Qiu Jin (c. 1875–1907)

views updated

Qiu Jin (c. 1875–1907)

Chinese revolutionary, poet, and feminist, who championed women's rights and was executed for her role in an attempt to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. Name variations: Ch'iu Chin (romanized version) or incorrectly Chiu Chin; Qiu Xuanqing; Qiu Jingxiong. Pronunciation: Chee-o Jean. Born Qiu Jin on November 8, 1875 (some sources cite 1877, 1878, and 1879), in Xiamen, Fujian, China; executed in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, China, on July 15, 1907; daughter of Qiu Shounan (a government bureaucrat) and Shan; educated in the family school and the Japanese Language School, Tokyo (1904); took Special Training Course for Chinese Women at the Aoyama Women's Vocational School, Tokyo (July–December 1905); married Wang Tingjun, in 1896; children: son, Wang Yuande (b. 1897); daughter, Wang (Qiu) Canzhi (b. 1901, also seen as Wang Guifen).

Returned with family to native home of Shaoxing (1891); family moved to Hunan province (early 1890s); accompanied her husband to live in Beijing (1902, some sources cite 1900 and 1903); left husband and family to study in Japan (1904); became active in Chinese revolutionary societies and in writing and lecturing in Japan (1904–05); joined the RestorationSociety in Shaoxing (1905); joined the Revolutionary Alliance (Tongmenghui) in Tokyo (1905); returned to China (1905 or 1906); taught for a few months in a girls' school in Zhejiang province (1906); founded the Chinese Women's Journal in Shanghai (summer 1906); headed the Datong School in Shaoxing (February–July 1907); organized the failed Restoration Army uprising in Zhejiang (1907).

Both the Communist government in China and the Nationalist government in Taiwan hail Qiu Jin as a martyred hero who offered her life to the revolutionary cause. She had hoped that her act of sacrifice would accelerate uprisings leading to a successful revolution against the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu government that had ruled China since 1644. Many Chinese thought of the Manchus as a non-Chinese people who had seized the throne through superior military power. Although many might have agreed that the Qing had ruled well for most of their reign, by the mid-19th century they were failing to protect China from the steady encroachments of the Western powers and of Japan.

It's difficult to exchange a woman's headdress for a helmet.

—Qiu Jin

In several treaties after the British victory in the Opium War (1839–42), Western powers wrung humiliating concessions from the Chinese government: five ports were opened to foreign trade; foreigners claimed the right to rule themselves under their own laws in China; Hong Kong was ceded to the British in perpetuity; most-favored-nation treatment was granted, making the treaties interlocking; and tariffs favored the foreign business interests. Close on the heels of the Opium War, the Taiping Rebellion raged over much of China from 1851 to 1864. Some 20 million people lost their lives. Faltering, the dynasty called on Han Chinese civil officials rather than Manchu military leaders, to raise troops in their home locales to defeat the rebels. This was a startling admission of weakness on the part of the Manchu dynasty.

Thus, some years before Qiu Jin's birth, the Manchu dynasty was teetering on the brink of forfeiting the Mandate of Heaven. Traditional Confucian wisdom taught that disasters presaged the end of a dynasty's legitimacy, and that a rebellion—installing a new emperor, or "Son of Heaven"—might be successful.

Qiu Jin was born in the treaty port of Xiamen, Fujian province, most likely during 1875 (some sources cite 1877, 1878, and 1879), at a time when traditional China was in its late stages. The subjugated position of women was already under scrutiny and sometimes also under attack. By the 1890s, foreign missionaries were establishing schools for girls, and, by the early 20th century, Chinese themselves would be founding girls' schools. Societies were also organized to oppose the ancient practice of foot-binding which dated to about 900 ce.

