biography · poetry · thoughts · why not woman · woman story

Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes

Don’t tell me women
are not the stuff of heroes,
I alone rode over the East Sea’s
winds for ten thousand leagues.
My poetic thoughts ever expand,
like a sail between ocean and heaven.
I dreamed of your three islands,
all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.
I grieve to think of the bronze camels,
guardians of China, lost in thorns.
Ashamed, I have done nothing;
not one victory to my name.
I simply make my war horse sweat.
Grieving over my native land
hurts my heart. So tell me;
how can I spend these days here?
A guest enjoying your spring winds?

(poem by Qiu Jin, Chinese feminist & revolutionary martyr)

Qiu Jin (1875–1907) was a Chinese writer & poet, a strong-willed feminist who is considered a national hero in China. Also called “Jianhu Nüxia” (Woman Knight of Mirror Lake”), she was executed after participating in a failed uprising against the Qing Dynasty.

Qiu Jin was born in 1875 to a family of the gentry, and received an excellent education as was typical for a young woman of her position. She always loved to write, and in this period of her life she wrote many joyful poems on subjects ranging from flowers and the four seasons to visiting historical places and domestic activities. She also wrote about female heroes and warriors from Chinese history, in inspiring poems about their strength, courage, and beauty. One of her poems begins“Don’t tell me women / are not the stuff of heroes” (as above quoted). Her poetry reflected her self-confidence and desire to become an excellent female writer as valued by traditional Chinese culture.

When Qiu Jin was 19, she obeyed her father and married the son of a wealthy merchant, against her own wishes. Qiu became extremely unhappy in her marriage. She wrote of her husband, “That person’s behavior is worse than an animal’s….He treats me as less than nothing.” and “When I think of him my hair bristles with anger, it’s absolutely unbearable.” Her previous self-confidence was shaken and her dreams of becoming a recognized poet were abandoned. Her poetry from this period of her life was full of self-doubt and loneliness.

During this period Qiu also began writing poetry about current events and the fate of China. After hearing of events such as the Boxer Rebellion and occupation of Beijing, she used her poetry, with literary allusion to heroines of the past, to express her concern about the fate of China and Chinese women. Qiu longed to serve her country but realized that that wasn’t possible as long as she was trapped in a conventional married life. Her marriage was an important catalyst in her development as a feminist and revolutionary.

In 1903, Qiu Jin moved with her husband to Beijing where he had purchased an official post. In Beijing, Qiu started reading feminist writings and became interested in women’s education.

Qiu Jin finally left her husband in 1903, leaving to study in Japan. She became vocal in her support for women’s rights, pressed for improved access to education for women in her journals and speech, and spoke out against the practice of foot-binding. Returning to China in 1905, she joined the Triads, an underground society who advocated for the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, and other anti-Qing societies both Chinese and Japanese. She admired the Japanese for their disciplined military spirit and thought that it played an important role in the modernization of Japan.

“With all my heart I beseech and beg my two hundred million female compatriots to assume their responsibility as citizens. Arise! Arise! Chinese women, arise!”

In 1906 Qiu founded her own journal, “Zhongguo nubao” (Chinese women’s journal), which featured nationalist and feminist writings. Unlike traditional and other nationalist views that held women’s place as mothers and educators in a traditional family role, Qiu Jin saw the traditional family as oppressive to women.

Qiu was appointed head of the Datong school in the city of Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, in 1907. The school was supposedly for sport teachers, but was actually used for the military training of revolutionaries. In the final years of her life, she frequently cross-dressed, wearing western-style men’s clothing, and practiced military drills and training with her students. She became well-known as a chivalrous woman for helping the poor and weak.

At this time, Qiu was working with her cousin Xu Xilin to unite and train fellow revolutionaries who also believed that China needed a western-style government. On July 6, 1907, Xu was caught and tortured for information before an uprising they had scheduled in Anqing in Angui Province. He was executed the next day.

