Qiu Jin (秋瑾) – China’s First Feminist

Qiu Jin (秋瑾) was a Chinese woman born in an era with fervent anti-imperialistic and anti-feudal sentiments, but in a society with great restrictions on the role of women and on what they could or should do. She was torn between living the life of a woman expected by her society and the life of a woman to participate in the great revolutionary cause of her time and to lead the breakage of shackles that limited the contributions of women. At great sacrifices to her marriage, her motherhood, and ultimately her life, Qiu Jin chose the latter lifestyle and became China’s first feminist.

Qiu Jin was born in 1875 in Fujian Province in China, and grew up in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. As a child of a fairly well-off family, she was very well educated, much more than other girls of her time. She was very good in literature and writing, both prose and poetry. Unlike most other girls, she was also very much interested in the outdoor and physical activities, such as riding horses and martial arts. Although her feet were bound[1] starting from about five years old as was the norm at that time for Chinese girls from reasonably well-off families, she was quite good in martial arts and other physical activities, an indication of her determination, commitment, and drive. Later as she grew older and started advocating equality for women, she stopped binding her feet.

In the latter part of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, the Chinese government was extremely weak, with imperialist powers carving up parts of China, and the Chinese were often treated by the foreign powers as second-class citizens in their own country. There was strong anger among the Chinese people at their weak Qing Dynasty government and at the naked aggression of the foreign powers. This resulted in the establishment of revolutionary groups with the objective of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and replacing it with a modern republic form of government. That was the political atmosphere in which Qiu Jin grew up.

In 1896 at the age of 21, through an arranged marriage by her parents, Qiu Jin married a wealthy, but conventional man. She gave birth to two children, one boy and one girl, and lived a genteel life. But Qiu Jin was not content with being just a mother and house lady. She found the traditional role for women not satisfying and too suffocating. Her interest in new ideas, social and political changes, and in the outside world appealed to her greatly. This longing became even greater when in 1903 her family moved to Beijing which provided many more opportunities for Qiu Jin to meet the wives of government officials and other like-minded women who shared her concerns. She became fearful for China’s future unless China underwent great changes. Finally in 1904, she decided to leave her husband and her children. She pawned her jewelry to help finance her trip to Japan to study, as Japan at that time was considered relatively speaking far more open and modern than China. Although there might not have been much, if any, love between her and her husband, it must have been difficult for Qiu Jin as a mother to leave her two young children. While in Japan, she advocated women’s rights including equal education, abolition of bind feet, and arranged marriages. She wrote extensively about such topics, including publishing her own newsletters. She was a prolific writer, leaving behind vast amount of prose and poetry. While in Japan, she also met Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the most prominent Chinese revolutionary group and who ultimately led the successful overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China in 1911.

Qiu Jin returned to China in 1906. She continued to write many articles. Together with one of her like-minded female friends, Xu Zihua, she founded “Chinese Women’s Journal,” a radical women’s journal in Shanghai, again advocating women’s rights. She encouraged women to get educated and be trained in various professions so that they could gain financial independence. She encouraged women to resist oppression by their families, society, and the government, including the practice of binding feet and arranged marriages. She thought that fighting for women’s rights was a key to solving China’s problems. She also taught at a girls’ school, the Xunxi Girls’ School in Nanxun, northern Zhejiang Province, which was headed by Xu Zihua.

Qiu Jin soon realized that social changes as advocated by her were not going to happen without political changes to China’s central government. Thus she left the Xunxi Girls’ School and taught and also became the principal at the Datung School, in Shaoxing, Zhejiing, which was founded by her male cousin Xu Xilin and other members of the Restoration Society. The Restoration Society was one of the larger revolutionary armed movements whose membership grew to 50,000 people.  One cell of the Restoration Society was led by her cousin Xu Xilin. On the surface, the Datung School was a school, but it was a front for a base for military training of revolutionaries. Qiu Jin also wanted to recruit more female students to the Datung School and more female members to the Restoration Society.

