On the eve of the 1898 reform period, a number of male reformers and their wives met to discuss the establishment of a girls’ school in Shanghai. These included Zheng Guanying, Kang Guangren (the brother of Kang Youwei), Liang Qichao and his wife Li Huixian (1868-1925),41 Jing Yuanshan (1841-1903), the head of the Shanghai Telegraph Bureau, the former diplomat Chen Jitong42 and his French wife (Chinese name Lai Mayi), and Chen Shoupeng (the brother of Chen Jitong) and his wife Xue Shaohui (1855-1911).43 The steering committee they organized met four times between November and December 1897, by which time about 100 individuals (including Kang Youwei, Tan Sitong, Zhang Jian and Huang Zunxian) had been ‘signed up’ to support the proposed school. Foreign support was also elicited, and at the December 1897 inaugural meeting of the Women’s Study Society (nuxue hui) – an organization founded principally by female reformers to publicize the project of women’s education – a number of Western missionaries and diplomats (and their female relatives) participated.44 An illustration of the meeting appeared in the Dianshizhai huabao (Pictorial from the Touchstone Studio), hailing it as a path-breaking instance of cooperation amongst Chinese and Western Women (see Figure 1.1).45 In the following year the Women’s Study Society was to publish the first Chinese women’s journal, the Nuxue bao (English title: ‘Chinese Girls’ Progress’).46

One of the most active publicists for the proposed school was Jing Yuanshan, who memorialized officials for their moral and financial support (plans for the school, as well as its draft curriculum and regulations were also widely publicized in the contemporary newspaper and periodical press). In one such memorial, in 1897, Jing justified women’s education by noting that the essential element in governing the state was to ‘regularize the household’ (qijia). Since such a task was complicated, he continued, it was imperative that women provide the appro­priate ‘assistance from within’ (neizhu).47 Jing made the same point in 1898 when he petitioned the Southern and Northern Commissioners for Trade for support. Although noting that China did have a tradition of women’s education and female scholarship (clearly exhibiting a more positive attitude towards China’s tradition of female learning than Liang Qichao) and that in the West all women were educated (and were able to study medicine, science, commerce and politics), Jing’s principal emphasis was on the contribution women’s education would make to the more efficient running of the household. Thus, after referring to the various Sino-Western specialist schools established by officials in the 1870s and 1880s to train linguistic, technical and military experts, Jing insisted: ‘However, the essential way to rule the state successfully must be to prioritize regularizing the household; the prosperity of affairs especially requires assistance from within the household’.48 If girls’ schools were established, Jing later wrote in 1899, China would have ‘gentle and kind-hearted girls (shunu), and thereupon in the future we will have virtuous mothers (xianmu) and hence virtuous sons’.49 Significantly, Jing in 1899 responded to those who argued that there was no point in educating girls since their future tasks were no more than cooking, needlework

The first public schools for girls 1898-1902

Figure 1.1 Inaugural meeting of the Women’s Study Society (qunchai dahui) in December 1987.

Source: Dianshizhai huabao (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 1983), vol. 44. liwu. 39.

and other ‘trifling matters’ (suoxie) in the household by insisting that not only did everyone have the obligation to be literate but also that a woman’s task of ‘managing the interior’ should not be regarded as any less important than roles fulfilled by men.50 He elaborated on this point by reminding sceptics that ‘assisting husbands and instructing sons, welcoming guests and seeing off in-laws and relatives (yingbin songjiu) all require knowledge and learning’.

