Women in Tianjin, 1898-1911

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A review of Beauty and A Broken City: Women and Their Publicity in Tianjin, 1898-1911, by Vanessa Qin Fang.

As Vanessa Qin Fang’s dissertation demonstrates, both Qing bureaucrats and social elites at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Tianjin recognized the painful reality that the city where they had wielded political power, developed social networks, and built commercial wealth for centuries had collapsed. The age of order, peace, and prosperity had come to an end as a result of internal rebellions and the ongoing onslaught of foreign invasion and investment. Administratively, only a fraction of Tianjin was under the Qing government’s direct rule and the rest was governed by several independent foreign concessions. The urban economy was reeling from the devastating Boxer Uprising and foreign occupation. Social dislocations were just as grave and dispiriting as the administrative fragmentation and the crippled economy. Bankrupt peasants in surrounding counties flocked to Tianjin in search of a lucky break from abject rural poverty, a job, and scraps of the city’s wealth, but ended up in the ranks of menials, gangsters, beggars, and prostitutes. Political and social leaders responded to the crises with sweeping reform efforts, large and small, that aimed to industrialize the economy, revamp school curricula, and restructure administrative institutions after the Western model. But these reform measures, bold as they were, achieved limited effects in terms of saving the declining dynasty and relieving ordinary people from their immediate plight. Against this backdrop of dynastic crisis and vigorous reforms, Fang seeks to gender-ize these monumental processes by investigating the role of women in the remaking of urban social, cultural, and moral geographies in Tianjin. She asks: How did women participate in these reform movements and in the process make themselves both subject and object of the discourse? How did lower-class women make sense of reform efforts that claimed to enlighten their cultural life, improve their material life, and offer them protection from sexual exploitation? How did men come to terms with women’s growing publicity in the urban space where their legitimacy as workers, educators, social activists, entrepreneurs, and actresses found constant resistance from men?

The dissertation is topically structured and divided into three thematic sections, each of which consists of two chapters and focuses on one area in which women found themselves standing at the center of the powerful storm of reform. Chapters 1 and 2 seek to identify and dissect the various agents and agendas behind the intense anti-footbinding movement in Tianjin. Fang shows that, beneath the “single motto and a monotonous voice of ‘opposing the [footbinding] practice’ (p. 26),” there were a motley crew of crusaders. The Western male politicians of foreign concessions and missionaries conceptualized the movement in the framework of colonial enterprise. To them, Chinese women’s mutilated bodies symbolized the Chinese deficiency and stupidity that could only be cured by Western science and Christian messages that were to be delivered by a group of paternalistic foreigners home-based in the concessions. Western women, mostly spouses of foreign diplomats and social workers affiliated with missionary societies, also played a vital role, as they not only made a personal commitment to the anti-footbinding cause but also encouraged powerful Western males in Tianijn and beyond to play a more activist role in this social and gender issue. Chinese bureaucrats and social elites jumped on the anti-footbinding bandwagon, but sought every opportunity to “indigenize” the discourse and promote a nationalist and statist agenda. Fang argues that Chinese male leaders often felt uncomfortable when sitting together with (especially) Western women in public and discussing this issue that was so intimate to the Chinese female body and familial politics. They “subtly challenged and resisted the theory of an advanced Western civilization” (p. 49) and justified the anti-footbinding movement by invoking concepts from the Chinese classics — “the traditional Confucianism on the completeness of human bodies as a means to demonstrate the filial piety to parents” (p. 79). Women’s unbound feet represented an enlightened Chinese mind and demonstrated people’s readiness to rebuild the Chinese nation.

