The ‘woman question’ and education in the May Fourth period
In September 1919, at the height of intellectual debate and student protest that has come to be known as the May Fourth Movement (or in its wider cultural ramifications, the New Culture Movement), a female student by the name of Xie Wanying contributed an article to the Beijing newspaper, Chenbao (Morning Post), that provided a genealogy of the ‘modern’ Chinese female student.1 Arguing that attitudes towards the new phenomenon of the female student since the turn of the century had evolved in three stages, Xie noted that initially female students had been perceived as the hallmark of civilization, successfully emulating their Western counterparts and gaining society’s approval and respect. Then, as numbers grew, public attitudes became increasingly negative as the students’ attitude and actions diverged from that of their ‘responsible’ Western counterparts; with their inflammatory talk of gender equality and undisciplined behaviour, Xie claimed, the words ‘female student’ had become synonymous with everything ‘not good’ (buliang) about the ‘woman’s world’ and girls’ schools were regarded as ‘places to cultivate female vice’ (nuzi zui’e zaochengsuo). The result of such perceptions was that female students were reviled by society and parents became increasingly reluctant to send their daughters to school. However, Xie gleefully exclaimed, this second attitudinal stage had in recent years given way to one characterized by renewed respect for female students because they were less ‘undisciplined’(fangzong) and ‘disruptive’ in their behaviour and had learned to ‘regulate’ their outlook from one of ‘superficial flightiness’ to ‘firm steadfastness’ (wenjian).
For Xie, then, it was only when her peers behaved more moderately and responsibly that they would meet with society’s approval. The advice that Xie then proffered to her fellow students indicated what kind of behaviour and attitude she had in mind. She advised female students, for example, not to be too arrogant or coquettish (feiyang yaoye) in the future and to dress ‘moderately’ at all times (wristwatches were to be the only adornment allowed!). They were also to avoid ‘aiming too high’ and saying things that offended others or that were not ‘compatible’ with national conditions. Finally, Xie insisted that henceforth female students must concentrate on acquiring practical knowledge, such as domestic and household skills and child psychology, rather than ‘spouting empty words’; instead of frequenting ‘riotous and motley’ places of entertainment such as amusement
arcades and theatre (which would ‘disrupt’ their ‘spiritual’ equilibrium), they should attend more sober and uplifting occasions such as museum exhibitions or botanical garden displays and should at all times (if not absolutely necessary) avoid mixing individually or in groups with males so as to pre-empt untoward public suspicion.2 Xie’s article provides an intriguing insight into how female students possibly behaved during the last years of the Qing monarchy and early years of the Republic and suggests that the female students who participated in May Fourth demonstrations and student organizations may have been very different (or at least were perceived to be different) from the apparently assertive, anarchic and unconventional students of a few years earlier. Perhaps they needed to be in order to be accepted by their male counterparts. Not coincidentally, an article in the same newspaper that appeared a few months earlier in the wake of the May Fourth protests had praised the ways in which ‘orderly’ and ‘disciplined’ female student organizations had worked with their male counterparts, contrasting their cooperative outlook with the ‘unruly’ women’s suffrage groups in 1912-1913.3 The former pupil of a girls’ school in Tianjin likewise remembered decades later that at this time (in 1921) her peers were expected to be – and were – responsible and public-minded ‘servants of society’, and that the regulations of the school’s ‘young female brigade’ (younu tuan) enjoined members to be loyal (zhongyi), helpful (zhuren), courteous (haoli), obedient (fucong), hardworking and thrifty (qinjian), pious and devout (qianjing), and clean and tidy (qingjie).4
Furthermore, Xie Wanying’s positive assessment of the contemporary female student received public affirmation when, barely a month after her newspaper article, the fifth annual meeting of the National Federation of Education Associations (quanguo jiaoyuhui lianhehui) held in Taiyuan (Shanxi province) agreed that universities might become co-educational. The most dramatic implementation of such a ruling occurred the following year, when, in February 1920, nine female students became the first to attend Beijing University when they enrolled to audit a number of courses.
This chapter seeks to investigate the extent to which the modernizing conservative agenda on women’s education influenced the debate on women’s university education, as well as the ways in which it continued to underpin the representation of female students’ behaviour and actions during the height of the New Culture, or May Fourth Movement, in the late 1910s and early 1920s. According to most Chinese historians of this period, the late Qing educational aim of liangqi xianmu continued to influence officials and educators during the ‘reactionary’ rule of Yuan Shikai; things only began to change with the May Fourth Movement and the call for gender equality in education.5 In fact, as this chapter will demonstrate, parallel to the radical May Fourth discourse on women’s rights that has conventionally monopolized the attention of both Chinese and Western historians, the assumption that women’s education had to be different because of their vital role in running the household continued to be a feature of official and public discourse throughout this period.6 Such a view characterized the approach of a pioneering history of Chinese women by Chen Dongyuan that was published in 1928. In the last section dealing with the May Fourth period up to his own time
Chen was at pains to point out how irresponsibly female students behaved in not taking seriously their future duties as wife, mother and manager of the household. Although it was right and proper, Chen admitted, that the title of ‘new woman’ (xin funu) was deemed a more appropriate description than the previous one of ‘worthy mother and good wife’ (xianmu liangqi) to represent women’s aspirations, this did not mean, he insisted, that young women could dispense with knowledge of domestic and household skills.7