Xiang Jingyu (1895-1928) was a pioneer of the women's liberation movement, who founded China's national women's organization.
In the 1920s, Xiang Jingyu was engaged in the women's liberation movement, primarily in Shanghai, but also in Beijing (Peking) and Guangzhou (Canton). In charge of the publication "Women's Review," she was also instrumental in initiating public schools for girls and organizing working women. She united women of all social strata into the country's struggle for civil rights and founded the China Women's Federation, marking the start of a nationwide movement.
Xupu, where Xiang Jingyu was born, was a distant county 800 miles away from Changsha, the capital of the province. It was September 4, 1895, the last years of the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty, and China was deep in crisis. Weakened by over population and economic decline, the country was faced with an inability to halt the aggressive and expanding Western nations in the mid-19th century. While the ostensible causes of conflict were China's refusal to trade with the West, the struggle was really a collision of the traditional Chinese system and the modernizing West. The tendency to absorb all things Western prevailed throughout China. Born into a businessman's family, with four brothers sent to study in Japan, Xiang Jingyu was naturally influenced by these trends.
In her youth, she was especially close to her eldest brother Xiang Xianyue, a graduate of Japan's Waseda University and a member of Tung Men Hui (Chinese League), founded by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. With Xianyue's support, Xiang Jingyu became the first girl in her county who applied to enter a new type of school based on modern educational ideas. To continue her education, in 1908 she went to Changde, where she often read newspapers edited by revolutionaries and listened to her brother's opinions about the revolutionary activities of foreign countries. When only six or seven, Xiang Jingyu had been very attracted to a story about the legendary Chinese heroine Hua Mulan who had enlisted in the army, disguised as a man to replace her father, and had won awards for her brilliant military merits. As Xiang Jingyu grew older, she also became fascinated with the French revolutionary Madame Roland.
In 1911, in a garden doused with spring sunlight, Xiang Jingyu declared ties of sisterhood with her six fellow school-girls in a traditional Chinese ceremonial. The following vow was made: "We seven sisters are of the same will: to boost women's morale, to study hard, to fight for equality between men and women, and to save China by popularizing education." The vow gave testament to the status of Chinese women, who constituted half of the population: they had no opportunity for education and thus could not earn independent livings, making them reliant on men. It was apparent to some that, as the prosperity of the nation was based on well-rounded people from good families, and the center of a good family was the mother, it was necessary to enlighten women. Such women would serve as moral examples to others, would be concerned with state affairs, and would stand for revolution. By this logic, educated women were vital in the preservation of China. This theory, cherished by Xiang Jingyu until the age of 25, imbued her with persistence and courage.
In Changde, Xiang Jingyu was nicknamed Mo-tse, after the ancient Chinese philosopher, whom she highly regarded, believing that his theory of "multi-love" was equivalent to the Western concept of universal fraternity. Studying hard at Hunan Provincial Number One Girl's Normal School, she became one of the school's finest students. When vacations began, on the boat sailing home, she read and made notes in her cabin, only venturing out on deck for fresh air in the early morning. Strict standards of morale and behavior were self-imposed; she even criticized herself for "giggling following others" in her diary. As health was vital to study, she practiced physical training. In order to temper her will and focus her mind, she learned qigong, a traditional deep-breathing exercise. The character and ideals she acquired through study and self-cultivation, which were traditionally advocated by Chinese culture, encouraged her belief that it was her duty to rekindle China. Recognized by teachers as one of the three "excellent girls" in the school, she was known among schoolmates as a saint.
