A Mother, A Daughter, and Women’s Liberation in Turn-of-the-Century China

“There have been many men who died for the revolution … but we have not heard of a woman yet, an embarrassment for all of us women,” wrote Qiu Jin, a feminist and revolutionist against the Qing Dynasty, in a letter to a friend.

On Sept. 14, Professor Ying Hu of University of California, Irvine, held a lecture at Hahn Hall at Pomona College on the famous Chinese revolutionist and feminist's pursuit of self-independence and relationship with her family under the context of May Fourth Movement era, and her daughter, Wang Canzhi.

Before the lecture began, several Pomona students shared their own reasons for going to the lecture.

“Four of us are from the East Asian Gender Feminism, and our professor strongly recommended us to come to the lecture today,” Eugine Choo PO ’19 said. 

“We are currently learning about the May Fourth Movement and its relationship with women’s liberation. Qiu was an important figure during that era and I hope to see some of her writing works during the May Fourth Movement, and figure out the academic writing styles,” Laurel Hilliker PO ’18 said.

Professor Hu began the lecture with the play “A Doll's House,” in which the female character Nora Helmer decides to leave her family in order to pursue her own independence. Professor Hu then introduces Qiu by comparing the similarities between the Western feminist and Eastern feminist, both of whom are expected to be wives and mothers. 

“Different from other young women who are ‘allowed to have’ the right to pursue their love and freedom, Qiu seemed to be restricted by her identity as a mother,” Professor Hu told TSL.

The ideology of the May Fourth Movement is to prompt young women to challenge the tradition of arranged marriage imposed by their parents and pursue their own careers and educations. However, “the May Fourth Movement doesn’t mention the freedom of married wives,” Professor Hu said. “It is very immoral for a married woman to leave her family and [abandon] her children for her own sake.”

In reality, Qiu did choose to leave her family in 1904 to receive Western education in Japan. In 1905, she joined the anti-Qing group Tongmenghui, led by Sun Yat-sen to rebel against the Qing Dynasty, who ruled China  at the time. After returning from Japan, she visited her family in Hunan once a year, but she never reunited with the family again. She was captured and beheaded by Qing rulers in 1907. 

Qiu’s death poses a huge influence on her daughter Wang, who strives to become a good daughter and promote her mother’s ideas.  

Growing up without a mother's care, Wang had a pitiful childhood. After her father sent her to be raised by family friends, she was sent to her grandmother, who strongly favored her brother, due to the general affection of boys over girls. 

Wang strived to show filiality to her mother for her entire life. Filiality is an important connection between parents and children in China. Obedience, emulation and sacrifice toward parents are all reflections of filiality. However, Wang didn’t have many chances to learn from her mother in person, obey her wishes, or make sacrifices.

Wang was conflicted because she tried to be a filial daughter when there were no models for her to follow. She had to find a way for herself.

Unlike many Chinese women during that time, Wang decided to petition funds from the government to study in the U.S. and Japan. In 1928, she went to New York University to learn about the manufacturing of aircrafts and aeronautics. She came back to China in 1930 and became China’s first female pilot. 

In New York, Wang met her mother in a dream. “In swaddling clothes, I was parted from my mother, until last night suddenly her spirit came to me in a dream, telling me the events of her sacrifice of yesteryear. [Waking] up, my clothes soaked red with tears of blood.” 

In this poem, Wang expresses her longing for her mom while in New York. Like her mother, she made a brave decision of going to a foreign country to receive modern education., She also chose the most adventurous career for women at that time, a pilot. Even without her mother’s company, she always tried to approach the image of an independent woman, as her mother advocated. 

During the lecture, Emily Dillemuth PZ ’18 asked, “Did Canzhi ever complain about her mother’s absence in her life?” 

“Contrast to what some people might suspect, Wang never complained about her mum’s absence in her life and she never use a disrespectful word towards her mother in her writing, partly because of the moral restriction that children cannot show any disrespect to parents,” Professor Hu answered.

It is hard to tell what exact emotions Wang had for her mother. But from her writing and her pursuit of modern education and career choice, we can tell that Qiu’s spirit deeply played a positive role in Wang life, prompting her to strive for her own freedom as a person, instead of only a wife devoted to household. 

After the lecture, Samuel Fiske CM ’21 shared his feelings towards the lecture. “I am taking elementary Chinese course and my Chinese teacher suggested me to come to the lecture. It is so fascinating to see the parallel relationship between Western feminism and Eastern feminism,” he said. 

Fiske also appreciated that more Asian women have pushed against traditional gender roles in academic fields. “The number of working class women in Japan has increased dramatically in the professional field, and probably exceeds the Western standard,” he said. 

Choo ended the discussion saying, “for me, feminists don't necessarily need to be an activist in a feminism constitution. It is more about the small actions or steps you are taking to improve things, like the the social relationship around you everyday.” 

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