Novel vistas for women in the new Republic
During these years radical new images and representations of women were promoted in the newspaper and periodical press as a response to the potential opportunities that apparently lay before them to enlarge their social roles. An article in the first issue of Funu shibao (The Ladies Times)16 in 1911, for example, admiringly pointed to the United States, where women were said to be working in library management, journalism, nursing, accountancy and as insurance company representatives; typically, however, the author rationalized women’s expanding social roles on the basis of conventional gender assumptions, noting that women would be better qualified to become insurance company representatives because they were more familiar with household property and objects, while women working as shop salespersons would be useful because they could ‘attract’ customers.17 Another commentator in 1912 exuded confidence that once women were granted political rights in China they would be able to enter all the professions in education, medicine, industry and journalism.18 Women’s potential economic role in the revival of the nation was also emphasized at this time. A contributor to a women’s journal in 1912, Zhang Fengru, declared that with the establishment of the Republic women were now in a position ‘to rise up and surpass men’ by completing the long-term task of national reconstruction that men had just begun with the overthrow of the monarchy. Zhang suggested that women might exploit their untapped power by pooling their resources in a women citizens bank (nuzi guomin yinhang) and thereby assuming the role of ‘national creditors’ (guozhai quan). Such a bank would convert women’s personal donations of jewellery (even the poorest women, Zhang insisted, would be able to contribute silver hairpins, rings and bracelets) into currency that would constitute the funds loaned to industrial entrepreneurs or borrowed by the government to pay off its foreign debts. Calculating that women’s contributions would amount to over
2,0 billion dollars, Zhang confidently predicted that with such durable economic influence, consolidated by increasing educational opportunities, Chinese women would ‘surpass’ Western women within 10 years.19
For some commentators, however, particular constituencies of women had more potential than others. A fascinating article published in Funu shibao (in November 1911) presented a ‘class’ analysis of Shanghai women, dividing them into an ‘upper social stratum’ (shangdeng shehui) that comprised the well-to-do wives and sisters of wealthy officials or merchants; a ‘middle social stratum’ (zhongdeng shehui) that comprised the wives and daughters of business managers or shopowners; and a ‘lower social stratum’ (xiadeng shehui) that comprised servants, seamstresses, boatwomen, fisherwomen, tea-pickers, silk workers, peddlers, fortune-tellers, shamanesses, nuns, prostitutes and beggars. Dismissing both the upper stratum of women as pampered and unintelligent wastrels who experienced neither genuine freedom nor happiness, and the middle stratum as either drudges in their husbands’ enterprises or mere ‘ornaments’ to attract custom, the author argued that the very poverty of the lower strata of women compelled them to seek an independent livelihood. Although of dubious morality and in demeaning occupations, the author concluded, such women only needed an education for their potential to be channelled into more ‘legitimate’ professions in education, medicine or commerce.20
There were, of course, those who took a dimmer view of the prospect of women being involved in the professions. Qian Zhixiu, writing shortly after the 1911 Revolution in the foremost current affairs journal of the time, the Dongfang zazhi (Eastern Miscellany), argued that women sought entrance to the professions to ‘escape from the household’ (tuoli jiating) and lead independent lives.21 Such a situation in which both men and women hankered after separate and individual lives, Qian opined, was unprecedented; the fact that women were responsible for the ‘inner realm’ (nei) while men were engaged in the ‘outer realm’ (wai), Qian continued, did not contravene the principle of equality (pingdeng) since men and women relied on each other in equal measure (an interesting example of how modernizing conservatives could appropriate radical new terms to fit their own agenda). Qian warned that outside employment would not only encourage women to adopt the stance of refusing to marry (bujia zhuyi), and thereby increase the danger of sexual anarchy in society, but also would sully their ‘spiritual beauty’ – so long an inspiration for art and literature. Women’s true profession (zhiye), Qian insisted, was household management; rejecting the by now conventional criticism of women as parasitic consumers, Qian pointed out that since their crucial role as household managers both allowed men to work outside the home free of anxiety and brought spiritual and material advantages to conjugal life, women should be considered ‘indirect producers’ (jianjie shengli).22
