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Biography, Chinese Martial Studies, Southern China, Women and the Martial Arts

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists: Qiu Jin—the Last Sword-Maiden, Part II.

The iconic, and most often reprinted, photograph of Qiu Jin, taken while a student in Japan.

 

This post provides the conclusion to our biographical sketch of Qiu Jin, an important southern Chinese revolutionary, poet, writer, martial artist and terrorist.  I think the best way to read these posts is to print them out and read them back to back as if they were a short article.  See part I here.

Qiu Jin: Wife, Student, Feminist

In 1896 Qiu married a member of lower gentry from Hunan named Wang.  She left her family to live with her in-laws as was the custom.  The marriage was not a happy one and she expressed a surprising degree of antipathy and bitterness towards her husband in later letters and poems.

On the surface it seems like it should have been a good match.  Qiu Jin’s husband was not abusive towards her, was fairly liberal and well off.  She bore two children, a son and a daughter, that cemented her position in the new family.  There isn’t even any indication of excessive conflict between her and her mother-in-law.  Nevertheless Qiu Jin characterized her husband as a spoiled and lazy child.

After buying a position in the national bureaucracy Wang moved his family to Beijing.  Here Qiu Jin was able to put her educational background to good use.  She quite enjoyed life in the big city after her more provincial existence in Hunan.  She formed deep friendships and study groups with the wives of other low officials.  They studied new ideas and talked about the state of the country.  As it turns out there was a lot to discuss.  The family arrived in 1900, just prior to the Boxer Uprising and the occupation of the city by foreign forces.

The chaos and national humiliation of this period had a galvanizing effect on Qiu Jin.  She became increasingly liberal and nationalistic in her politics.  Her relationship with her husband also continued to degenerate.  In 1904 she decided to leave China and to study in Japan.  She had already agreed to get her husband to divide the estate.  Unfortunately they were highly invested in a relative’s business which failed, and Qiu Jin had little money to finance the venture.  Money continued to be sore spot whenever she mentioned her husband for the remainder of her life.

Originally Qiu Jin planned to finance the expedition by selling her jewelry, which she did in 1904.  In her poetry and letters she often mentions selling her finery to finance her education.  In actual fact the situation was more complicated.  Shortly after selling her jewelry she donated basically all of her money to support a liberal scholar who had been imprisoned by the state.  In actuality she returned to her home and was forced to ask her parents for support.  Being supporters of modern women’s education they were happy to help her study in Japan and she enjoyed the full confidence of her mother and brother throughout the remainder of their lives (her father died while she was still a student in Japan).

While Qiu Jin was officially enrolled in a girls school she seems to have spent little time in class and devoted herself instead to the study of increasingly radical politics.  Given her personal background she was interested feminist politics and women’s liberation.  She contributed a number of articles to literary journals and newsletters.  Yet when push came to shove she seemed willing to subordinate these ideal to the larger cause of national revolution.  A sympathetic reading of the situation might be that she realized substantive change for women would not be possible without extensive structural changes in both the Chinese state and society.  For that reason it was better to focus on the cause of revolution.

That said Qiu Jin’s revolutionary philosophy was not well developed.  She had not clear plan for how the state should be structured.  In practice she seems to have combined a sort of traditional anti-Manchu xenophobia that she picked up in Japan with a western demand for individual rights and choice.  She wrote and crusaded against corruption and brutality, but assumed rather naively that these problems would simply go away with a single heroic effort (deposing the increasingly moribund Qing).

While in Japan Qiu Jin became known for her habit of dressing in western men’s suits. This cross-dressing has led to some discussion by queer and gender studies theorists. While she did form unusually close friendships with other women, there is no indication that she identified as a lesbian. Cross dressing in male clothes appears to have been part of her adoption of martial values and persona as a martial artist. Once again, she was following literary models. It is not uncommon for female martial artists in traditional martial arts novels to adopt exaggerated male traits and characteristics as martial virtue (at least in the minds of the reading public) is highly associated with “yang” vales (see Bortez, 2011). Hua Mulan, Qiu Jin’s patron saint, was also a cross-dresser. She favored western clothing because of their “progressive and modern” connotations.