Although the practices and theories of Confucianism had long provided China with great social stability and cultural continuity, it was obvious by now that Confucianism could not continue without significant changes. Confucian scholars, the men who were literate in the difficult traditional Chinese written language and who were selected for the civil service via an elaborate examination system, were the most powerful and honored group in the society. Qiu Jin's father Qiu Shounan was one such man. Because he worked as a lower-level civil servant, her family lived in several different provinces, mostly in the lower Yangtze valley region of China. The people in these provinces—Hunan, Zhejiang, and Fujian—were directly exposed to the physical impact of the Western powers that had "opened" China in the Opium War. Scholars in this region, centered upon the great port city of Shanghai, also found it easy to secure translations of major Western works, making them aware of China's relative weakness. It was here that the modern political movements which were to transform China in the 20th century began.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the French fought a war with China (1884–85) to detach Indochina from China's traditional suzerainty, and the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) resulted in Taiwan becoming a Japanese colony.

As discontent with the Qing Dynasty grew, it took the form of reform movements (notably that of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao in 1898), rebellion (the 1900 Boxer Uprising was directed mainly against foreign influence but one of its effects was to further weaken the dynasty), and an infant revolutionary movement headed by Sun Yat-sen. The reformers hoped to transform China into a constitutional monarchy. The revolutionaries believed that—for China's very survival—the entire dynastic structure had to be torn down.

Growing up in the lower Yangtze valley region as the second child and the first daughter of her bureaucrat father and well-educated mother, Qiu Jin was exposed to the heroic and romantic elements of Chinese traditions as well as to modern, Western ideas. It is said that her grandfather and parents thought of her as their "bright pearl" and nicknamed her "Jade Girl." Along with her elder brother and younger sister, Qiu Jin learned to read the Confucian classics, history, poetry, and novels. By the age of 13, she could also write poetry. She especially enjoyed listening to her parents recount stories of past heroes who had fought China's enemies and saved the country. Since she lived in a treaty port, it is likely that she knew of the thriving opium trade, of the impoverished laborers who went overseas to work, and of the foreign missionaries in China. She may have seen starvation. As the daughter of an official, she almost certainly heard of the naval battle with the French in Fujian. Li Hongsheng writes that Qiu Jin, worrying that Chinese people would become the slaves of foreign countries, begged her mother to let her learn the martial arts. In her youth, she began to think of herself as a hero or a traditional knight-errant who used force to right wrongs.

When the family returned to the paternal native home of Shaoxing in 1891, her mother allowed Qiu Jin to go to her own native home to study the martial arts under the tutelage of an older male cousin. In addition to becoming adept with the sword, Qiu Jin learned to ride a horse and acquired a taste for wine. Either at this time or later as a student in Japan, she adopted the name "heroine of Jian Lake."

In 1892, along with her mother and brother, Qiu Jin joined her father in Hunan province, where he held an official position. At the time, a woman's role in Chinese society was still quite traditional: women were to marry, become good wives, and above all bear sons. In May 1896, in an arranged marriage, Qiu Jin wed Wang Tingjun, scion of a wealthy family. She gave birth to a son, and in the Wang home lived a life of luxury which she despised. She had nothing in common with her profligate husband and remarked in a letter written to her brother a few years later that he lacked "good faith" and "friendly sentiment," gambled and visited prostitutes, insulted relatives, hurt others in order to benefit himself, and was conceited and arrogant. While he thought only of recreation, promotion, and a future of prosperity, she agonized over the incursions of foreigners. It might have been at about this time that she wrote a poem registering her despair:

The serene swallows have long endured the beacon fires of war;
I hear that the Sino-foreign battles have not yet ended.
I am impotent as I harbor resentment for the nation.
It's difficult to exchange a woman's headdress for a helmet.

In 1902 (or perhaps as early as 1900 or as late as 1903; sources disagree), Wang Tingjun purchased an official post in Beijing and took his wife and son with him. Beijing was the site of China's humiliating defeat at the hands of the foreign powers in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Boxers, a secret society, had stirred up the countryside against the foreigners, and particularly against Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts. The Manchu throne supported the Boxers, and the foreign quarter in Beijing was besieged by Boxers for more than three months. When the siege was broken, the foreign relief force looted Beijing.

Qiu Jin met a circle of talented modern women in Beijing who shared her concern about China's future. Her closest friend there was Wu Zhiying , a well-known calligrapher. Qiu Jin read articles on women's liberation and democracy. She began to believe that China's future lay with revolution.

