The dress and behaviour of female students
It was against such a background that the dress and behaviour of adolescent girls in the wake of the Revolution became a particular source of concern (contemporary Western observers such as the French consular official, Jean Rodes, referred to a general outbreak of ‘hysteria’ amongst young people, women, students and theatrical performers).100 Even Tan Sheying, a prominent female political activist and suffrage campaigner, condemned the ‘reckless’ and ‘unrestrained’ behaviour of young women (whom she referred to as ‘ new women’ ), thus giving women a bad name.101 One Chinese commentator bewailed the fact that in Guangzhou the ‘loosening’ of morals had led to adolescent boys and girls walking around together in public (hand in hand!); harking back to Zhang Zhidong’s warning in 1904, he feared that such a phenomenon could only lead to sexual anarchy.102 Such a prospect especially exercised the mind of Lu Feikui (1886-1941), an editor of Jiaoyu zazhi and prominent textbook compiler. On the eve of the 1911 Revolution he insisted that educational solutions were the most appropriate cure for the ‘sex problem’ in education; dismissing as ineffective official attempts to stop female students from ‘seductively making themselves up’ (yeyou) and male students from frequenting brothels, Lu suggested that schools teach the importance of physical hygiene and the dangers of promiscuity, as well as providing students with plenty of opportunities to do physical exercise in order to pre-empt the emergence of ‘unhealthy thoughts and fantasies’ (Lu included an attraction to homosexuality [tongxing xiangjian]).103 By 1913 Lu was expressing alarm with the increasing public appetite for books dealing with ‘ the sexual affairs of men and women’ and blaming the consequences of modern education for such a phenomenon (such as co-education or the bad example of morally deficient teachers); as in 1911 he urged schools to place more emphasis on sports, as well as advising students to eat and drink moderately, and not to wear thick clothing.104
In the same year complaints again surfaced from Guangzhou that hardly a day passed without young ‘frivolous and skittish’ (tiaota) girls (especially students) disporting themselves in ‘outrageous’ dress styles such as scarlet stockings and trousers that did not go below the knees. Authorities in Guangzhou responded to this by issuing regulations to girls’ schools insisting that all students over 14 years of age had to wear black cotton skirts.105 Educational authorities in Hubei likewise attempted to prescribe the dress of female students in 1913 when students were directed to wear cotton padded jackets, black cotton skirts, dark-coloured shoes and white stockings.106 A local magistrate in Jiangsu province complained that schooling for girls had ‘infected’ (ran) them with bad habits of ‘showiness and extravagance’ (jiaoyi fumi), and similarly recommended tighter dress regulations that would compel the wearing of cotton, rather than silk or satin, clothes and a sober hairstyle that did not emulate ‘bizarre and outlandish fashion’ (jinqi xuanyi shiyang)}01
Such cries of alarm had started to become particularly strident in the months preceding the October Revolution. One commentator, for example, castigated educated women for their taste in ‘gaudy’ and extravagant dress and their lust for foreign goods, which greatly damaged the national economy.108 (A few years earlier, such character ‘deficiencies’ had been attributed to uneducated women. See Chapter 2.) In October 1911 a contributor to Funu shibao, Wei Hongzhu, addressed specific words of warning to female students. For thousands of years, Wei noted, women in China had suffered confinement and oppression so that they had become little more than ‘parasitical appendages to the man’s world’ (nanjie zhong zhi jishengchong fushu pin); now the shackles had been loosened, he continued, women – and particularly young girls – should not go down the ‘extremist’ path and become extravagant in their behaviour. Sadly, however, Wei mused:
Many female students today loosen their braids, devote energy to their attire, narrow their sleeves, wear gold-rimmed spectacles and leather shoes, and carry leather handbags; they swagger through the streets (zhaoyao guoshi), looking around them with an air of haughtiness (gupan zihao).
