Politics, Poetics, and Gender in Late Qing China
Xue Shaohui and the Era of Reform
Nanxiu Qian



1. Fuzhou

2. Shanghai

3. Ningbo

4. Jiangning [Nanjing]

5. Guangzhou

6. Tianjin

7. Beijing

8. Baoding

9. Shanhai Pass

10. Taiwan

11. Dinghai

12. Lüshun

13. Yalu (aka Dadonggou )

Nos. 1–7 numbered following the sequence of Xue Shaohui’s travels.

Nos. 8–13: Other important locations.

Map I.1. Important Locations in Xue’s Life and Intellectual Networks

SOURCE: Nan Bei yang hetu (Coastline along the East China Sea) (Wuchang: Hebei guanshuju, 1864), LOC website,, accessed 1 May 2012.

The heavens marked the birth of Xue Shaohui (zi Xiuyu, 1866–1911) as an extraordinary event (Figure. I.1). When she was born on 18 October 1866 into the scholarly Xue family in the Houguan district of Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, her impoverished parents already had two daughters and one son. Prepared to give her up for adoption, her father, Xue Shangzhong (d. 1877), an adept of astrology, divined the future of the newborn and was astonished at the result: “This girl surpasses a boy!” he exclaimed. “She will pass down our family learning. How can we abandon her!”1 This family legend reflects the valorization of the “writing-women” culture in the Min (Fujian) region of southern China. This culture, discussed at length in Chapter One, would not only play a crucial role in fashioning the reformist thinking of Xue and many of her female colleagues but also become a source of intellectual conflict because not all reformers viewed the concept of talented women favorably.

Equally significant for Xue was the birth of another “baby” at about the same time and in the same place: the Fuzhou Navy Yard (Fuzhou chuanzhengju), China’s first, fully fledged modern naval arsenal, and its affiliated Fuzhou Naval Academy (Fuzhou chuanzheng xuetang), both scheduled tobe built in Mawei, about ten miles from Xue’s front door down the Min River (Map I.2). The founders of this project, the Fujian-Zhejiang governor-general Zuo Zongtang (1812–85) and the future director-general of the navy yard Shen Baozhen (1820–79), began their planning of the yard and the academy in the summer of 1866.2 Although the construction of the campus would not begin until early 1867, Zuo and Shen’s “desire to cultivate China’s new naval men” was so strong that in February 1867, before the Mawei site was ready, the academy opened its doors to students.3 Xue Shaohui’s future brother-in-law Chen Jitong (1852–1907), also from a Houguan scholarly family, was among the first students enrolled. Jitong’s younger brother Chen Shoupeng (1857–ca. 1928) would later, in 1873, attend the academy and graduate in 1879. He would then wed Xue in 1880.

Figure I.1. Portrait of Xue Shaohui (1866–1911). (Xue Shaohui, Daiyunlou yiji.)

Xue’s marriage to Shoupeng tied her life not only to the Chen family but also to the social, political, and intellectual networks that centered on the Fuzhou Navy Yard. These connections placed Xue in the middle of a complex interaction between the Min writing-women culture on the one hand and the Fuzhou Navy Yard culture on the other—an interaction occasioned by the late Qing response to the unprecedented challenges of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This multifaceted cultural environment would shape Xue’s intellectual development in fundamental ways by introducing Western knowledge into her transformation from a traditional Chinese writing-woman into a reformer.

The book in hand examines the late Qing reforms from the perspective of the talented and prolific woman writer Xue Shaohui and the reform-minded members of her various social and intellectual networks. This approach is intended to show that the reform movement involved much more than a few vanguard males who had only political and military concerns and that the reform era spanned a much longer period than the “Hundred Days” of 1898. Xue’s networks included her family members and their associates, a wide circle of highly literate Chinese men and women living in and around the strategic cities of Fuzhou and Shanghai, influential scholars in Nanjing and Beijing, and even Western missionaries. They participated in, and responded to, important events or movements of the day: the Self-strengthening project, the Sino-Japanese War, the Hundred Days, the Boxer Rebellion, and the New Policies of the early twentieth century, which included the constitutional movement. Through this study, I hope to bring out the long-ignored roles of women reformers and their male collaborators in late Qing sociopolitical and literary history, presenting a picture that differs substantially from the conventional historiography of the reform era.

