BY DANA LIU
A week after Professor Bai Hua’s lecture on the female writer Ding Ling, he called me to his office. I’d recently slipped a problematique under his door, a requirement for our research project, titled “Can Women Be Heroes Too?”
After reading Ding Ling’s novella, “Miss Sophia’s Diary,” I noted that Sophia’s labeling as a femme fatale—a dangerous woman—was eerily prescient of Ding Ling’s own rise as the intellectual darling of the Communist Party, and then downfall. She reminded me of my other muses: Marguerite Duras, Anna Ahkmatova. Female writers I’d devoured in college, planning to continue my studies in Europe, until a scholarship in Nanjing brought me to China.
I read more about Ding Ling’s life. In love with a left-wing poet assassinated by the Nationalists, she joined the communist’s Long March to the caves of Yan’an, winning the position of Chief Literary Editor of the revolutionary magazine. There, she addressed the unequal treatment of women, exposing the dark side of Yan’an in impassioned observations of women caught in a double bind of domesticity, as cadre wives, or unmarried targets of vicious gossip. Mao, consolidating his power, wondered just how dangerous a talented woman could be. At the Yan’an Arts Plenum, he struck, declaring: “Art is subordinate to politics and must serve the revolution in a direct and obvious manner.” Ding Ling was forced to recant her beliefs in a public self-criticism, her writings censored. The Party had liberated the masses, but still barred women from the privileges of knowledge. I grappled to understand Ding Ling’s choice. Why bind herself in loyalty to a party that silenced her? Why hadn’t there been a larger movement to address sexual inequality in the Party, when at the same time a sexual revolution raged across the western hemisphere?
Now Professor Bai closed the door for greater privacy. He looked exhausted. “As soon as I read your papers, Sie, I immediately saw promise in your problematique. I particularly like your thoughts on Ding Ling. I hope nothing in class disagreed with you today?” He had just given his second lecture on Ding Ling, on her life after Yan’an. His eyes twinkled; he was only teasing.
“On the contrary, your lecture reminded me of something I’d read. Your Manifesto.”
Bau Hua’s smile immediately dropped. Then he asked quietly, “How did you find it?”
“I came across it in the library stacks.” I had recently discovered an entire section of hardback volumes of literary journals from the years after the Cultural Revolution, chronologically lined up to the present year. Alongside the heavier volumes of Shi Dai were slimmer volumes by lesser known writers, including members of our faculty. I was returning a book to the upper shelves the night before, when a paper book fell out. I immediately noticed the date: 1979.
The Manifesto was a single two-page essay by Bai Hua that won my respect. Very early on, he had called upon women writers to seek a greater truth in their writing, to borrow authenticity from their experiences. Such truth, he argued, is the only engine to drive social change. Many university professors from well-respected universities in Nanjing had signed their names.
Bai Hua laughed at me. “You know, that volume was banned. It was first circulated, then published in 1984 and removed in 1989. I’m surprised the library didn’t notice. I was only able to save a few copies. Could one have possibly slipped into the library?” His eyes gleamed with pleasure. “You’re the first in a while to ask me about it.”
There was one name on the manifesto that had caught my eye: a female writer named Gao Meng. Her famous essay, Brother, had shut down a literary journal. By coincidence, it touched upon a topic very close to my own interests: why were there so few prominent revolutionary women writers? I remembered my growing excitement reading her biography. Her favorite writer was Ding Ling, a communist revolutionary who gave all of her romantic ideals to the revolution, only to be condemned and disgraced.
“Professor Bai, I know I already submitted a topic for my problematique, sir. But there’s another topic that interests me,” I began tentatively. “Instead of writing about Ding Ling, who’s already been the subject of a great deal of feminist scholarship, I would like to construct a critical biography of a woman published in the same journal as your essay.”
Bai Hua had turned his chair back toward the bookshelf behind his desk, but now he faced me.
“I hadn’t planned on writing my problematique on an unknown woman writer,” I stuttered. “The idea seemed risky…particularly with the scarcity of primary source material. But I wonder if this woman named Gao Meng is a substantial and worthy enough topic for my dissertation proposal?”