Despite Qian Zhixiu’s misgivings, women’s journals in the early Republic such as Funu shibao, Fund zazhi (The Ladies Magazine) and Ntizi shijie (Women’s World) continued to refer enthusiastically to a ‘ new world trend’ of active women driving trains, flying planes and engaging in competitive sports.23 The exploits of the Frenchwoman, Marie Marvingt (1875-1963), described as the ‘world’s first great female athlete’ (da yundongjia), who performed acts of derring-do such as climbing mountains and flying in air balloons, were especially singled out,24 while the path-breaking achievements of British, French and American female aviators (nd feixingjia, a term newly coined at this time) were reported on throughout the early years of the Republic.25 A letter to Fund shibao in 1911 expressed admiration for heroic Western female aviators, comparing them to weak and timid Chinese men.26 The American aviatrix, Katherine Stinson (1891-1977), especially captured the attention of the Chinese press. Stinson had begun exhibition flying in 1913 and was the first woman to carry the US mail by air in that year; during the first half of 1917 she toured Japan (in Tokyo up to 25,000 people watched her first performance) and China (where, in Beijing, she flew in front of the Temple of Agriculture and was awarded a silver cup by the education minister, Fan Yuanlian).27 The Fund zazhi, reporting on her flight from Japan to Shanghai, quoted her as saying that women were potentially better flyers than men because they did not dissipate themselves with smoking and drinking.28 Other newspaper reports noted that her flying skills were reputed to be superior to men’s, described her round the world trip performing such aerobatics (shenji: literally, ‘magic tricks’) as barrel rolls (huixuanrao), and claimed that up to 40,000 people watched her aerial stunts at Jiangwan, near Shanghai, in February 1917.29
Fiction contributions to women’s journals even imagined Chinese women taking to the air. One such short story in 1918 recounted the exploits of a ‘pretty’ and ‘intelligent’ young woman by the name of Su Yufen.30 The daughter of a wealthy Hong Kong merchant (originally from Shunde in Guangdong province), Su becomes well versed in English and science at school, and later travels to London where she enrols in a flying school. ‘Although only a girl’, her will and ambition (zhiqi) are greater than the average man’s, and she has nothing but contempt for the so-called ‘new’ men of China who are fit only to drive around in fancy cars, gorge themselves on luxurious food and adopt superficial Western habits. After three years in flying school Su becomes a highly skilled pilot, thereby causing the entire population of London to ‘gasp in admiration’. Su then purchases a plane (with her father’s help) and performs exhibitions all over England, prompting newspapers to hail her as an ‘astonishing Chinese woman’ (Zhongguo de qi ndzi). Given a rapturous welcome by the great and the good of Hong Kong on her return, Su thereupon flies to Guangzhou (in the plane she had purchased in England, and which she had brought back with her on the ship she travelled on), and impresses the population with her exhibition flying. On returning to Hong Kong, Su is forced to crash land near an uninhabited island but manages to survive through her ingenuity and resourcefulness for several months before being rescued by a passing boat. The story concludes with Su continuing her flying exploits both in China and abroad (Japan and the United States).
Such literary imaginings were not purely fantasy. Two years earlier, in 1916, a 20-year-old teacher at a Shanghai girls’ school, Zhang Xiayun, became China’s first woman to take to the skies when she visited a newly established flying school in Nanyuan (near Beijing). As her sister was the wife of an army staff officer who had personal connections at the school, Zhang obtained permission to be the passenger on a two-seater plane’s test flight. Unfortunately, during the flight, the plane lost power and the pilot had to make a crash landing. The women’s journal reporting on Zhang’s exploit praised her inspiring example; such daring, it declared, clearly demonstrated that normally ‘weak and timid’ women could be transformed into ‘bold and tough’ characters, and expressed the hope that China would see thousands of Zhang Xiayuns in the future.31