School that helped girls 'hold up half the sky'

A distinct feature of a pioneer all-girl boarding school in Shanghai is that students were obliged to pay tuition fees by doing some sewing or other odd jobs in their spare time.

Two irons used by students of the Commoners’ All-Girl School more than 90 years ago.

Chinese women hold up half the sky, as Mao Zedong famously declared.

But it was not always like this. Until the 20th century, Chinese women were mostly confined to their homes, engaged in household chores and seldom did they go into politics.

Nowadays, women are well represented in this country’s legion of lawmakers, political advisers and business people.

All this change perhaps owed its origins to events in the early 1910s and 1920s, especially to the Second National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1922. This congress, which came on the heels of the first national congress that marked the birth of the CPC, was no less significant.

Specifically, the second national congress witnessed many “firsts” for the CPC: its first democratic revolutionary principles; its first Party Constitution; the first time the CPC decided to join the Communist International.

On July 16, 1922, 12 top CPC delegates descended on a stone-gated shikumen house near what is now Old Chengdu Road N. In the week thereafter, these people representing 195 comrades from different provinces discussed issues like how the Party should be organized, led and governed in accordance with its own precepts.

Twin scourges

More important is their perception of the social situation: The republic founded by the Nationalists existed merely in name, while in fact China was a semi-independent feudal society. The twin scourges of Western imperialism and domestic warlordism are the root cause of Chinese suffering.

It was decided at the congress that the Chinese people could not rid themselves of misery unless they overthrew the tyranny of imperialism and feudalism.

The 12 people, however, were sober enough to know that an immediate socialist revolution was a “long shot.” On the contrary, a more plausible option would be to start a democratic revolution that was anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist in nature, as is claimed in one of the documents I came across during a recent tour of the memorial of the second national congress.

And social revolution is essentially about awakening women, youth and workers, urging them to stand up for their own rights. In the spirit of creating the right conditions for a democratic revolution, many activities and measures were carried out to advance the socialist cause, including, most notably, the introduction of a Commoners’ All-Girl School.

This is a two-story building that belongs to the shikumen compound that houses the memorial.

The moment one walks into the dimly-lit classroom on the first floor, with benches and desks arranged in the same order as they were more than 90 years ago, one is greeted by a line of handwritten words on the blackboard, “why do we call it a commoners’ all-girl college?”

This question basically encapsulates the purpose of the school when it was founded in 1922 — to achieve women’s emancipation and train female leaders for the Communist movement.

In the early days of the Republican era, women felt freer but still faced inequality thanks to the social strictures that remained largely in place.

Many teenage girls were denied access to education; some were simply turned away by high tuition fees charged for public or private schools.

Plan for all-girl school

To promote female literacy, in December 1921, Chen Duxiu and Li Da — two founding members of the CPC and delegates to its first national congress — began to conceive a plan for an all-girl school, which duly came four months later.

Pinning high hopes on this project, Chen wrote in one of his essays that “hopefully, the newly founded commoners’ all-girl school will be like a morning rooster at a tumultuous and dark time.”

No efforts were spared to educate those admitted. Reputable educators like Gao Yuhan, Chen Wangdao and Chen Duxiu himself taught there, and the subjects were diverse: Chinese, math, English, economics, pedagogy, sociology and so on. A distinct feature of this boarding school is that students were obliged to pay tuition fees by doing some sewing or other odd jobs in their spare time.

Since the Party was then operating under a tight budget, the monthly rent of the school was covered because of the generosity of Li Da, who donated his honorarium; and the desks and benches were also donated by other people.

As I sauntered through the exhibition rooms, stopping from time to time in front of the objects on display, I heard female visitors chatting as they pointed their fingers at the three tiny beds in a dorm of roughly 10 square meters. “How small it is, and how harsh living conditions were back then!”

Harsh they indeed were. Despite the financial difficulties, the school carried on for a year, before it shuttered in 1923. But among the some 30 students who studied there were a few personalities who later became famous female leaders and Party cadres, including left-wing author and activist Ding Ling, and Qian Xijun, the wife of Mao Zedong’s brother, Mao Zemin.

Qian is a typical example of how education can change a person’s fate. She had been betrothed as a child bride in rural Zhejiang. But after attending the all-girl school at the age of 17, she embarked on the revolutionary road and embraced a new life.

Besides female emancipation, early proponents of the Communist movement were also pivotal in spearheading a series of strikes by workers.

Between 1922 and 1923, there were more than 100 recorded strikes by Chinese workers, involving about 300,000 people. The ones with the most impact are the Anyuan, Kailuan and Jinghan Strikes. The reasons for these incidents are similar. Angry at how their demands for better pay and less atrocious working conditions were curtly rebuffed by intransigent capitalists, workers egged on and led by Communist cadres went on strike.

In Anyuan, they won, with the capitalists agreeing to most of their terms; in the Kailuan and Jinghan Incidents, their demonstrations resulted in a bloodbath. Scores of strikers were killed and hundreds more seriously injured by warlord troops and thugs paid by the imperialists.

Like a prairie fire

Despite the killings, the Communist-led workers’ movement spread like a prairie fire and demonstrations of a smaller scale became sporadic, leading imperialists and warlords to believe that the “benighted” folks were no longer at their mercy.

They used to quash rebellion through “divide and conquer” tactics, but now that workers were much better organized, their bonds of solidarity proved harder to break. For the first time in China’s history, the working class emerged as a political force to be reckoned with.

At the end of my tour, I watched as people filed out of the memorial. It was drizzling outside. Through the winter haze and clouds of steam from people’s mouths, I gazed at the plaque indicating that the Commoners’ All-Girl School is now a heritage site. The plaque had somewhat yellowed with age, but its content kept reminding me of scenes that unfolded on perhaps a similar drizzly day more than 90 years ago, when students read texts, recited poems and debated where their ravaged country was headed. Faint echoes of a distant past can still be heard.

If the site of the First CPC National Congress can be compared to a cradle, then the memorial for the second national congress is akin to a school — it’s where the Party crossed the boundary from infancy to maturity.

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