“What about her interests you, may I ask?” he asked finally, as if he had dislodged something from his throat.
“As I wrote in my paper, Ding Ling’s choices in life are difficult to assess from a Western perspective. Chinese feminism is neither nativist nor communist, though they shared the same concerns as western women. Although Ding Ling expressed contentions in the party, she accepted the importance of a centralized political movement and did not doubt that politics must not only inform but also control art. She was also involved in disciplining other writers and artists for their political errors, including her intellectual friends Wang Shiwei and the poet Ai Qing. Throughout her political and literary career, she never spoke out against Mao. It wasn’t until I read Gao’s essay on Ding Ling that I was caught by an interesting fact: there is no concept of female desire in traditional Chinese literature…”
“Yes, that’s correct. Gao Meng pointed this out herself! I myself a woman, Ding Ling wrote. She the first writer to explore the full context of female subjectivity in China. That’s why Gao Meng chose to define herself, as a cainu,” he said.
“A cainu…A dangerous woman?” I asked falteringly. “Is that the closest translation for a femme fatale?” I’d read Tani Barlow’s discussions.
“Dangerous but also talented woman,” Bai Hua had his eyes closed. “There is no translation to fully understand a woman’s place—her blood and tears—in China’s revolution. A femme fatale is a crossover from western feminism—a capable woman whose female sensibility gives her power. But a cainu—this changed everything.”
“How did it change?” I struggled to understand. I knew that cainu was a trope that has appeared in traditional Chinese literature, while a “femme fatale” was a woman who embodied seduction and immorality. But for the trope to be continuously upheld, and to evolve?
“It changed how she defined herself within society. She sought to transform it, reshape it into something invulnerable, powerful…” Sweat gleamed on Bai Hua’s forehead.
“But could cainu represent the western concept of a strong woman?” I asked, confused. “The full force of a woman as female subjectivity and equality could never fully be expressed under communism, because the revolution cut short the possibility of feminism in China. Once again, the battle for women’s rights was put behind the needs and fears of the revolution. And that revolution,” I whispered now, “has never quite ended.”
“But what are the goals of revolution? Are they the same in the past as they are now?” Bai Hua drummed his hand on his desk as if deciding something. “I would have suggested her to you in the first place. She has a particularly subjective voice, one that might appeal to you. But her death was rather shocking. Few people have researched her for that reason.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“First, she died young and without many publications. For research purposes, she lacks the weight and substance of other writers. A butterfly cut short in her prime.”
The day was uncommonly warm for November, and Bai wiped his forehead with a handkerchief from his breast pocket. Then he turned on the fan. “Many people believe there was an incomplete manuscript. No one has ever been able to find it. Eventually academics left her alone. An unfinished study. A writer whose life was more interesting than her words…”
“However,” Bai Hua reflected. “Of all my students, I think you best understand Gao’s importance.” He pronounced the word “think” with a subtle emphasis. “What interests you about her?”
I wondered if Bai Hua distrusted me. Academia was still a male establishment, and I wondered if he was trying to steer me away from the topic of feminism. Or, perhaps he was saving his meatier topics for his better students. Then I saw a glint in Bai Hua’s eyes.
“I haven’t thought about that. I must confess, I had originally been planning to write about Ding Ling.”
“Ah, yes. Ding Ling. It’s good for you to understand her as an influential woman writer from the previous generation. Given your interests, it would make sense to examine Ding Ling’s political shift in ideology and writing after Mao’s Yan’an speech on socialist notions of art and literature at Yan’an.
“Well, yes,” I was talking faster now without being aware I’d ever had this thought. “But I think there was something disappointing in her stance. She compromised her artistic integrity noticeably from 1942 and after being labeled a Rightist in 1957, her fiction and essays were banned. She spent twelve years in prison and on a labor farm. Her sacrifices were all wasted.”
