institution – the Board of Education (xuebu) – established to oversee the new school system, which incorporated a more diverse curriculum combining Chinese and Western learning. The creation of modern schools was also accompanied by official encouragement of overseas study in Japan and the West.
It was within this context that the debate on women’s education and the creation of the first public schools for girls occurred. With the exception of a small number of Western missionary schools for Chinese girls (catering initially to the daughters of Chinese converts and destitute children) that began to be opened in the treaty ports from the 1840s on – the first such school was one established by a Miss Aldersey in Ningbo in 1844 – the opening of the Chinese Girls’ School (Zhongguo ntixuetang) in 1898 by a group of male and female reformers at the height of the 100 Day reform movement represented the first time that public education was made available to girls by Chinese sponsors. Notions of gendered space that began to take shape in early imperial times (Han dynasty 206 bce-220 ce) and which assumed that women’s responsibilities and activities were primarily to take place within the ‘inner quarters’ or household (nei) while men’s principal sphere of action was to take place outside the household (wai), in addition to increasingly rigid Confucian prescriptions concerning male-female segregation, meant that women were not allowed to take the civil service examinations (dating from the Sui dynasty 581-618 ce) or attend official and community (i. e. ‘public’) schools. This did not mean, however, that China’s past lacked a tradition of literate and learned women, nor that it was widely assumed women could not, or should not, be educated.
In early imperial times, for example, aristocratic women at court, as well as imperial consorts and dowagers, were famed for their patronage of scholarship and literature; some of them also contributed significantly in their own right to historical scholarship or other forms of literature.9 Furthermore, didactic texts written especially to be read by women were regularly produced throughout China’s imperial history. The first of such works (and in fact the first complete text devoted to women’s learning) was compiled by a woman, Ban Zhao (49-120 ce), who served at court as tutor to empresses and palace women; entitled Ntijie (Prescriptions for Women) it prescribed correct behaviour and deportment for elite women.10 Recent studies have also shown that representations of women in early China (in historical annals, discourse and life-story narratives) frequently praised women for their sagacity, expertise, political acumen and rhetorical skill; a collection of short tales compiled in the fifth century about historical figures from the second to fifth centuries – the Shi shuo xin yu (New Account of Tales of the World) – for example, contained a chapter on ‘virtuous ladies’ (xianyuan) illustrating the literary and aesthetic talents of women from the literati class.11
Also, in the same way that cosmological concepts of yin and yang (and which came to represent the essence of femaleness and maleness respectively) were originally viewed as complementary rather than indicating a hierarchical relationship in which yang was superior and yin inferior,12 so gender historians have stressed the complementarity of the nei (inner)/wai (outer) binary as two poles on the same spectrum since the ethical and behavioural training ground for public life was located within the family household.13 Far from being irrelevant or marginal as far as public affairs were concerned, therefore, women’s work as wife and mother (which included the education of children) was intimately tied to the world beyond the ‘inner quarters’. Not surprisingly, daughters (at least of the upper classes) from the age of 4 or 5 were taught the Confucian classics and histories within the household (principally by fathers or private tutors) alongside their brothers (although it was expected that after the age of 8 boys would be removed from the ‘ inner quarters’ to participate in more formal schooling at a sishu, a private tutorial school that might be set up by a family, lineage or individual teacher).14 Sometimes special tutors, who could be male or female, were hired to teach girls in a separate family school. It was only after the age of 10 that the education of elite girls diverged from that of their brothers, as formal instruction became more narrowly focused on the teaching of ‘womanly’ skills such as needlework or weaving (while boys underwent rigorous training in prose and essay composition in preparation for the civil service examinations).15 By late imperial times a mother’s most important contribution was considered to be the education of her children, thereby inculcating the correct moral values. It was for this reason that the statesman and scholar Sima Guang (1019-1086) insisted that everyone (male and female) be educated: ‘ Therefore, every girl must, before she leaves her parents’ household (i. e. marries) study the Classic on Filial Piety, the Analects, the Book of Poetry and the Book of Rites. She should acquire some understanding of the great principles.’16 Male biographies in Song-Yuan times (tenth-fourteenth centuries) often credited mothers with teaching the Confucian classics to their sons,17 and in the Ming dynasty (fourteenth-seventeenth centuries) this role was recognized by the state when it conferred honorary titles on the wives and mothers of scholar-officials.18 Given the fact, then, that upper – class women were educated (and that education for both sexes often used the same texts) it has been pointed out that in the classical literature of the pre-Ming era there was no exact equivalent of the Victorian assumption that women were intellectually inferior to men.19
