Love and/or Revolution?: Fictions of the Feminine Self in the 1930s Cultural Left

  • Amy D. Dooling


When Bai Wei (1894–1987) and Xie Bingying (1906–2000) both published autobiographies in 1936, their literary careers appeared to have already undergone the “political” transformation that modern Chinese literary histories often characterize as the shift from romanticism to revolution. As early as the late 1920s, with the breakdown of the first national alliance between the Guomindang (KMT) and the Gongchandang (CCP), the resurgence of concern over China’s political future precipitated dramatic change in the literary practices of many progressive Chinese writers, as they turned their narrative gaze from the realm of subjective experience to the arena of social emergency. By the early 1930s, the looming threat of Japanese invasion, coupled with political persecution and the repressive cultural policies of the KMT finally galvanized disparate elements of the cultural left to join forces and form the League of Left-Wing Writers (Zuoyi zuojia lianmeng), and over the next few years the League aggressively promoted a prescriptive aesthetic that accorded primacy to class issues and the national crisis. Along with their better-known (and fellow Hunanese) colleague Ding Ling, both Bai Wei and Xie Bingying were among the small handful of women writers to win critical praise in the early 1930s for “living up” to the aesthetic challenges of the new era, having transcended the allegedly narrow personal focus that was now seen to limit other “women’s writing,” and assuming the responsibilities of the socially-engaged writer.


Chinese Woman Cultural Left Romantic Love Woman Writer Sexual Politics 
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  1. 5.
    Lydia Liu’s phrase. See her “Narratives of Modern Selfhood: First-Person Fiction in May Fourth Literature,” in Ellen Widmer and David Wang, eds., From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 102.Google Scholar
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    The examples she examines in the section on the pre-1949 period are predominantly by nonliterary women, whose works were published in English (or English translation) apparently for a Western audience. These include: Wong Su-ling’s Daughter of Confucius (London: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1952)Google Scholar
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    As early as 1919, Li Dazhao had linked the analysis of class to women’s oppression. However, as his essay “Zhanhou zhi furen wenti” (The woman question after the war) reveals, certain issues remained murky. For instance, while he recognized that women of the bourgeoisie and the working classes were allies in terms of their struggle against patriarchy, he also asserted that the proletariat had to overthrow the middle class. For a brilliant analysis of the role of feminism in the formation of early Chinese Marxism, see Christina Gilmartin, Engendering the Chinese Revolution: Radical Women, Communist Politics, and Mass Movements in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).Google Scholar
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    See, e.g., Kirk Denton, The Problematic of Self in Modern Chinese Literature: Hu Feng and Lu Ling (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
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    Bai Wei interrogates both romance and revolution as viable options for the modern woman in her first full-length novel Zhadan yu zhengniao (The bomb and the expeditionary bird) (1928), which contrasts the experiences of two sisters who join the 1926 revolution. Although not explicitly autobiographical, the novel may draw upon Bai Wei’s personal observations during the period she spent in Wuhan in 1927 working in the Revolutionary government. Unfortunately, the complete novel is no longer extant since significant portions of it were lost when Benliu was shut down by the KMT censors. For a more extensive discussion of this work, see Jianmei Liu, Revolution Plus Love: Literary History, Women’s Bodies, and Thematic Repetition in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003).Google Scholar
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    For more on this issue see Rey Chow’s Woman and Chinese Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), chapter 3Google Scholar
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    For more on this genre see David Raoul Findeisen, “From Literature to Love: Glory and Decline of the Love Letter genre,” in Michael Hockx, ed., The Literary Field of Twentieth Century China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  20. 76.
    Margaret Sanger’s lectures at Beijing University in the early 1920s sparked a flurry of debate and activism around issues of birth control in Beijing and Shanghai while translations of studies by European sexologist Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis also contributed to Republican era sexual discourse. Among new Chinese intellectuals vocal in such debates was Zhang Jingsheng, a philosophy professor from Beida, who played an instrumental role in promoting modern sex education with his magazine Xin wenhua (New culture) and his best-selling book Mei de renshengguan. Xin nüxing (New woman), another magazine in circulation at the time, also tapped into the growing public interest in sexuality, sexual anatomy, and physical hygiene. In the 1930s, articles on these topics also appeared in feminist magazines such as Nüzi yuekan and Gongming yuebao (Women’s sympathetic understanding). For a discussion of these and related topics, see Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)Google Scholar
  21. and Peng Xiaoyan, Chaoyue xieshi (Beyond realism) (Taibei: Lianjing, 1993).Google Scholar

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© Amy D. Dooling 2005

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  • Amy D. Dooling

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