For Jing Yuanshan, then, the rationale for women’s education was firmly tied to the agenda of knitting the household together as a congenial site for the support of husbands, the upbringing and education of sons, and the smooth running of inter­personal relations. Such views were shared by others involved in the setting up of the first Chinese school for girls. Kang Tongwei (1879-1974), the daughter of Kang Youwei, for example, argued in 1898 that women’s education was necessary in order to ensure that ‘worthy mothers instructed their sons, capable wives assisted their husbands, and filial daughters obeyed their fathers’, thereby guaranteeing harmony (yongmu) in the family household.51 (Like Liang Qichao in 1897, Kang Tongwei also underlined the importance of establishing girls’ schools as a way of ending the shameful and humiliating dependence on missionaries.) In his announcement concerning the setting up of a girls’ school in 1897, Liang Qichao likewise asserted that: ‘Education for women will enable them to assist husbands on the one hand, and instruct sons on the other; in the short term it will benefit the household, and in the long term it will benefit the race.’52

At the end of May 1898 the Chinese Girls’ School (Zhongguo nuxuetang) – it was also referred to as the Classic Uprightness Girls’ School (jingzheng nushu) – was formally opened in the southern district of Shanghai (near the Jiangnan Arsenal, one of the earliest self-strengthening industrial projects opened in 1865) with an all-female teaching staff that included the wife of Timothy Richard and the daughter of Young J. Allen.53 With an initial enrolment of 20,54 by the time the school was forced to close down in 1900 as a result of conservative official opposition up to 70 students had been registered (the school charged tuition fees of 1 dollar per month). The regulations for the school provide an intriguing illus­tration of both the path-breaking nature of the project as well as of the concern felt by the school’s promoters to control the context and environment of women’s education (as well as the behaviour of the students themselves).55 Article one of the regulations, for example, both carefully insisted that the founding of the school was in accordance with the spirit of the former Confucian sages (whose enshrined tablets within the school would be the object of ritual obeisance amongst staff and students)56 and stated that in line with the purpose of extending ‘autonomy’ (ziyou zhi quan) to women they were to fill all teaching and other personnel posts within the school (including the two superintendents).

Other articles provided for an external board of male directors responsible for hiring personnel and arranging the curriculum (there was also to be a board of female directors chosen from amongst those women who had contributed funds to the school) as well as two male managers (whose offices would be outside the school) in charge of budgeting and other general matters; insisted that prospec­tive students (to be aged between 8 and 15) were to be well-behaved girls from ‘good households’ (liangjia guixiu) in order to maintain the school’s reputation (servant girls and prostitutes were specifically banned); envisioned an ambitious curriculum that would include not only reading and writing but also history, art, law, psychology, pedagogy, spinning and weaving skills, and drawing;57 and enjoined future students to behave ‘absolutely correctly’ so as to pre-empt any gossip or rumourmongering by potential critics of the school (interestingly, the gender segregation of the school and outside environment was to be matched by class segregation within the school; thus boarding students were allowed to bring their own female servants with them but they had to be lodged in separate resi­dences). The balance of the curriculum continued to be a topic of discussion as the regulations were being drawn up. Thus at a series of meetings of the school’s male and female directors at the end of 1897 one of the female directors (at the second meeting on 21 November) suggested that since girls were taught culinary skills in the West this should be emulated in China, while another director (at the fourth meeting on 6 December) insisted there was a need for appropriate school readers to instruct girls in practical knowledge such as household budgeting.58

As a recent study has pointed out, some female reformers involved with the establishment of the Chinese Girls’ School may have held assumptions concern­ing the purposes of women’s education different from those of their male coun­terparts.59 In contrast to Liang Qichao, for example, who had denigrated ‘talented women’ (cainu) of China’s past, Xue Shaohui preferred to emphasize their achievements and viewed the project of women’s education as a vehicle to demonstrate and enhance women’s creative and poetic abilities. She particularly praised the ‘brilliance’ of female writers, poets, scholars and artists in Chinese history, and maintained that such a phenomenon was even more remarkable given the decline of formal education for girls after the Han dynasty (and who knows, she rhetorically asked, how many more such ‘worthy ladies’ [xianyuan] had been marginalized within the ‘inner chambers’ during the last 2,000 years?)60 She con­cluded by calling on men and women to join together in the effort to revive China:

