School readers for girls, which began to appear several years before the Qing government’s formal sanction of public education for women in 1907, reinforced the idea that girls were the future ‘mothers of the nation’ (guomin zhi mu) responsi­ble for the cultivation of patriotic sons.172 Furthermore, as a reader published in 1905 insisted, women’s principal role was to manage the household effectively and thereby ensure harmony and prosperity.173 It also pointed out, however, that girls had to exercise the same patriotic duty as boys in becoming acquainted with national affairs and working to ‘protect the country’.174 Songs composed to be performed in girls’ schools likewise sought to arouse patriotism amongst their pupils, as well as drawing the connection between the acquisition of knowledge, patriotism, and the consolidation of women’s traditional virtues and talents. Thus a school song for girls published in a Tianjin newspaper in 1906 clearly envisaged a new kind of housewife:

Younger and elder sisters, at the crack of dawn, all file into the classroom.

The teacher enters and begins the lesson, taking chalk and writing on the blackboard.

First, self cultivation teaches us how to be upright in our characters and that strict control is exercised over our words and behaviour.

Second, ethics reminds us that moral commitment to family, whether past or present, is never abandoned.

Third, Chinese language teaches us to make the meaning of words clear and precise, and underlines the importance of never forgetting the quintessence of our national character.

Fourth, history especially teaches us about the deeds of emperors, ministers, virtuous mothers and virtuous women.

Fifth, geography informs us about the yellow and Yangzi Rivers, Asia, North America and all the world’s five continents.

Sixth, art shows us the refined craftsmanship involved in the painting of plants and animals, and encourages us to value the old masters.

Seventh, arithmetic teaches us everything about division and multiplication, algebra and geometry.

Eighth, science teaches us about electricity, light and sound, and that if we are not conversant with this we are like blind and mute people.

Ninth, household management instructs us about its intricacies and that this duty is the central element of our lives.

Tenth, weaving teaches us refined skills and that it is a unique speciality of women’s work.

Eleventh, foreign languages teaches us the tongues of neighbouring countries.

Twelfth, physical education aims to transform weaklings into physically and mentally alert people.

We must all strive to propagate patriotism.

Everyone must champion unity, public virtue, civilized thought, protection of the country, and protection of the race.

Younger and elder sisters, if all of you can make yourselves stronger,

then the future of the nation (Zhongguo) and the state (guojia) will be forever


A compilation of songs for girls’ schools published in 1907 included one that urged girls to attend school specifically in order to acquire a general knowledge of science:

Please look at a cup of water. When it is heated it becomes steam, when it is frozen it becomes ice.

Please look at a strip of copper. It can be transformed into wire or a nail. Furthermore, consider the transmission of electricity (wuxiandian) and the release of running water (zilaishui).

All these are due to the wonder of physics.

If you are not absolutely clear about physics, go and register your name at school.

Please look at an embroidery needle.

If it is subjected to steam, it becomes rusty.

Please look at a silver pouch. If it comes into contact with sulphuric gas, it turns black.

Also, look at how the phosphorous is used to make matches, and how hydrogen can produce droplets of water.

All these are due to the wonder of chemistry.

If you are not absolutely clear about chemistry, go and register your name at school.

Please look at the grass and trees, and see how they take shape.

Please look at the birds and beasts, and see how they group together.

The details of all living things can be ascertained. The origins of mineral deposits can be known.

All these are due to the wonders of biology.

If you are not absolutely clear about biology, go and register your name at school.

The song went on to stress the importance of medicine, handicrafts and foreign languages (seen as useful for communicating with ‘sisters’ in Japan and the West).176

Sometimes songs were simply patriotic, such as the one performed at the end of a commemorative meeting of the Girls’ School of Pleasant Instruction in 1906, when students apparently sang a ‘national anthem’ (diguo ge: literally, ‘song of the empire’):

To the East is the Eastern Sea, whose billowing waves stretch thousands of miles,

while above us are the beautiful skies and rose-tinted clouds.

Amongst the five continents only we are at the centre.

In the twentieth century who will give free rein to heroism?

Please look at our loyal and sacred race. Our empire.

Long live our empire (wo diguo wansui)}11

Singing, however, was not always controversy-free. Some commentators, for example, did not welcome the spectacle of female students singing in public in order to earn revenue for the school.118 One irate observer in 1911 also lambasted gentry parents for compelling daughters to entertain guests by playing and singing music they had learned at school, or employing female students to sing at ‘new style’ wed­ding ceremonies. The purpose of education was to train citizens, and not household slaves or vulgar entertainers, the article concluded.119 On the other hand, in 1901 the Beijing Education Office ordered the Wenming Book Company to revise its recently published collection of songs for girls because they contained references to ‘free marriage’ (ziyou jiehun) and criticized the practice of matchmaking.180