Increasingly muffled by her life at home, Qiu Jin was married to a man who neither supported nor understood her revolutionary impulses. After several years of frustration—both at her country's continued decline and at her own existence—she resolved to go to Japan to secure a modern education. Japan had successfully modernized in the late 19th century, and while the country was increasingly a threat to Chinese sovereignty it was also very attractive to modern Chinese youth as a place to explore reform and modernization. In the spring of 1904, Qiu Jin confronted her husband with her desire to study there. After selling her jewelry to finance the trip and making a hurried journey back to her hometown, she dressed as a man and traveled third-class on a ferry boat from Shanghai to Japan. She had left not only her husband but also her young son Wang Yuande (b. 1897) and daughter Wang (Qiu) Canzhi (b. 1901).

More than 1,500 Chinese students, including a few women, were already in Tokyo when Qiu Jin arrived. Once there, she studied Japanese for about six months at a school set up by the Chinese Students' Union. She also adopted a revolutionary style to match her revolutionary zeal. With her Japanese sword, her practice of the martial arts, and her man's attire, she defied the conventional stereotype of a woman. Besides using her sobriquet "heroine of Jian Lake," she took the name "Jingxiong," meaning "competition" or "power," as a means of suggesting gender equality in revolutionary pursuits. Radical students like Qiu Jin often were drawn to the shadowy subculture of the secret societies, groups of Chinese who had organized to protect their own local interests against those of the scholar-gentry or the court authorities. In Yokohama, Qiu Jin became a member of the largest of these groups, the Triad secret society. She also helped to organize a society for the Study of Oratory and gave lectures on revolution and on gender equality. Like many other educated Chinese, she contributed to the vernacular movement in order to introduce revolutionary ideas to the lower classes. Qiu Jin wrote articles opposing foot-binding and promoting gender equality and women's education for the Vernacular Journal. She became acquainted with Tao Chengzhang, a leader of the Revolutionary Restoration Society, Huang Xing, who was also active in the revolutionary movement, and Lu Xun, the master of satire aimed at Chinese society and tradition.

In early 1905, Qiu Jin registered for the Special Training Course for Chinese Women, which was affiliated with the Aoyama Vocational Girls' School. Needing money for the expensive tuition and wanting to see her natal family, she decided to return briefly to China. Before she left Japan, Tao Chengzhang gave her introductions to leaders of the Revolutionary Restoration Society in Shanghai and Shaoxing. After she reached China, Qiu Jin sought out Xu Xilin, the society's Shaoxing leader, who welcomed her to the organization.

With money from her mother, she returned to Tokyo in July 1905. Enrolling in the Special Training Course for Chinese Women, she was in class 33 hours a week for nine subjects drawn from a curriculum offering courses in moral cultivation, Japanese language, education, psychology, sciences, geography, history, mathematics, geometry, painting, English, physical education, handicrafts, homemaking, and choral music. In spare hours, she strengthened herself through military drill and target practice. She also practiced making explosives. Qiu Jin continued wearing her Japanese sword, and she often dressed in a kimono.

By late 1905, she had joined the Revolutionary Alliance (Tongmenghui), which had been organized by the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen in Tokyo. As the second overseas student from Zhejiang province to join the group, Qiu Jin was named to head its Zhejiang branch.

In November 1905, the Japanese government—pressured by the Qing Dynasty, which was alarmed by the revolutionary activity of Chinese students in Japan—prohibited the Chinese overseas students from engaging in political activity. Outraged, Qiu Jin and other Chinese students went on strike and demonstrated. When the Japanese government alternately ignored and ridiculed them, she and others urged their classmates to return to China in protest. Following her own advice, Qiu Jin left for China in late 1905 or early 1906. In a letter from that time, she wrote:

[I] want to struggle for the success of the revolution—struggle without ceasing. Ever since the Allied invasion [during the Boxer Rebellion], I have cared nothing about my own life and death. Even if I sacrifice myself without achieving success, I can't feel regretful. It's a time of crisis. The great work of restoring China [to the Chinese] cannot be delayed! Up to now, a lot of men have already died, but not many women have. This is a disgrace to the women's circle.