Qiu Jin learned about her cousin’s death and the failed uprising a few days later. She was warned that officials would be coming for her at the Datong school, but she stayed anyway, writing to her sword sister Xu Yunhua that she was determined to die for the cause. On July 13, Qiu was arrested. Even after being tortured she refused to talk about her involvement in the scheduled uprising, but incriminating evidence was found at the school. On July 15, 1907, Qiu Jin was beheaded publicly in her home village of Shanyin, at the age of 31.

Shocked by the brutal execution of a woman, many Chinese were strengthened in their resentment of the Qing dynasty. Qiu Jin immediately became a national hero, and was the subject of poetry, drama, and numerous works of fiction. Much of her writing, including her poetry and letters to family and friends, was published after her death.

To this day, Qiu Jin is a symbol of women’s independence in China. She is now buried by Xī Hú (West Lake) in Hangzhou, where a statue of her marks her tomb.

(Above quoted from: KeriLynn Engel, Amazing Women In History)

Qui Jin, at one level, was an oriental twentieth-century Judith, the mythical Jewish widow from Bethulia who cut off the head of Holofernes, the Assyrian general besieging the city, thus saving the Israelites from destruction. Qui Jin was, as Judith was, a self-reliant heroine who when others seemed ‘helpless and demoralized undertook to save them single-handedly’, or in her case virtually single-handedly. This, of course, was both her making and her unmaking. In Chinese terms the story of Qui Jin, like the story of Judith if less famous, less publicised, more recent, is the story of an icon at once central and at the same time marginal to tradition. She contradicted the most cherished customs on Confucian Chinese culture. She was a radical force who thrust her way to the centre of the concentric circles of customs surrounding this culture and was pushed back to the margins by conservatism. Nevertheless Qui Jin was not without success. She challenged a long-established mythology of exclusively masterful patriarchy – and created a counter myth of purposeful patriotic feminism. She was a counter-cultural icon who changed perceptions of Chinese femininity. She gave courage, confidence and purpose to those women who came after her and absorbed her ambitions for modern Chinese womanhood. For them she was a modern national heroine and a personification of a modern nation of equal men and women. For Qui Jin the body was an instrument of female revolution to be trained, strengthened and prepared for confrontation. As a revolutionary militant she was a failure; as a revolutionary talisman she was a success. For the Chinese women of the 1911 Revolution hers was an exemplary emancipatory story: subscribe, struggle, sacrifice. Patriotism through feminism is the purpose. Her heroism was firmly outside the historic patriarchal order. Her adulation is thus all the more remarkable because of the profound traditions she rejected, the controversial mannerisms she adopted, the uncompromising attitudes she embraced. She eschewed motherhood, abandoned marriage, dismissed femininity, and yet won acclaim in the most traditional of cultures. Qui Jin was hardly a cynosure of universal acclaim but she was admired, respected and emulated by radical Chinese women and men seeking a new society accommodating women. Her modern feminism struggled to overcome an ancient patriarchy. Here was her appeal. She exuded no moral ambiguity. Consequently, if she was demonized by the conventional; she was deified by the radical – and inspired them as the contemplated and attempted to construct the future. There is a point, of course, that should not be overlooked. Qui Jin, in fact, is not divorced from occidental culture and political iconography. Qui Jin is closely associated with the attitudes, aspirations and fantasies of modern Western feminism. As Margarita Stocker observes, a ‘romantic heroine, angry feminist, radical, activist is one example of a pervasive figure’, in modern Western cultural mythology ‘a figure we may sum up as the Woman with a Gun’. Force, that potent means to power, is available to the gun user irrespective of age of sex, with a resulting ‘crucial alteration in the sexual politics of violence’. The Woman with a Gun can now be emphatically heroic – without duplicity, without deceitfulness, without subterfuge. Moral ambiguity in action has been abandoned. She becomes an unambiguous potent force – an armed woman faces an armed man on equal terms – physically, psychologically, morally. Equality offers the legal right and responsibility to kill in the name of patriotism. Modern culture has just caught up with Qui Jin.

(Abstract quoted from: Fan H, Mangan JA. J Hist Sport. 2001;18(1):27-54. doi: 10.1080/714001489.)

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