Early school readers for girls during the last years of the dynasty quite often contained competing, and sometimes contradictory, images and messages. In one 1906 reader, for example, an image of a dutiful and diligent girl sweeping and cleaning the family home was juxtaposed with illustrations of more outgoing and hardy girls lifting weights or riding bicycles.181 A 1908 teaching manual for girls’ primary schools insisted that pupils were to take pleasure in being obedient to parents and their future husbands (instead of seeking solace from ‘useless’ reli­gious devotions), and comprised lessons on the orderly and hygienic maintenance of the future married home; at the same time, other lessons claimed that a patriotic commitment to national dignity was more important than being married or not.182

The critical discourse on women in the periodical press, as well as the tendency to essentialize the natures and personalities of girls and women, were also echoed in these early school readers. The introduction to a 1905 reader bewailed the fact that Chinese women were narcissistic egoists concerned only with personal adornment (zhuangshi) and impressing relatives and neighbours; furthermore, they were a con­tinual drain on the family finances since they spent their entire time either gambling or burning incense at home and in temples. No wonder, the reader concluded, that Chinese men were so enervated and apathetic, and that the country as a whole was in a mess.183 Whereas in the eighteenth century a prominent Confucian official and scholar such as Chen Hongmou (1696-1111) might stress the importance of a woman’s management of the jia (nuclear household) as the prerequisite for the sur­vival of the zong (patriarchal lineage), the 1905 school reader (as with the newspa­per and periodical press) directly linked successful household management with the health of the nation.184 Comparing uneducated women with animals and insects, the reader pointed out that only when they abandoned their ‘ superstitious’ (i. e. Buddhist) practices and outlook and acquired a training in household management would the family and country prosper. ‘The solution to poverty’, it solemnly declared, ‘does not lie in the temple of Guanyin (a Buddhist deity), but in the classroom’.185

Other readers likewise castigated Chinese women for their inherent supersti­tious natures, obsession with adornment and inability to understand the true value of things.186 In contrast to a common description of Chinese women as meek, submissive and tender-hearted (character traits for which, paradoxically, they were heartily condemned in one newspaper article because they had contributed to spoilt and ‘soft’ sons),187 some school readers declared that only with education

School textbooks, readers and songs

Figure 2.2 ‘Keeping Time’. An illustrated lesson from an ethics reader for girls showing pupils lining up on time to enter school. The lesson insists that girls must always be punctual and make use of all available time to them.

Source: Xu Jiaxing (comp.), Zuixin nuzi xiushen jiaokeshu (Shanghai: Shanghai chunxueshe, 1906), 13a-b.

School textbooks, readers and songs

Figure 2.3 ‘Obeying Regulations’. An illustrated lesson from an ethics reader for girls depicting pupils dutifully and attentively listening to the teacher explaining the importance of school regulations.

Source: Xu Jiaxing (comp.), Zuixin nuzi xiushen jiaokeshu (Shanghai: Shanghai chunxueshe, 1906), 21a-b.

would girls’ ‘naturally fierce’ (xionghan), ‘scheming’ and ‘envious’ natures be reformed.188 Implying also that girls were not sufficiently aware of the importance of punctuality and obeying rules, one reader portrayed schoolgirls dutifully listening to the school principal reading out school regulations, and lining up in an orderly way to enter school at the appointed time (see Figures 2.2 and 2.3).189 Much of the essentialization of gender differences at this time came via translations from Japanese educational texts. Thus a Japanese teaching manual for women’s normal schools that was translated into Chinese in 1905 expressed the view that that it was perfectly ‘natural’ for boys to immerse them­selves eventually in public affairs and for girls to occupy themselves with house­hold affairs. Education, therefore, merely helped to complete and thereby perfect their ‘natural inclinations.’190 Another teaching manual on physical education translated from the Japanese in 1906 insisted that girls were less physically robust, and that while gymnastics were suitable for boys a more appropriate form of physical exercise for girls would be calisthenics, described as ‘more aestheti­cally beautiful and a more stable form of exercise’.191

It is clear that by the end of the Qing, after more than a decade since the first Chinese public schools for girls had been founded, that there was no firm consensus over the rationale and potential benefits of women’s education. While much previous scholarly attention has been paid to the connections between feminism and nationalism during these years, as well as to the rhetoric of anti – Qing revolutionaries who called for equal gender rights and exhorted women to become more involved in public affairs and economically independent, many educators and commentators had quite a different agenda and were animated by other concerns. They insisted, for example, on a separate and limited curriculum for girls on the basis of innate gender differences; such a curriculum, in their view, should provide girls with the knowledge and skills to perform their one and only future role of household manager (and hence benefit the menfolk). Furthermore, while women’s education was often justified in terms of ‘correct­ing’ women’s character flaws (which in many ways were a surrogate for the deficiencies of men), and perceived as a crucial panacea for social and national revival, persistent anxieties continued to be voiced over the undesirable conse­quences of women’s public education and how it had the potential to undermine the gender and family order. The discourse on women’s education during the last decade of the Qing was therefore fraught with ambiguity and contradiction. As the next two chapters will show, such a ‘modernizing conservative’ discourse would become even shriller during the early years of the Republic, despite the fact that radical images and representations of women initially filled the pages of the periodical and women’s press.