Growing literacy amongst women, however, sparked off vigorous debates on women’s education, morality and learning in the late Ming and early Qing dynas – ties.20 Furthermore, recent research, in seeking to problematize conventional views of women in ‘traditional’ China as the silent and invisible victims of patriarchy,21 has highlighted the formation of elite women’s writing communities and networks, and the publication of their poetic works (often by fathers, brothers or husbands) in the seventeenth century, especially in the urbanized and commercially advanced region of Jiangnan (south-central China); by the eighteenth – century anthologies of women’s poetry were being edited by women (works by more than 3,000 female poets have survived).22 All this made women’s writings a profitable commodity and a woman’s literary reputation could be an economic asset to the family. Increasing attention now being paid by Western scholars to Chinese elite women’s literary output during the Ming and Qing dynasties has led to the recent publication of studies exploring the lives and significance of individual women writers as well as of translations of their works.23
The ensuing debate that broke out in the late Ming and early Qing, however, did not revolve around whether women should be educated or not, but rather over what they learned and why (and the linked issue concerning the precise relationship between education and the enforcement of social norms).24 Some male writers, anxious to maintain gender distinctions and wary that women might pursue learning beyond their family duties, wrote didactic texts that addressed a wider audience of women (thus testifying to women’s growing literacy) and insisted on ‘correct’ moral and ritual behaviour within the household.25 It is no coincidence that it was precisely during this time (seventeenth century) that the adage ‘in a woman, lack of talent is a virtue’ (nuzi wucai bianshi de), which referred to the assumption that literary excellence and moral virtue were incompatible, began to be used in gender discourse – an adage that early twentieth-century Chinese reformers mistakenly were to insist represented an age-old Confucian belief. The debate was best symbolized by the opposing stances adopted by the historian and philosopher, Zhang Xuecheng (1738-1801), who argued that a woman’s proper sphere of learning should be a vigorous classical education that would include the actual practice of moral conduct within the household prescribed by such classic didactic texts as Ban Zhao’s Nujie (which stressed the importance of women’s modesty and frugality, their deference and service to in-laws, and their skill in household work such as spinning and weaving), and the poet, Yuan Mei (1716-1798), who championed female ‘ talent’ and praised the intuitive and spontaneous nature of women’s poetry.26
The realization, however, that elite women were educated in China’s past and that such a past possessed a rich tradition of learned and writing women (a phenomenon that even critical Western observers of Chinese culture such as the nineteenth-century diplomat-scholar S. Wells Williams had drawn attention to)27 should not mask awareness of the radical departure represented by the promotion of women’s public education after the turn of the twentieth century. In just a few years centuries-old assumptions about appropriate gendered space were swept aside in the attempt to publicly educate women for the sake of family harmony and prosperity, social order and stability, and national wealth and prestige. Within nine years of the private establishment of China’s first public school for girls in 1898, the Qing government itself sanctioned the creation of separate primary and normal schools for girls and young women (in 1907). Following the overthrow of the Qing monarchy and the founding of a republic in 1912 a new education system provided for the establishment of secondary schools for girls and approved of co-education at the primary school level. In 1919-1920 higher-level education for women was finally sanctioned with the creation of Beijing Higher Women’s Normal School and the permission granted women to enrol at Beijing University, the most prestigious higher education institution in the country. The number of female students in non-official and official schools grew slowly but steadily throughout this period, from 20,557 in 1908 to 417,820 in 1923.28 (More detailed statistics are given in Chapters 2 and 4.) The number of schools for girls increased from 434 in 1907 to 3,461 in 1916.29 Significantly, also, by 1908 the number of girls in Chinese schools exceeded the number in missionary schools.30