Upon her return to China, Qiu Jin began melding together her romantic commitment to the Chinese heroic tradition and her modern education. Revolutionaries throughout the lower Yangtze valley were constantly plotting local risings, often hoping that if several of these could flare up simultaneously they would become in effect the match which would light the fuse of national revolution. Such risings were very difficult to coordinate, however. Communications were hard and often broke down. Romantic students frequently changed their minds at the last moment, and secret-society members sometimes acted primarily as mercenaries and refused to act if they were not well paid. Manchu police were very thorough at rooting out plots and at torturing and executing would-be revolutionaries upon the slightest evidence.

Qiu Jin immediately contacted the revolutionaries in her home area, and she prepared to work simultaneously for armed uprisings and for women's liberation. While teaching Japanese language, science, and hygiene in a girls' school, she encouraged the other teachers to take up the causes of gender equality and nationalism. The principal of the school, Xu Zihua , was an enlightened widow who had fled the maltreatment of her in-laws. She and Qiu Jin became close friends.

During the summer of 1906, Qiu Jin worked in Shanghai, where she founded a popular magazine, Chinese Women's Journal, to promote women's liberation. Xu Zihua and her sister provided 1,500 yuan toward its establishment, but funding remained a problem and only two issues were published. For the first, which appeared on January 14, 1907, Qiu Jin wrote an editorial exhorting women to "be the forerunners of waking the lion, be the vanguard of civilization, be the boat across the ford of confusion, be the light of the dark room, so that within the world of Chinese women a magnificent splendor will be released, to stir the hearts and dazzle the eyes of all mankind." She also wrote a "Warning to My Sisters" and addressed women in wealthy families who might have had relatively contented lives:

Those silks and satins can be compared to brocaded ropes and embroidered belts, binding you tightly. Those servants are really prison guards. That husband … is the magistrate and the jailer…. I'd like to ask these wealthy wives, even if you have had a life of ease and enjoyment, have you ever had even a little power to act on your own? It is always the male who has the position of master, and the female who has the position of slave.

Qiu Jin admonished women to rise up to free themselves by fighting for personal and economic freedom. She also urged them to unite in the struggle to save China—the struggle that always took precedence for her.

With the 1905 abolition of the Confucian civil-service examination system, which had been the major route to government office for centuries, the government encouraged the establishment of schools teaching both traditional and modern subjects. Availing himself of government sanction for new schools, revolutionary Xu Xilin opened Datong School in Shaoxing as a front for revolutionary activity in Zhejiang province. In February 1907, with Xu moving to Anhui province to head, and make revolutionary use of, the Police Academy there, Qiu Jin accepted a request to head the school.

Revolutionaries from all over Zhejiang attended Datong School for training, drilling with rifles and ammunition Xu had brought in from Shanghai. A few miles outside the city, Qiu Jin herself led the students and activists in military drill, especially encouraging the female students to join in.

Suspicious of the school's activities and of a woman wearing male garb and riding a horse, local residents—probably gentry members—posted handbills attacking Datong School as a "den of bandits." Relying on her family's official status, Qiu Jin is said to have allayed these concerns by chatting with Shaoxing Prefect Gui Fu about education and poetry.

All the while, she was attracting new members to the Restoration Society and forging close connections with society leaders in various locales. Qiu Jin also made connections with soldiers in the New Army as well as students in military and high-level cadre schools in Hangzhou. She reportedly convinced a number of soldiers in Hangzhou to side with the revolutionary cause and enlisted them as agents provocateurs for future action in Hangzhou. She established the Restoration Army, upon which she imposed tight organization.

At the end of May 1907, Xu Xilin informed Qiu Jin that the Anhui organization was ready to act. He urged that the Zhejiang branch, too, prepare for an uprising in the near future. Accordingly, Qiu Jin summoned the leaders of the Restoration Army to a meeting, at which she reportedly said: "[T]he arrow is really in the bow. [We] cannot not release it!" The group fixed July 6 as the date of its uprising.