In 1916, Xiang Jingyu completed her study at Zhounan Girl's School and decided to return to her hometown and teach. At the time, however, the Xupu Girl's School existed in name only: the principal had long since resigned, school buildings had been swept away by floods, and teachers or pupils were nowhere to be found. Xiang Jingyu, then 20 years old, took over as principal. With financial support from her family and other donations, she renovated the ruined school buildings and gave her schoolmates priority as teachers. She wrote decrees for the county government urging parents to send their daughters to school and traveled into remote mountain areas to enlist female pupils. She also succeeded in liberating most of the girls in the area from the monstrous practice of foot-binding. The school was re-established, and the following year an exhibition featuring the school's achievements was held in the county town, making a strong impression on the community. Many of the school's pupils went on to higher education. Still, during this time, feudalism prevailed in China, and, among other things, conflicts arose because the school was not teaching classical Chinese literature. More embarrassing, the commander of the local garrison tried everything possible to marry her, although he was repeatedly refused. Unable to continue her career in Xupu, Xiang Jingyu heard of a work-study program in France. For this purpose, she traveled to Beijing, then returned to Changsha and organized the French work-study program in Hunan province.
On the ship sailing to France, she met Cai Hesun. Like Mao Zedong, Cai was also a well-known student leader in Hunan province and would later be one of the founders of the Chinese Communist party. Though both Xiang and Cai were known for their belief in celibacy, they fell in love and were married in France several months later. Called the "Xiang-Cai alliance," the marriage attracted much attention, as it represented the combination of two famous and influential persons. Since Xiang Jingyu's beliefs were greatly influenced by her husband, she now turned from democracy to Marxism. She no longer believed that China could be saved through cultural and educational methods, but that political struggle should be waged and that women could be liberated only through the complete reform of society. Thus, in France, she became a revolutionary.
In 1922, Xiang Jingyu returned to China and became the head of the women's department of the Chinese Communists. Based in Shanghai, she threw herself into the women's movement both in the south and north. With the help of women's rights organizations throughout the country, she actively encouraged women's participation in politics, girls enlistment in schools, the employment of women, the prevention of prostitution, and the protection of women worker's interests, etc. She saw the women's movement as more than a women's rights campaign, pointing out that in a country which had no universal human and civil rights, the women's movement did not mean wringing some rights out of men while ignoring the basic problems posed by a lack of civil rights.
Xiang Jingyu set a clear course for the women's movement in China. Believing that educated women were the backbone of the women's movement, she emphasized the importance of mingling with female students in colleges and universities to cultivate leaders for the women's movement. She also believed that the massive force of laboring women should form the nucleus of the women's movement, so she set up public schools for girls and night schools for working women. In addition, she led several women workers' strikes. Through her strenuous efforts, the women's movement in China changed its image; it ceased to be a movement for Christian women or privileged women of the upper classes and became instead a powerful, large scale movement that included all strata of Chinese society. In 1924, cooperation between Nationalists and Communists offered conditions for a united women's movement in China, and Xiang Jingyu became the head this movement in Shanghai. In November of that year, Dr. Sun Yat-sen went to Beijing and appealed to the government to hold the national assembly to formulate a constitution; soon thereafter, a movement appeared all over the country demanding the convening of the national assembly. This proved an opportunity for the energetic development of the women's movement. With the leadership of Xiang Jingyu, a Women's Federation for the Convening of National Assembly was established in Shanghai and similar acts were followed by women's organizations in all corners of the country. Xiang Jingyu proposed the formation of a united national women's organization, and the China Women's Federation declared its founding in 1925, signifying that the women's civil rights movement had taken on a nationwide scale.
In 1925, Xiang Jingyu and Cai Hesun's marriage began to falter and would soon be dissolved. That same year, the Communists dispatched her to study in Moscow. Returning in 1927, she was assigned to work in Wuhan. But in July, when the cooperation between the Nationalists and Communists collapsed, the Nationalists launched a massacre of Communists and left-wing Nationalists. Xiang Jingyu, who persisted in working under dangerous circumstances, was eventually arrested and killed the following year. She was 33.
Further Reading on Xiang Jingyu
Biography Research Association of CPC Personages. Biographies of CPC Personages. Vol 6. Shanxi People's Publishing House, September 1982.
Women's Movement History Research Office of All-China Women's Federation. History Materials on Chinese Women Movement (1921-1927). People's Publishing House, 1981.
Haozhi, He. Biography of Xiang Jinyu. Shanghai People's Publishing House, 1990.