If the anti-footbinding movement attempted to make Chinese women physically fit for the larger national salvation, the educational reform at the time, as Chapters 3 and 4 demonstrate, intended to ensure that women were culturally and mentally ready to embrace social activism and new urban life. Unlike the “talented women” in late imperial China who received classical education in cloistered home compounds under the instruction of private tutors, women at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Tianjin could attend schools in public. The educational reform resulted in something new on the urban scene: new career opportunities that drew educated women from the culturally advanced lower Yangzi River Delta to fill vacant teaching positions in Tianjin, a growing population of young single women earning their own wages and moving with considerable independence through the city, and a new sense and practice of sociability as women established peer networks to serve their professional and emotional needs. Female teachers and students’ publicity nevertheless challenged the traditional gender order that was based upon separation of sex in public space and therefore was criticized by cultural conservatives. New schools reacted to these criticisms by prescribing a rather strict code of conduct to discipline their students’ behaviors. Female teachers, an outspoken force who avidly promoted the feminist course of social reform, were careful about gender propriety as well. Even though they socialized with male colleagues and friends at schools and theaters, female teachers tended not to interact with them privately.

Chapters 5 and 6 shift the focus from upper- and middle-class women to those who struggled near the bottom of the social ladder in Tianjin. Fang reveals that dynastic crises took their toll on household economy and familial relationships. Men found it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain their commitment as the family’s breadwinner; and without the financial security from men to which they had grown accustomed, women had to learn to support themselves with productive, reproductive, and sexual labor. Due in large part to the rise of urban entertainment industries and lower-class consumers’ demands for cheap forms of amusement, performing professions became an outlet for women who struggled on the edge of subsistence. While actresses profited from performances and pursued their cultural stardom, the fact that they capitalized on their sexual appeal to make a living served as an alarming reminder of moral decline. Yet, Fang contends that actresses had grabbed public attention not just by showing their bodies in an erotic way in public; they intentionally redefined their public image and improved their social status by participating in events such as charitable performances. Practicing social activism helped them cast off the stigma that tended to eroticize and demoralize women’s performing profession.

Fang’s dissertation captures several forces that greatly altered the social and cultural landscapes of late Qing and early Republican Tianjin: dynastic decline, national social reforms, the commercialization of urban entertainment, and foreign invasions. Crises and reform movements underscore what Fang calls “the global-local network” — the interplay between global currents such as colonialism, social liberalism, evangelical Christianity, and industrial capitalism on the one hand, and local politics and power networks on the other. In this regard, Fang complements her thesis with the works of Ruth Rogaski, Meng Yue, and Janet Chen who all have successfully situated the study of Chinese history in the global flow of ideas, capitals, and practices. And by placing women at the center of her inquiry, Fang shows the creative and controversial ways in which Chinese women in one city interpreted Western cultural practices. Her inquiry is based on the study of a range of women’s groups in Tianjin, from Western women, Chinese female teachers and students, to lower-class actresses. Their stories remind us that urban experiences and womanhood were gender as well as class specific. Vanessa Qin Fang’s dissertation has advanced our understanding of the processes through which women shaped modern Chinese cities and the ways in which their lives were redefined by a tumultuous time of crises and reforms.

Zhao Ma
Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History and Culture
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Washington University in St. Louis
zhaoma@artsci.wustl.edu

Primary Sources

Dagong bao [L’Impartial] (newspaper)
Ying Lianzhi xiansheng riji yigao [The posthumous manuscript of Mr. Ying Lianzhi’s diary] (diary)
Funü shibao [Women’s Times] (newspaper)
Jinbao [Newspaper of Tianjin] (newspaper)
Minxingbao [Newspaper of People’s Aspirations] (newspaper)
North China Herald (newspaper)
Peking and Tientsin Times (newspaper)
Renjing huabao [People’s Mirror Pictorial] (magazine)
Chongxiu Tianjin fuzhi [The revised version of Tianjin Gazetteer] (gazatteer)
Shibao [Times] (newspaper)
Shuntian shibao [Shuntian Times] (newspaper)
Xinghua ribao [Awakening China Pictorial Magazine] (magazine)
Xingsu huabao [Enlightening Customs Pictorial Magazine] (magazine)

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota. 2011. 299 pp. Primary Advisors: Ann Waltner and Edward Farmer.

 

Image: “Training at a Tianjing Girls’ High School” printed in Yangliuqing ca. 1920-1930, Trustees of the British Museum.

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