In Zhejiang, the authorities were closing in. A traitor to the revolutionary cause had revealed the names of key leaders of the Restoration Army. By early July, when Qiu Jin decided to delay the uprising until July 19, official attention was already trained on the school. On July 7 or soon thereafter, word leaked to Gui Fu that Datong School's revolutionary group, including Qiu Jin, was planning an uprising. Gui Fu passed this intelligence on to the Zhejiang governor, who quickly deployed troops to Shaoxing.

On July 10, Qiu Jin read in a Shanghai newspaper of Xu Xilin's failed uprising on July 6 in Anqing, Anhui. Several died in the attempt, while Xu Xilin was captured and executed. A revolutionary from Shanghai arrived to urge Qiu Jin to flee to Shanghai. Repeating a familiar theme, she refused, saying that she did not fear death: blood had to be spilled for the revolution to succeed. On July 12, she learned that troops were on their way. After mobilizing teachers and students to conceal the rifles and ammunition, Qiu Jin encouraged her colleagues and students to go into hiding.

She declined again to seek safety the next morning. A few hours later, more than 300 troops surrounded Datong School. After a brief battle in which two students died, the troops entered the school. Qiu Jin and seven others were captured. Subsequently interrogated and tortured, she steadfastly refused to answer questions or to write a confession. Just before dawn on July 15, 1907, Qiu Jin was beheaded in Shaoxing. Her good friends, among them Xu Zihua and Wu Zhiying, buried her near West Lake in Hangzhou. The revolution for which she gave her life would topple the Qing Dynasty on October 10, 1911.

Drawing on the heroic tradition, many in her time believed that perhaps the best way to force the pace of change was to die gloriously in battle against the corrupt Manchus. A martyr's death offered not only a possible way to inspire thousands of others to finally overthrow the government, but also guaranteed a measure of fame and immortality, as revealed in Qiu Jin's poetry (translated by Mary Backus Rankin ):

The sun is setting with no road ahead,
In vain I weep for loss of country …
Although I die yet I still live,
Through sacrifice I have fulfilled my duty.

Qiu Jin was right that her death would motivate others, and in that sense it was not a useless sacrifice. Among those many Chinese women who were inspired was Yu Manzhen , the mother of the later female literary and revolutionary figure Ding Ling (1904–1985). Qiu Jin's daughter Wang (Qiu) Canzhi edited her mother's poetry, which was continually reprinted and widely read. Chinese, and particularly Chinese women, continue to honor her memory.


Chen Xianggong, ed. Qiu Jin nianpu ji zhuanji ziliao (chronological biography and biographical material about Qiu Jin). Beijing: China Publishing House, 1983.

Fang Chao-ying. "Ch'iu Chin," in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943, pp. 169–171.

Giles, Lionel. Ch'iu Chin: A Chinese Heroine. London: East & West, 1917.

——. "The Life of Ch'iu Chin," in T'oung Pao. Vol. XIV, 1913, pp. 211–227.

Li Hongsheng. Nu yingxiong Qiu Jin (The heroine Qiu Jin). Jinan: Shandong People's Publishing House, 1985.

"Qiu Jin," in Yuan Shaoying and Yang Guizhen, eds., Zhongguo funu mingren cidian (Dictionary of Famous Chinese Women). Changchun: Women and Children's Publishing House of the North, 1989, pp. 425–427.

Qiu Jin ji (Collected works of Qiu Jin). Shanghai: New China Publishing House, 1960.

Rankin, Mary Backus. Early Chinese Revolutionaries. Radical Intellectuals in Shanghai and Chekiang, 1902–1911. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

——. "The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch'ing: The Case of Ch'iu Chin," in Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke, eds., Women in Chinese Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975, pp. 39–66.

suggested reading:

Chow Tse-tsung. The May Fourth Movement. Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.

Wright, Mary, ed. China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900–1913. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

related media:

Qiu Jin: A Revolutionary (VHS, 110 min.), based on a novel by Xia Yan , Shanghai Film Studio, 1983.

Karen Gernant , Professor of History, Southern Oregon State College, Ashland, with additional material supplied by

Jeffrey G. G. , Professor of History, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon