Qiu Jin – “Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes”

Qiu Jin is sometimes called the Chinese Joan of Arc; she was a feminist revolutionary who became a national heroine in China after she was martyred.

Qiu was born in 1875 in Xiamen, Fujian into a time where women in China were believed to be lesser than men, and were treated as such. When she was five, as was the norm for girls at the time, her family began binding her feet. She came from a wealthy family and as such was lucky to have access to a good education. She loved reading and began writing her own poetry from a young age. She also enjoyed more physical activities, which were less conventional for girls at the time, such as horse riding and sword fighting! Despite this, the expectations put upon her were the same as for any young woman of the time: that she marry and become an obedient wife and mother. 

Her parents arranged for her to marry when she was 19, much to Qiu’s displeasure. The years during which she was married were an unhappy time for Qiu – as is reflected in her poetry from the time which speaks of her loneliness. In 1903 she moved with her husband and two children to Beijing when her husband got a new job there. In Beijing she began to develop her feminist and revolutionary ideas. She came into contact with others who inspired her thoughts and started reading feminist works.

Eventually she realised she couldn’t be trapped in her unhappy marriage any longer. She pawned her jewellery and used the money to travel to Japan to study, leaving her husband and children behind her.  In Japan she was able to flourish in a way she hadn’t before. In a poem about this time she wrote,

“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.”

She started wearing more masculine clothing and before long was editing and writing for a journal called Baihua Bao. She published an essay titled A Respectful Proclamation to China’s 200 Million Women Comrades in which she gave a rousing call to her fellow country-women to loose themselves from their shackles! She spoke out against foot-binding and arranged marriage, arguing for women’s financial independence and education.

Here is part of her impassioned appeal:

“I would now bind twice then thousand times ten thousand women in single indivisibility under our guidance; would at dawn and dusk penetrate women’s realm throughout the country discussing general control in women’s affairs; would provide women with dashing waves of independence in life’s course. I would now rouse women’s essence, spirit, to rise as birds in flight over fields, leaving swiftly earths dust, that they may speedily cross the frontier into the great world of light and brilliance. I desire that they be leaders, awakened lions, advance messengers of learning and intelligence; that they may serve as rafts crossing cloudy ferries; as lamps in dark chambers. That they may let shine, from the center of women’s realm in our country, bright light resplendent, glittering rare in the beauty of its color; that on the whole earth globe, they startle the hearts, snatch the eyes of men, causing all to applaud, rejoice.”

She returned to China in 1905 and quickly became engaged in revolutionary activity, joining with the Triads, who were opposed to the ruling Qing Dynasty. She believed that the country, and women in particular, would be better off under a Western style democracy. She drew close links between the emancipation of women and political freedom saying:

“The young intellectuals are all chanting, ‘Revolution, Revolution,’ but I say the revolution will have to start in our homes, by achieving equal rights for women.”

In 1906 she founded her own journal, Zhonghhuo Nü Bao (China Women’s Journal) with fellow female poet, Xu Zihua. The journal spread Qiu’s ideas about female independence, freedom of choice and education – as well as her calls for revolution.

Her cousin Xu was also an active revolutionary. He helped her secure a position as the principal of the Datong School. To the unsuspecting passer by this school was for training sports teachers, however in reality it was a cover for the military training of revolutionaries, and by Xu and Qiu to bring together various revolutionary groups.

In 1907 the revolutionaries were planning an uprising when Qiu’s cousin Xu was caught, tortured for information and summarily executed. Within a couple of days of his death Qiu was also arrested by the authorities. She faced the same treatment, being tortured for information, but she refused to crack. Unfortunately evidence (including her revolutionary poems) was found at the school and Qiu too was executed, publicly beheaded just days after her arrest.

People were shocked at the courage of this woman and at the brutality of her execution. Over time she became a martyr for the cause, uniting more and more people against the ruling Qing Dynasty, who were eventually overthrown in 1912.

Through her life and death she lived up to this famous opening line from one of her poems: “Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes”.

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