Excerpted from my senior honors thesis, footnotes removed.


Early life

Qiu Jin was born into a scholarly family in Chejiang Province, probably in 1877 or 1875. Her family name, Qiu, means "autumn;" her personal name means "jade."Her parents ensured that she received an excellent literary education, even though she was a girl. Supposedly, her mother gave up trying to teach her the traditional arts of sewing and embroidery, because Qiu Jin vastly preferred practicing archery and reading martial arts novels.

When Qiu Jin was eighteen years old, she acquiesced to an arranged marriage. Her husband, Wang, moved them to the capital, Beijing, when he was appointed Circuit Commissioner. It was a strange time to live in the great city.

Beijing, the center of the storm

Beijing was the hub of activity for the country, but the politics were distressed and chaotic. There were the rumors of the Empress Dowager's embezzling, the humiliation of the losing war with upstart Japan (1894-1895)—all on the heels of the Taiping Rebellion and the other upheavals in the years up to Qiu Jin's birth. There was a brief period of hope during the "Hundred Days" reforms of 1898, when Emperor attempted to reassert his power, but Empress Ci Xi was too strong for him.

Since the Wang family's move to the capital, Qiu Jin had given birth to two children, but she still followed the events closely. They were still living in the capital when the Boxer Uprising broke out. The court fled west, foreign troops entered the city, and life was in an uproar. Qiu's daughter, Wang Can-chi, gave notes on the subject (in English) to writer Florence Ayscough. Wang wrote: "During Boxer Rising of 1900 Ch'iu Chin Qiu Jin was virtually irritated by the political chaos . . . Two issues arousing the attention of every intelligent mind: 1. The corruption of the Manchu Government (Qing). 2. The intervention of the foreign powers into domestic affairs of China. The latter certainly degenerated the status of China as a sovereign Nation."

Moreover, Qiu was exceedingly unhappy with married life. Perhaps these political crises brought her personal crises to a flashpoint. She told her Conservative Party husband, "Our ideas are not the same. It is as if we lived in the netherworld prison. I do not desire to live in a hell, nor do I wish you to be there. We will part."

Still, during her years living with her husband (1893-1904), Qiu Jin managed to establish her own identity. She learned swordfighting, and rode horseback and drank wine like the heroes in her favored yingxiong novels. She wrote patriotic verses and articles. During this period, she also established a girls' school, lectured against footbinding, and kept up with the new revolutionary magazines and circulars that were beginning to be printed. To her husband's distress, she would even appear in public wearing Western men's clothing.

A woman in man's clothing

Qiu Jin's habit of crossdressing, later continued in Japan, may be seen as not so much crossing genders but crossing cultures. To Qiu and many of her contemporaries, Western clothing represented the future. In Japan and China, far more Chinese men adopted European-style dress than did Chinese women. While she may have been aligning herself with the male identity, it seems somewhat unlikely, since she referred to more female than male heroes among her role models in her writing. Although it may have been hyperbole, she even wrote that " . . . if you compare men and women, the most disgraceful and shameless are the men. Women ought to occupy the superior position, so why do they act in such a servile manner?" It seems likely that when she dressed in Western suits or the new style of Japanese menswear, she was cross-dressing into modernity rather than into masculinity.

Journey to Japan

In 1904, Qiu Jin finally left her husband and children, taking a boat to Japan, alone. On the journey, a Japanese scholar asked Qiu to write a poem for him. Her language was direct and violently passionate:

 . . . Unstrained wine never quenches the tears of a patriot;
A country's salvation relies on exceptional genius.
I pledge the spilled blood from a hundred thousand skulls
To restore the universe with all our strength.