Wei criticized female students for being too frivolous and gaudy on the one hand (making them indistinguishable from prostitutes), and too outspoken and impatient in their criticism of women’s lack of rights on the other.109 In the view of another observer, female students, with their sleek black hair and severe fringes, gold-rimmed spectacles, jewellery pinned to their clothes and coquettish demeanour, were only concerned with outdoing each other in their obsession to ape the manners and appearance of the ‘fashionable’ (shimao) young women of the day.110 Should not the ‘sacred and inviolable’ (shensheng buke qinfan) female student, the author plaintively asked, seek to wash away the shame of being a ‘plaything’ (wanwu)? There was clearly a bewildering array of both dress and hair styles on show at this time. One commentator criticized female students who wore their hair in long pleats and dressed in trousers rather than skirts; this made them look like ‘servants’.111 Other students apparently wore their hair in buns or coils, or cut their hair in the front according to a variety of fringe styles.112
There was also the ‘problem’ of short hair amongst young women, which outraged many observers and divided female opinion. For some, shorter hair amongst girls (as well as wearing either trousers or long gowns) signalled a dangerous blurring of gender distinctions,113 a phenomenon that the Beijing ribao (Beijing Daily) had already drawn attention to in 1910:
Women are imitating men in everything today, in their clothes, hats, shoes, hairstyles, spectacles and cigarette smoking. Men are becoming feminine and women masculine. Won’t there soon be full equality between the sexes?114
Two members of the Women Citizens Association in Hunan, Li Shuya and Zou Huiying, were expelled from the association in March 1912 because they had cut their hair short. They appealed to the provincial education office to gain redress for this ‘injustice’, only to be told that although women were beginning to change their appearance to ‘strike a blow’ for the ‘women’s world’, it was best not to indulge in too dramatic a change that would alienate people. The education office also advised the two aggrieved former members of the Women Citizens Association that while women’s rights in the West were ‘flourishing’ this did not mean that they necessarily changed their dress or cut their hair short so as ‘to look like men’ (yu nanzi huntong).115 Hunan provincial authorities one month later similarly turned down a request from a girls’ school to establish an association to promote short hair amongst women; if such a practice became commonplace, the authorities warned, Chinese girls would end up looking like neither female nor male, Chinese nor Western.116 In June 1912 the vice-chairperson of the Chinese Women’s Alliance (Zhongguo nuzi tongmenghui), Wu Mulan, was specifically criticized by the vice-governor of Hubei province for sporting short hair, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles and dressing in Western-style men’s clothes.117 Fears of gender blurring were further heightened when a newspaper report on the elections for a national parliament held in the winter of 1912 noted that a number of women had apparently dressed up as men in order to cast votes on behalf of male relatives.118
By 1912 the ‘craze’ for Western-style clothes amongst female students was perceived as a real threat to the indigenous textile industry, prompting one newspaper contributor to comment:
Western clothes have become fashionable, and there are none among the so-called enlightened girl students who do not love western products, to the extent that almost everything they wear from head to foot is a western product.119
Such concerns also occupied the members of the newly formed National Products Association (guohuo weichi hui) in January 1913. One of the founder members of the Association, Wu Tingfang, bewailed the fact that women’s dress was ‘offensive and unbecoming to the eye’ (buya guan), and noted with alarm that women and adolescent girls were wearing all kinds of ‘strange and garish clothes’ (qixing guaizhuang), despite the 1912 guidelines. Such a trend, he noted, harmed the movement and damaged the national essence (guoti).120
More than dress, however, commentators detected an unwelcome trend in the thinking and attitude of female students in 1911. In an article entitled ‘On the Harm Caused by Chinese Women Being Unable to Manage the Household’ published in a journal for female students, the author warned that the very future of the country was threatened by women’s increasing incompetence in household affairs.121 The current power and wealth of the West, the author continued, were living proof of the concrete benefits brought about by diligent household management. Noting that instruction of women in their ‘heavenly-ordained’ task of ‘ruling the interior’ (zhinei) had declined since the end of the Han dynasty in the third century AD, the author clearly blamed women for China’s poverty since their apparent lack of budgeting and other household skills had led to the inexorable decline of families. The recent availability of public education for girls, however, the author concluded, had not improved the situation as students emerging from these schools were even less competent and enthusiastic about household management than ever before. Chapter 4 will show how a reading of this critical discourse on female students, which became especially strident during the early years of the Republic, can provide an intriguing glimpse into the multiple, confident and often exhibitionist responses of girls and young women to expanding opportunities in the public sphere.