Let History Talk!

March 14, 2017
By Liu BohongEditor: Amanda Wu
Let History Talk!

Liu Bohong, a professor at China Women's University [Women of China English Monthly]


Interesting Question 

Some time ago, I was visited by a foreign friend. And we discussed women's employment in China's labor market. At the end of our discussion, he asked me if I was willing to answer a question, which was unrelated to the issue of employment. I agreed. He then asked me to name the five women whom I most admired in China's contemporary history. I told him the women were: Qiu Jin, Wu Yifang, He Zehui, Yang Chongrui and Gong Peng

The interpreter, who did the translation for the visitor, was a thirty-something Chinese youth. Having heard my answer, the interpreter asked me, in surprise, "Professor Liu, how come I didn't hear about any of the five women?" I asked the interpreter, "Do you know Wang Fei, Carina Lau and Zhao Wei (each a singer or actress)?" The interpreter answered, "Yes." We both laughed. Then, I briefly talked about the five heroines.

Five Heroines 

Qiu Jin (1875-1907) was a famous revolutionary during the late Qing Dynasty (1840-1911). She studied Chinese history and poetry when she was young, and she was also good at horse-riding and archery as a man was in those days. In 1896, to obey her father's will, she married Wang Tingjun, who was from a wealthy family. The couple moved to Beijing in 1900, right after the invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance soldiers. Qiu witnessed the grave situation that confronted the Chinese nation, and the corruption of the Qing government. So, she decided to devote herself to saving the nation. 

In 1904, she broke through the constraints of her feudal family, and moved to Japan where she studied — at her own expense. She joined the revolution to fight the Qing government in her effort to save the Chinese nation. Using a pen name, Heroine of Jianhu Lake Qiu Jin, she wrote several articles, including A Letter to 200 Million Chinese Women Compatriots and Warning My Compatriots, through which she advocated gender equality, and promoted the revolution against the Qing Dynasty. She joined the Restoration Society and the Chinese Revolutionary League successively as part of her effort to gather more revolutionaries.

In 1906, after she returned from Japan, she taught at all-girls' schools in Shaoxing and Huzhou. Later, she started revolutions in various regions along the Yangtze River. In 1907, she established a Chinese Women's Newspaper in Shanghai. She called on Chinese women to become revolutionaries and forerunners of civilization. That same year, Qiu returned to Shaoxing to arrange her mother's funeral. After that, she prepared to lead an uprising against the Qing government. But she was arrested on July 13, 1907, after she was betrayed by a traitor. On July 15, Qiu, who was just 32, was executed by Qing government in Shaoxing.  

Wu Yifang (1893-1985) was a renowned educator. She graduated from Jinling Women's University in 1919, and she received a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Michigan, in the United States. She served as principal of Jinling Women's University from 1928 to 1951, during which time she cultivated many talented students. In 1945, at the time when the United Nations was founded, Wu was the only woman representative in the Chinese delegation, and she was the first woman to sign the United Nations Charter, and she was one of the five women who attended the UN conference in the world.   

Before the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, Wu declined Soong Mei-ling (wife of then-Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek)'s request for her to be the Minister of Education of the Kuomingtang government and rejected the flight ticket to Taiwan as well. She chose to stay with the faculty and students at Jinling Women's University, to welcome and help build New China. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, she served as the head of Jiangsu's Department of Education, and as vice-governor of East China's Jiangsu Province, where she was in charge of education. She scored outstanding achievements in education, and her students also made impressive contributions to the nation. She was a truly great educator. Wu died at the age of 92, with her relatives and students around her in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, on November 10, 1985.

He Zehui (1914-2011) was an outstanding atomic physicist. She was born into a prominent family. Her grandmother, Xie Changda, was the founder of Suzhou Zhenhua All-Girls' School. She graduated from that school in 1932, and she was, in the same year, admitted to the Department of Physics of Tsinghua University. After she graduated from Tsinghua University in 1936, He Zehui went to Germany where she studied ballistics with the ambition that China would be able to make artillery, so it would never be invaded or bullied. She obtained a Ph.D. in engineering in 1940. 

