Qiu was born in 1875 in Xiamen in the south-east of China. She endured an unhappy marriage and came into contact with new ideas, in particular, the Tongmenghui secret society which advocated the overthrow of the Qing, the last imperial dynasty.
China at that time, as in many other societies, was deeply patriarchal where the woman’s place was in the home. Qiu rebelled against these norms by unbinding her feet and became an early and fierce advocate for the liberation of Chinese women.
In 1903, she left her two children to study in Japan. Qiu was fond of martial arts and was known for wearing Western male dress. It was in Japan that she joined the anti-Qing Tongmenghui.
Qiu was most definitely in the former camp and at a debate of the issues she stabbed a dagger into the podium declaring: ‘If I return to the motherland, surrender to the Manchu barbarians, and deceive the Han people, stab me with this dagger!’
She was an eloquent orator who spoke out for women’s rights, such as the freedom to marry, freedom of education, and the abolition foot binding. In 1906 she founded the radical women’s journal China Women’s News, although it published only two issues before it was closed by the authorities. In 1907, Qiu became head of the Datong school in Shaoxing, ostensibly a school for sports teachers, but really intended for the military training of revolutionaries.
In July of that year, Qiu was arrested by the authorities and tortured to reveal the extent of her revolutionary activities but she refused to volunteer any information. The authorities used her writing to incriminate her and, a few days later she was publicly beheaded in her home village of Shanyin at the age of thirty-two.
Although she did not live to see the overthrow of the Qing, Qiu later became immortalised in plays, documentaries and films such as The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake released in 2011, and there is a museum in her honour in Shaoxing.