The governing of the realm does not depend fundamentally on the actions of any one individual, but is something that everyone has to apply their minds to. If men and women unite together in determination, so that in the govern­ing of the interior and exterior (zhinei zhiwai) each can apply their talents to beneficial use, then how could there be any worries about the poverty and weakness of the country?61

Poems composed by female reformers and published in newspapers and peri­odicals spoke of a desire to transcend conventional notions of what women were expected to learn and intimated that women’s knowledge should ultimately extend to an ‘understanding of the entire realm under heaven’.62 The confidence that women might now have the opportunity to express openly their social and politi­cal views was also demonstrated by one of the female contributors to Nuxue bao, Pan Xuan, who declared in an early issue of the journal: ‘With this journal we have torn down the huge billboard that signals the difference between the public words [of men] and the inner words [of women]…’63

Perhaps the most remarkable contribution to Nuxue bao was an article on women’s patriotism by Lu Cui.64 After noting that if Chinese women were to become like their counterparts in the West, with ‘ everyone being able to read, everyone having a general knowledge and everyone having a specialized occu­pation, then this would not only be of great benefit to the family but is bound to have positive consequences for the nation’, Lu went on to dispute the assump­tion that women were not suited to discuss or be involved in national affairs (referring to American women who wanted to form a militia unit to participate in the current Spanish-American War, and the demand made by protesting women in New York to boycott imports of French textiles because of France’s secret assistance to Spain).65 Since Chinese women were an integral component of the ‘people’ (min), Lu noted, they had every right to be concerned about the perilous national situation. On this basis she not only insisted that women’s education be formally sanctioned but also proposed that the Qing court estab­lish an assembly of upper-class women (guinu yuan) that might meet in the

Summer Palace. Such an assembly, bringing together the wives of nobles and officials, would meet once a year (and would invite women from Western countries to attend) to discuss the development of women’s education, publica­tions, public and artistic associations, hospitals and military training units. Lu also suggested that this assembly might elect 12 members to be ‘officials’ of a special Board of Women’s Education (nuxue bu), who would be assigned to the provinces to oversee the establishment of girls’ schools (and also to recommend superior female students and ‘worthy ladies’ to be appointed as administrative assistants to the assembly). Finally, Lu recommended that women be allowed to take examinations especially created for them (nu ke).66

Other female reformers and writers at this time, however, were more pragmatic or held the same assumptions as male reformers in their calls for women’s education. Pan Daofang, for example, argued in 1897 that a country’s prosperity depended on its human talent, talent that could only be nurtured by the appropri­ate maternal education; hence the absolute necessity, Pan urged, for the establish­ment of girls’ schools.67 Pan also gave a more prosaic reason for the need to make girls literate. Whereas in the West, she claimed, even servant girls could read and write letters, in China rural women were unable to read letters sent by husbands and sons; since this meant that they had to ask others to read letters for them and write responses on their behalf, family privacy was compromised.68 Xu Fu, in terms similar to male reformers, declared in 1898 that if women’s education flourished ‘the teachings and the race would be preserved’ – what better way, she asked, to strengthen China?69 A contributor to Nuxue bao dismissed China’s talented women of the past using exactly the same terms as Liang Qichao had done in his article on women’s education the year before.70 Women’s education, she continued, would train them to be competent managers of the household, thus allowing husbands to prosper, bringing harmony to the household (women were blamed for sowing discord between fathers and sons and amongst married brothers), and ensuring the upbringing of talented sons.71

In the statement on revised regulations for the Chinese Girls’ School published by the Women’s Study Society (in the name of the two female school superinten­dents Shen Ying and Lai Mayi) in Nuxue bao (October 189 8),72 a balance was struck between the different emphases of reformers concerning the purposes of women’s education.73 Thus it was clearly stated that the aim of the school was to combine Western and Chinese learning in order to ‘ enhance students’ intelligence, nurture their morality, and strengthen their bodies’.74 At the same time, however, the Women’s Study Society noted that students were to be provided with the skills necessary to make the household prosper, thus ‘setting the foundation for the training of future virtuous mothers (xianmu) and virtuous wives (xianfu)’.75

