Expectations and misgivings

The appearance of public schools for girls during the last decade of the Qing dynasty represents one of the most dramatic social and cultural changes of the period. Such a phenomenon not only contributed to the growing public visibility of adolescent girls and women in general,1 but also set in motion wider debates concerning the appropriate roles women should play in the household and society. Furthermore, the promotion of women’s education at this time should be seen as a key element in the modernizing reforms supported by the Qing state, provincial officials and local gentry elites after 1901 that historians now agree constitute the beginnings of nation-building in twentieth-century China. In effect, the hopes for well-run and viable households, social order and discipline, and national progress and prosperity came to be increasingly centred on ‘properly’ educated women.

Although scattered references to the numbers of girls’ schools in certain areas after 1902 indicated that growing numbers of local officials and gentry activists supported the project of women’s public education, the first nationwide figures for the numbers of girls’ schools were not compiled until 1909, when the Board of Education issued its first set of educational statistics (for the year 1907).2 The fig­ures that specifically referred to girls’ schools were not complete, but they provided an overall view of provincial distribution (see Table 2.1). The total number of reported girls’ schools was 434 and the number of students 15,324, modest totals when compared to the numbers of boys’ schools and students – in 1907 there were a reported total of 33,513 boys’ schools with 928,775 pupils3 – but still, nevertheless, indicating a positive response in the wake of the Qing government’s formal sanction of public education for girls in 1907.4 There was, however, wide disparity amongst provinces, with two (Jilin and Gansu) recording no girls’ school at all, while four provinces (Zhili, Jiangsu, Sichuan and Zhejiang) contained the majority of schools (330); moreover these four provinces accounted for nearly 70 per cent of the total number of recorded students (i. e. 10,663). Yet even a relatively undeveloped province such as Yunnan in the southwest recorded the presence of 18 girls’ schools with a total enrolment of 952 (by 1909 this had increased to 33 schools and 1,468 students).5 By 1908 there were 512 girls’ schools with an enrolment of 20,557; in 1909, the last year for which there were official educational statistics before the overthrow of the dynasty,

Table 2.1 Number of girls’ schools and students by province in 1907

Province

Schools

Students

Zhili

121

2,523

Fengtian

12

694

Jilin

Heilongjiang

2

90

Shandong

1

54

Shanxi

5

149

Shaanxi

10

154

Henan

3

84

Jiangsu

96

4,298

Anhui

2

86

Zhejiang

32

995

Jiangxi

6

155

Hubei

8

477

Hunan

7

412

Sichuan

69

2,236

Guangdong

5

179

Guangxi

17

589

Yunnan

18

1,027

Guizhou

5

267

Fujian

3

244

Gansu

Beijing

12

611

Total

434

15,324

Source: JYZZ, 2:10 (1910).

there were 722 girls’ schools and 26,465 students (in 1904 there had been a reported total of 26 girls’ schools and 494 students) (see Table 2.2). In addition to students in Chinese official and private schools, account must be taken of the number of female students who began to go abroad to study during the last years of the dynasty, as well as of those in missionary-run schools. Four missionary – sponsored women who went to the United States to train as doctors in the 1880s and 1890s were the first to receive a higher education abroad; by 1911 there were a reported 50 Chinese female students in the United States.6 The first group of Chinese women (11) to study in Japan went in 1903, and by 1909 there were nearly 150. Many of them studied at the Practical Arts Girls’ School (Jissen jogakko) founded by the noted Japanese female educator Shimoda Utako (1854-1936) in 1899.7 Finally, in 1910 there were an estimated 16,190 girls attending Protestant – run schools, while in 1912 there were 49,987 in Catholic-run schools.8

This chapter demonstrates that the practice of women’s education during the last years of the dynasty continued to exhibit a practical and flexible approach despite the mandated prescriptions of government and school regulations. At the same time, however, ambivalent and sometimes contradictory attitudes concern­ing the rationale and aims of women’s public education characterized much of the

Table 2.2 Number of girls’ schools and students, 1904-1909

Year

Schools

Students

1904 (a)

26

494

1905 (a)

71

1,761

1906 (a)

245

6,791

1907 (b)

434

15,324

1908 (a)

512

20,557

1909 (c)

722

26,465

Sources: (a) Liao Xiuzhen,‘Qingmo nttxue zai xuezhis – hang de yanjin ji nttzi xiaoxue jiaoyu de fazhan’, 224-227; (b) Xuebu (comp.), Diyici Jiaoyu Tongji Tubiao; (c) I. Lewis, The Education of Girls in China, 34.

discourse in the periodical and newspaper press as well as the content of the first textbooks and readers specifically designed for girls’ schools.

This ambivalence likewise permeated late Qing novels, which often featured the public visibility of women and, especially, the novel phenomenon of the female student. One such novel was Wenming xiaoshi (Modern Times) by Li Boyuan (1867-1906) and published in 1905.9 The first section of the book describes the adventures of three apprentices (the Jia brothers), who accompany their master and his son to Shanghai. This gives the author the opportunity to describe the ‘exotic’ nature of life in the modern metropolis, one aspect of which is the confident and seemingly outlandish public behaviour of educated women and female students. The connection between women’s schooling and sexual promiscuity, for example, that pervaded much of subsequent educational dis­course is clearly drawn in the episode of the teahouse, in which the three brother- apprentices witness a violent argument between a 20-year-old woman and one of her male companions over ‘cohabiting and splitting up’. After banging the table as she talks, a scuffle breaks out between the two of them and they are dragged off by the police. The apprentices are later informed by other customers that the woman had studied ‘foreign books’ in a school when she was 13 or 14, and that thereafter her disposition had changed so that all she was interested in was ‘illicit affairs’ and ‘practising the art of seduction’.10 Later, the three brothers go out on the town and encounter courtesans (‘sing-song girls’) brazenly interacting with male strangers in public: ‘They were like the young women described in books who had received a modern education. The young men found all this extremely puzzling.’11

At the same time, however, characters in the novel invoke the utilitarian pur­pose of women’s education as the means to ‘improve’ the lives of menfolk. An acquaintance of the three brothers, for example, informs them that his wife is the head of a local anti-footbinding association and details the advantages of ‘unbound feet’ – the race is strengthened, a woman’s suffering is alleviated and, further, ‘she is able to find time to study and thus help her husband establish himself in life’.12 Later in the novel another character, Niu Fengzhi, decides to get married and informs his mother that several girls’ schools have recently been opened in Nanjing: ‘Your son would like to choose a suitable girl from one of these schools who will eventually serve you and help me become established both at home and in my profession.’13 Niu’s mother is not so convinced, however, and, voicing the apprehension about the consequences of female education that marked public discourse in the periodical press, warns her son that female stu­dents had large feet and ‘roam the streets daily so that their minds are undisci­plined’.14 Female students themselves are often presented in exotic and even intimidating ways in the novel. Thus Li Boyuan describes a group of students from a local school who march into a hall to address the meeting of an anti­footbinding society: ‘All the girls had large feet and were wearing leather shoes and slacks. Their hair was cut short and straight across the forehead, and each of them sported a pair of sun-glasses.’15 A character who later discusses the students at the Civilized Girls’ School observes that when they ‘walk out of that school they hold their heads high and do not appear shy or retiring’.16