Tuesday was International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to highlighting the achievements of women, and working to further the advancement of female equality and agency. A day like this would have greatly pleased this week’s badass lady, who lived in China during a time when women had limited access to education, were expected to be subservient to the various men in their lives, and were still crippled (literally and figuratively) by the practice of foot binding.
This week’s badass lady is none other than Qiu Jin. A largely overlooked figure in Chinese history, Qiu Jin was an anti-Qing revolutionary who played a large role in attempting to overthrow the Qing dynasty. She’s also considered China’s first feminist icon, using her experience trapped in an unhappy marriage and unfulfilling life to encourage China’s female population to stand up for themselves.
Qiu Jin was born in 1875 to a family in China’s upper class. Her family recognized her appetite for learning and quick wit, and educated her to a level typical of her time and status. As a young girl, Qiu Jin was fascinated by China’s female heroes and warriors, and excelled at writing. Inspired to become a writer, Qiu wrote voraciously, covering topics from the seasons to the exploits of her favorite historical figures.
However that happiness did not last. At the age of 19, Qiu Jin was forced, at the insistence of her father, to marry the son of a rich merchant. Her marriage was an unhappy one, with Qiu Jin herself describing her husband as someone who treated her as “less than nothing”. Losing confidence in herself, Qiu Jin’s poetry reflected the self-doubt and loneliness she felt.
However, life presented another chance for Qiu, when she moved with her family to Beijing in 1903. In Beijing, she was exposed to feminist and political thought, and like many other Chinese people, she was dissatisfied and unhappy with the weak Qing government. Combining her interest in current events and the emancipation of the Chinese women, Qiu Jin began to write again, this time concerned for the future of China, and its women. However, as the conventional life of marriage, house-keeping and child-rearing proved to be too mundane for Qiu, even Beijing lost its appeal. In 1903, Qiu Jin made the move to Tokyo, Japan leaving behind her husband and two children.
Perhaps leaving her family behind was hard on Qiu Jin, but it is clear that she thrived in Japan. At the time, Japan was considered a more open society than China, and Qiu was able to write about and speak out against the treatment of Chinese women. Specifically, she appealed for the right to education and the end of foot binding in China. By this point in her life, Qiu was convinced that the Qing government needed to be removed in order to save China’s future, and so she joined several Anti-Qing societies, such as the Guangfuhui and the Tongmenghui. She also quickly became acquainted with famous figures like Cai Yuanpei and Sun Yatsen.
Qiu Jin returned to China in 1906, where she continued speaking out for women’s rights. She established her own magazine, called the “Chinese Women’s Journal” (中国女报). This journal was featured both political and feminist pieces, and Qiu herself used it as a platform for a call-to-arms, such is this poem:
“With all my heart, I beseech and beg
my two hundred million compatriots
to assume their responsibility as citizens.
Arise! Arise! Chinese women, arise!”
In Japan, Qiu Jin had become convinced that a feminist movement would not be successful under the Qing dynasty, and upon her return to China had remained in close contact with several members of Anti-Qing revolutionary societies. She eventually left her position at the Xunxi Girl’s School and took a teaching position at the Datong School to further aid the revolutionary cause.
The Datong school had been founded by her cousin Xu Xilin, and other male members of revolutionary groups. Although it appeared to be a sports academy, the Datong school was actually a military training camp for revolutionaries that Xu and Qiu Jin had recruited. Even while she worked towards the revolutionary cause, Qiu Jin did not forget China’s women. She played an important role in attempting to recruit and train more female revolutionaries.
Qiu Jin did not live for long. On July 13, 1907 Qing officials caught and arrested Qiu Jin. They tortured her for two days in an attempt to get her to divulge secrets about the anti-Qing societies. However, Qiu Jin remained silent and refused to offer up any information. On July 15, 1907 Qiu Jin was executed via public beheading, however her dedication to the revolution made her an instant martyr and national heroine.
Even today, over 100 years after her death, Qiu Jin is still considered a Chinese heroine and revolutionary martyr. She is also considered the symbol of the Chinese feminist movement. There are museums and several statues dedicated to immortalizing Qiu’s fight for equality all over China, and her life story, like other Chinese heroines, serves as the basis of movies and documentaries. Some of the better known ones include Qiu Jin (1983), The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake (2011) as well as the 2009 American documentary Autumn Gem.
Check out this list for more Chinese revolutionaries.
Cover image from VCG