Ding Ling: writer, woman, revolutionary
Behind those sorrowful and attentive eyes lies a story fit for the history books. Let me introduce you to Ding Ling (1904-1986); Chinese writer, woman and revolutionary. She is the author of one of my favorite short stories, ‘Mrs. Sophia’s Diary’, written in a Westernized, cosmopolitan Beijing and published in 1927. Unfortunately, I believe, as a result of the hectic societal changes in China, during the former half of the 20th century, her writings got eclipsed by her personal life. When she was in her 20’s she flung herself passionately into her stories, exploring the female mind and mentality through different female protagonists in urban settings.
The 20th century in China was ushered in with two major political changes that are of importance for the attention Chinese female authors gained both concerning their role as authors and womanhood in general. The first one was the abolition of the traditional civil service examination in 1905, that ended a long tradition of educating male scholars for employment in the state. The education of women, ushered in by Western girl’s schools, was rapidly taken in by the intelligentsia. The second was the abdication of the Qing dynasty in 1912, ending 2000 years of imperial rule, and establishing the Republic of China. The presence of Western powers was very much a reality in China and this both nurtured cultural affinity and strong revolts. Movements, such as the Culture Movements and the May Fourth Movement, saw great advantage in the upheaval of traditional values and looked interestedly to the question of equality between the sexes. It was also an age in which the individual was scrutinized and portrayed in countless short stories, essays, articles and novels. All of which, as I must lay emphasis on, mainly took place in urban settings.
‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’ is a story about a young, tubercular woman who has left her family in order to move to Beijing, struggling to figure out who she is, but ultimately ends up in disillusionment. She is a perfect example of what some have called the ‘New Woman‘ or ‘Modern Girl’ in Chinese culture. With Sophia, Ding Ling explores the realm of moral virtue bestowed upon women, and challenges the notion that moral virtue arises from the female body’s natural disposition to be chaste. Written in a 1st person diary form, it gives a very realistic insight into the modern struggle and crisis of identity from a female point of view. With her Western-ringing name and in urban settings she is a woman of the modern world. But instead of writing about a strong female character that takes on the world head-on and achieves her goals, Ding Ling chooses rather to describe the inner workings of a woman isolated from the world, both of her own accord, but also because of the lack of understanding she feels her surroundings have for her. She is strong in her own way, but so many things complicate her life. Ding Ling portrays Sophia as an erotic being, but one who is unfamiliar with her own sexuality and torn between what she wants and what she is supposed to do. She exemplifies the fear of being stigmatized by a society that does not allow for women to be overtly sexual without being labeled as femmes fatales:
I know very well that in this society I’m forbidden to take what I need to gratify my desires and frustrations, even when it clearly wouldn’t hurt anybody. I did the only thing I could do. I lowered my head patiently and quickly read the name printed on the card, “Ling Jishi, Singapore…
Like Ding Ling, Sophia uses writing in hopes of reaching clarity and to take stock of her position in life. She feels at ease nowhere, with no one, and her interactions with other people leave her frustrated and alone. With these emotional levels, Sophia goes from high to low with every diary entry, and thoughts of death and suicide are reoccurring. The isolation and following depressive reaction shares obvious affinities with Western literature such as Goethe’s ‘Young Werther’ and Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, struggles between society and individual that leaves the protagonist ambivalent and confused. Unlike the male’s experience with identity, Sophia is not only up against society’s expectations and the desire to change this, but she and others also question the very core of her being – her femaleness, and what that entails. Most of the rhetoric leading up to the 1920’s had been on female emancipation, claiming equal rights, education and a healthy nation, gaining freedom through financial autonomy, all set in ideological terms. However, Ding Ling takes it one step closer, to the intimate corners of femininity, where she bares Sophia as a sexual being in her own right. For many in the urban community, singlehood symbolized independency, showing social resistance towards marriage, but in more conservative circles it was a regular threat to the essence of Chinese society. In some instances, same sex relationships were feared as a potential outcome with this lifestyle. Same sex love is also insinuated in ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’, with reference to the relationship between her and Yunjie predating the diary. Sophia moves on the border between familial sisters (jie) and sexual interest in her relations to other women – one character, Jianru, reminds her so much of Yunjie that she ‘started chasing her (…) writing at least eight long letters [but] she didn’t pay the slightest attention.’ But society’s moral virtue catches up with her and constantly makes her aware of her own personal deficiencies and how unwritten social codes still act as limitations on her behavior. However, she is still more concerned with how to respond to and understand the hazy term of love, both as is manifests itself as lust, passion an metaphysical love. The narration of Sophia, on her own terms, in her own words, places the reader as a voyeur, peeping in on a woman’s innermost secret thoughts. And in doing so, the reader is in the advantageous role of gaining insight into her struggles with identity and modernity.
As China’s political situation became more polarized, and the cooperation between Kuomintang and the Communist Party ended in a bloody showdown in the late 1920’s, Ding Ling was smack down in the middle of revolution, joining the Communist Party and participating actively. She was both a chief editor to a magazine and in the 30’s she joining the Communist Party in Yan’an where she teached, studied the life of the worker and peasants and wrote. The problem was only, her writings did not please others within the Party. Mao Tse-tungs ‘Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art’ in 1942 made it quite clear what role literature had in the greater scheme of party politics, namely subservient to the proletarian glorious struggle, under strict scrutiny by the body of officials that held posts within the organization. And Ding Ling had, unfortunately for her career as an influential writer in Communist China, written some rather critical essays and stories that questioned the use of the communist ideology by some at the expense of others. Among these were ‘When I was in Xia Village’ and ‘Thoughts on March 8’ – an essay about the inconsistencies in sexual politics in the CP. All hell broke loose and during a ‘Rectification Campaign’ she was heavily criticized which in return led to a public self-critique, confessing the errors of her ways, saying that she ‘merely pointed out some of the darkness and forgot to affirm the bright future.’ However, stories such as ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’, which was by now considered a classic example of the petty bourgeoisie, subverting the ideology of peasant-worker revolution, was a black spot on Ding Ling. It was quite clear that there was no longer a place for an individualistic, creative attention to the female experience.