“Disappointing, most certainly. But would you have wanted her to sacrifice herself then and there and write nothing? Be executed like her poet lover, who was shot in the head in front of her? To be a martyr like all the other writers caught in the double bind of the communist movement, who were silenced and executed? Be a pariah and sacrifice oneself to the margins and footnotes of literary criticism? Western notions of feminism and democracy have always had limitations in the internal reality of China’s quest for modernity. China has always been hard to understand for westerners.” He sighed. “And yet, if you are interested in the absence of prominent Chinese communist women writers, even in underground movements, the problem you will run into is that there was very little literature published at all from 1949 until the mid-1980s, let alone by Chinese women writers.”
He waited for me to reply. Then, when I could not, summarized my ideas. “I personally find her transformation most fascinating. A social critic struggling for the revolution who grew increasingly at odds with the tightening bureaucratic control. But rather than insist on her freedom, Ding Ling chose to conform to the new restrictions of socialist realism under severe pressure from Mao, sacrificing her independent thought and originality. Tragically, her commitment to the revolutionary cause brought only tragedy. After Yan’an, she hardly wrote at all.”
“The truth is,” he said to me, “It is very hard for these writers persecuted by the state. There are constrictive regulations on the kinds of content and modes of expression that are allowed, and this intimate relationship between writing and the state brings glory to some and misery to others. Writers must always choose which way they fall across the state line. The line is always shifting. And those who decide to go underground must pay the consequences. But you are a feminist.” Bai Hua said this to me softly. “You are understandably judgmental of Ding Ling. Perhaps then Gao Meng would be a better choice for you?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I knew it was unfair to judge Ding Ling from a western perspective, when I could never possibly understand her position, needs and sacrifices.
“But Gao–Gao Meng,” I noticed that he had called her Gao again, and then quickly corrected himself. “You don’t know what you’ll find on Gao Meng until you start researching. Look here, her style was shifting all the time.” He picked a volume of Gao Meng’s writings from the bookshelf. “This one is dated 1983, and in this moment her writing follows the prescriptive tone set forth by Mao in his speech at Yan’an. I suggest you look for abrupt shifts in her style of writing and correlate them with larger events happening at the time.”
My lukewarm response only made him more voluble. He relayed her life in a brief outline. “At some point you may wish to go to Xinjiang to gather more source materials.”
“Well, yes, you see that is where it all ended. Or started, rather. There is a manuscript, a manuscript she never published. I think you should read it,” Bai Hua looked at me for a moment. Then he pulled a folder from his bag and held it over the desk between us.
I reached out my arm, but he dangled it away a minute more. “You have the curiosity and intelligence for this research, Sie. And the sensitivity. I was impressed with your ideas, even before this. An essay on Gao Meng would be a major contribution. I’d like to know a great deal more myself. Particularly about her death. Thoughts or questions on how—” he stopped. “How she…died.”
“I would have written more about this myself, except for a conflict of interest.” He said this somewhat ironically. “But I could help you certainly. I could help you grow as a scholar.”
I blushed in surprise. Bai Hua was offering to mentor me privately, an honor he’d given to only a few privileged students. “I don’t want to let you down.”
“There are very few known sources of her writing,” Bai Hua told me. “There’s a manuscript rumored to be hidden somewhere. It’s a minefield of potential scholarship.” I was completely swept up in Bai Hua’s charismatic pursuit. “I looked for them myself,” Bai Hua told me with an understanding look. “But I didn’t try the city archives. You may want to sift through them for records of letters, official documents, or references to manuscripts filed away in private collections.”
Bai Hua ran his fingers along his bookshelf. “Her seminal work was an essay called ‘Brother’. It showed another shift in her literary style. The first political essay published in a journal after Mao’s death. You can photocopy it. She was a talented writer. It was her last published piece, though it is rumored that she wrote an account of her experiences in Xinjiang during the sent-down period of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, she died before it could be published and it was never found. But she has been marked as a writer of great intellectual courage and depth, whose life was cut tragically short.”
“Did Gao Meng die for writing this essay?” I asked.