1. Fuzhou prefectural office

2. Minxian (SE) and Houguan (NW) districts

3. Fuzhou Navy Yard and Academy (in Mawei)

4. Min River

5. Changle county

6. Fuqing county

7. Gutian county

8. Minqing county

9. Lianjiang county

10. Luoyuan county

11. Pingnan county

12. Yongfu county

Map I.2. Fuzhou Prefecture and the Fuzhou Navy Yard

SOURCE: Chen Yan, Min-Hou xian zhi, juan 3, map 1.

My book consists of two parts. Part One (Chapters One through Three) introduces the early years of these future reformers, most of whom emerged, literally as well as metaphorically, from a marriage between the traditional Min writing-women culture and the newly minted Fuzhou Navy Yard culture. This joint venture allowed them access to an unprecedented knowledge base that combined information derived from both Chinese and Western sources, making them acutely aware of the rapid changes taking place in China and in the world, and offering them a wide range of choices regarding social, political, and literary reforms. Part Two (Chapters Four through Eight) recounts the activities of these major yet largely forgotten reformers, relying primarily on their poetry and prose and their translations of Western history, literature, and science. These writings, especially Xue Shaohui’s works, provide us with a rare and valuable set of documents that shed new light on the reform era from a variety of angles. An analysis of the works of these reformers also allows us to trace their mental journey within the larger framework of late Qing sociopolitical transformations. My goal, in short, is to view this formative period of Chinese history through the multiple lenses of Xue and her colleagues, women in particular. Examining the late Qing reforms from the standpoint of these largely overlooked perspectives will, I believe, enhance and refine our appreciation of the complexity and creativity of this extremely important but incompletely understood period in modern Chinese history.

Rethinking the Late Qing Reforms from a Gender-Network Perspective

The 1898 reform movement was a crucial watershed in late Qing history. Nearly four decades earlier, in response to what Li Hongzhang (1823–1901) described as “the biggest change in more than three thousand years,”4 the Chinese government had inaugurated a “Self-strengthening” (ziqiang) movement. It was designed to deal with the dual problems of “internal disorder and external calamity”—domestic uprisings such as the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) and the acceleration of Western imperialism after 1842. Following China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, reform sentiment moved from the technologically oriented “foreign affairs” (yangwu) program of the Self-strengthening era to a call for more profound changes in Chinese politics, social life, economics, and culture. Almost “all the younger members of officialdom and the gentry,”5 both men and women, participated in this new stage of reforms, shaping China’s future through elaborate negotiations between Chinese and Western traditions (often filtered through Japan’s modernizing experience in the Meiji Restoration era, 1868–1912). In the process they also attempted to transform the conventional scholar class into a new breed of Chinese intellectuals.

Until the 1980s, modern Chinese historiography portrayed the 1898 reforms as an abortive hundred-day attempt at “bourgeois” (an extremely misleading label) political change and dismissed the ensuing decade as a period in which the alien Manchu regime shamelessly tried to prop itself up with half-hearted and ineffective “New Policy” (Xinzheng) campaigns.6 Western scholarship, for its part, was overwhelmingly shaped by what Paul A. Cohen terms the “three conceptual frameworks—[Western] impact-[Chinese] response, modernization, and imperialism”—all three of which, in one way or another, introduced what he describes as “Western-centric distortions into our understanding of nineteenth- and twentieth-century China.”7 Moreover, Chinese and Western scholarship has focused mainly on political and military concerns, represented by a few leading male reformers such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929), leaving the ideas and activities of most other reform participants largely neglected.

