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    Hope Is a Thing With Letters: On China’s Trailblazing Female Scholars

    A hundred years ago, Peking University admitted its first female students after a successful open letter campaign. Their fights for acceptance — and experiences on campus — still resonate today.

    On March 7, 1920, three women made history by appearing on the cover of the 10th issue of the Peking University Students’ Weekly. All female members of the school’s first coeducational class, Zha Xiaoyuan, Xi Zhen, and Wang Lan are pictured staring straight ahead, a look of determination on their faces.

    “By admitting our cohort of nine female students, Peking University (PKU) has effectively opened up the great path of coeducation and women’s liberation in China,” Zha is quoted as saying in the accompanying article. “So long as our little group stands firm, maintaining a spirit of determination, sacrifice, and mutual aid, other women will surely join us after the summer holidays are over.”

    “Does this moment not represent the opening up of a great path?” she concludes. “I have hope that it does! I have hope!"

    Left unsaid, however, was just how much this opening had depended on the efforts of a fellow classmate who did not appear in the group photo: Deng Chunlan. Deng was born into a family of intellectuals in the northwestern city of Lanzhou. The daughter of a graduate of the Imperial University of Peking — the immediate predecessor of Peking University — she had aspired to follow her father’s footsteps and get a degree in Beijing since childhood.

    So on May 19, 1919, the then-21-year-old Deng decided to write Peking University president Cai Yuanpei a letter calling for the ban on female students to be lifted. Her argument cited a speech Cai himself had given on the establishment of coed classes in schools for impoverished children. She wrote: “Reading your school’s journal today, I learned that you once again advocated in favor of gender equality in a speech you gave at a school for poor children. Given that we continue to appeal for women to be admitted to Peking University, if you do not act now, just how much longer will we have to wait?”

    Deng’s letter never actually made it into Cai’s hands: He had walked off the job in support of protesting students and would not return until later that year. Instead, having grown impatient of waiting, Deng Chunlan decided that summer to sail on a raft down the Yellow River and then take a bus to Beijing. After her arrival in the city, she temporarily enrolled in a training program for female teachers and began publishing open letters to Beijing’s major newspapers, calling on other young women who shared her vision to unite and fight toward a common ideal.

    “In my humble opinion, instead of depending on others to advocate in our favor, why not fight for ourselves?” she asked in one of the letters, adding a call for women to do what they could to pressure the school. “In this world, one cannot expect a harvest without first toiling the land.”

    Coming so soon on the heels of the May Fourth movement — in which young Chinese rallied for modernization, democratization, and women’s rights, among other causes — Deng Chunlan’s campaign caused a stir in Beijing’s progressive intellectual circles. Zhou Binglin, an undergraduate at Peking University who would later go on to become the dean of the university’s Faculty of Law, penned an article for the special “Women’s Issue” edition of the influential Youth China magazine praising the activists’ initiative.

    “By demanding to be admitted, it is women who are opening up universities, rather than universities opening themselves up to women,” he wrote. “As for how to open up universities, I am an advocate for women’s self-determination and will not tolerate interjections from men. Besides, I believe that there is now a cohort of women who will successfully resolve this matter, so I would rather not say much more. But if there’s one thing I’d like to say, it’s that, so long as you knock on this door, there is bound to be someone who’ll open it.”

    To borrow Zhou’s turn of phrase, the doors of Peking University finally opened up in February 1920, when, under Cai’s renewed leadership, Peking University officially admitted nine female students, including Deng Chunlan, to audit classes in the humanities.

    The arrival of the students on campus attracted widespread attention across China. Famous American philosopher and educator John Dewey, who was visiting China with his wife, Alice Chipman Dewey — herself a women’s education activist — even invited several of the newly enrolled female students from Peking University to their apartment for dinner and a group photo.

    However, public support of progressive intellectuals and international solidarity from the Deweys and others weren’t enough to smooth the road for Peking University’s first female students. Indeed, the ban had hardly been lifted before conservative intellectuals began to speculate that coeducation would lead to “moral issues” in interactions between the sexes.

    These concerns only grew after a scandal broke out in 1924, when Han Quanhua, a popular female student from a prestigious family, publicly accused history teacher Yang Donglin of harassing her by sending her love letters.

    “I would never have imagined that a professor at China’s top university would act this way toward his students — toward women he doesn’t know in the slightest,” Han wrote. “This incident is not just of importance to me alone — it constitutes one of the major obstacles to coeducation all throughout China. It has the potential to harm Peking University’s female cohort and even the school as a whole.” As Han Quanhua saw it, unless Peking University placed stringent restrictions on the behavior of male faculty and students, the future prospects of coeducation would not be bright.

    Meanwhile, an opinion piece in the Republic of China Daily fretted that men — who once enjoyed unfettered freedom on campus — would now be forced to “keep their heads down and their hands by their sides” whenever a female student passed by.

    Fortunately, these controversies did not lead universities or educational authorities to scrap progressive gains by abandoning the coeducation system for which activists had fought so hard. Unfortunately, they never did solve the problem of handsy teachers, who continue to plague campuses to this day.

    Still, while scholars have put forth competing claims on which Chinese university was first to go coeducational, there is no doubt that the arrival of female students on campuses in China’s ancient capital was a moment of tremendous significance. In 2009, exactly 90 years after Deng wrote her letter to Cai Yuanpei, the number of female college students in China surpassed the number of male students for the first time. Zha Xiaoyuan was right to hope.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Visual elments from Peking University and E+/People Visual, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)