A woman without talent is virtuous.
That’s the world Qiu Jin was born into. And it was a world she was determined to change.
I learned about Qiu Jin this week during one of the many Women’s History Month events my company is hosting. I attended a screening of “Autumn Gem: Modern China’s First Feminist,” a documentary directed by Rae Chang. I am participating in the Feminist Fashion Bloggers second group post, and knew Qiu Jin would be a great subject to share. Here’s what I learned while watching the 56 minute film:
Qiu Jin is well-known throughout China and is considered a hero and a martyr. Outside the country, she is less well-known. She was born in 1875 to a privileged family. Her brother had a private tutor and as a young girl, Jin would often sit nearby and watch him learn.
In an uncommon move, the tutor remarked to Jin’s parents how smart she was—so they let her learn alongside her brother. During this time in China, most girls didn’t receive an education and many were illiterate; she enjoyed a childhood where she could learn and read and be active outdoors. Her father and uncle taught her martial arts. She read about Hua Mulan and other legendary woman warriors.
Her adolescence coincided with a tumultuous time in China’s history. Foreign armies invaded, the Opium Wars were over, but opium use was rampant, and the government was corrupt. But she couldn’t participate in change. She wed a stranger in an arranged marriage and was isolated from her family. During this time she was sad and lonely. She wrote poetry and had two children.
Inspired by women she’d read about—women like Sophia Perovskaya, Madame Roland, and Joan of Arc—Qiu Jin was determined to save her country. She believed that women needed to be independent and productive in order for China to be strong, defeat its enemies, and overthrow the Manchu government. But women didn’t even entertain the idea of a different life. She had to teach women to think differently. She once had bound feet, but unbound them and spoke against the practice, as well as against other things that kept women from being self-reliant.
Qiu Jin left her husband and children and set off to Japan where she met other Chinese intellectuals. She wore men’s clothing and loved freedom they provided. Many shunned her because of her attire and attitude. But people also listened. By the time she returned to China to overthrow the government, the Restoration Society she helped form was 50,000 people strong. The revolutionaries accepted her and she began training an army of women.
She wrote and published a Chinese woman’s journal where she encouraged women to become part of society. But Jin felt trapped by her female body. At a time when being a woman meant being subservient—not being a member of society, but an ornament for a husband—being female was a disadvantage. Jin felt she could accomplish more if she were a man.
Still, she plotted the uprising. However, her plot was revealed and she was arrested and publicly executed. She was 31. She didn’t succeed in that act of defiance, but her execution fueled the revolution. She was the first woman to die for the cause and she inspired other women to join the fight.
It’s impossible for me to grasp what life was like for a woman 100 years ago. Qiu Jin’s life was short and violent, and it’s hard to understand her experiences at the crossroads of feminism and nationalism. I do respect her dedication to her values. She was a strong woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She questioned the status quo and imagined a better world when others couldn’t. This year is the 100th anniversary of both International Women’s Day and The Chinese Revolution. It seems like a good time to acknowledge Jin and other pioneers of feminism who paved the way for others by fighting and dying for what they believed in.
See what the other Feminist Fashion Bloggers wrote about:
Sidewalk Chic – Reclaiming leather skirts and other ‘provocative’ clothing
Mrs Bossa – In Bad Company: Girl Tribes
Oranges and Apples – Some thoughts on Marthettes, blogging about ‘feminine’ stuff and perfection
The Magic Square Foundation – Body Policing/Fashion/Feminism
Alexa Wasielewski – Some Feminists Need to Spartan Up!
Fishmonkey – The Man Repeller and The Male Gaze
Knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care – Knitting a Better World
Interrobangs Anonymous – Millie’s Take on Modesty
Adventures in Refashioning – Soldering in Heels
What are Years? – My Thoughts on the CBC Documentary, The F-Word
Aly en France – My Body Entirely