Published on Wednesday, 06 June 2018 17:46
Written by Cheryl Teo Kai Lin
Qiu Jin was not your typical meek and subservient Chinese girl born in late 19th-century China. Instead of waiting hand and foot on her male counterparts like how most Chinese ladies were expected to do according to societal norms back then, this spirited young woman had a burning passion for wine, swords, bomb making, and basically rebelling against society's chauvinistic dogma.
As a young girl, Qiu Jin wrote poetry and studied Chinese martial heroines like Hua Mulan (a legendary female warrior who cross-dressed to take her elderly father's place in the army, gaining multiple accolades from the Emperor for her conquests). Qiu Jin fantasized about living on forever in the pages of history books, her name being uttered in reverence as people speak of her accomplishments and adventures.
The biggest adversary to her noble ambitions was China's deeply rooted patriarchal society, which demanded that a woman is to be seen, not heard, and that a woman's place is in the home. However, Qiu Jin was not fazed. She rose to become an early and fierce advocate for the liberation of Chinese women. Practicing what she preached, she defied Confucian gender and class doctrine by unbinding her feet, cross-dressing and leaving her husband and children to pursue an education abroad.
Her legacy as one of China's pioneering feminists and revolutionaries was cemented on 15 July 1907, when she was beheaded at 31 by imperial army forces who charged her with conspiring to overthrow the Manchu-led Qing government. It was this feministic warrior's final act of resistance, and it would later earn her a place in the pantheon of China's revolutionary martyrs.
To this day, Qiu Jin is often referred to as “China's Joan of Arc”.
“Qiu Jin lived at a time when women in China were not permitted to venture out of their homes, let alone participate in public affairs,” said Zhang Lifan, a writer and historian in Beijing. “So Qiu Jin not only participated in politics, her actions alone were a rebellion.”
Throughout her life, Qiu wrote often of what she saw as China’s misogynistic views, as seen in this passage from a 1903 poem:
My body will not allow me
To mingle with the men
But my heart is far braver
Than that of a man
At that point in time of the poem's writing, China was an empire in distress. The Qing government was at the end of its tether, buckling under the weight of internal bureaucratic decay and external pressure imposed by foreign powers.
The instability of the political world presented opportunities for educated Chinese women like Qiu Jin to rise up and make herself heard. Qiu Jin rapidly found herself spearheading a new generation of feminists who believed that political revolution is fundamental in the pursuit of women's rights.
Scholars say that the enduring strength of Qiu Jin's legacy lies not only in her leadership, but also in her willingness to sacrifice her own life for the ideals she believed in.
“She argued that it wasn’t enough for women to just sit around and ask for equality,” said Hu Ying, a professor of Chinese literature at University of California, Irvine. “She believed you had to be willing to put your life on the line. And the fact that she really did put her life on the line is what made her words stick.”
Qiu Jin was born into a respected, albeit declining, gentry family in the southern port city of Xiamen on 8 November 1875 (though some scholars say its 1877). Her father, Qiu Shounan, was a government official, and her mother also came from a distinguished literati-official family. With her older brother and younger sister, Qiu Jin grew up in Xiamen and the family's ancestral home of Shaoxing in China's eastern Zhejiang Province.
She had a comfortable childhood. But like all other girls back then living under the iron rule of a patriarchal society, she was subjugated to bind her feet, learn needlework and worst of all – her father forced her hand into an arranged marriage. The man that Qiu Jin's father chose for her was Wang Tingjun, the son of a wealthy merchant in Hunan Province. In 1903, seven years after marrying, the young couple moved from Hunan to Beijing with their two children.
An actress played Qiu Jin in the 2011 movie The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake
For Qiu Jin, life in the imperial city was, in comparison, more exciting and eye-opening than the life she led previously in the rural province. She struck up friendships with women who were equally as disgruntled as her with China's misogynistic principles, and began to take an interest in China's political affairs. She unbound her feet, drank copious amounts of wine and began experimenting with cross-dressing and swordplay.
Still, the frustrations of her arranged marriage took a deep toll on her psyche. She felt that her husband was uncultivated, stupid, and had no interest in poetry or learning. Thus in the summer of 1904, Qiu Jin, then 28, left her husband and children, sold her jewelry and sailed for Japan. It wasn't without a heavy heart and an unburdened soul that she made this hard decision as she summed up in a poem called “Regrets: lines Written En Route to Japan”:
Sun and moon have no light left, earth is dark,
Our women’s world is sunk so deep, who can help us?
Jewelry sold to pay this trip across the seas,
Cut off from my family I leave my native land.
Unbinding my feet I clean out a thousand years of poison,
With heated heart arouse all women’s spirits.
Alas, this delicate kerchief here,
Is half stained with blood, and half with tears.
In Tokyo, Qiu Jin enrolled at Shimoda Utako's Women's Practical School. But she focused most of her energy outside the classroom, forming alliances with other reform-minded Chinese students similarly keen on seeing through a revolution back in China. She joined influential anti-Manchu secret societies, including the Restoration Society and Sun Yat-Sen's Revolutionary Alliance.
She returned to China in 1906 with a fierce and grim militant resolution to advance women's causes and overthrow the Qing government. She started the short-lived “Chinese Women's Journal”, writing in the colloquial language of the people to appeal to a wider spectrum of audience on topics like the cruelty of foot-binding and arranged marriages. More shockingly, she also learned how to make bombs.
By 1907, Qiu Jin was running the Datong School – a front for a rebellion that recruited and trained young revolutionaries – in Shaoxing, when she learned that her friend, Xu Xilin, and the school's founder, had been executed for assassinating his Manchu superior.
After Xu's death, Qiu Jin received intel that the Qing troops were coming to storm Shaoxing to find the woman thought to be his co-conspirator. Despite the dire warnings, Qiu Jin refused to run away. When the troops came, Qiu Jin stood her ground for a fight to the finish. She launched an attack on the Qing troops, but she and her allies were vanquished with her sheer magnitude of the Qing's forces. She was quickly captured, tortured and beheaded.
Qiu Jin's statue at her tomb
Though she died at the young age of 31 for the cause, her beliefs did not die with her. Qiu Jin was honored as a martyr, and many modern feminists all over the world today still applaud her for standing up for the good of women. Her opinions on women's rights in a deeply entrenched Chinese patriarchal society made ripples of effect and set off a movement that would loosen the chauvinistic ropes on women in China.
More than a century after her sacrifice, many Chinese still visit her tomb beside West Lake in Hangzhou to pay their respects to the woman now embedded in the national consciousness as a bold feminist heroine. Some can also still recite the famous words she wrote just before her death: “Autumn wind, autumn rain, fill one’s heart with melancholy.” The line was a play on her surname “Qiu” which means “autumn” in Chinese.
Hi, I'm Cheryl. I possess a joie de vivre spirit unique to my character, my expressions of euphoria are wild in nature and I approach life like one colossal party. I love venturing into the unknown and exploring all that is possible; from exotic foods to cliff-diving. When I am not seeking out something extraordinary to check off my bucket list, I love curling up on a comfy couch with a glass of wine and a book in hand. Follow my personal adventures in my blog here where I let loose of all inhibitions, voice my inner-most emotions, exult in all that is wonderful, unleash the monsters within, lose myself in beautiful reveries, reminisce treasured memories and curate recherché experiences.