The modernizing reforms implemented by the Qing dynasty after 1901 ultimately failed to guarantee its survival. Abroad, the court faced increasing anti-Qing rhetoric amongst radical Chinese students in Japan who blamed the ‘barbarian’ Manchu rulers for China’s plight and condemned them as a hindrance to the coun­try’s progress and unity, while Republican revolutionaries in exile such as Sun Yatsen organized a series of abortive uprisings in the south of the country. At home, the credibility of the dynasty was gradually undermined as popular discontent grew in response to increased taxes, and disenchantment with the dynasty increased amongst elements of the gentry elite dissatisfied with the central government’s reluctance to grant them a more substantial role in the reform process. Riots in early 1911 led by provincial gentry elites in Sichuan protesting against the central gov­ernment’s plan to take over provincial financed railways were followed by a mutiny amongst New Army units in Wuchang (Hubei province) in October 1911, which quickly led to a number of provinces in south and central China declaring indepen­dence from Beijing. By December 1911 Sun Yatsen, on his return to China after more than a decade in exile, had been elected provisional president by an assembly in Nanjing. Negotiations then ensued with Yuan Shikai, the commander of the northern forces still loyal to the throne. In February 1912 an agreement was reached between the southern revolutionaries and Yuan which allowed for the peaceful dis­solution of the Qing dynasty and, one month later, the designation of Yuan Shikai as President of the Chinese Republic (Zhonghua minguo).

One of the first priorities of the new Republic was the implementation of a new school system.1 Already in the months preceding the October uprising the Qing government had established a Central Education Council to discuss and submit reform proposals to the Board of Education. The Council, made up of government school supervisors, representatives of gentry-organized education associations and experienced educators chosen by the Board of Education, principally addressed the question of the availability of primary education; much discussion revolved around keeping expenditures to a minimum (by, for example, cutting back on high salaries for ‘superfluous’ administrators or extravagant spending on new school premises instead of utilizing existing buildings), although the Council also supported the idea of co-education for boys and girls up to the age of 10.2 Only one concrete proposal was adopted by the government, however, before the

events of October engulfed the dynasty; it abolished the practice of awarding traditional civil service degrees (or any special title) to the graduates of modern primary and middle schools, while those who had completed a higher-level education were simply to be referred to as ‘graduates’ (yeshi or xueshi).

The principle of co-education at the lower primary level was endorsed by Sun Yatsen’s provisional Republican government in Nanjing, when the new Education Minister, Cai Yuanpei, issued temporary guidelines on schools in January 1912.3 Although a uniform curriculum for boys and girls was to be implemented at both lower and higher primary school levels, however, it was made clear that girls at both levels would also study embroidery (caifeng) [two hours per week in the third and fourth years of lower primary school, three hours per week in the third and fourth years of higher primary school]. The guidelines also, for the first time, formally sanctioned (separate) secondary education for girls, in which both embroidery and ‘household management’ (jiazheng) would form part of the curriculum. After Yuan Shikai became President in March 1912 (and the new capital moved to Beijing), Cai Yuanpei convened a conference of educators (representing all of China’s provinces) in July to devise a definitive school system.4 The school system that was eventually promulgated in September 1912 again formally sanctioned co-education at lower primary school and separate secondary education for girls, as well as approving of vocational and higher normal schools for girls.5 As in the case of the guidelines issued earlier on in the year, embroidery was a component of the girls’ curriculum at lower and higher primary school (increased to four hours per week in the second and third years of higher primary school), while for girls’ secondary schools regulations emphasized the teaching of domestic science, or ‘household affairs’ (jiashi ke), as an important part of the curriculum.6 Official prejudice against girls studying beyond primary level, however, was to continue well after 1912. The reform-minded warlord of Shanxi province, Yan Xishan, for example, who had come to power in the wake of the 1911 Revolution and was to remain in effective control of the province until 1949, did not sanction formal secondary education for girls until 1925 (although he was quite willing in the 1920s to encourage peasant girls to attend vocational schools to learn spinning and weaving skills).7

The rationale for such provisions was made clear in further regulations on primary schools issued in November 1912. Although the general aim of primary education as stated in September was ‘to establish the foundations of citizen morality and to teach the necessary knowledge and skills needed to earn a liveli – hood’,8 the November regulations also noted that ‘with respect to male and female students, attention must be paid to their particular natures and their dif­ferent futures so that an appropriate education can be carried out’.9 Furthermore, it was especially noted that girls at primary school had to be instructed in the virtues of ‘chastity and gentleness’ (zhenshu); in a curious juxtaposition of old and new ideas, however, this directive was accompanied by the statement that girls also had to be acquainted with the notion of ‘self autonomy’ (zili zhi dao). Regulations on middle schools issued in December 1912 likewise noted that those for girls would have to teach ‘household affairs and horticulture’ (jiashi yuanyi) as well as embroidery. The skills expected to be acquired by the former included the raising of children, curing sickness, cooking and household budgeting.10 Out of a total of 34 hours per week of classes at girls’ middle schools, four hours were to be devoted to instruction in household affairs and embroidery.11 The new Republican government also demonstrated concern that female students dress appropriately. In general regulations on school uniform insisting on the wearing of blue or black garments for autumn and winter and white or grey for spring and summer, specific reference was made to female middle school students, who were expected to wear black skirts.12

Official voices, however, were not the only ones to pronounce on the future of women’s education in the aftermath of the Revolution, and it was clear that women themselves saw exciting opportunities ahead. In January 1912, for exam­ple, a certain Ms Lu Jiangzhen petitioned the military governor of Jiangsu and Zhejiang to sanction the creation of a women’s military training institute; the proposal was rejected on the grounds that there was no precedent for such an initiative.13 Two months later the Chinese Women’s Republican Assistance Association (Shenzhou nujie gonghe xieji she) publicly appealed to Sun Yatsen to establish a political science school for girls to prepare them for future participa­tion in politics.14 In May 1912 even a group of Shanghai prostitutes, claiming they had a right to education at a time when gender equality ‘had become a norm throughout the world’, sought permission from local authorities to establish a school of their own.15 Such a variety of views and agendas concerning the purposes and nature of women’s education was an illustration of the complex and multi-layered representation of women during the years that marked China’s transition from an imperial monarchy to a republic.