The modernizing conservative agenda on women’s education in the early Republic

In January 1915, on the eve of the New Culture Movement that was to launch an ‘iconoclastic’ assault on the Confucian tradition, a Shanghai teacher, Yu Tiansui, wrote an article on women’s education for the first issue of Funu zazhi (The Ladies Journal).1 Echoing the alarm already expressed in 1912 by the female political activist and suffrage campaigner Tan Sheying, Yu argued that advocates of women’s rights had gone too far and insisted that female students should aspire to roles befit­ting their ‘natural’ abilities and qualifications. Even in America, Yu continued, where women’s rights (nuquan) were most prevalent, women took seriously their duties towards their husbands – encouraging, supporting and looking after them. Yet in recent times, Yu continued, ‘our calm-natured women (wo xing jing qingyi zhi nuzi) in China’ had been encouraged to engage in ‘anarchic’ and fruitless competition with men. If female students were stirred up in this way, Yu lamented, they would become like ‘unharnessed fillies’ (fan jia zhi ma) and would never return willingly to a more appropriate form of study geared to their innate talents (such as proficiency in handi­crafts) and virtues (such as patience and diligence).2 Like ‘unharnessed fillies’, Yu continued, girls and young women needed to be ‘restrained’; if allowed too much freedom they would become ‘dangerously reckless’. Yu’s sentiments, if not the metaphor, were shared by a contributor to another women’s journal that began pub­lication in 1915, Zhonghua funujie (Chinese Women’s World). In an article entitled ‘What I expect from our country’s women’, Liang Lingxian asserted that it was right and proper for women to provide help and support for their menfolk, and hence fool­ish to encourage them to ‘struggle’ with men for equal rights. Citing with approval trends in the West, Liang argued that a country’s level of civilization could be gauged from the extent to which its women set an example for others (ganhua li), referring specifically to their devoted service to husbands and households.3

The sense of alarm and dissatisfaction revealed in these articles pertaining to the direction of women’s education and the behaviour of female students had already begun to be expressed during the last years of the Qing dynasty (see Chapter 2), but it was to be during the early years of the Republic that such concerns attained fever pitch in the periodical and women’s press. As discussed in Chapter 3 this was a time of growing public visibility of women, and the figure of the female student became a particular object of discussion. In effect, female students represented an entirely unprecedented phenomenon – to the extent that

they constituted a new ‘social category’. Although a recent study has applied this label to the ‘career woman’ who began to emerge during the May Fourth period,4 it is perhaps more apposite in the case of the female student. This is because there were more female students than professional women at this time, their appearance predated the May Fourth period and they were the object of a far more prevalent discourse. Quite out of proportion to their actual numbers, female students became the obsessive concern of male and female commentators and educators alike, and, as this chapter will show, their ‘disorderly’ behaviour became a touch­stone for broader anxieties concerning the implications and consequences of social and cultural change during this period. Furthermore, the ‘modernizing conservative’ agenda on women’s education promoted by government officials, educators and male intellectuals in general can be seen as an attempt to regain control of the discourse and practice of the project that bureaucratic and intellec­tual elites feared had been slipping away from them during the last years of the Qing. It was also a key element in the larger process of ‘behavioural modernization’ begun during the last years of the monarchy and which was to result in more ambitious efforts by these elites during the early Republic to control popular culture.