The ambivalent figure of the female student
While condemnation of the ‘undisciplined’ and ‘arrogant’ behaviour of female students had been a constant feature of discourse in the newspaper and periodical press in the early years of the Republic, demonstrating an unease with the way women’s education was developing, so newspaper stories about female students during the May Fourth period (late 1910s and early 1920s) likewise bespoke an ambivalence about the consequences of women’s schooling. There was an almost voyeuristic, even morbid, interest, for example, in suicides involving female students – the causes for which either seemed to accord with traditional assumptions about women’s ideal behaviour or stemmed from more spontaneous, passionate or angry responses to perceived personal insults (which might arouse both admiration and alarm in equal measure).
Examples of the former included suicide cases reported by district magistrates to the Internal Affairs Ministry (neiwubu) applying for official commendation of ‘chaste and loyal’ behaviour (see Chapter 4).64 All of them were graduates of modern schools and described as ‘ gentle and virtuous’ (xianshu, shufang), who were extremely solicitous of their husbands’ welfare and whose absolute devotion to their husbands prompted them to commit suicide after their husbands’ deaths – and thus, in the view of district magistrates, deserved the title of ‘chaste heroine’ (liefu).65 Li Yi, from Miyun district, was a 29-year-old graduate from a higher primary school and was married for nine years before committing suicide in 1921 shortly after the death of her husband; Song Qu, from Ningjin district, who swallowed poison in 1923 after her husband’s death, was described as not only intelligent and versed in cultural and moral learning (conghui shi wenyi), but also as skilled in accounting and bookkeeping (kuaiji) and on whom her husband could totally rely for everything to do with household management and correspondence; Zhang Yu, a 28-year-old from Ninghe district and a graduate of the district girls’ school, committed suicide barely two years after marriage. The reports on Song Qu and Zhang Yu also drew attention to the fact that during their respective husbands’ illnesses and after all kinds of modern medicine had failed, they cut pieces of their own flesh to make medicinal soup (a pervasive theme in traditional Confucian hagiography of virtuous women, usually illustrating the concern of a daughter or daughter-in-law for the health of aged parents or parents – in-law).66 A more ambivalent case (in the eyes of the readership) was that of two female cousins (both graduates of modern schools) in Tianjin who were devoted to one another and were inseparable. In 1926, when the father of one of the cousins arranged for his daughter to marry a local banker and rejected her plea that her cousin might live with her in the marital household, the two cousins committed suicide the day before the wedding ceremony. The report of the suicide in a Tianjin pictorial devoted much space describing the devotion and inseparability of the two cousins, perhaps tapping into the disquiet felt by many commentators since 1912 over the trend of ‘same-sex love’ in girls’ schools.67
Examples of the latter included the case of a middle school graduate in Tianjin who swallowed poison in 1924 after her fiance broke off their engagement.68 One of the more notorious suicide cases involved a student at the Beijing Higher Women’s Normal School. In May 1917, according to the contemporary press, she committed suicide (by swallowing poison) out of shame after a teacher there had reportedly – according to an anonymous campus poster – told her and some of her classmates that in recognition of their impressive schoolwork they could become her husband’s concubines after graduation.69 The spontaneous and dramatic response to personal humiliation by educated young women such as the two noted here aroused a certain fascination but also ambivalence, given the frequent criticism in the periodical press of the ‘over the top’ sensitivity of female students to any perceived slight or insult. (It might also be noted here that the attitude of the Beijing teacher demonstrated a continuing and widely held assumption that adolescent girls sought an education merely in order to gain an entree into a life of idle leisure.) An alternative, but equally dramatic, response by female students to an ‘undesirable’ environment was that adopted by two Beijing middle school pupils in 1921; apparently disillusioned with the ‘sordid’ world around them, they secretly left school and travelled to Hangzhou (Zhejiang province), where they cut their hair and became nuns.70
