Women, Gender, and Philanthropy in Modern China


A review of Reconfiguring Traditions: Gender, Philanthropy, and Public Life in Early Twentieth Century China, by Xia Shi.

It is a testament to the significance of Xia Shi’s dissertation that I have already recommended it to several well-intentioned undergraduates. It is too easy to contrast stereotypes of Chinese wives and daughters, oppressed by a patriarchal society, with Modern Girls with bobbed hair, books, and boyfriends. Xia Shi’s research fills an under-appreciated gap in our understanding of the changing place of women in Late Qing and Republican China. She shows us that in the early decades of the twentieth century women in China could simultaneously be both progressive and traditional. Indeed, the social impact of the women who Shi calls the traditional taitai married women who embodied traditional Chinese ideals and relationships, and yet who increasingly mobilized progressive charitable activity beyond their household domain – seems to have been at least as great as the more-studied New Woman. Moreover, for Shi’s taitai the balance of these traits did not constitute a paradox or a conflict of interest. Rather, who they were was how they got important things done.

In an effective analytical move, Xia Shi sees traditional practices as transformed by China’s transition to modernity, rather than eliminated or erased by time. The dissertation’s chapters proceed chronologically, exploring traditional elite women’s emergence as prominent participants in the field of charity and philanthropy. These women were prominent in their day, but, as Shi argues, their significant contributions have since been obscured by a history that emphasizes the demise of tradition. As Shi astutely writes of these women: “We are more familiar with their stereotypes than with their actual lives” (p. 9) and “…‘backward taitai …voices [were] silenced and their philanthropic activities forgotten.” (p. 21) Each of the project’s three two-chapter sections explores how traditional wives and daughters transformed a different arena.

In the first chapter, we meet guixiu women stepping (on bound feet) beyond the boundaries of their homes to raise funds for disaster relief. The traditional endorsement of women participating in good works, as well as the new organizational opportunities afforded by modern newspapers, made women’s new public fundraising in teahouses, exhibition halls, theatres, and marketplaces conceivable. Shi describes women not only out in public, but speaking in public. Motivated by traditional humanitarian goals, the public actions of traditional women politicized them. But, at the same time as traditional women grew bolder, more visible, and socially active, they also became the object of ridicule for thinkers following Liang Qichao. The value of literate women’s accomplishments as readers and practitioners of Confucian learning was further disparaged by New Culture and May Fourth era critics. Shi identifies the first national effort by guixu women as the establishment of a disaster relief bureau in 1890. While some relief efforts met with praise, women who ventured into the public realm to fundraise also risked opprobrium.

In 1907, the women of the newly founded Chinese Women’s Association publicly sold their paintings of refugees in Beijing’s Liulichang market to raise funds for flood relief in the Huai River basin. Xia Shi describes how this fundraising made women activists vulnerable to scandal. But scandal was just one way in which female activists sacrificed to raise funds for their causes. Shi also explores the suicide of a Manchu woman named Huixing. This young widow killed herself in order to shame donors into contributing funds to her school. Xia Shi skillfully illustrates how Huixing’s subsequent martyrdom mobilized women around China to establish schools and to become activists themselves.

The lives of Liu Qingxia and Madame Xiong Xiling form the core of Shi’s second chapter. Through the biographies of these two distinguished woman philanthropists, Xia Shi portrays their transformation from socially conscientious guixiu to progressive citizen activists. The chapter follows Liu Qingxia to Japan and through her first exposure to politics (through her brother). It then traces Liu Qingxia’s frustration with her late husband’s clan, as they attempt to thwart many of her charitable activities. Madame Xiong turns out to have been much more than the great woman behind the great man; Xia Shi demonstrates the truth behind James Yen’s description of Madame Xiong as “the man behind the gun.” (p. 82) Madame Xiong was a “charming Chinese lady” (p. 81) who put both elite Chinese and Westerners at ease as she worked to forward her philanthropic agenda and her husband’s career. Together the couple founded one of Beijing’s most important children’s homes. Shi provides a list of Madame Xiong’s impressive titles (p. 88) in a wide range of spheres – but perhaps her greatest contribution was her role in shaping James Yen’s Mass Education Movement. In Shi’s words, Madame Xiong provided the movement’s “long term vision and the organizational power.” Her networks and charisma drew in the essential cash to keep the movement afloat. In both the case of Liu Qingxia and Madame Xiong, this dissertation provides an examination of women who shaped the most significant political movements of their day – these women did not confine themselves to famine relief and soup kitchens, rather, their efforts touched the heart of nationalist organizing, railroad rights recovery, Red Cross medical outreach, education, and revolution.

The second part of the dissertation explores women’s mobilization in the Young Women’s Christian Association, YWCA. Shi describes the growth of the organization, and the organization’s dual emphasis on social welfare and Christian outreach. In Chapter 3, Shi shows that the demographic of women engaged with YWCA work differed significantly from that in the west where the YWCA had been the province of young and single women. Chinese members of the YWCA were typically older, married homemakers. The organization sought to make a meaningful difference in the lives of traditional women by focusing on rejuvenating domestic space, offering social services and education in nursing, hygiene, and the historical role of women. City associations emphasized that Christian teaching constituted a significant motivation behind the YWCA’s social work and charitable activities. This helped with both domestic and international fundraising. The YWCA became closely involved in supporting Madame Xiong and James Yen’s Mass Education Movement. Xia Shi brings us inside this collaboration, showing the deep impact that YWCA classes had upon disadvantaged working women. The chapter links the YWCA’s joint efforts with women working in urban industry to rural education campaigns. Shi’s most revealing contribution here is the important ways in which traditional married women set the priorities for the Chinese YWCA’s social agenda in both the city and the countryside.

