Poetry Leads To Execution
A handful of villagers watched in horror as Qiu Jin was brutally executed. Beheaded at the age of 31 in her home village of Shanyin after she was charged with the crime of writing two inflammatory poems. Her death shocked the nation.
Jin was the revolutionary woman whose day job was a school principle. A woman who believed in equal rights and started a feminist magazine.
She pushed for women to pursue work in education, find jobs and become financially independent. Her heroic stance would lead to her eventual death. Today, she is fondly celebrated as China’s Joan of Arc and a symbol of women’s independence.
A life coerced
Traditionally raised, Jin’s early life involved the usual routine of school, horses and doing what she was told.
Like many young women in China, Jin was forced to wrap her feet in tight cloth to prevent them from growing larger. A painful and debilitating practice. She was also forced into marriage at the age of 21.
“Unbinding my feet, I clean out a thousand years of poison,
With hot heart arouse all women’s spirits.” — Qiu Jin
Jin hated her husband. She would often write that he treated her as ‘less than nothing’. Her self-confidence was shaken and her desire to become a recognized poet waned under the pressure of her conservative and profit-oriented in-laws, and her talentless wastrel husband.
She spent as much time as she could in her first love of reading and writing. China itself was undergoing a major transition. 1896, the year of Jin’s marriage was the 300th year of the Qing Dynasty. Many wanted to see a change and revolution hung in the air.
The final straw broke in her marriage when her husband decided a brothel trip with his mates would be better than a family trip with the wife. In 1903, Jin did the unthinkable. She left her husband and two children.
She sold her jewelry, bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo, Japan and moved by herself to a foreign land. She was all-in. In Japan, she joined several secret societies all with the same agenda — to overthrow the Chinese government and the restoration of the Han government.
She was steadfast in her opinion that change couldn’t happen until men and women were equal. She admired Hua Mulan, the famous Chinese heroine who had dressed as a man in order to enter the Chinese military.
So enamored was Jin with Mulan, she took to learning martial arts and wearing men’s clothing. She also took to wearing a sword and called herself ‘Jin Xiong’ which translates as ‘able to compete with men’.
“My body cannot
Join the ranks of men,
But my mind is
More spirited than a man’s.
Never inflamed by other people’s influence.
What vulgarian can recognize me?
Heroes in despair endure suffering.
Where in the vast red dust can I seek a true friend?
My dress is damp with tears!”
— Qiu Jin
Time to move
Soon, the revolutionary ideals were being implemented into practice. The students living in Japan were calling for action.
There were two trains of thought among the students. Those that believed that revolution could only occur in China with action taken on home soil, and those who felt more work should take place in Japan to prepare for an eventual uprising. Jin was firmly in the ‘go home and take charge’ camp.
A meeting took place of the Zhejiang students where Jin was responsible for the Province as a member of the Revolutionary Alliance. At the meeting, Qiu allied unquestioningly with the former group and thrust a dagger into the podium, declaring, “If I return to the motherland, surrender to the Manchu barbarians, and deceive the Han people, stab me with this dagger!”
In 1906, alongside 2,000 students, Qiu Jin returned home.
“Don’t tell me women are not the stuff of heroes.” — Qiu Jin
She wasted no time in setting up the first feminist magazine of it’s kind in China. She also worked closely with her cousin Xu Xilin to help unify radical activist groups.
Having already created a manifesto in Japan, Jin was determined to bring about the revolution that would end women’s oppression to the patriarchy. Her manifesto, entitled ‘A Respectful Proclamation to China’s 200 Million Women Comrades’, she wrote about the effects of bound feet and forced marriage.
Detrimental harm was being caused to women in order to please men and society as a whole. A better future for women lay under a modern government instead of the Qing monarchy.
Jin wanted to share her ideas with as many people (and women) as possible. The only problem was that women were uneducated and couldn’t read.
Instead, Jin delivered her thoughts through energetic speeches. She was a brilliant orator and spoke with passion about women’s rights and the need to end the subjugation of women.
China Women’s News (Zhongguo nü bao), a radical women’s journal published with another female poet, Xu Zihua was shut down by the Chinese authorities in 1907. By now, Jin had been appointed the principle of Datong school in Shaoxing. It was heralded as a school for sport teachers, but in reality it was to become a school for the military training of revolutionaries.
In July of that year, fellow comrade Xu Xilin was caught by the authorities before a scheduled uprising in Anqing. Xilin was tortured and confessed to many of the crimes charged at him. He would also reveal names of his comrades that included Qiu Jin.
Six days later, Jin was arrested and sent for confession. Jin withstood the torture and refused to admit any involvement in the uprising planned at Anqing. Instead, the authorities used her own writings as incrimination against her and, a few days later, she was publicly beheaded in her home village.
Her official crime was writing two inflammatory poems. Documents found in her home had incriminated her as a nationalist and feminist revolutionary. She was 31. Her final words, in poetic form, were:
“Autumn wind, autumn rain — they make one die of sorrow.”
The Revolution of 1911 saw the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. It was a revolution that transformed China. Four years after her death, change had finally come. Sun Zhongshan (also known as Sun Yat-Sen), the founder of the Republic of China, delivered an elegy praising her as ‘jinguo yingxiong — female hero’.
As Jin said: “The young intellectuals are all chanting, ‘Revolution, Revolution,’ but I say the revolution will have to start in our homes, by achieving equal rights for women.”