While it is true that the numbers of female students during this period remained small when compared to those of boys – for example, by 1922 girls constituted only 6.19 per cent of the total primary school enrolment – considerable and heated debate nevertheless took place over the merits, nature and role of women’s education which was to have relevance beyond the early twentieth century. Furthermore, a tantalizing public space was opened up for girls and young women, and the highly visible female student – in effect an entirely new ‘social category’31 at this time – became a frequent topic of discussion (out of all proportion to the actual numbers of female students) in the periodical press as well as in specialist women’s and educational journals of the time. Although a Western observer in 1911, referring to the recent appearance of girls’ schools, exclaimed in somewhat hyperbolic terms that ‘the past decade has witnessed in China what is probably the greatest educational renaissance the world has ever seen’,32 the discourse and practice of women’s education in China during its first two decades have received surprisingly scant attention by Western scholars; in a sense, the topic has fallen between the two stools of educational and gender history. Thus detailed studies of the educational reforms and the establishment of modern schools during the last years of the Qing or the early years of the Republic (primarily taking boys’ schools as their point of reference) explore their political, administrative and social impact – including the role played by educational change in the evolving relationship between centre and locality or between the state and provincial/local elites.33 Recent studies that laudably seek to transcend the political boundaries of 1911 and 1949 by exploring both educational change and continuity throughout the twentieth century likewise devote little specific attention to women’s education.34
A similar lacuna exists in gender studies. Pioneering analyses in the 1970s and 1980s explored the connection between nationalism and the promotion of women’s rights during the last years of the Qing and early years of the Republic, arguing that women’s emancipation was viewed in instrumentalist terms as the prerequisite of national self-strengthening.35 Recent studies have probed deeper into the paradoxes and ambivalences of this early twentieth-century discourse on the ‘woman question’. Thus, for example, an analysis of ‘nationalist patriarchy’ argues that modernizers in early twentieth-century China resolved the dilemma of promoting linear change while conserving an unchanging ‘authenticity’ by locating the source of timeless values in the bodies of women;36 an exploration of the ways in which imported images of fictional and real Western women were interpreted and appropriated in fiction and biography is used to deconstruct the multiple and often contradictory meanings of an emerging ‘new woman’;37 a focus on the activities and writings of Chinese female students in Japan, in addition to the ideas of male reformers, is deployed to illustrate how Chinese nationalist discourse could be both empowering and restrictive for female subjectivities;38 and the use made by elite women of a pervasive trope in reformist discourse calling for the emancipation of women – comparing women’s lowly position in society to that of ‘slaves’ (nuzi wei nuli) – is examined to illustrate how they redefined their social role and status within the family and thereby claim a space for themselves in a new Chinese nation.39
Other recent gender studies have begun exploring the political, social and gender ramifications of changes in women’s dress and hairstyles during the early decades of the twentieth century;40 the multiple and contested representations of ‘women’s work’ (nugong) in gender discourse and how such representations were linked to different conceptions of nationalism, class and gender;41 the increasing public visibility (via new print and visual media) of women such as courtesans and actresses in urban centres and their transgression of gendered spatial bound – aries;42 and how the kin-inflected category offunu (woman as family member) in late imperial discourses gave way (in the wake of Western influence and the patriotic imperative) to a universal category of ‘woman’ or ‘female person’ (nuren, nuzi) in the 1900s and ‘womanhood’ (nuxing) in the 1920s.43 Since the 1980s, in China too, there has been an outpouring of documentary collections and historical analyses concerning the women’s movement in the pre-1949 period44 as well as on women’s lives in general45 that build on the earlier pioneering work of the 1920s when anthologies of May Fourth writings on the ‘woman question’ were compiled46 and the first comprehensive history of Chinese women from preimperial times to the May Fourth period was published in 1928.47
A more focused examination of the discourse and practice of women’s education that spans the last years of the Qing and early years of the Republic, however, will incisively capture the competing and contradictory images of women during this period, as well as highlight certain continuities (in addition to changes) in attitudes towards women’s education that transcended the political divide of the 1911 Revolution.48 Making use of the contemporary newspaper and periodical press, women’s and educational journals, school readers and teachers’ manuals, and fiction, this book will demonstrate that the project of women’s education at this time in effect became a principal site around which larger issues of national and cultural identity, the purpose and meaning of modernizing change, and shifting notions of femininity were contested and reconfigured.
