In 1892 the comprador reformer Zheng Guanying (1842-1923) advocated women’s education for the specific purpose of cultivating ‘virtuous women, virtuous wives, and virtuous mothers’ (xian ’nu, xianqi, xianmu).26 An unsuccessful candidate in the lower-level degree examinations, Zheng in 1860 had entered the commercial pro­fession in Shanghai, where he worked in the offices of the British firm, Dent & Company, before becoming a comprador (between 1873 and 1881) for the China Navigation Company founded by the British firm of Butterfield & Swire. In 1882 he became a manager of the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company, one of the first guandu shangban (official-supervised, merchant-managed) Chinese enter­prises founded to compete with foreign business. Zheng’s advocacy of women’s education was part of a wider programme of institutional and social reform that he had been developing since the early 1860s (in the 1870s he was perhaps the first reformer to advocate a parliamentary form of government for China).27

Elaborating further on the rationale for women’s education (to a greater extent than Song Shu), Zheng would be the first of many subsequent commentators who attributed China’s social and moral malaise to women’s ‘backwardness’. The lack of education amongst women was even worse than amongst men, he declared, claiming that they spent their days idly gossiping with older women, engaging in ‘superstitious’ practices and frittering away the savings earned by husbands. For Zheng, women’s lack of education meant that men could not rely on ‘ assistance from within the household’ (neizhu), a theme that was to recur frequently in sub­sequent discourse. Although women need not be as highly educated or learned as men, Zheng concluded, an education that would make them morally upright, lit­erate, numerate and competent in ‘handling everyday matters’ (such as sewing, cooking and household budgeting) would relieve husbands of undue anxiety and bring virtue to the household. Women would thereby be able to ‘guide sons and assist husbands’ (xiangzi zuofu) and divest themselves of ‘extravagance and dependence’ (xumi zuoshi).

Zheng’s reference to the anxiety supposedly felt by husbands primarily because of their wives’ proclivity to fritter away savings and their inability to manage the household income is a useful reminder that women in late imperial China (at least in well-to-do households) were often in charge of the ‘pursestrings’.28 Also, Zheng’s simultaneous call to abolish footbinding included the novel reference to Western ridicule as a reason for doing so (in 1902 a newspaper article was to express alarm that Westerners were taking photographs of bound feet to be used for ‘shameful’ postcards).29 In a wider sense, as with the case of indigenous male elites in colonial India or officials and activists promoting ‘enlightenment’ in early Meiji Japan who condemned their countries’ ‘degraded’ popular customs, Zheng Guanying was to be the first of many reformers during the last years of the Qing who legitimized their critique of China’s ‘backward’ and ‘superstitious’ cus­toms and practices (including the non-education of women) by emphasizing the fact that they were a source of Western contempt, scorn and mockery.30

Liang Qichao (1873-1929), one of the activists of the 1898 reform movement and later to become a pioneering scholar in the realms of political thought and historiography,31 advanced a more detailed rationale for women’s education in 1897, one year after he had proposed the creation of a wide network of schools and its integration with the civil service examinations.32 Arguing that the root cause of China’s weakness was the lack of education amongst women, Liang noted first of all that women were ‘consumers’ (fenli) rather than ‘producers’ (shengli), terms he had probably borrowed from an article written by the British missionary, Timothy Richard, in 1893 and published in the missionary journal, Wanguo gongbao (Globe Magazine).33 It was bad enough, Liang claimed, that half of the male population was unproductive, but the entire female population (he referred to a figure of 200 million) were consumers (clearly choosing to ignore or perhaps subconsciously overlooking the crucial roles peasant women had always played in the rural economy); since they were completely dependent on men, Liang surmised, it was inevitable that women were treated as slaves or beasts (later, in the same year, Liang described Chinese women as ‘indolent as vagrants and stupid as barbarians’).34 Like Zheng Guanying, Liang pointed to the debilitating and constant fear of poverty felt by men obliged to support non­productive wives. Education, therefore, should provide women with an occupation (ye), but it was not entirely clear what Liang meant by this. While in some of his writings at this time he referred to specialist professions such as medicine and teaching practised in the West, he also emphasized the revival of women’s household handicraft skills.

