It’s a rare thing indeed to find someone in history who stands up and rebels against almost all the things she finds oppressive in society. Such a woman was Qiu Jin , the Chinese revolutionary whose short but dramatic life has led her to be called “China’s Joan of Arc.”
Born in 1875 or 1877 (experts disagree on the exact date), Qiu Jin grew up in a fairly traditional Chinese household, had her feet bound as a young woman, was placed in an arranged marriage, and had two children in quick succession.
As a young woman, however, she was able to study Chinese literature, as well as martial arts. She not only studied both (and celebrated Chinese heroes from the past), she became active in both, writing poetry and learning and practising martial arts. And she became very proficient at them. Not only that, her writing and martial arts put her in contact with martial arts groups and organizations, as well as political groups who advocated for reform and revolution, including overthrowing the Qing Empire. They wanted to replace the Empire it with a blend of traditional, ethnic Han leaders and western ideas of republican government. Further, they wanted other reforms, the liberation of women from strict social barriers and expectations under the Qing Empire.
The problem was that expressing these radical ideas, much less fighting for these reforms, was very dangerous during Qing rule. Like many other radicals, Qiu Jin left China in 1904 and went to Japan to practice her martial arts and further her political radicalism. This, of course, meant leaving her husband and children, which was anathema in traditional Chinese society. Also anathema was unbinding her feet and dressing in western clothes, both of which she did before she left for Japan.
Tokyo and other major cities in Japan harbored a lot of Chinese radicals, and Qiu Jin worked and trained with other martial artists and revolutionaries while she was there. Her abilities quickly gained her admirers and followers among the Chinese revolutionary exile community in Japan. Legend has it that, at a meeting of other revolutionaries, Qiu gave a dramatic speech, urging them to return to China immediately and join the proto-revolutionary groups there. She finished the speech by plunging a dagger into the podium and shouting., “If I return to the motherland, surrender to the Manchu barbarians , and deceive the Han people, stab me with this dagger!”
Whether this actually happened is a matter of some dispute. But what’s not in dispute is that, in 1906, she led a large group of revolutionary Chinese exiles back to the Chinese mainland, where they started teaching in schools, founded and published revolutionary journals, and agitated for the overthrow of the Qing. She published “A Respectful Proclamation to China’s 200 Million Women Comrades,” calling for the personal liberation of women (an end to foot binding and arranged marriages) and the political and social reformation of China (overthrowing the Qing and founding republican government).
The Chinese authorities finally arrested her in 1907, taking her from the girls’ school where she was teaching, and torturing her, trying to get her to admit to revolutionary activities. She refused, so the government charged her with treason, using her writings as their main evidence. She was beheaded in mid-July 1907.
Although she has been criticized for thinking that China could undergo a more-or-less complete social and political revolution by overthrowing the Qing Empire, Qiu Jin has also become a hero and martyr for revolutionaries and feminists in China. In one of her most well-known and often quoted poems, Qiu Jin used the unbinding of her own feet as a metaphor for the unbinding of social repression in China.
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.
Even though Qiu Jin’s influence was only one of the things that led to the Chinese revolutions in the early 20th century, she is revered today as a pioneer in inspiring social and political reform. Her poetry is still read and taught, and her tomb is still visited. The statue to her at her tomb foregrounds the type of sword she used in her martial arts. And a great many depictions of her in art and film emphasize the militant aspect of her life and career. But, I think most scholars and historians of this period in Chinese history emphasize her poetry and radical journalism. Those were, in the end, more inspiring and more effective than her martial arts.
Perhaps it was a true case of the pen being mightier than the sword.
Buzzkillers, for this Woman Crush Wednesday I relied very heavily on the work of Amy Qin and Owen Guo of the New York Times, who researched and wrote about Qiu Jin for the New York Times’ new “Overlooked” series of obituaries for people who should have gotten them decades ago. I strongly recommend the Overlooked series as a competitor to our Woman Crush Wednesdays and Man Crush Mondays. But I hope you’ll continue to give us a listen.
Peter Zarrow, China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949.
Providing historical insights essential to the understanding of contemporary China, this text presents a nation’s story of trauma and growth during the early twentieth century. It explains how China’s defeat by Japan in 1895 prompted an explosion of radical reform proposals and the beginning of elite Chinese disillusionment with the Qing government. The book explores how this event also prompted five decades of efforts to strengthen the state and the nation, democratize the political system, and build a fairer and more unified society.