A major theme explored in the book is that while in the larger debate over women’s rights a voluntarist approach exuding confidence that women were the absolute equals of men and should take their natural place as ‘citizens’ in the public sphere was sometimes evident (accompanied by articles and pictorial representations in the periodical and women’s press depicting women engaged in unprecedented roles and activities), in educational discourse a pervasive strand of thinking (shared by both political radicals and moderates, men and women) that might be described as ‘ modernizing conservatism’ 49 promoted public education for girls and young women as an effective means to reconfigure ‘traditional’ skills (e. g. handicrafts) and virtues (deference, diligence, self-sacrifice) in the service of family harmony, social order and national prosperity. As in the case of Meiji Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where the home was increasingly perceived in state discourse as a public space in which women were expected to contribute to national prosperity and stability through their efficient running of the household, in early twentieth-century China women’s behaviour, attitude and abilities within the household were inextricably linked to the national interest and became a matter of public discourse.
In contrast to colonial India, however, where indigenous male elites stressed the importance of women preserving their traditional religious beliefs and practices within the inner world of the household (ghar) as a means of protecting a perceived Indian spiritual identity against the corrupting influence of the public sphere (bahir) that had been compromised by the Western colonial presence (and in which Indian males had to operate),50 in China educators argued that female students were to be trained as skilled and professional ‘housewives’ or ‘household managers’ with a modern (often assumed to be Western) knowledge of hygiene, child psychology and accountancy. Furthermore, whereas before the twentieth century Chinese elite men had tolerated and even praised women’s religious devotions and practices (mainly Buddhist) within the household (while taking a more jaundiced view of women leaving the home to participate in pilgrimages with other women to temples or other religious sites),51 commentators in the early twentieth century fiercely condemned women’s religious beliefs and practices both within and outside the household as ‘superstitious’ and unproductive.
Since ‘ modernizing conservatism’ represented both an endorsement of modernizing change as a means to strengthen the polity and economy and an ambivalence about its possible consequences (e. g. changes in social mores, adoption of imported dress fashions, women working outside the home in modern factories), the anxieties expressed by elite (mainly male) commentators in the debate over the nature, purpose and extent of women’s education in the early twentieth century – encapsulated by the description of female students during the early years of the Republic as ‘unharnessed fillies’ (i. e. excessively independent) – provide us with a way (albeit only indirectly) of hearing the voices of the female students themselves at this time.
Although autobiographical fiction and memoirs by women began to appear from the 1920s on, we still have little idea of what it meant for girls themselves as public education became increasingly available to them after the turn of the twentieth century. Much of the autobiographical literature focuses on adult life trajectories and careers in writing, politics, business or teaching. A memoir written in 1937 by Chen Hengzhe (1893-1976), who studied in the United States between 1914 and 1919 and became the first female professor at Beijing University in 1920, for example, says virtually nothing about the impact of public education on girls at this time or about her experiences at a modern girls’ school in Shanghai that she attended before going abroad.52 Other autobiographies tantalisingly mention attendance at a modern girls’ school but without further elaboration. Thus Zheng Yuxiu, the first Chinese woman to gain a doctorat d’etat from the Sorbonne in 1925 and who later practised law in Shanghai, merely recollects that her mother regaled her with tales about the legendary woman-warrior Mulan and encouraged her to go to school;53 Yang Buwei (1889-1981), who attended Tokyo Women’s Medical School in 1914-1919 and later set up a hospital in Beijing, simply notes (without further comment) that she attended a girls’ school in Nanjing in 1905 and the missionary-run Shanghai McTyeire Girls’ School in 1908.54 An anthology of women’s autobiographical narratives published in 1945, extracts of which have recently been translated into English, likewise focuses on efforts to break out of the traditional home and the impact of war on professional lives and literary endeavours;55 interestingly, one of the contributors, Peng Hui (1907-1968), who attended Beijing Women’s Normal School in the 1920s and later joined the League of Left Wing Writers, refers – as was noted