The daughter of a well-to-do gentry family, Qiu was shunted into the arranged marriage that would have been usual for her milieu.
It did not suit her.
Hers had been an active mind from youth, and after several years of domestic misery, resolved to make her own way in the world, separated herself from her husband, and headed for Japan.
She prepared herself for this journey by an act taxing symbolism as heavily as physique: painfully un-binding her feet. “Unbinding my own feet to undo the poisoned years / Arousing the souls of a hundred flowers to passionate movement,” she wrote in verse while en route to Japan.*
She would later issue a plea for women to emancipate themselves by doing likewise.
[W]e women, who have had our feet bound from early childhood, have suffered untold pain and misery, for which our parents showed no pity. Under this treatment our faces grew pinched and thin, and our muscles and bones were cramped and distorted. The consequence is that our bodies are weak and incapable of vigorous activity, and in everything we do we are obliged to lean on others.
Being thus necessarily dependent on external aid, we find ourselves, after marriage, subjected to the domination of men, just as though we were their household slaves. All our energies are confined to the home, where we are occupied in cutting out clothes, cooking and preparing food, making tea and boiling rice, sprinkling and sweeping, waiting on our husbands, and handing them basin and towel.
In any important business we are prevented from taking the least part. Should a guest arrive, we are obliged to make ourselves scarce and hide in our private apartments. We are not allowed to inquire deeply into any subject, and should we venture to speak at any length in reply to some argument, we are told that our sex is volatile and shallow.
My sisters, do you know where the fault lies that has brought us to this pass? It is all due to women’s lack of energy and spirit. We ourselves drew back in the first instance, and by-and-by that came to be regarded as an immutable rule of conduct.
Sisters, let us today investigate the causes which have led to this want of spirit and energy among women. May it not be because we insist on binding up our girls’ feet at an early age, speaking of their “three-inch golden lilies” and their “captivating little steps”? May it not be, I say, that this process of foot-binding is what has sapped and destroyed all our energy and spirit?
Today my blood is up, and I want to stir your blood as well, my sisters, and rouse you to a sense of your degradation. All women should, in the first place, refuse to adorn themselves with paint and powder, or trick themselves out in seductive guise, realizing that every human being has his own natural countenance given to him by God … In bringing forward this question of unbound feet, my sisters, I want you to realize that the result of having feet of the natural size will be to abolish the evils attendant on injured bones and muscles and an enfeebled constitution — surely a cause for unbounded rejoicing. …
If one day we succeed in wiping out this horrible blot on our civilization, our bodies will begin to grow stronger, and the steps we take in walking will become a pleasure instead of a pain. Having thus regained their natural energy, the whole sex will progress without difficulty, and an endless store of happiness will be built up for thousands of generations of women yet unborn.
But if you shrink from this reform, and wish to retain the pretty sight of small feet beneath your petticoats, you will remain imprisoned to the end of the chapter in the seclusion of your inner apartments, quite devoid of any strength of character, and it will be impossible to manifest the native brilliancy of the female sex. … Let there be thorough enlightenment on the subject of foot-binding, and progress in the matter of equal rights for men and women will surely follow.
That’s being on the right side of history.
In these last days of the decrepit Qing, prophets and revolutionaries with visions of a better tomorrow grew thick on the ground.
Qiu distinguished herself by her eloquence among Tokyo’s Chinese expatriates. Her powerful vision of women reborn as equals, and China reborn as independent and strong, must have had a bit of that personal-is-political vibe.
We sisters must learn to put aside everything we have preoccupied ourselves with before and focus on what we must do for our future — as if our former selves are dead and we have returned to this world in other forms of humanity.
-Qiu Jin in Tokyo, 1904 (Source)
Returning to her homeland, she found wage work as a teacher and her life’s work as her era’s most famous female activist: she artfully combined vocation and avocation by using her school as a cover to train revolutionary fighters.
And if contemporaries had been shocked by her foot un-binding and marriage un-doing, they hadn’t seen anything when it came to gender transgression. Qiu dressed in men’s clothes, rode horseback astride, trained in swordplay, and put out China’s first women’s journal. Her intimate friend — and possibly her lesbian lover — Wu Zhiying, whose biographical essays helped cement Qiu’s posthumous fame, remembered her friend as
forthright. When she happened to meet benighted ones, she would confront them head-on, leaving little room for compromise. People often held this against her. Some even compared her to Sophia [Perekovskaya] and Madame Roland. She would answer [to such appellations] without much thought.
(Quoted in Hu Ying, “Writing Qiu Jin’s Life: Wu Zhiying and Her Family Learning,” Late Imperial China, December 2004)
How it would have crowned the character arc for this once-hobbled housewife had the insurrectionary plot she masterminded with her cousin Xu Xilin succeeded! Maybe it was a little too operatic even for the fates to swallow.
In the event, the hour of the Manchus’ destruction would not arrive for another four years, although it would come at the hands of another secret-society plot.
But Qiu Jin’s got sniffed out by the authorities and busted pre-emptively; our day’s hero made a brave but only symbolic last stand at her school, then was taken into custody and tortured. She yielded a line of poetry, but would not implicate comrades.
“Autumn wind, autumn rain — they make one die of sorrow.”
Qiu Jin was publicly beheaded at Shaoxing. Within five years (and the realization of that revolution she had lost her life pursuing), memorial sites and statues were going up to her memory around China.
Shaoxing statue of Qiu Jin. (cc) image from jensimon7.
* She wrote poetry throughout her life; there are some selections of Qiu Jin poetry translated to English here.