Desire and Disease: Bai Wei and the Literary Left of the 1930s

  • Amy D. Dooling


The rewriting of dominant literary history (chongxie wenxueshi) has encompassed important new scholarship on the modern women’s literary tradition. As a result, we are in the process of constructing an ever more nuanced picture of the literary roles of women through the gender relations reshaped by social, ideological, and economic factors in the twentieth century. Yet our understanding of women’s participation in the cultural left of the 1930s, in particular, remains incomplete, dominated by a single paradigm of “subordinated gender politics.” Ding Ling’s (in)famous metamorphosis from New Woman writer to pioneer practitioner of social realism, which ignored the woman question, and Feng Keng’s exhortation to female radicals to forget their gender identity altogether may be symptomatic of the growing ambivalence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to feminism at the time, but they are not, as it turns out, quite as representative as many have assumed. The following explores the work of the (now largely forgotten) political writer Bai Wei (1894–1983) and analyzes the problem of the relationship between feminist sexual politics and leftist culture of the 1930s. Specifically, I focus on her autobiographical novel Beiju shmgya (Tragic Life, 1936), a somber narrative that traces the vicissitudes of a female intellectual trapped in an abusive personal relationship, including a protracted battle with syphilis.1 As I will argue, this work consciously defied the trend toward depoliticizing private domestic life (and the so-called women’s issues associated with that realm) evinced in other leftist literature of the 1930s.


Chinese Communist Party Venereal Disease Woman Writer Literary Circle Modern Chinese Literature 
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  1. 1.
    Bai Wei, Beiju shengya (Tragic Life) (Shanghai: Shenghuo shudian, 1936).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For an excellent analysis of contemporary feminist discourse in China, see Wang Zheng, “Maoism, feminism, and the UN Conference on women: women’s studies research in contemporary China”, Journal of Women’s History 8:4 (winter 1996), 126–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Wendy Larson, “The end of ‘funü wenxue’: women’s literature from 1925–1935”, Modern Chinese Literature 4:1–2 (spring-fall 1988), 39–54.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Both Yang Gang’s “Fragments of a lost diary” (Riji shiyi) and Xie Bingying’s “Abandoned”, (Paoqi) for instance, foreground the experience of pregnant activists. For a brief but highly illuminating discussion of these stories and others, see Sally Taylor Lieberman, The Mother and Narrative Politics in Modern China (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1998).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The collection in which this essay appeared, Dangdai Zhongguo nüzuojia lun (On contemporary Chinese women writers, 1933) is a classic example of the growing critical distaste for the “personal” orientation of women’s writing (especially writers like Bing Xin and Lu Yin) and the new affirmation of writers like Ding Ling and Xie Bingying, whose works were seen as promising alternatives to the alleged “feminine” limitations of funü wenxue. See Huang Renying, ed., Dangdai Zhongguo nüzuojia lun (Shanghai: Guanghua shuju; Bai Wei, 1933). Ju qu Linli (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshu guan, 1926).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    That same year, Yang Sao published a series of nationalist poems, including his “Three Fujian songs” (Fujian chang). According to his biographer, these poems contain little trace of his individual suffering, which has now been absorbed into his greater concern for his native land. See Qing He, Tang Sao zhuan (Fuzhou: Haixia wenyi chubanshe, 1998), pp. 191–192.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    See Leo Lee, The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973). For quite different historical reasons, there has been a recent revival of interest in these public-private writings of the May Fourth generation. Many of the love letter collections from the 1920s to the 1930s have been reprinted in mainland China in recent years, including Last Night, which was reissued in 1994 by the Hebei jiaoyu chubanshe.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 14.
    Margaret Sanger’s lectures at Beida in the early 1920s sparked a flurry of discussions and organizations devoted to birth control in Beijing and Shanghai while translations of studies by European sexologist Edward Carpenter (Love’s Coming of Age: A Series of Papers on the Relations of the Sexes, Manchester: Labour Press, 1896) and Havelock Ellis (Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Philadelphia: F.A. Davis: vols. 1–6, 1897–1910; vol. 7, 1928) also contributed to republican period sexual discourse. Among new Chinese intellectuals active 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) (Shanghai, 1927) and his best-selling book Mei de renshengguan (Beauty, a Philosophy of Life; Beijing: Beixin shuju, 1926). Xin nüxing (New Woman; Shanghai: 1926–1929), another magazine in circulation during this period, also tapped into the growing public interest in sexuality, sexual anatomy, and physical hygiene. For a discussion of these and related topics,Google Scholar
  9. see Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)Google Scholar
  10. and Peng Xiaoyan, Chaoyue xieshi (Taibei: Lianjing, 1993).Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    For a discussion of Lu Xun’s use of syphilitic imagery, see Lung-kee Sun, “The Fin-de-siècle Lu Xun”, Republican China 18:2 (April 1993), 64–92. Two of the most interesting, albeit highly problematic, texts that link sexual disease and figure of the female revolutionary are Mao Dun’s Shi (Eclipse) (Shanghai: Kaiming Shudian, 1930) (Zhang Qiuliu) and Jiang Guangci’s Chong chu yunwei de yueliang (Moon Emerging From the Clouds) (Wang Manying). The latter, Jiang’s most popular novel, features a female activist who drifts into a life of prostitution and later takes to sleeping with the enemy in order to infect them with venereal disease (the novel’s ironic twist being that she eventually discovers she doesn’t have the disease after all).Google Scholar

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© Charles A. Laughlin 2005

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  • Amy D. Dooling

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