The Restoration Society was planning on a nationwide armed uprising around the latter part of July 1907. However, information about their plan was leaked, so in early July 1907 Xu Xilin moved up the armed actions of his cell by assassinating the governor of Anhui Province. Although the assassination was successful, it was basically a suicide act because Xu and his collaborators were vastly outnumbered by the governor’s troops. Xu was arrested and subsequently executed. Xu’s connection to Qiu Jin was somehow discovered. Upon hearing the pending arrival of soldiers to her school to arrest her, she told her colleagues to leave, but she decided to stay behind. Knowing perfectly well that she will be killed, she probably thought that every great cause has its martyrs, and her death might generate more attention and support for women’s rights and overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. She was arrested, and tortured to try to obtain more secrets of the revolutionary group, but she did not succumb to the torture. Two days later on July 15, 1907 she was beheaded at the age of 32.

Qiu Jin’s death, that a woman was willing to sacrifice herself, did generate widespread publicity. She became a symbol of the new women: educated, independent, and active in public affairs. Qiu Jin was immortalized as a modern revolutionary heroine as well as a feminist. After the Qing Dynasty was overthrown under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Dr. Sun in 1912 presided over a formal funeral for Qiu Jin in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, recognizing her as the first woman martyr of the revolution and a symbol of women’s independence. Later a statue and a museum dedicated to her were also located there.

New Film about Qiu Jin:

A new, full-length documentary-drama on Qiu Jin has just been released. The film is titled “Autumn Gem,” and is produced by a talented young couple from California:  Rae Chang and Adam Tow. Believing that the story of Qiu Jin should be more widely known, they dedicated one and a half years of their lives doing the research (including original research in China and interviewing some of Qiu Jin’s relatives), writing the screen play, recruiting the actresses/actors and a project team, directing the filming, and editing the film. They used more than $60,000 of their own money to finance the film, while at the same time Rae quit her professional job.  This is definitely a project of passion. “Autumn Gem” is also under the sponsorship of the San Francisco Film Society, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Autumn Gem

Click on the above picture to get a larger-size view of this film’s poster. More information about “Autumn Gem,” as well as a trailer of the film, can be found in: http://autumn-gem.com/.

Main Actresses:

The main actress in the role of Qiu Jin is Li Jing. Li Jing (from the above website) is a former professional athlete for the China National Wushu Team and trained under Wu Bin, the coach of Jet Li. She has twenty years of martial arts experience and expertise in a variety of styles and weapons, as well as special skills in fight choreography and wire work. She achieved Junior and Senior China National Champion titles over thirty times and was ranked one of the top six female Wushu athletes in China. She has worked as a stunt actor for several film, television, and commercial projects in Hollywood, including Rush Hour 3, The Fast and the Furious 3, Twins Effect, Desperate Housewives, and All My Children.

The person playing the role of the young Qiu Jin is Melissa Chin. Melissa started to learn Chinese Martial Arts (Wushu) when she was four-and-a-half years old. She won the Gold medal at 2005, 2006 and 2007 UC Berkeley Chinese Martial Arts Tournament. She was the 2007 All around Champion at the Overseas Chinese American Athletic Tournament Wushu Competition, as well as the Gold medal at the 2007 11th World Cup International Martial Arts Championship in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Melissa is now an 11 year old, 6th grader GATE Honor Roll student at Fremont Chadbourne Elementary School in California.

New Jersey Screening of “Autumn Gem”:

In October 2009 Rae Chang and Adam Tow will tour the Midwest and the Northeast on a screening tour of their film. They will screen the film in more than a dozen locations (most are at universities). The most convenient location for people in NJ is the screening on Saturday, 10/17/09, 8:00-10:00 PM, at the NJ Chinese Community Center at 17 Schoolhouse Road, Somerset, NJ 08873 (732-271-9000). Rae and Adam will also give a short presentation on their experiences in making this film. Admission to this event is $10. Advance tickets will be available for purchase around mid-September.

I hope that you will come to enjoy a fine and meaningful film, and at the same time support this young film-making couple.

For full disclosure, I want to mention that Adam Tow is my nephew.

[1] Bind feet was a symbol of wealth, indicating that the girl/woman did not have to work to make a living. But the process starts at about five years old with the breaking of the bones in the foot and tightly binding the different parts of the foot together. This creates excruciating pains, and the process takes about 10-15 years, with the objective of limiting the size of the foot to no more than three inches long.

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4 Responses to “Qiu Jin (秋瑾) – China’s First Feminist”

  1. Di says:

    I have ordered the DVD and look forward to watching it. I lived in Shaoxing for a while (English teacher at local university) and vaguely knew the story of Qui Jin, and now regret that I did not explore further. I may go back to do some research it is a wonderful story.

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