This move was surely a difficult step for her. Although she did not seem to particularly care for her husband, it was almost unthinkable for a woman to leave her family and travel alone. After all, for centuries it had been socially improper for a woman to even be seen on the streets of her hometown by herself. Later, in Japan, she described her journey:

The sun and moon lusterless, heaven and earth grow dark.
Submerged womankind—who will rescue them?
Barrette and bracelet pawned to travel across the sea,
Parting from kith and kin, I left my homeland.
Freeing my bound feet, I washed away the poison of a thousand years,
And, with agitated heart, awakened the souls of all the flowers.
Alas, I have only a binding cloth woven of mermaid's silk,
Half stained with blood, half with tears.

Far from metaphorical, this poem reflects what she herself did, including the actual bloody process of unbinding her feet. And she tells other women to do so as well, in Stories of the Jingwei Bird (1905-1907).

Her relative, Xu Xilin, a scholar who had passed the second degree examination, told her that only educated people could help restore China, when he urged her to find some way to go to Japan. She wanted other women to do the same. In the stories, a character says, "If you don't study, you'll never be independent . . . No matter how heavily I am weighed down by oppression, if I don't pursue my education, I would rather die." Although she must have known it was impossible for many women, Qiu Jin urged them to sell their dowries or jewelry collections and beg, borrow, or steal money from husband and family so they could travel to a more modern land. Her daughter's notes regarding her journey say: "Shortly after . . . the Boxer Rebellion, Ch'iu Chin went to Japan with the intent of launching a higher education, especially with reference to political science. At the time when Doctor Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, organized in Japan the Ko Ming Tang (Guomindang), Ch'iu Chin was the first woman member of the party."

Japan was the natural choice for many such revolutionary and progressively-minded Chinese. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was much more modern than China. Additionally, it was not nearly as far away as America or Europe, and the culture was less alien. Qiu Jin enrolled in the Girls' Practical School in Tokyo and soon helped revive the defunct All-Love Society, a women-only political group.

It was in Japan that Qiu Jin started carrying a short sword, but she also worked in more intellectual spheres. She began writing for revolutionary journals, participating in and advocating the new move to write in colloquial Chinese. Progressive thinkers hoped that this would help revolutionary literature be widely read by literate but relatively uneducated Chinese, who found the archaic, classical academic style to be unintelligible. Colloquial articles and stories could also be more easily read aloud to illiterate audiences, making the works more accessible to the many illiterate women of China.

Qiu had donated money to various causes and to help other women study overseas, so she was running short of funds in late 1905. Then her mother fell ill. Dutifully, Qiu returned to her hometown in 1906. She resumed teaching and took a leadership position in Chejiang's Guangfu, or Restoration Society, which aimed to overthrow the corrupt Qing Dynasty. She spent more time with Xu Xilin and decided to return to Japan, where she enrolled in the Training College for Women. The situation in China remained frustrating; the outlook was bleak both for the formerly grand empire of the Qing and for its citizens. "Great scholars consider throwing down their brushes," she wrote, and "inmates of the baton-door (women's quarters) long to carry spears."

Finally, the Qing government realized the danger of the academics' rebellion brewing across the sea in Japan. With the cooperation of the Japanese government, restrictions were put on the Chinese students in Japan. Qiu Jin and other pledged to leave Japan if the rules were not removed, but neither government would rescind the orders. Though others reneged on the pledge and remained, Qiu Jin kept her word. She returned home to China for the final time.

The revolution at home

Once again Qiu resumed writing and applied to a teaching position in Chejiang. She found a kindred spirit in the woman who was hired in her place, Xu Zihua, who hired Qiu Jin as her assistant. After a few months, though, Qiu moved on to the much larger and more politically active city of Shanghai. She helped for a new college and began a new chapter of the Restoration Society.

Here Qiu Jin's life took the dangerous turn foreshadowed by the fearless language of her writings. The revolutionaries she was involved with now were more violent, not relying on words alone. She had been mostly a heroine of the mind before, but now she was ready to take up arms. Qiu learned to make explosives and began a clandestine bomb factory in a house in Shanghai. An explosion that injured her and her helpers cut short this activity, for fear it would bring official attention to them. Together with Xu Zihua, her friend from the school in Chejiang, Qiu Jin started a magazine called Chinese Women's News, which considered radical female-positive issues such as self-education, child education, Western-style health care, and economic self-sufficiency.