“No,” Bai Hua said, collecting his words. “The official cause of death was an accident with a gas stove while cooking. However, there were darker rumors that she took her life with her own hands, or was even murdered…” Bai turned his back to carefully pull from his bookshelf, hidden behind some larger volumes, the worn pale green cover of a slender volume he kept on his shelf just behind his desk. “The essay was an original manuscript, hand written, an early draft marked up by her editor. Even today, I’m not sure how the copy had fallen into his hands.” He spoke passionately, pointing to phrases that he had underlined. “You can see here how the writing is hurried, the matter unresolved and groping for a form. She shares with many writers of this period a tentativeness in what they could express. However, Gao was exceptional in her contribution to later movements. Her use of avant-garde preoccupations such as self-reference, a sly wink to the audience, reminds us of literature’s mimetic ‘mirroring’ of our own reality. The essay is dated 1979, but it was not published in a national journal until 1987. Let’s read the first paragraph together, shall we?” said Bai Hua, in his sonorous voice. He began:
“Before you begin, reader, beware of this tale: for it is marked by kinship, betrayal, greed and martyrdom. It will be read long after my death, this story of my Brother’s secret…”
“What is it that you are looking for? There must be a reason. Because you seem to stop just short. You must continue to go much deeper,” Bai Hua was saying quietly. “I suppose we each have our own reasons,” he said at last, looking away. “You have yours, I have mine. Whether intellectual or emotional, morally driven or selfish, Gao Meng’s death changed forever what we believe in.”
Gao Meng’s death. I thought about that again much later. At the time I couldn’t quite put together what he was saying. Only that if there was one thing that we all shared it was our experiences. Our humanity, the common thing that led us to act upon what we believed in. But was it hate or love?
Over the next few months, I scouted possible sources of her work. I knew this was important, both to Bai Hua and for my own academic future. I spent hours scavenging the library’s collection of journals and newspapers looking for unrecognized publications of her criticism and essays. A tedious task, as the library’s filing system had not been digitized. The city archives were even more primitive. By spring, I spent more time with the Gang drinking on the roof, a voice playing in my head an endless tape: But why does this interest you, Sie? There must be a reason…
And because I could not offer a satisfying answer to his question, I put it out of my mind. The semester came to an end. I’d failed to produce new sources for the writer Gao, and through inaction, abandoned the last literary evidence of a female writer’s body of work that might have cast a new perspective on Chinese feminist literature.
And then, we found out Bai Hua’s terrible secret, and were caught in a terrifying personal bind.
About the author
“The Problematique” is an excerpt from a working novel titled “Searching for Gao Meng.” Inspired by the writer’s experiences studying in Nanjing in the late 1990s and her interest in intellectuals and censorship in China, it tells the story of an American female student in Nanjing researching a mysterious local woman writer. When her elusive but gentle professor disappears and danger emerges, she begins to uncover a story about writing, subjectivity, female censorship and the state. It can be described as a hybrid: part literary thriller, part expat novel, and heavily based on modern Chinese history. For more information, please contact Dana at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dana Liu lives in Taiwan, where she teaches at National Taiwan University. She has worked in journalism and policy, including at The Atlantic Council, the World Bank, Asiaweek, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, and Hunter College (CUNY). She has a B.A. in Chinese History from Cornell University, an M.A in International Relations/China Studies from Johns Hopkins School of International Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The New School.
Her writing can be found in Asiaweek Magazine, Economist Intelligence Unit, Center for Strategic International Studies, China Business Review, Globalization and Third World Socialism: Cuba and Vietnam, International Feminist Journal of Politics, Best of Carve Magazine Anthology, Asian American Writers Workshop’s Journal (TEN), and A Gathering the Tribes’ arts and culture online magazine.
About the editor
Jessie Lau is a writer, editor and researcher passionate about exploring gender, ethnicity, social policy and identity in China and other parts of Asia. Based in London and Hong Kong, she has written stories on everything from pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and solitary confinement in Californian prisons to China’s massive boarding school program targeting ethnic Uyghur and Tibetan children. Now freelancing as a video news assistant at The Associated Press, her writing has been published by the The Economist, Quartz, and South China Morning Post, among others. She is a board member at NüVoices, a collective supporting women working on China subjects, and Online Editor-in-Chief of NüStories, its feminist magazine amplifying minority voices.