Then she moved to Paris, France. She worked at the atomic nuclear chemistry lab, at the Institute of France, led by Irene Joliot Curie and her husband, Frederic Joliot Curie. In 1946, she discovered the four-split phenomenon of uranium nuclear fission, which created much of a stir in the international scientific community. In 1948, He Zehui and her husband, Qian Sanqiang, a nuclear physicist, returned to China, where they established a physics research institute. She supported Qian as he conducted atomic-bomb and guided-missile experiments.

He Zehui served as deputy director of the High-energy Physics Institute, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and she was responsible for developing nuclear-emulsion detectors. She established a neutron physics lab and a cosmic-ray-observation station, and she conducted research into aerostat and high-energy astrophysics. In 1980, He Zehui was elected an academician of CAS. Beginning from 2005, then-Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited her six times successively. He Zehui died at the age of 97, at Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing, on June 20, 2011.

Yang Chongrui (1891-1983) was an educator in medicine and a pioneer in China's maternal and children's healthcare causes, and she was an educator of midwives. After she graduated from Peking Union Medical College, with a Ph.D. in medical science in 1917, Yang began working at Peking Union Medical College Hospital. She mainly dealt with puerperal fever and neonatal tetanus. In 1925, she was admitted to Johns Hopkins University in the United States, to study gynecology and obstetrics. After she returned from the US, she established Beijing No. 1 Midwives' School, in 1929, and Nanjing Midwives' School in 1933 with an aim to popularize midwifery in China. 

In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) invited Yang as an expert in women and children's healthcare, and she served in that capacity under the United Nations. After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, she quit her well-paid job at the UN and returned to China. She was received by then-Chairman Mao Zedong and then-Premier Zhou Enlai. She was appointed the first director of the Department of Women and Children's Health Care, under China's Ministry of Health. Putting her own feelings aside, she devoted her life to advocating birth control, and to promoting the healthcare of China's women and children for 60 years.

Gong Peng (1914-1970) was among the first generation of women diplomats in New China. She participated in the December 9 Movement (a students' movement to protest Japan's aggression) in Beijing in 1935, and she joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) the next year. After she graduated from the History Department of Yenching University in Beijing, she went to Yan'an in 1938, where she served as secretary at the Eighth Route Army's headquarters. She was then transferred to the army's office in Southwest China's Chongqing. Under the leadership of one of the then-CPC leaders, Zhou Enlai, she became the first speaker of the CPC. Gong impressed foreign journalists with her fluency in English, careful thoughts, tactful reactions, strong faith, graceful manners and elegant appearance. 

After the People's Republic of China was founded, she served as assistant to the foreign minister and director of the News Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She accompanied Premier Zhou to the Geneva Conference in 1954, and again in 1960. She also accompanied Zhou during his visit to 14 countries in Asia and Africa in 1964. She met many foreign leaders and she also made many foreign friends. She was a prominent diplomat and journalist. She died in Beijing in 1970.

Discussion and Reflection 

In China's contemporary history, there were many heroines, like the above-mentioned five women. They were not confined to women's traditional role of taking care of family, and they made brilliant achievements in male-dominated fields, such as politics, foreign affairs, media, science and education. They were admired for their unprecedented accomplishments. It is so sad that young people nowadays know little about them, even though it hasn't been a long time since they passed away.

The power of example is boundless. We need examples, especially in the process of realizing both the Chinese Dream and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is pathetic if a nation does not have examples. It is pitiful that people of a nation only regard movie and television stars as examples. My purpose for writing about these women in this column is to call for the Chinese nation to advocate true heroes, especially heroines. The progress of the Chinese nation, and all humans, requires tens of thousands of pioneers like the five women mentioned above.

The author is Liu Bohong, a professor at China Women's University.

(Source: Women of China English Monthly November 2016 Issue)

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