Liang went on to explain how Chinese women had become so ignorant and unproductive. He argued that the invidious influence of entrenched Confucian adages such as ‘a woman without talent is virtuous’ (furen wucai jishi de) had led to the assumption that a woman could only be virtuous by being illiterate. On the other hand, Liang added, what was referred to in the past as a ‘talented woman’ (cainu) was one who merely ‘teased the wind and fondled the moon, plucked flowers and caressed the grass, and then toyed with ditties mourning the passing of spring and sad farewells in order to compile several volumes of poetry’.35 Learning for women, in Liang’s view, had simply referred to this superficial and self-indulgent past-time; real learning – in Liang’s words that which ‘developed one’s breadth of mind and contributed to one’s livelihood’ – had been non­existent. In dismissively brushing aside the tradition of women’s learning and writing as trivial endeavours, therefore, Liang had set a precedent that was to be repeated by scholars, writers and educators (male and female) in the early years of the twentieth century and during the May Fourth era who marginalized and belittled women’s learning of the past, which came to represent all that was unsatisfactory about China’s cultural tradition.36

The lack of ‘ real’ learning amongst women, Liang continued, meant that they had become mean-minded and parochial without any concern for, or interest in, the outside world. Their lives were taken up with petty squabbles involving other female members of the household (such as mothers-in-law), while their constant dependence on men for their needs had turned the household into a site of unease and stress for men. Like poisoned wine (zhen), Liang thundered, women had destroyed men’s morale and spirit. Furthermore, the absence of prenatal and maternal education meant that Chinese women were neither physically fit to produce healthy sons (as Western countries ensured, particularly in relation to producing robust candidates for their armies37) nor equipped for the upbringing of public-spirited sons – at home they were exposed to a petty and narrow life at worst and, at best, simply encouraged to pass the civil service examinations in order to bring prestige and benefit to the household, all of which bred an outlook of ‘hankering after selfish profit’ (yingsi quli) that was widespread in society.

Having lambasted the ignorance, backwardness and physical weakness of women, and attributing China’s decline to such a state of affairs, Liang then insisted on the ‘educability’ of girls. Citing the views of Western scientists who differentiated between the superior ability of boys to grasp abstract principles of mathematics and science and the superior ability of girls to put such abstract prin­ciples to practical use (as in medicine or manufacturing), Liang argued that boys and girls had different strong points when it came to learning, and that the sexes should not be differentiated on the basis of ‘high or low, good or bad’ (xuanzhi). If women applied themselves to the appropriate learning, Liang prophesied, they would in all likelihood become better equipped than men to achieve things, espe­cially as they had the advantage of not having to encumber themselves with necessary, but superficial, social interaction and experience the long drawn out hassles of taking the civil service examinations as their male counterparts were compelled to do; furthermore, women would be aided by their ‘innate calmness’ (jujing) and ‘sense of scrupulousness’ (xinxi). In this context, Liang pointed to the renown achieved by two Chinese women who had trained as doctors in the United States – Kang Aide and Shi Meiyu.38

Liang’s call for women’s education in 1897 was riddled with paradox and con­tradiction.39 Like Zheng Guanying before him and, as will be discussed later, many educators and reformers after him, Liang attributed the deterioration of the country solely to women’s ‘ignorance’ and ‘backwardness’. He justified women’s education on purely instrumentalist grounds – to alleviate men’s anxieties, strengthen the household and national economy, and reinvigorate a male citizenry. At the same time, a voluntarist strain was apparent in Liang’s confidence that, given the proper education, women could be high achievers. Yet while Liang rejected one kind of biological essentialism, insisting that women were as ‘educable’ as men (noting that in the West both men and women were trained in agriculture, industry, medicine, commerce, law and pedagogy), he advanced another kind of essentialism that was to be influential in future discourse – the notion that women’s ‘inherent’ calmness and tranquillity, as well as their ‘natural’ inclination to pay attention to detail, meant they were more suited for certain occupations than others (Liang’s comments noted earlier referring to the advantages enjoyed by women in not having to be involved in ‘ tiresome’ social interaction and taking the civil service examinations indicate also that in some ways he accepted as a given conventional assumptions about the different and ‘proper’ spheres within which men and women were to operate).40 Finally, by castigating the tradition of women’s learning in the past, Liang removed the possibility that it might be a source of empowerment for women, although (as will be discussed later) this did not preclude some elite women during the 1898 reform movement from drawing on precisely such a tradition as an inspiration for their educational and publishing activities.