Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Wednesday, January 05, 2022

The Last Sword Maiden of China


Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea, regarding the life and times of Qui Jin, the last sword maiden of China. The full post may be read here.

Qiu Jin (November 8, 1875- July 15, 1907) is perhaps the most interesting martial hero to emerge from Southern China in the early 20th century that almost no-one in the west has ever heard of.  Even in martial arts and political circles I get mostly blank stares when I mention her name.  She is better known among the small circle of scholars that study gender or revolution in modern China.

The situation is all the more puzzling as she is far from forgotten in either China or Japan.  The Chinese consider her to have died a martyr to the 1911 revolution and a substantial body of folklore and legends have grown up around her life.  The government has even built a memorial and small museum in her honor.  Her life has also been the subject of a number of scholarly treatments in Japan.  These focus both on her revolutionary exploits and her poetry, some of which was quite accomplished.

Most of the best scholarship on Qiu Jin is actually published in Japanese.  I spent a semester going through it with a Japanese graduate student and the exercise was interesting.  However, its probably not necessary if one’s main interest in Qiu Jin is the martial arts aspect of her career.  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.

Qiu Jin is an important figure to understanding both emerging Chinese nationalism and feminism in the late Qing period.  Her literary output needs to be better researched.  Also interesting is how her background in Chinese Wuxia novels and martial culture conditioned her behavior as a revolutionary.  Clearly we need a comprehensive English language biography on this figure.  While that is beyond the scope of any blog-post, it is possible to summarize what we know of her life and military career and to ask some thoughtful questions that might stimulate future research.

The Life of Qiu Jin: Feminist, Revolutionary, Poet, Terrorist, Martial Artist.

Qiu Jin was born in Xiamen, Fujian Province, in 1875.  She was born to a mid-level gentry family that might have enjoyed a very comfortable existence, except of course for the decline of the Confucian trained bureaucracy that accompanied the end of the Qing regime.  Her family was relatively rich with degree holders, though not all of them got the best postings.  Her great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother all held various positions within the government, but her father never rose much above the level of local secretary even though he was probably a Juren degree holder.  As a girl she grew up at the family estate in Shaoxing in Zhejiang.  While she lived in number of places including Beijing and Japan, Qiu Jin repeatedly returned to northern Zhejiang and seemed to have considered the area home throughout her far ranging career.

Rankin points out that the family’s educational background was probably critical to Qiu Jin’s later development and unorthodox outlook on life.  Far from being stifling or overly conservative, the family seems to have been part of a minority Confucian school of thought that saw women as being capable of moral development, ethical behavior and excellence in education.  While by no means universally held, gentry families from this school tended to educate their daughters and even encourage their artistic pursuits in the areas of writing, literature, poetry and painting.  This certainly appears to have been the case with Qiu Jin who proved throughout her revolutionary career that, while she was perfectly happy to even engage in violent struggle, her pen was the sharpest weapon of all.

Qiu Jin seems to have been indulged by both her parents and other male family members.  Her feet were bound as a child, but not very tightly.  She is remembered as having an uncommonly active and athletic childhood.  She learned to ride a horse, to shoot a bow and at least some sword play.  She is also said to have developed the ability to drink prodigious amounts of alcohol. (see Rankin 46 also Yamazaki).

Swords would play a reoccurring role, both in her life and literary work.  As an adult student in Japan, Qiu Jin is said to have carried a short sword and was even photographed with a long knife.  Other individuals remember her training with, or talking about, swords as an adult after her return to China.  How much of this was learned in her youth is open to interpretation, and there is not a lot of really detailed information on her early martial curriculum.

So, was Qiu Jin studying the “martial arts?”  From the point of view of a modern American reader the answer would probably be no.  There is not much here that we recognize.  She had no “style,” no “school” and no official and much beloved teacher.  There is no evidence that she ever studied unarmed combat of any kind, and the thing that seemed to illicit the most comment from her contemporaries were her skills on a horse.

Yet from the point of view of those around her Qiu Jin certainly was certainly studying the martial arts.  A family such as hers lived and died by producing young men who could pass the civil service exam and maintain the family’s place in the gentry-class.  Yet such clans rarely placed all of their eggs in a single basket.  While the civil-service exam was much more prestigious, the state also ran a military-service exam.  This system provided much of the nation’s officer corp.  These were also important jobs that paid a steady income and provided some social status.

The military service exams expected their students to have mastered the basic Confucian library but to also be familiar with a number of military texts including Sun Tzu.  Practical aspects of the exam included archery, horsemanship, strength and the ability to perform sword routines, often with blades of different weights.

Qiu Jin’s extended family was attempting to prepare some of their male children to take the military service exam and so they were teaching these skills.  Indeed, her cousin Xu Xilin (later a fellow revolutionary) spent most of his career at the margins of military and law enforcement circles.  Qiu Jin was indulged and allowed to study these more active subjects with her male peers even though these things traditionally lay outside the realm of propriety for female members of the gentry-class.

It is not really clear how seriously Qiu Jin took this training or what sorts of skills she actually achieved (though by all accounts she was an accomplished rider).  What was most interesting to the local community was that she was doing these things at all.  It is also known that as a literarily talented child Qiu Jin immersed herself in the tales, stories and novels of the “Rivers and Lakes.”  She was enchanted with stories about bandits and heroes who sacrificed themselves for the nation.

I suspect that from her point of view these novels were, in fact, the true heart of the matter.  To her the martial arts were not simply a style or a set of techniques.  Rather they were a set of philosophical commitments and a way of life.  To be a martial artist was to be a person who exhibited the qualities of martial valor.  These norms were very much at odds with the Confucian worldview that surrounded her, and they helped to shape much of her revolutionary career.  For Qiu Jin to be a “martial artist” was to live the life of a wandering swordsman.  She called herself a “revolutionary” because that was the terminology of the time and indeed, a revolution was brewing.  Yet what she really seemed to seek was justice on a personal scale.

For her, to be a martial artist was to be a “revolutionary.” Yet her definition of the later term has always seemed to her critics to be oddly primitive and apolitical.  She had no specific agenda or set long term goals for the state.  It seems that in Qiu Jin’s mind a “revolutionary” was simply a western gloss on the beloved knights-errant of her childhood reading.

Scholars have not fully grasped the degree to which Qiu Jin’s “revolution” was a sort of political-theater in which the military values of the heroic side of Chinese culture were scrupulously observed and performed.  Many of the more paradoxical elements of her life, such as her penchant for cross-dressing or her near suicidal death (in which she allowed herself to be captured knowing that she would be tortured and executed) can be better understood within the context of late 19th century martial novels and plays than most historians to date have realized.  Early 20th century feminist thought or western politically radical literature actually provides little guidance in these areas.

 

 

 


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