5 remarkable women who shaped modern China

Here's to the fearless females who made history in Shanghai and beyond

Photographs: public domain via Wikimedia Commons; artwork: Tana (main)
There's no denying that Shanghai could not be the fabulous city it is today without some fearless and fierce female pioneers helping it on its way. As contemporary global movements bring women's rights and feminism to the forefront of the agenda, we take a look back and celebrate some of those wonderful women.

We talked to Historic Shanghai about five of the many amazing women who shaped the history of modern China.

He Xiangning



A political activist, painter, poet and famous feminist, He Xiangning became a member of Sun Yat-sen’s underground Tongmenghui resistance movement in the early 1900s and under Sun's government was appointed as Minister for Women's Affairs in Guangzhou (then Canton). He pioneered for women's rights and education and in 1924 she organised China’s first rally for International Women’s Day. Three years on from that inaugural event, The Periodic Table of Feminism states that around 25,000 women turned out to march for International Women's Day in Guangzhou.

Soong Ching-ling



One of the three powerful Shanghainese Soong sisters, Ching-ling was the wife of Sun Yat-sen (her sisters Mei-ling and Ai-ling were also married to the two other most powerful men in Republican China Chiang Kai-shek and banker/politician H H Kung, respectively). After Sun’s death in 1925, Ching-ling remained active in politics and later became a major figure for the Communist party. Politics aside, she was well-known for her social development work. Amongst her many achievements, she founded both the Women’s Political Training School (1927) and the China Defense League (1938; now known as the China Welfare Institute), to raise awareness of issues of women's rights and social welfare.

Wang Huiwu



Wang Huiwu was the first female leader in the women’s movement in the Communist Party of China. Married to Party founder Li Da, she and her husband both championed women's emancipation, writing and publishing articles on the subject. In the early 1920s she became an editor of women’s political journal Funü Sheng (Women’s Voice) which featured articles written for women, by women covering topics on a number of feminist issues ranging from the struggles of working-class women to birth control.

Zhang Youyi



The subject of Bound Feet and Western Dress, Zhang Youyi was known for going against tradition and famed for being the first woman in China to go through a 'modern divorce' (at the request of her ex-husband, the famous poet Xu Zhimo). But much more than that, she was also known for her excellence in business. Supporting financial independence for women, in 1924 she co-founded and became the Vice President of Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank. Largely run by women with majority female customers, it was a space for career women, wives and daughters to independently and safely store their own valuables and money.

Zhang Ailing



Famed both locally and internationally, Zhang Ai-ling (or Eileen Chang) is commonly considered to be one of the greatest Chinese literature authors of her time, known for portraying life in 1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong. A number of her works inspired movie adaptations – including Love in a Fallen City and Lust, Caution – and remain significant today.

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