Written by Liang Yaoxiang & Huang Pei’dan
A heated debate arose in Shantou University the spring of 2016 as the university planned to name its girls’ residential college “Shu De (淑德),” a word literally meaning “fine virtue,” but which has been used traditionally – according to some – as a code of ethics in which women are subservient to men.
On May 13th, a public WeChat account called “Shu De Girls’ Residential College (淑德女子书院)” posted an article announcing that Shantou University would set up a residential college for female students, and it would be named “Shu De (淑德).” Almost instantaneously, the focus of the announcement shifted to the name. Student articles opposing the name circulated on WeChat; students expressed their opinions on their WeChat “Moments,” many of them showing opposition. Criticisms were mostly from a feminist standpoint, decrying what critics saw as the term’s strong “feudal” connotations. The school provided reasons for the name, saying that the name commemorated a Christian girls’ school in Shantou run in the early 20th century; the school – in an ironic twist, perhaps – took steps to empower women, some believe.
But Yun Yiyao, a junior in the College of Liberal Arts, was irritated by the name, and questioned who had come up with it.
“Why would a modern and international university give its college such a name as ‘Shu De,’ a word used by the Confucians to demand women’s obedience to the feudal ethics codes?” she said. “I wonder whose idea this is? Has he/she ever asked for the opinions of those who don’t want to be ’Shu De’?”
The word “She De (淑德)” can be broken into two characters, which are “Shu (淑),” meaning “fine,” and “De (德),” meaning “virtue.” Combined together, it has the literal meaning of “fine virtue,” according to Handian, an online Chinese dictionary; other Chinese-English translations include the idea of “refinement.” However, it also brings a strong connotation of female obedience, according to Guan Jingyuan, a Ph.D. student of Northeast Normal University. In her doctoral thesis, she pointed out that in the feudal era of Chinese society, “Xian Liang Shu De (贤良淑德)” was the objective of feminine education, and it was an expectation that men imposed upon women in a patriarchal society. She explained that the core standard of “Xian Liang Shu De” is whether a woman can act properly and competently as a wife, to assist her husband, and as a mother, to teach her children; the “De”– namely virtue — in this context has very specific meanings: being virtuous, dignified, cautious in the use of language, and good at managing family affairs.
Sun Bailing, a lecturer of Liberal Arts College, saw obstacles to women’s rights in the name as well. In an interview also published by Grassroots Report, she said that the qualities valued in the idea of “Shu De” are impediments to women’s development, and incompatible with the modern notion of women being independent and enjoying freedom.
Arguments from the other side of the debate centered on the original meaning of the term and the historical reason for the name. Mao En’ze, a junior of STU Journalism School, wrote on his WeChat “Moments” that “Shu De” per se is an adjective praising women for their fine virtues and good qualities. “It’s only when interpreted in the context of the old society that this word has all those feudal meanings,” said Mao.
In an article posted on the “Shude Girls’ Residential College” WeChat public account, the university explained the reason for choosing the name: commemorating a Christian girls’ school called Shu De Girls’ School, operational in Shantou in the late 19th and early 20th century. It said that this girls’ school had provided women in the Chaoshan area with an equal chance to receive education.
Du Shimin, now the J-School CCP branch secretary, conducted an oral history study on the old Shu De Girls’ School. She wrote her master’s thesis on this subject, and also published a related paper. According to her work, Shu De Girls’ School was established by the English Presbyterian Mission in 1873, and suspended in 1937 for refusing to apply for registration from the Shantou government. Its original location is unclear, though it can be confirmed that after 1885, it was located somewhere near Waima Road No. 32, in the Shantou old downtown, according to Du. At the beginning, the school provided only elementary education; the number of students was 12, most of them daughters of local Christians. Over its 64 years of operation, student numbers grew to about 150. In 1922, the school expanded into a middle and high school, and started training older girls to be teachers.
At the time, most women in China could not receive an education equal to that of men. Most women could only get an education that prepared them for family life. In 1858, the Tianjin Treaty was signed. As a result, it became legal for foreigners to live and do missionary work in Shantou. It was not until then that new church schools for girls were opened in the city by missionaries, and Shu De Girls’ School was one of them. At the beginning, most of the teachers of the school were foreign female missionaries; later, graduates of the school took over their job. Courses taught in the school included Chinese, math, history, geography, music, and most importantly, the Bible.
But doubts remain now as to whether the main purpose of the school was educating and uplifting women, or simply creating docile wives. As pointed out by Du Shimin in her paper, the education revolved around doing missionary work – and possibly creating wives for those missionaries allowed to marry. “The original purpose of establishing girls’ school was to educate and cultivate the girls, so that later they could become wives of local (Chinese) missionaries, and assist their husband to do missionary work,” Du wrote in her paper. This historical note has caused discontent among students. In an article post on a Wechat public account, a Shantou University student called Wu Jiujiu stressed this point, and sarcastically calling the new residential college “Shu De Gong (literally, Shu De Palace),” an allusion to the historical practice of keeping concubines.
However, Du, the party secretary, also saw value in the education the girls received. “Shu De Girls’ School was one of the earliest schools to provide education to women in the Chaoshan area. From my interview with the graduates, I can feel that they were enlightened by the education they received in the school. They were led into a bigger world, and many of them have taken a path that they would have never chosen had they not been educated in Shu De,” said Du. “What really matters is it historical value.”
By early June 2016, the debate over the name of the new residential college recently had taken a new twist at Shantou University.
Two weeks after the first announcement, on the public WeChat account of “Shu De Girls’ Residential College” another post appeared, saying: “We have noticed the suggestions concerning the naming of the new college. We will consider teachers’ and students’ opinions and feelings. It’s not impossible that we could make changes.”
Editor’s note: This is one of a three-part story series on how traditional culture or customs in the Chaoshan area are intersecting with practices or concerns of the modern world. Please see the other stories in this series, on grave-building vs. environmental concerns in the Sangpu hills, and on Buddhism making a comeback in China by going online.