Xu Xilin, her cousin, was in Anhui, holding an official position. They both worked secretly to lay the ground for an armed revolution to come. A related group in Jiangxi rose up too soon, before the other provinces were ready. Members were killed and the scrutiny of the government caused other cells to subdue their activities. However, Qiu Jin was not under suspicion yet, and the local prefect even appointed her as head of the Datong College. Her daughter wrote: ". . . she became the principal of the Ta-t'ung College of Physical Culture, consisting of about one thousand students, who later on formed the basic unit of her army. Additionally she was also the leader of a large army made up of the people. (While leading the armies,) she sometimes dressed herself as a man . . . she could do both boxing and fencing very well."

Hearts in sacrifice

In March of 1907, Qiu and Xu Zihua visited the tomb of one of Qiu's favorite heroes, Song Dynasty patriot Ye Fei. Xu asked Qiu if she would like to be buried near the shrine of her role model. Qiu replied that it would be "a joyous honor." In June, the revolutionary cells were finally poised for action, planned for July 19 of that year. Once again, one group acted precipitously, beginning their uprising on July 1. Qiu sent a messenger to Xu Xilin to warn him; he decided to act before the government troops came to seize him. He assassinated the governor of Anhui and was arrested; Xu was then sentenced to death by the cutting out of his heart.

Qiu heard of this on July 9. She and her students discussed various plans of action but settled on none. On July 12, soldiers entered the city of Shaoxing, where the school was. Some students remained with her; others urged her to flee and then fled themselves. Qiu Jin sat in a room with the others, whose numbers dwindled to six by the time they were all taken prisoner. Under torture she refused to speak, but two of her poems were presented as proof of her guilt. In court, she said nothing, although she composed a death poem, now her most famous work. Spare in words, it can be translated many ways. My translation is "Autumn rain, autumn wind; my heart dies of sorrow." She was sentenced to decapitation, and was executed on July 15, 1907.

At first, her body lay unclaimed. She was buried eventually by a charitable association, then moved to her family's cemetery. In 1912, after the overthrow of the Qing and the establishment of Republican China, Sun Yat-sen assisted in overseeing her reburial at West Lake, near Ye Fei. Xu Zihua wrote her epitaph, engraved by woman scholar Wu Chiying. Lengthy, it contains much of the existing biographical information about Qiu. One of the last lines reads, "Not only under Southern Sung (Song Dynasty) were heroes lightly put to death . . . all shall esteem (and) remember in their hearts her fiery heroism." Today there is also a commemorative pavilion with relics and writings of Qiu Jin.

Sun Yat-sen's public respect for Qiu Jin was one step in her ascendance into the pantheon of heroism. Several biographies have been written. One, widely quoted, said, "Alas! We can say that her hot heart was given, a whetstone, that the country might sharpen its dull sword."

Qiu Jin and the heroic tradition

Qiu Jin may have consciously identified herself with the heroic tradition. She frequently invoked the names of early heroines to show that women were needed to help China fight back against imperialism in her own age. In the same story, a single sentence mentioned the names of "countless extraordinary and brave women, such as Hongyu, Xun Guan, and Mulan, or Yunying and Qin Liangyu of the Late Ming." She also went by the titles nüxiong, qingxiong, and Jianghu nüxia; respectively "woman hero," "competes against men," and "woman avenger of the martial life."

Of the Three Immortalities of classical China, Qiu Jin had them all. Her Confucian "moral virtue" lay in her commitment to a patriotic cause, as well as the fact that she did not divorce or carry on known affairs. Her public service was her education efforts for Chinese women, and her literary achievements are evident. With martial skills and natural beauty in addition, Qiu Jin is the very image of a Chinese heroine.

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