Although the school survived the conservative coup d’etat at court in September 1898, after which the Emperor Guangxu was virtually placed under ‘house arrest’ in the Forbidden City and most of the reform edicts issued during the One Hundred Days were revoked by his aunt Empress-Dowager Cixi, it was forced to close down amidst the turmoil of the Boxer Uprising and increasing die-hard conservatism at court. With the occupation of Beijing by allied powers in 1900 to relieve the foreign legations that had been besieged by the Boxers, and the imposition of humiliating demands on the Qing government by the powers (financial indemnities, punishment of court and local officials who had supported the Boxers, the permanent stationing of foreign troops between Beijing and Tianjin), the very survival of the dynasty was in question. In January 1901 an imperial edict issued in the names of both Empress-Dowager Cixi and Emperor Guangxu bewailed the plight of the empire and promised to implement institutional reforms. Over the next few years political, educational, military and legal reforms (referred to collectively as xinzheng [new policies]) were implemented to shore up the foundations of dynastic rule and co-opt the support of an increasingly outspoken reformist gentry. These included the creation of new government ministries such as the Waiwu bu (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the abolition of the traditional civil service examinations and their replacement by a national system of modern schools, the inauguration of a constitutional programme with the eventual aim of establishing a national parliament, the first steps towards constituting a unified and well-equipped national army, and the drafting of new civil, criminal and commercial legal codes.

With reform very much back on the agenda, progressive gentry once again became involved in opening schools for girls. In the autumn of 1902 Wu Xin (Wu Huaijiu) – with the encouragement of his mother and grandmother – opened such a school for 10-20 year-olds in Shanghai, the Wuben nushu (Striving for Fundamentals Girls’ School).76 The school (unlike the Chinese Girls’ School of 1898) employed male teachers, although the two supervisors of the dormitory were women and Wu’s wife served as deputy principal.77 Starting out with only seven students, by 1910 the school was accommodating nearly 190 students. According to Wu’s recollections of the school, apart from an official subsidy of 300 dollars a month (between 1907 and 1910) provided by the Shanghai prefect, all start-up and running costs were met by Wu and his friends.78 The school curriculum included Chinese, self-cultivation (xiushen), English, science, arithmetic, geography, history and singing. The self-cultivation classes, interestingly, included domestic science (jiazhengxue) – this was probably what Wu Ruo’an was referring to in her 1986 reminiscences when she remarked that the school paid particular attention to ‘household matters’ (jiashi). Revised regulations in 1905 formally declared that the aim of the school was to ‘reform family customs, extend general knowledge, and to train girls as educators of their [future] children’.79 Wu Ruo’an notes that many graduates of Wuben Girls’ School did, in fact, go on to become ‘housewives’ (zhufu), although she also refers to a number of graduates who eventually became school and college principals, such as Yang Yinyu, who, after studying in America, became principal of Beijing Women’s Normal University after 1920.80

As with the Chinese Girls’ School in 1898, students at the Wuben Girls’ School were enjoined to wear ‘simple and plain’ (puzheng yayan) dress; cotton padded jackets, for example, were to be of primary colours, while unlined garments had to be white or light blue. No face powder or expensive jewellery were allowed, and students had to stand and bow when teachers arrived in class. Wu Ruo’an in her reminiscences remembers that the school taught students not to adopt a self-important and arrogant (fuzao) attitude, not to speak or laugh carelessly, not to use ‘vulgar’ words when talking to people, and to avoid ‘inappropriate public places’.81 Such proscriptions were to be a feature of all girls’ schools opened after 1902. As later chapters will show, these attempts to control female students’ behaviour and dress were not always to succeed. A sign of things to come was the presence of three students from the Wuben Girls’ School at a mass meeting of women in Shanghai (at which they all gave speeches) to protest the imminent renewal in 1905 of the US Exclusion Act (first passed in 1882) that specifically targeted Chinese emigration and to call for a boycott of American goods.82