The newspaper press also frequently reported on the transgression of acceptable behaviour by female students who wilfully ‘ misunderstood freedom’ (wuhui ziyou) by mixing with bad company (usually male) or spontaneously entering into a relationship with someone they barely knew. Such behaviour was frequently described as ‘promiscuous and decadent’ (yindang) in the press, an expression
that rarely, if ever, was used to describe men’s ‘transgressive’ behaviour. Typical examples were those of the female student in Guangzhou in 1917 who, although already betrothed to someone, gallivanted with a variety of men and eventually got pregnant by a soldier (whom she subsequently secretly married);71 and the student from Hankou in 1921 who conspicuously and regularly visited the theatre and entertainment area of the city and, one month before she was due to graduate, went off with someone she had met on her carousels.72 Sometimes tragedy ensued. In Fanshui, Henan province, an 18-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy who were studying in the same school in 1921 decided to secretly marry. The girl’s father had already arranged for her to be married to a local bigwig, but when the daughter refused to go along with the arrangement, the enraged father shot her.73 Such stories vicariously played to assumptions (both spoken and unspoken) that had since the beginnings of women’s public schooling identified female students with promiscuity in particular and dangerously unrestrained public behaviour in general, thereby reinforcing the notion held by many that female education was potentially a ‘dangerous path’ [weitu] – a description first used in 1913 and 1914 when journals referred to the fear of parents that women’s education merely encouraged girls’ extravagant tastes or stimulated a ‘hankering after westernisation’ (xinzui Ouxi).14 Newspapers from the first year of the Republic, in fact, titillated their readership with reports on adolescent female students either being ‘seduced’ by older men to become their mistresses,75 or actively and provocatively flirting with men after school hours.76 In some cases, the fact that an adolescent female student engaging in a ‘transgressive’ relationship with a man while at school might actually be recently widowed added to the frisson.11
Finally, despite Xie Wanying’s confident assertion in September 1919 that female students were now ‘socially acceptable’ and ‘responsible’ in their behaviour and outlook, it is clear that they continued to transgress the norms prescribed by bureaucrats, educators and intellectuals. Thus in early 1918 the Education Ministry felt compelled to issue a directive to the provinces, noting that:
As most of the girl students in the various provinces have assumed diverse forms of dress, and have behaved according to their own fancies, for the sake of uniformity and discipline, we have fixed the following five regulations.78
Such regulations insisted that girls not cut their hair short, not leave school premises without special leave or walk about on the streets in groups, not embark on ‘free choice’ marriage without parental permission, and not attend a boys’ school if over the age of 13. The directive, however, also forbade the practice of footbinding, indicating that not all female students escaped the control of more ‘traditional’ parents. Xie Bingying, for example, notes in her autobiography that when she attended the Datong Girls’ School in Changsha (Hunan province) in 1918 she was not alone in having bound feet. Likewise, when Zhang Yuyi attended a girls’ school in Suzhou (Jiangsu province) in 1912 many of the students (aged between 12 and 15) had bound feet.79 Barely three years later, in 1921, the Education Ministry again had to reiterate its demand that the behaviour of female students had to be more strictly regulated because of their proclivity to do ‘what they pleased’. Schools were once again instructed to ensure that students did not cut their hair short, indulge in free-choice marriage or absent themselves without permission.80
Despite these directives, and even though students were indeed expelled from school for cutting their hair short,81 the ‘bob’ continued to remain popular amongst female students during the early 1920s. Even in a less cosmopolitan centre (at least compared to Shanghai) such as Tianjin, a locally published pictorial noted in 1926 that short hair was seen as the very ‘height of fashion’ (zui shimao zhi liu) amongst female students, a phenomenon that only caused ‘gender confusion’ (especially, the pictorial observed, as female students also persisted in donning the long straight gown [changpao] traditionally worn by men).82 In many ways, therefore, female students remained just as ‘uncontrollable’ in the eyes of modernizing conservatives as they had been when public schooling for girls had begun in the early years of the twentieth century.