Her time in Japan also appears to have been important for another reason, less frequently discussed by historians, but possibly more important to martial artists.  While in Japan she appears to have rededicated herself to the martial arts.  She started to dress in a male western suit, carried a sword when in public and openly venerated Hua Mulan (another cross-dressing, sword toting gentry girl who ran away from home and traditional expectations to save the country).  Updating her childhood skillset she also learned marksmanship and bomb-making (both of which were subjects regularly studied by radical students in Japan).

It is easy to overlook how much influence Japan had on the resurgence of interest in the martial arts in China from 1900-1930.  The Boxer Uprising in 1900 totally discredited the traditional martial arts in the eyes of the ruling elite (people like Qiu Jin and her husband).  Hand combat  traditions seemed too poor, too backwards and too superstitious to have any place in the modern Chinese state.  It had led to a great national humiliation.  In fact, after 1900 martial arts schools around the country were shut down.  This was probably particularly hard on Qiu Jin given her life-long love of martial arts literature.

Fortunately things were different in Japan.  The martial arts were more respected.  Nor were they seen as backwards or superstitious.  Within her lifetime Jigoro Kano had reformed various schools of Jujitsu to create Kodokan Judo, a popular art that promised moral education, spiritual strengthening and health benefits.  The Japanese had recently managed to defeat the Russian in Manchuria, further demonstrating the supposed benefit of their Samurai spirit.  They were at the forefront of integrating traditional martial arts techniques into bayonet, saber and knife fighting drills taught to their highly modern and well-disciplined military.  In short, this was a place where an educated and sophisticated individual could talk about and study the martial arts without having to apologize for having such “peculiar” (or embarrassing) interests.  It was probably the first time in Qiu Jin’s life that she had ever experienced such freedom.

Nor was she the only foreign martial artist to study in Japan.  A number of reformers in the world of Chinese martial arts traveled to Japan and were interested in Japanese ideas.  Perhaps the best known of these was the prodigious historian of the Chinese martial arts Tang Hao.  Not content to write books (many of which are still important to the field of Chinese martial studies today), he also traveled to Japan and studied their method for bayonet fighting and saber training.  He later brought these techniques back to China and tried to integrate them into the curriculum of the GMD’s Central Guoshu Institute.

A number of Chinese martial artists believed that Japanese reforms to modern saber and bayonet training should be integrated into Chinese martial culture. This demonstration was photographed by the Jingwu Association in Shanghai.

Her time in Japan was probably the happiest period of Qiu Jin’s adult life.  Yet good things never last.  She left Japan in protest after the Japanese (under pressure from the Chinese) began to crack down on student radicalism.  Before she did she managed to join a number of radical organizations including a chapter of a Triad that was mostly dedicated to the violent overthrow of the state (in addition to salt smuggling and the other sorts of criminal activity), a revolutionary group called the Restoration Society  and Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary brotherhood the Tongmenghui.

Upon returning to China, Qiu Jin moved to Shanghai.  The city had a strong international flavor, a number of important female reformers and a lot of radical youth.  She wrote a number of pieces while in the city and helped to fundraise for a number of revolutionary causes through a variety of means including the blackmail of wealthy individuals.  However, she did not stay in the city, stating that she had not yet accomplished anything in her life.

In 1907 she and her cousin Xu Xilin were moved to Shaoxing by the Restoration Society (an anti-Qing organization established by Cai Yuanpei in 1904) where she worked with the Datong school.  In reality the school was an empty warehouse that Xu had used a few years earlier to store rifles, ammunition and explosives.  He had bought the material in Shanghai for an intended uprising in Zhejiang that was scheduled for the end of the year.

The Datong school was established as a front organization used to cover this activity.  At first Xu Xilin ran classes for local militia leaders on military tactics.  These classes were actually aimed at making contact with as much of the local area’s underground of secret societies, smugglers and martial artists as possible with the hopes of recruiting them.