In Chapter 4, Shi shows how the YWCA learned that effective fundraising in China required following local social customs. Recruitment could be challenging. Establishing indigenous leaders sometimes required patience, as Edith Wells found “usually their first calls made little progress.” (p. 152) Husbands could refuse to let their wives and daughters meet with YWCA representatives. Xia Shi introduces us to Madame Zuo, the wife of Zuo Zongtang’s fifth son, and, in the words of western YWCA colleagues, an “illustration of the old and the new mingling together.” (p. 142). Madame Zuo’s encounter with the YWCA brought her from one role, as a matriarchal leader in her family, into another, as a social benefactor in her Changsha community. Interestingly, non-Chinese YWCA organizers seem to have admired the Zuo family’s unequivocal rejection of Christianity and loyalty to deep Confucian principles. Madame Zuo herself proved quite resilient – she was able to continue her social efforts decades into the Communist period. Shi portrays the determination of recruiters, the ambivalence of some women and the enthusiasm of others with great care throughout the chapter. Overall, the picture we get is one of highly adaptable, enthusiastic women, eager to use their personal relationships and guixiu networks for good ends. Local women reminded foreign recruiters and fundraisers to be tactful when fundraising, and offered insight about Chinese customs. Through local advisors, the YWCA learned to time social outreach and fundraising efforts around traditional social occasions like marriages and births. Domesticity played an important role as well: As western and Chinese YWCA women learned to cook from each other, they took advantage of the time while cookies and cakes baked to socialize and strategize. The “Cooking Institute” (and other similar social events) proved a great success.

In the third part of the dissertation, Xia Shi presents a contrast with the YWCA in the form of indigenous “redemptive societies.” She introduces the Shandong-based School of the Way, or Daoyuan. In their efforts not to be branded as “superstitious” organizations, indigenous Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian groups (like the Daoyuan) tried to model their institutions and activities on the Christian church. These groups also sought registration with the Beiyang government to protect themselves from anti-suspicion campaigns. Charity was the public face of a “modern” religion. Bringing Chinese religion up to date in this way felt essential to local religious leaders hoping to compete with Western Christian organizations.

In Chapter 5, Shi analyzes sacred texts produced by the Daoyuan as well as the exhortation of Daoyuan deities and in the society’s publicity magazines. Within the Daoyuan, the Red Swastika Society invoked indigenous ideas of benevolence and employed the ancient practice of accumulating Buddhist merit to motivate women’s activism. Charity, as Xia Shi effectively shows, was a more acceptable expression of Buddhist or Daoist devotion than anything that might appear “superstitious” to a newly critical government. The chapter captures the syncretic combination of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism that constituted the Daoyuan’s religious foundation. The Daoyuan made explicit efforts to modernize prescriptive gender concepts like the “four virtues” and the “three followings” and to praise and cultivate women’s inherent inner benevolence (ren). Redemptive society women were less well off and not as educated as most YWCA members. But, as with the Christian YWCA, the Daoyuan understood proper conduct for women to involve domesticity, frugality, and diligence in cooking and sewing (p. 195), and like the YWCA, women were exhorted to demonstrate their virtue through social outreach.

Chapter 6 provides concrete examples of the Daoyuan’s charity in action, and shows how the society depicted its own deities as urging women to abandon superstitious activities. Charity became the primary mechanism for demonstrating devotion. Natural disasters provided the occasion for such demonstrations. Women could redirect their superstitious tendencies productively by engaging in charitable outreach. Furthermore, the Daoyuan provided a means for publicly quantifying their good works. At meetings women meditated, made clothing, and organized pledge drives for relief supplies. The women of the Daoyuan lived more insular lives than the women of the YWCA, but for them as well, charity offered an opportunity for social interaction and community outreach.

Xia Shi convinces us not only that “philanthropy lies at the heart of Chinese women’s history,” (p. 21) but also that throughout the Republican period charitable activism provided a lifeline to connect networks of traditional women across China. These women’s contributions kept revolutions afloat and refugees from starving, and yet their efforts have until now been overshadowed by Republican historiography that prefers to remember the Modern Girl and the New Woman rather than traditional guixiu and taitai.

Johanna Sirera Ransmeier
Assistant Professor of History
University of Chicago

Primary Sources

Wenshi ziliao
Archives of the YWCA
Qingdao Municipal Archive and Shandong Provincial Archive
Oral History Interviews

Dissertation Information

University of California Irvine. 2013. 253 pp. Primary Advisors: Kenneth Pomeranz and Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

Image: Zhu Qihui (Madame Xiong) and her husband Xiong Xiling, ex-premier of China, at their school (Xiangshan Children’s Home) in the Western Hills, Beijing, in Seton-Thompson, Grace Gallatin. Chinese Lanterns, New York: Dodd, Mead and Co, 1924, p. 276.

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