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Qiu Jin: A Heart Unbound

In China in the early 1900s, girls had their feet bound and were forced to stay at home and serve their families. Qiu Jin wanted more, so she learned martial arts, dressed like a man and inspired women to fight for what they believed in.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Katie Lopez with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Gina Gotsill. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Theresa C. Ho. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!


Once upon a time, there was a girl who was ready to start a revolution. Her name was Qiu Jin.

Qiu was born in 1875 in China at a time when the government was in turmoil and men were talking about change. But women and girls? They had no say in how they spent their days. They were expected to sit quietly at home, cooking and sewing for their families. 

Qiu didn’t want to stay at home, threading a needle or stirring a pot of soup! She wanted to learn martial arts and sword fighting! Most of all, she wanted to make HER OWN choices. She dreamed of following her fierce passions and blazing a trail for all women. Sometimes, she wrote poems and notes about all the ideas she had swirling through her brain. 

But while Qiu’s heart and mind were free, her feet were bound. Chinese culture at that time demanded that women have tiny feet – the perfect size was just three inches long! Small feet helped a girl’s parents find her a good husband. Qiu didn’t care about men, but it didn’t matter. Her parents wrapped her feet with strips of cloth, binding them so that her bones curled inward and made her feet look small. But even with her feet bound, Qiu learned how to ride horses, and how to control the power of a glistening sword.

And of course, she kept writing. 

When Qiu was 21 years old, her father forced her to marry Wang Tingjun, a man who wasn’t interested in anything. Qiu had to say goodbye to her mom and dad and go live with Wang’s family – that was the custom. She and Wang had two children, one boy and one girl. 

Qiu’s life felt more and more constrained. All the men she knew could do whatever they wanted and pursue their dreams. But Qiu and other women could only serve as wives, mothers and daughters. 

My body will not allow me

To mingle with the men

Qiu wrote.

But my heart is far braver

Than that of a man.

She knew her heart was brave. She knew she deserved more. But how could she make society recognize women as equal to men?

Suddenly, a new door opened for Qiu. Her husband moved the family to Beijing, China’s capital city, far away from their sleepy town where nothing ever happened. In Beijing, Qiu could feel the energy of the people – they were pushing for a new kind of government. She made friends with other strong women, and she started to do what men did: She studied politics and tried wearing a suit and hat like a man. 

And one day, fueled with wild courage, hope and strength, Qiu took a forbidden step: She cut the bindings off her feet. As she unraveled the strips of cloth that had broken her years ago, she trembled with excitement. 

Unbinding my feet I clean out a thousand years of poison…

She wrote.

Then, she walked out the door of her home and boarded a ship for Japan, leaving her husband, children, China – everything she knew – behind.

Qiu was free, but her heart ached. She was sad to leave her family, even though she needed to do this for herself and for all Chinese women. In Japan, Qiu spent her days practicing martial arts and writing about women demanding their rights. She dressed in men’s clothes and carried a sword when she went into town. People were not used to women being so bold and speaking out for what they wanted. 

A few years later, Qiu returned to China and started a magazine called Chinese Women’s Journal. She also worked at a school and secretly trained people to push the Qing dynasty out of power forever.

Qiu’s friends warned her that soldiers were watching her and she was in danger. But Qiu insisted she was ready to fight for women’s rights and a new government. She refused to back down.

Sadly, Qiu’s friends were right. One day, Qing soldiers rumbled through the door and arrested Qiu, even sentencing her to death. But still, this would not be the end of Qiu’s story. 

Qiu’s voice and vision grew stronger, even after she was killed. From the day she left her husband until her death, just four years had passed, but she had planted the seeds of feminism across China and Japan. And change did come thanks to brave revolutionaries like Qiu. 

Foot-binding was outlawed soon after Qiu’s death, and her poems were shared with people around the world. In 1950, the new Chinese government banned marriages like the one Qiu was forced into. And women gained the same rights as men to study and learn.  

Today, Qiu Jin is a hero around the world and a symbol of strength and purpose. People share her writing when they want to feel inspired.

Her words show us the way.

Don’t speak of how women can’t become heroes:

Alone, I rode the winds eastward, for ten-thousand leagues.

Qiu’s legacy continues to spread and grow even today. Her rebel spirit lives on every time a woman stands up for her rights; every time she states her feelings loud and proud; every time she cuts the cloth that binds her and steps bravely into the unknown.