Lü Bicheng ( 吕碧城1883–1943) was a Chinese writer, activist, newspaper editor, poet and school founder. She has been listed as one of the top four women “geniuses” of the early Republic of China, together with Eileen Chang, Xiao Hong, and Shi Pingmei; Lü’s biography was published in 2012.
Lü Bicheng was born in Taiyuan, Shanxi in 1883 during the late Qing dynasty, but is considered a native of her ancestral home of Jingde County, Anhui by Chinese convention. Her father Lü Fengqi (呂鳳岐), who earned a jinshi degree in 1877, served as Educational Commissioner of Shanxi Province. Her mother Yan Shiyu (嚴士瑜) was an educated gentry woman. Lü Bicheng was the third of four daughters in the family, and her elder sisters Lü Huiru and Lü Meisun were also known for their literary achievement.
When she was four, her father retired to Lu’an, Anhui. She lived a life of comfort until the age of 12, when her father died in 1895. Because Lü Fengqi had no male heir, relatives of the Lü lineage contested for his inheritance, and Yan Shiyu and her four daughters were forced to move to Lai’an County to live with her natal family. When she was nine, Lü Bicheng was betrothed to a Wang family, but as her own family fortune declined, the Wang family broke off the marriage contract, giving the young Bicheng the stigma of a “rejected woman”. The resulting emotional scar is often considered a major factor in her later decision to never marry. Her widowed mother and the Lü girls were not well treated at the Yan family in rural Anhui. When Lü was 15 or 16, Yan Shiyu sent her to live with her maternal uncle Yan Langxuan (嚴朗軒), who was the salt administrator in Tanggu, the port city outside the northern metropolis of Tianjin. Her sister Huiru also joined her later.
During her stay in Tanggu, Qing China went through the tumultuous period of the failed Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, which brought about increasing awareness of women’s education, and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. In 1904, Mrs. Fang, the wife of her uncle’s secretary, invited Lü Bicheng to visit a girls’ school in Tianjin, but her uncle prevented her from going and severely reprimanded her. The next day, she ran away from her uncle’s home, and took the train to Tianjin with no money or luggage. She wrote a letter to Mrs. Fang, who was staying at the dormitory of the Ta Kung Pao newspaper. Ying Lianzhi, the Catholic Manchu nobleman who founded the newspaper, read the letter and was so impressed by it that he made her an assistant editor. At the time, it was sensational for a woman to write for an influential national newspaper such as Ta Kung Pao. She was 21 years old.
Lü’s ci poetry was published in the newspaper and it was very well received. She was the chief editor of the newspaper from 1904 to 1908. In 1904 she decided to improve education for girls. She had published her thoughts on women’s rights and the general editor of the newspaper introduced her to Yan Fu who was an advocate for Western ideas. The Beiyang Women’s Normal School was established that same year. At 23 Lü took on the job of principal of the school she had founded two years before. At first this school found it difficult to find girls who qualified for secondary education and students were brought in from Shanghai to make up the numbers. Alumni of this school included Deng Yingchao, Liu Qingyang and Xu Guangping. Lü knew the revolutionary Qiu Jin and they had similar objectives but Lü did not join her in Japan when she was invited as she was unsure whether women should meddle in politics. She was then chosen to be the secretary to Yuan Shikai, one of the most powerful people in China. When he set out to declare himself emperor of China she left, like many of his followers, and abandoned him.
In 1918 Lü travelled to New York where she attended Columbia University for four years. During this time she was a foreign correspondent for the Shanghai Times.
In 1930 Lü became a Buddhist and ceased to publish any more of her works. She later died in 1943 in Hong Kong.
Edited by staff