Xu Xilin was later transferred to a police training facility in Anqing and Qiu Jin was brought in to work with a number of women’s groups at the school.  Ostensibly she was training these women to be physical education instructors, a job that she had no training for and probably never could have gotten without her local reputation as an eccentric female martial artist.  In reality she was preaching radical politics, recruiting operatives, teaching bomb construction, marksmanship and other military skills.

Like her cousin she was also supposed to reach out to the area’s underground to ensure as wide an uprising as possible.  Unfortunately Qiu Jin was highly cultured and lacked the common touch.  She had good relations with local triad bosses but was never able to penetrate down to the level of working crews on the street.  Even though by 1907 the entire region was a seething cauldron of social resentment, she was never successful when it came to reaching out to the poor or disenfranchised.

In view the revolution was always an act of will or volition carried out by a hero who had the means to step away from the dominant structures of society.  Paradoxically she was attempting to motivate the masses yet she had an elitist view of revolutionary action.  Her thinking on this issue makes better sense when viewed through a literary lens than a political one.  Almost by definition the successful hero or knight-errant is a special individual with a unique background.  He or she can accomplish their goal precisely because they are not like everyone else.  And yet the 20th century was the moment when the masses were finally dragged onto to the stage of history.  In the final analysis it is not hard to understand why her efforts failed.

Qiu Jin never managed to keep a low profile.  This made running a violent terrorist cell slightly more complicated than it otherwise had to be.  She antagonized the local towns-folk by riding her horse through town and dressing in men’s clothing.  Further, her public training of women to use rifles at her school raised more than just eyebrows.  It actually led to multiple official searches of the school in 1907 prior to the final confrontation with the authorities.

In reality Xu Xilin and Qiu Jin were poor field operatives.  Both were aggressive, and willing to take risks, but they had no ability to read the local situation and gauge public reactions to their overtures.  They assumed that the Qing state was weak when in fact it was quite strong locally.  They assumed that the population would follow them when in fact it was a highly conservative group of peasants.  They assumed that they had control of the criminal underground when they clearly did not.  They misread the local situation so badly that they never even realized that they had a problem.  Things were set to go badly, and go badly they did.

On July 6, 1907, prior to the planned uprising, Xu Xilin’s cover was blown.  He and a small group of radical police officers attempted to fight off the Qing forces but they were ultimately captured.  Under torture Xu Xilin revealed the full extent of the planned conspiracy and was summarily executed.

Qiu Jin was caught unawares by these developments.  She and her cousin had never succeeded in building any sorts of communication infrastructure within their revolutionary organization.  She first guessed that she had been compromised when she read about Xu Xilin’s execution in the newspaper.

One suspects that gorilla warfare experts would say that she should have regrouped, headed into the hills, and waited for another opportunity to stage the uprising.  But she did not.  Once again, her own personal performance of martial values took precedence over actually accomplishing her military and political goals.  Xu Xilin and a handful of loyal students stayed at the school knowing full well that their position would be overrun, they would be arrested, tortured and executed.  And that is exactly what happened.  It is hard to see her decision as anything other than suicidal.

Of course suicide has a long history in political and social protest.  Women in particularly unhappy marriages in traditional China might commit suicide as a way to publicize their plight and bring unwanted official attention and social disgrace to their families.  Qiu Jin’s death certainly brought a lot of unwanted attention to the Qin government and their heavy handed tactics for the maintenance of law and order in Zhejiang.

I am not quite sure that this metaphor totally fits.  While her actions were clearly calculated to end her own life, she did not do the deed herself.  Instead she quite literally attempted to go out shooting.  What she sought, and what she wanted to be remembered for, was the valor of hero who laid down her life for the cause.  Ever the wandering-swordsman her final act was a silent indictment of all of those who did not rise up against their oppressor.  With her final act she was saying “If I, a woman, can do this, why not you?”  It was one last act of political theater, and it worked brilliantly.

