Qui Jin, the "Woman Knight of Mirror Lake"

8 November 1875, the revolutionary, feminist, writer and martial artist Qui Jin, the "Woman Knight of Mirror Lake", was born in Xiamen on the southeast coast of China.

“Don't tell me women are not the stuff of heroes,
I alone rode over the East Sea's winds for ten thousand leagues.
My poetic thoughts ever expand, like a sail between ocean and heaven.
I dreamed of your three islands, all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.
I grieve to think of the bronze camels, guardians of China, lost in thorns.
Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name.
I simply make my war horse sweat. Grieving over my native land
hurts my heart. So tell me; how can I spend these days here?
A guest enjoying your spring winds?“ (Qui Jin)

A photograph of Qui Jin wearing a kimono with the arme blanche,
 taken in Japan around 1905.

The concept of the knight errant has rather universal features all across the world, a legendary image all sophisticated cultures seem to bring forth sooner or later, uniting martial prowess with idealism, preferably for a lost cause, and a refined sense of self-sacrifice. In China for instance, there is the story of Hua Mulan, a warrior’s daughter who dresses up as a man, joins the army, fights her country’s enemies tooth and nail and returns home after twelve years to live the simple live, refusing all honours that were about to be piled on her head. No wonder that an idealistic young girl with a foible for swordsmanship, living during the death throes of imperial China, took her as a model to emulate. And it was a bit of luck for young Qiu Jin that she grew up in a highly educated and well-to-do household in the Fujian province where her mother encouraged her to ride, draw the bow, speak the truth, read and compose poetry and handle a sword. A knight errant to be seldom had a more befitting background. 

A Qing dynasty depiction of Hua Mulan (around 1700)

Romantic upbringing or not, late 19th century reality caught up with Qui Jin at the age of 21. She was married to the scion of an influential family from Hunan, one Wang Tingjun, moved to the capital and became a mother of two and housewife. Or something along these lines. Shocked by the events of the 55 days at Peking and the Boxer Rebellion, Qui Jin joined the Triads and became an advocate for the overthrow of the Manchu government. In 1904, she separated from her husband, went to Japan as an exchange student, became a member of various secret societies, a well- and outspoken champion for women’s rights, wrote poetry, dressed up in western male clothing, carried a sword when she went out in the streets and studied the fusion of traditional Japanese fighting styles and the modern use of rifles, bayonets and sabres. Qui Jin returned to China late in 1905, joined another nationalist secret society aiming at ending the rule of the Manchu barbarians and establishing a western-oriented Han government, published a newspaper called “China Women's News” and became headmistress of the Shaoxing Datong school for sports teachers, a thinly veiled operation to train revolutionary cadres.

Qui Jin in male attire, Japan, 1904

When her cousin and comrade Xu Xilin was arrested along with his cell by the local authorities for instigating armed revolt in Anqing, tried and executed, she heard the news from the papers due to a lack of a decent communication network within her group, a fact that would have driven tears into the eyes of every self-respecting revolutionary, Qui Jin patiently awaited her own arrest that duly followed on July 12, 1907, and three days later, the "Woman Knight of Mirror Lake" was publicly decapitated on the market square of her hometown Shaoxing. She immediately became a martyr for the revolutionary cause in China and even though Qui Jin was not exactly sticking to the line of the later CPC, she was and is revered as a heroine of the revolution. A small museum in Shaoxing and three movies, the latest from 2011, honour the memory of the Last Sword Maiden of China.

And more about Qui Jin on:


and, with a lot of background on contemporary martial arts on: