-by Ernie Diaz
When government troops caught her cousin, they tortured him, so he quickly confessed, and was executed. Most likely he gave them her name – Qiu Jin, for some brief mercy – so next they came for her. They tortured her, but she never confessed, and was executed. Thus did Qiu Jin become a martyr for the Chinese cause, but even more a paragon of true courage, for women everywhere.
Perhaps Chinese parents are correct in raising so large a fuss over such apparently trivial matters as a tomboy daughter’s tendencies. Qiu Jin’s parents, insulated by wealth from traditional Chinese common sense, let their daughter ride horses, wield swords, and study martial arts. The child had an insatiable intellect as well, in a time when this, too, boded nothing but ill-fortune in a female.
China in the late 19th century brimmed with discontent for the status quo, but only insofar as Chinese men were yoked by the Qing Dynasty, and chastised by the foreign invader. Still, there were many progressives in the moneyed classes, and certainly there were more scandalous acts than giving your daughter a good education, especially in Shaoxing, home of intellectuals.
Be careful who you idolize, lest you come to be like them. As an adolescent, Qiu Jin admired none more than Joan of Arc. A humble youth fighting with divine fury for her country must have been less than half the appeal, a young woman flaunting mettle far superior to men’s the greater. What a pack of problems in one slight woman Wang Tingjun took on when the marriage was arranged. Educated and outspoken, bad enough, but itching for a martyr’s glory?
Wang’s assignment to the imperial court in Beijing sped Qiu Jin along her pre-ordained path. Her life now pressed close to the rotten heart of China’s last dynasty, where she saw first-hand the corruption, the waste, and worst of all, the impotence of those who ruled in deference to barbarian might. These were days when all young Chinese men of bright mind and bold spirit clamored for change, for anything that would take China to the West without capitulating to it.
Despite her proximity to the court, Qiu Jin found herself surrounded by such firebrands, talk of revolution even on the tongues of the officials’ wives she dallied with. Only to her chagrin, for years. A mother’s instinct is hell to override, and Qiu Jin had a son and daughter. So she consoled herself with her poetry, which grew increasingly gloomy as her inner tension coiled.
At last she did the unthinkable – for a traditional Chinese female, at least – fleeing to Japan to study. She pawned her jewelry to do so, no scholar abroad with parental blessings. Japan in the early 1900s embraced change like a fatal lover, and its schools teemed with young Chinese seeking the knowledge of progress all but forbidden in their land.
Here Qiu Jin unburdened herself of all pretense at being a good Chinese girl, sporting about in men’s clothes, shouting slogans, bandying radical western theories, only her bound feet to betray her. She even joined Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary society, wich soon grew so restive that the Japanese government mandated limits to their revolutionary activities. Qiu Jin protested vociferously, and soon found herself obliged to return to China.
Back home, she sought to continue the progressive writing that she had turned out so voluminously in Japan. Her family, as a surety against her leaving again, gave her the money to start a magazine, Chinese Women’s Journal. If China suffered under the yoke of feudalism, how much more so its women? She called for the education of women, for the right to earn their own livings and determine their own destinies, their own spouses. Above all, she called for an end to foot-binding, the cruel practice that had left her and countless before hobbled, shuffling symbols of meaningless male prerogative.
Here a woman as intellectual and bold as Qiu Jin may have grown content, perhaps even fulfilled, trusting to the might of the pen. But not a woman as fiery. Qiu Jin knew that her nation’s dire straits called for drastic remedies, not gradual persuasion. Quitting her day-job at the Xunxi Girls’ School, she took a post as the principal of the Datong School. Ostensibly a seat of modern academics, the new school had actually been founded by her cousin Xu Xilin, as a front in which to train cadres of the new Restoration Society, rather reactionary-sounding for a bunch of radicals, admittedly, and better translated as the “Revive the Light” Society.
Qiu Jin burned as brightly in her work with this society, the Guangfuhui, as any of her male compatriots. Training, dispatching envoys, and planning the army that would hopefully rise up at key points around China, simultaneously, Qiu Jin did credit to herself in non-stop patriotic sedition. But the true test came with the inevitable betrayal. The reward for information on a governor’s assassination was too juicy a plum for even a sworn revolutionary, and one of the spilled the beans on Xu Xilin.
As mentioned, Xu confessed readily, swiftly leading to Qiu’s arrest. Qiu knew it was coming, in fact, but chose to help hide plans and see off soldiers rather than take flight. Her stoicism in the face of one-can-only-imagine what torture saved more lives than one, but not her own. Incriminating letters were discovered, and Qiu was beheaded. She was 31 years old.
The Restoration Society, and other groups like it, would soon be folded into Sun Yat-sen’s Tongmenghui, or Revolutionary Alliance, which would later form the nucleus of the Kuomintang. Nonetheless, Chinese communists revered her as a revolutionary martyr. May Qiu Jin yet come to be a feminist martyr, proof positive that for true courage, readiness to spill your own guts rather than those of others, women take no backseat to men.
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?