Qiu Jin became a cause celeb as soon as news of her death hit the newspapers.  Even the most conservative members of the local establishment were getting increasingly wary of Beijing’s heavy handed tactic, and the public execution of a woman of good social standing was simply too much to tolerate.  Those who did not believe her guilty (and there were many) saw this as yet another injustice heaped upon the people by alien rulers.  Those with a better understanding of the situation understood that she was probably guilty, but were appalled at the way the entire thing was carried out.  She was such a vibrant and memorable figure that stories about her exploits, many of them highly exaggerated, started to circulate almost immediately upon her death.  To China’s revolutionary students she became an icon, a saint and an inspiration.

On a political level her death decimated much of the same group of officials that she had sought to depose through violent means.  Her case was discussed at the highest levels in Beijing (never a good thing).  The local officials and everyone who had been involved with her capture and execution were drummed out of office, their careers destroyed.  The local magistrate, who ironically actually had nothing to do with her execution, was forced to commit suicide.

Many martial arts masters of the 1920s-1940s claimed exaggerated revolutionary pedigrees in an attempt to promote their art.  In a sense this is totally understandable.  The idea of the 1911 revolution was a lot more popular in 1920 (with the upheaval and disruption of that period already mostly forgotten) than it was in 1907, when much of the country actively opposed such steps.  Qiu Jin is fascinating because she was the real deal.  Not only did she talk the talk, but she walked the walk.  And she did both with an elegance that was both fascinating and electric.

There can be no doubt that in her revolutionary career she was playing out the scripts of social justice and reform found in the classic stories of wandering swordsmen and warrior princesses like Hua Mulan.  One simply cannot understand Qiu Jin without at least attempting to contextualize her in larger field of Chinese martial culture.  There is also no doubt that her life helped to inspire the next generation of sword maidens stories that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s popular Kung Fu literature.  I suspect that for someone like her there could be no better memorial.  Of course if you disagree with me on that point you are free to visit the small museum that the Chinese government has constructed in her home town.

Qiu Jin remains an important figure in Chinese revolutionary and martial lore. Here she is reimagined in the 2011 film “Woman Knight of Mirror Lake.”

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists: Qiu Jin—the Last Sword-Maiden, Part II.

  1. Fantastic article! I was wondering if you can provide any scholarly references for your article? I am writing an essay as part of my University degree about the perception of martial arts in the West and would like to include some information about Qiu Jin. Thank you for your time.

    Posted by Mae-Lin Leow | August 18, 2014, 9:12 pm
    • Hello,

      Here is an excerpt from the first half of that article that talks about some scholarly sources. Before delving into this I should say that there are a few different literatures that touch on her life. Japanese scholars of Chinese history paid attention to her before just about anyone else. Also, she seems to be discussed in literary circles as well, though I admit that I don’t know much about her poetry.

      “Yamazaki Atsuko’s 2007 volume “Shu Kin Kaen No Hito” contained a brief but helpful discussion of her childhood exposure to, and training in, martial arts.

      Perhaps the most reliable discussion of Qiu Jin’s life and revolutionary career in the English language literature can be found in the writing of Mary Backus Rankin. In 1975 she published a conference paper and book chapter titled “The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch’ing: the Case of Ch’iu Chin.” The piece appeared in “Women in Chinese Society” (Stanford UP, 1975) edited by Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke. Also valuable is the discussion of Qiu Jin provided on pages 85-93 of Jonathan D. Spence’s “The Gates of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and their Revolutionaries 1895-1980.” Penguin. 1982.

      In addition to these sources you will probably also want to check out:

      Ono Kazuko’s “Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution, 1850-1950.” Stanford University Press (1989).

      If you are looking for a very solid scholarly source on the perception of the Chinese martial arts in the west during the current era (post 1970s), I would suggest Paul Bowman’s book “Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon through Film, Philosophy and Popular Culture.” (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2013). While focusing on Bruce this book will give you a very solid theoretical foundation to discuss your subject from a cultural studies perspective (if that is what you are looking for).

      Let us know how your paper turns out. Its a very interesting subject.

      Posted by benjudkins | August 18, 2014, 10:25 pm

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