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A feminist poet and revolutionary, Qiu Jin refused to compromise her dreams for liberation, becoming a symbol of – and hero to – modern China.
Qiu Jin was born into a China on the brink of collapse. In 1875, the country had suffered two back-to-back conflicts on its own soil. Collectively referred to as the Opium Wars, they had rapidly undermined the ruling Qing Dynasty, which had been in power since 1644. Opium is a highly addictive substance -- one try and you're hooked -- which made dealers rich. But the traders were mostly British and French, and their importation of opium from India into China was largely illegal.
The widespread addiction caused by the opioid crisis resulted in serious social and economic disruption. So Chinese rulers moved to officially ban the drug in an attempt to curb illegal trade. But the French and British weren’t having it. In the wars that followed (1839–42; 1856–60), these foreign powers gained control over five Chinese ports and forced the government to pay huge costs in war reparations. In addition, Britain claimed the island of Hong Kong for its own.
The Qing dynasty would ultimately fall in 1912. In the meantime, the Chinese economy, and people, were completely dependent on opium. Poverty rose unabated. Those Chinese who attempted to reform their people and society were betrayed and executed by government officials fearful of losing power who were easily corrupted by the foreign squatters.
The daughter of a bureaucrat, Qiu Jin grew up in foreign-controlled port towns. She learned to read, growing up on a steady diet of the great Confucian classics, and to write poetry as she bore witness to the deleterious effects of the drug trade. She saw with her own eyes the masses of poor living, and starving, in the streets as rich foreigners built grand homes tucked behind tall brick walls.
Jin begged her mother to let her learn martial arts. But in Chinese society, Jin's gender made this impossible. Women were expected to marry young, usually by arrangement not love, and to be subservient to their husbands. Jin was married off at the age of 21. Her husband gambled, caroused, and was indifferent to politics and the ills plaguing his society. Jin hated him. In her poetry, she dreamed of the day she would exchange her "woman's headdress for a helmet."
By 1903, she'd had enough. She pawned her jewelry and bought a third-class ferry ticket from Shanghai to Tokyo. Japan had become a haven for idealistic young Chinese with revolutionary aspirations. It also offered education to women.
Because females were not allowed to travel alone, Jin boarded the ferry dressed as a man. She liked her new garments, and continued to wear them once in Japan. She gave herself the name "Jingxiong," meaning power, and took to carrying a katana sword. She studied and practiced martial arts. She gave lectures on gender equality and attended lectures on revolution. Speaking and writing in a vernacular that could be understood by most Chinese, she published articles against foot binding, the ancient practice of hobbling women's feet. It was difficult to walk on bound feet, much less run away: the ultimate symbol of male power over women in China.
In 1905, alarmed by the growing radicalism of Chinese exiles, the Japanese government banned them from "engaging in politics." That's when Jin decided to return to China. "Up to now, a lot of men have already died" for the cause of revolution in China, she wrote upon leaving. "But not many women have." She was ready to give her life, if necessary, for the future of her country and people.
Qiu Jin installed herself in the Yangtze Valley where she founded a women's magazine, called China Women's News (Zhongguo nü bao), in which she encouraged wives to liberate themselves from the economic slavery of marriage. She also opened a school for girls, ostensibly to teach sports, but where she and her allies secretly prepared to overthrow the Imperial government. Their activities attracted the attention of government spies, who watched them like hawks circling their prey.
In 1907, on the eve of their first rebellion, Jin's allies were betrayed. Jin received warning that soldiers were on their way to arrest her. She urged everyone to flee, but she refused to go herself. She was ready to give her life for the cause.
On July 12 no fewer than 300 soldiers arrived to arrest China’s first feminist and female revolutionary. Despite being brutally tortured, Jin refused to answer questions or sign a confession. On July 15, she was beheaded. She was 32 years old.
Four years later, the Chinese Revolution of 1911 led action that would eventually overthrow China's last imperial dynasty and establish the Republic of China.
Qiu Jin’s brave death in the fight for Chinese independence made her a hero of modern China. Her vocal struggle for women's liberation continues to inspire Chinese women today; her poems and essays are widely read. A woman before her time, Qiu Jin brought to light issues in gender inequality that still seem timely. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero and why we're proud to honor her this Women's History Month 2018.