The role of women in the late Qing reforms has been particularly overlooked. Although a number of Chinese and Western scholars have acknowledged that the liberation of women was indeed a goal of at least some late Qing reformers, most have emphasized the “progressive” outlook of a few prominent male leaders rather than focusing on the ideas and actions of women reformers themselves. Such scholars have also tended to view women’s liberation in the late nineteenth century primarily as a reaction on the part of nationalistic Chinese men to Western criticisms of practices such as footbinding, which literally crippled half of China’s elite and hence symbolized China’s backwardness.8 Viewed in this light, the “patriarchal nationalism” of the leading male reformers created the persistent impression that Chinese women were “to be liberated for and by the nation,” but they were not to be active agents in shaping it.9

Thus in discussing women and gender issues, Tang Zhijun’s History of the 1898 Reforms (Wuxu bianfa shi) (1984) focuses almost exclusively on the ideas and actions of men, in particular their pleas for women’s equal rights and their leadership of the anti-footbinding movement.10 In Wang Xiaoqiu’s otherwise valuable collection of conference papers commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the Hundred Days, The 1898 Reforms and the Reform of Modern China (Wuxu weixin yu jindai Zhongguo de gaige), not a single contribution is devoted solely to women’s issues, much less to their roles in the reform movement itself.11 Even Wang Zheng’s pathbreaking Women in the Chinese Enlightenment, “the first major study of the development of Chinese feminism” in the New Culture era,12 names only male advocates of “women’s emancipation in the late Qing period”—primarily Kang Youwei—in identifying the predecessors of May Fourth feminism.13

The past two decades have witnessed increasing scholarly interest in the late Qing reforms. Some individuals in China have perceived certain affinities between the 1898 reforms and the pragmatic policies of the post-Mao era—especially the complex and somewhat uneasy relationship between reform-minded intellectuals and the Chinese state. These perceived similarities have spurred Chinese scholars to more nuanced reevaluations of the role of intellectuals in initiating political change.14 Western scholars, too, have given renewed attention to the late Qing reforms, fueled by a “general scholarly interest in modernity, post-modernity, and new social science theories,” and “new ways of looking at Chinese nationalism and state-building.”15 Methodological approaches have changed as well. Growing dissatisfaction with “Western-centric distortions” has moved many European and American scholars toward “discovering history in China,”16 that is, rethinking old paradigms of understanding. Scholars have also chosen to abandon the “linear, teleological model of enlightenment history” in favor of a more authentic and nuanced rendering of historical processes, one that takes more fully into account the “complex transactions between the past and the present.”17

As a result, studies of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China have increased in both number and sophistication over the past decade or so. Nonetheless, there are still large gaps in our understanding of the late Qing reforms. Works on the subject in China still tend to focus on leading male reformers such as Kang and Liang, although they now give some attention to their “conservative” male opponents.18 A conference commemorating the 110th anniversary of 1898, organized by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Chinese People’s University and held in Beijing on 11–12 October 2008, reveals the tenacity of this gender bias.19 Although the expansion of archival research has brought to light the reform activities of a growing number of women, related works still portray them mostly as followers of men.20 What needs to be more fully explored and interpreted are contributions by women reformers, as well as how their ideas and actions interacted with those of their male counterparts, and how together they embarked on the process by which China’s scholarly elite transformed their country, their culture, and themselves.

Recent Western scholarship on the late Qing reforms, underscoring the complexity of this historical moment and its importance in shaping China’s modern history, has, however, become increasingly sensitive to the roles of women and to gender relations. Take, for example, the excellent collection edited by Rebecca E. Karl and Peter Zarrow, Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period. The three gender-focused essays in this volume demonstrate effectively “how discourses on the ‘female,’ the ‘nation,’ and the ‘modern’ were fraught with contradiction from the very beginning in China.”21 But these essays all focus on the post-1898 period when, Karl suggests, questions about the relationship between gender and nation were “first systematically raised.”22 The book in hand will nonetheless show that such questions were systematically raised and vigorously debated significantly earlier, during the heyday of the 1898 reforms. Also in Western scholarship, although “interest in postmodernism has spurred investigations into the plurality of modern society,” scholars “have made concerted efforts to direct attention to the contributions of groups other than the educated elite in society.”23 For individuals of this intellectual orientation, the ideas and activities of autonomous elite Chinese women in the reform era may not have attracted as much scholarly attention as they deserve.

