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Stepping into the Public World: Cases of Guixiu Philanthropic Activities in Late Qing China

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This article explores the little-known public philanthropic activities of certain elite women during late Qing China. By examining contemporary newspapers, it traces the new development of women’s philanthropic engagement and further analyzes two cases, one on disaster relief and the other on women’s education, to illustrate the issues, controversies and achievements that went along with women’s philanthropy. It demonstrates how philanthropy, a traditionally-sanctioned field for women’s activism, legitimatized women to move out of domestic seclusion and reposition themselves in the public sphere in a crucial transitional era when for “good women” to appear in public was something hotly debated, and how through philanthropic opportunities some were able to engage with political affairs. The broad social impact of their initiatives suggests the continued importance of traditional elite women during China’s transition to the modern era; it challenges some of our previous notions, which often unthinkingly accepted the verdict of “New Women” that those who did not embrace their path to modernity were parasitic, unproductive, and backward. By looking carefully at philanthropy, the article reveals fascinating issues and rich details of women’s public activities that previous historical narratives have often overlooked. It helps to understand how reconfigured traditions became essential components of modernity in the development of modern Chinese gender roles. It also adds a gender perspective to the burgeoning historiography on Chinese philanthropy.


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