earlier with Zheng Yuxiu – to the inspiration of her mother, who recounted stories and myths to her and strongly supported her attendance at a modern school.56 A more recent compilation of oral testimonies (based on interviews conducted in the 1990s) that records the life histories of five women (school principal, attorney, editor, educator, career revolutionary) is equally disappointing as far as the impact of women’s education is concerned.57 The testimony of Huang Dinghui (1907-), the ‘career revolutionary’, is a case in point. She recollects attending an elementary school from the age of 6 to 8, and then the Zhounan Girls’ School in Changsha (Hunan province) at the age of 12; other than to note that at elementary school she wore a ‘black skirt and a white shirt’ and that all her teachers were single women who had studied in Japan, Huang says nothing more about this early period and swiftly moves on to discuss in much greater detail her political activities in the 1920s and 1930s.58
Even those memoirs that do discuss school experiences give very little indication of the impact public education had on girls and their response to it. Thus in her life story told to her great-niece, Zhang Yuyi (1900-1989), the wife of the poet Xu Zhimo and a vice-president of the Shanghai Women’s Savings bank in the 1930s, discusses her attendance at a modern school in Suzhou (Jiangsu province) between 1913 and 1915. She describes her school uniform (‘blue apron-like smocks that we put on over our regular clothes’), refers to the fact that many of the students still had bound feet, and lists the courses taught (history and literature, geography, mathematics – all apparently by men), but there is no indication of how she and her peers felt about their school experience nor of public attitudes towards female education.59 Likewise, the memoir of Zeng Baosun (1893-1978), a great-granddaughter of the nineteenth-century statesman Zeng Guofan, founder of a girls’ middle school in 1917 and the principal of Hunan Provincial Women’s Normal School in 1927, only briefly refers to her education in Chinese and missionary schools in the early years of the twentieth century before she leaves for study abroad at London University in 1912.60 The one autobiography that does give more details on school experience for girls is that of the novelist and essayist Xie Bingying (1906-2000), which mainly describes her attempts to oppose a marriage arranged for her by her parents, her experiences as a member of a women’s military unit in the National Revolutionary Army in 1926, and her active service in the Anti-Japanese Resistance War in the late 1930s and early 1940s.61 Xie provides fascinating titbits of information on her experiences at a predominantly boys school and a succession of girls’ schools from the age of 10 to 20, including how female students interacted amongst themselves as well as with teachers.
Given the fact, then, that the female student became a highly visible discursive object at this time (in terms of both written and pictorial representation), an analysis of the modernizing conservative discourse on women’s education will uncover aspects of the impact of early twentieth-century public education for girls that are not dealt with in memoirs or in studies of the women’s movement in general, which tend to focus on political activities and women’s organizations.62 It may very well be, as recent studies have noted, that the female student became a symbol of modernity at this time. One article notes that in the early twentieth century ‘the image of an educated young woman with natural-sized feet and short hair became the icon of modern life and social progress’,63 while another analysis of contemporary popular prints notes that the depiction of female students with their unbound feet and bobbed hair ‘ clearly augured a new, dynamic role for Chinese women in the twentieth century’.64 Significantly, also, when Zhongliang, the male protagonist of Chen Kaige’s 1996 film ‘Temptress Moon’ (Feng Yue), impresses upon the secluded Ruyi, the woman he plans to seduce and who, by default, has inherited the headship of an inward-looking traditional lineage, the enormity of social change in the outside world (the film takes place in the 1910s and early 1920s), he refers specifically to female students in Beijing (with their black skirts, white shirts and short hair) as the very epitome of freedom and spontaneity. Yet, as this study will show, there was much ambivalence about the impact and consequences of early twentieth-century women’s education in the periodical, educational and women’s press. The frequent criticism of the behaviour, attitude and dress of female students provides a unique insight into how students themselves responded to new educational opportunities; and clearly they did not always act in ways prescribed by educators or necessarily share the official view of the purposes of women’s education. The conclusion of the book will suggest ways in which echoes of this early twentieth-century debate on women’s education reverberated throughout the rest of the century.