Moreover, the persistence and pervasiveness of the May Fourth paradigm that depicted women in imperial China as “the oppressed subjects of a Confucian patriarchy”24 has discouraged scholars from considering women as active participants in the late Qing reforms. The “overwhelming popularity of the image of victimized women,” as Dorothy Ko points out, “has obscured the dynamics not only of relationships between men and women but also of the functioning of Chinese society as a whole.”25 To dispel the ahistorical bias that “mistakes normative prescriptions for experienced realities,” Ko argues that “historical studies of Chinese women must take greater account of specific periods and locales, as well as of the different social and class backgrounds of the women in question.”26 Ko has exemplified this approach in her pathbreaking Teachers of the Inner Chambers (1994), which looks at the lives of seventeenth-century women in the lower Yangzi River area (Jiangnan). Susan Mann has also focused on Jiangnan women in a pair of outstanding works: Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century (1997) and The Talented Women of the Zhang Family (2007). Embracing gender as a category of analysis and using women’s writings as sources, Ko and Mann demonstrate how a more nuanced focus on the lives of women in late imperial China reveals “the possibilities for fulfillment and a meaningful existence even within the confines the Confucian system imposed upon women.”27

Inspired by Ko’s and Mann’s approaches to writing the history of Chinese women, I have conducted my own research on late Qing literate women. This research clearly shows that these women were not merely passive objects of male concern waiting to be liberated from themselves, but rather active, optimistic, autonomous, and self-sufficient agents of reform. Their stories mark both a continuation with and a departure from those of their predecessors. Whereas seventeenth- and eighteenth-century elite women and men were “guardians of Confucian morality” and “shared many assumptions about Confucian virtue and its proper representation in women’s lives,” late Qing women reformers went beyond the inherited Confucian model in their quest for an ideal womanhood and an ideal social order.28 They thus directly challenged the “patriarchal nationalism” of the leading male reformers who championed reform primarily to achieve national “wealth and power” (fuqiang). Demanding equal education with men, women reformers wished to reposition themselves at home and, more importantly, in society at large. Their eventual ambition, as idealistic as it may sound today, was not simply to enrich and empower the Chinese nation but to unite women of all nations in an effort to create a just and harmonious new world. A study of their participation in and their contemplation of the events surrounding the 1898 reforms will fill out the picture of women’s history within the frame of a “specific period” and “specific locales,” offering us new perspectives from which to reexamine and rewrite late Qing history in general. The leading woman reformer Xue Shaohui and her reform-minded family and friends provide a dramatic and fascinating focus for this type of study.

Xue’s life journey, though brief, largely corresponded to the most eventful decades of the late Qing and took place in some of the most dynamic locations in the vast empire; she interacted with some of the most active reformers of her time, male and female, Chinese and foreign; and she wrote about virtually all the important political, social, and cultural issues of the day, literally chronicling the reform era. An outstanding poet, prose writer, and educator, she was “China’s first woman translator” and one of its earliest female journalists.29 In these capacities, Xue actively participated in the late Qing reforms and was a leading figure in the 1897–98 Shanghai campaign for women’s education. By virtue of her broad-ranging talents, ideas, and experiences, Xue serves as an ideal focal point for a multidimensional study of the reform period, allowing us to see more clearly than ever before the interactions between men and women, elites and commoners, the “inner chamber” and outer domain, and local gentry and central government officials.

