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  • Writing Qiu Jin's Life:Wu Zhiying and Her Family Learning*
  • Hu Ying, Associate Professor of Chinese Literature

Preamble: The Burial of Qiu Jin (and of Wu Zhiying)

In February of 1908, two women took the initiative to give a proper burial to their friend Qiu Jin (1875?-1907), beheaded six months earlier for attempted insurrection against the Qing empire.1 The ensuing memorial service, which drew a crowd of several hundred, became a forum for public protest and was duly registered as such by the government. Within the year, Qiu Jin's tomb by the West Lake was razed and the two chief mourners, Wu Zhiying and Xu Zihua, found themselves on the government's wanted list. After the success of the Republican Revolution four years later, Qiu Jin quickly became a celebrated revolutionary martyr. Today, her story still appears in patriotic educational texts for young readers, her image often visible on stage and in films.2 So much symbolic significance is invested in the singular figure of Qiu Jin that in historical accounts of Chinese women's progress, she often functions as a "transitional figure" par excellence: a history of women of traditional China typically ends with her while a study of modern women begins with her. It is as if alongside her the last of "talented women" (cainü) was buried and through her the New Woman (xin nüxing) was heralded in. [End Page 119]

The present study shifts the focus away from Qiu Jin and onto one of the two chief mourners in her shadow, Wu Zhiying (1867-1934). Wu wrote five biographical essays on Qiu Jin against the rapidly changing cultural and political backdrop of the last four years of the Qing and the first year of the Republic. Proclaiming herself the rightful heir to her "family learning"—the Tongcheng tradition—Wu re-interprets the classics such as the Shiji and the Yijing to legitimate Qiu Jin's participation in the public arena. Highly self-conscious of her own historical intervention, Wu Zhiying yet chose a path considerably different from the one taken by her friend Qiu Jin. Precisely because of this difference, her case offers an alternative construction of meaning from the more familiar one associated with Qiu Jin and the rise of the New Woman.

While one might say that the name of Wu Zhiying was kept in history because of her connection with Qiu Jin, it was rather a mixed blessing. This connection tends to obscure significant aspects of her life unrelated to Qiu Jin, such as her 1906 championing of the "women citizens' donation" for the Boxer's Indemnity debt (nüzi guomin juan), her donation to the women's army during the 1911 Revolution, and her 1912 letter to Yuan Shikai reprimanding his imperial ambition. In addition, the comparison with Qiu Jin was not always favorable to her: in fact, the higher Qiu Jin's stock grew, the lower Wu's sank. As Qiu Jin was increasingly represented as an extraordinary revolutionary hero in later history, Wu Zhiying became the negative foil, or in Guo Moruo's caustic words, "the pecking swallow" who could not possibly comprehend "the great aspirations of the magnificent roc."3

This negative picture may be traced to a particular self image that Wu Zhiying publicized in the aftermath of Qiu Jin's execution, a self image that may be said to give rise to others' unwitting or willful misrepresentations later. In a memoir of Qiu Jin written days after the execution and published barely three months later, Wu recounts a dialogue after Qiu Jin's return from Japan in 1906:

From time to time, I [Wu] would caution her, saying: 'Your words are too shocking. Please be more circumspect. . . . Should a border official mistake you for a woman revolutionary, what then?' She [Qiu] laughed, 'There is a difference between revolutionary and revolution. Of course you of all people know that I'm not the sort of New Youth revolutionary.'4 [End Page 120]

Later citation of this conversation typically changed Qiu Jin's answer into "How do you know I am not a revolutionary?" thus portraying Qiu Jin to be a self-declared anti-Manchu...


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pp. 119-160
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