Xue and her intellectual networks represented the role of “civilian” reformers outside Beijing, individuals who were not directly involved in the politics of the so-called Hundred Days at the capital, but whose ideas and activities reveal a great deal about the complexity and creativity of the last three to four decades of Qing China. This shift of perspective will show that the 1898 reform movement was much more than a power struggle between radical “bourgeois” reformers allied with a weak emperor on the one hand and reactionaries supported by a self-interested empress dowager on the other. It will also demonstrate that the late Qing reforms were far more than a simple and straightforward cultural conflict between Chinese “tradition” and Western-style “modernity.” Indeed, one of my primary goals is to dismantle the binary lenses that have too often distorted our view of Chinese history.30 The late Qing reforms, as this study will argue, had political, social, and cultural effects that went far beyond the Hundred Days in 1898, involving a far broader range of participants than is generally recognized, and exerting a more profound influence on the emergence of modern China.


All translations from other languages into English are mine unless otherwise stated.

1. Chen Qiang et al., “Xianbi Xue gongren nianpu,” in Xue Shaohui, Daiyunlou yiji, 1b.

2. For background, see Pong, Shen Pao-chen, 1, 107–33; and Lin Chongyong, Shen Baozhen, 241–82.

3. Pong, Shen Pao-chen, 226.

4. Li Hongzhang, “Chouyi zhizao lunchuan weike caiche zhe” (Memo on not abandoning the manufacture of ships) (20 June 1872) (in Li Hongzhang quanji, juan 19, 2:45a).

5. Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, 3:132.

6. See, for instance, Tang Zhijun, Wuxu bianfa shi, and Kang Youwei yu Wuxu bianfa. Both works present solid research, but they are framed by the typical conservative/reform and tradition/modernity binary paradigms. Standard PRC textbooks maintained this sort of narrative into the 1990s; see Li Shiyue et al., Zhongguo jindai shi, 233–73 for the 1898 reforms, and 369–83 for the New Policy reforms. This textbook received a first prize from the Ministry of Education.

7. Cohen, Discovering History in China, 3.

8. See Liang Qichao, “Lun nüxue,” Shiwu bao 25:2b; Lin Lezhi [Young J. Allen], “Zhuxing nüxue lun.”

9. Duara, “The Regime of Authenticity,” 298.

10. See Tang, Wuxu bianfa shi, 106–7, 203, 205–6, and 268–69.

11. See Wang Xiaoqiu, ed., Wuxu weixin yu jindai Zhongguo de gaige.

12. Dorothy Ko’s comments on Wang Zheng, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment, book jacket.

13. Wang, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment, 36.

14. See Ip et al., “The Plurality of Chinese Modernity,” 499.

15. Zarrow, “Introduction,” in Creating Chinese Modernity, 1.

16. The title of Cohen’s pioneering book, Discovering History in China.

17. Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, 4; see also Luo Zhitian, Quanshi zhuanyi, 8; Qian et al., eds., Different Worlds of Discourse, esp. the Introduction.

18. See, for instance, Luo, Quanshi zhuanyi, 115–60, on Hunan scholars Wang Xianqian (1842–1917) and Ye Dehui (1864–1927); Wang Yi, “Wuxu weixin yu wan-Qing shehui biange.”

19. See Wang, “Wuxu weixin yu wan-Qing shehui biange.”

20. Works generated from expanded research on late Qing women include Luo Suwen, Nüxing yu jindai Zhongguo shehui; and Xia Xiaohong, Wan-Qing wenren funü guan and Wan-Qing nüxing yu jindai Zhongguo.

21. Karl and Zarrow, “Introduction,” in Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period, 13.

22. Karl, “‘Slavery,’ Citizenship, and Gender in Late Qing China’s Global Context,” 212.

23. Ip et al., “The Plurality of Chinese Modernity,” 499.

24. Mann, Precious Records, 8.

25. Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, 4.

26. Ibid., 3, 4.

27. Ibid., 4.

28. Ibid., 9; Mann, Precious Records, 3.

29. On Xue as a translator, see Guo Yanli, “Nüxing zai 20 shiji chuqi de wenxue fanyi chengjiu,” 38.

30. See Karl and Zarrow, “Introduction,” Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period, 8. See also Qian et al., eds. Different Worlds of Discourse, for some case studies.