Ding Ling, intrepid feminist of the Chinese Revolution

Ding Ling’s critique of the Chinese patriarchy

"The Chinese Communist Party, in its earliest days, outwardly championed women and their place in the revolution. But one writer—on the heels of International Women’s Day in 1942—had the courage to point out the CCP’s hypocrisies and the persistence of patriarchy.” Everything below is quoted from the article:


On March 9, 1942, in the Communist-run Yan’an soviet, an essay in the official party newspaper commented on the place of women in the growing Communist movement. Following up on the previous day’s International Women’s Day, the piece specifically criticized the practices of many male Communist party leaders and highlighted the persistence of double standards for marriage, divorce, and career advancement. The author, Dīng Líng 丁玲, was forced to self-criticize and apologize for her comments — though she never recanted.

The Chinese Communist Party, like many institutions, draws its legitimacy from many sources, but one important one is origin myths. For the CCP, one of the most crucial of these myths is the Yan’an Way. Focusing on the period of 1937 to 1947 — after the Long March but before the Civil War — the story emphasizes the close relationship between the leadership and the people. During this period, the story goes, the party, especially leaders like Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 and Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来, moved among and were supported by the people — as fish are to water, the story goes — and when the Civil War broke out, the Communists’ understanding and empathy for the peasants, especially, contrasted with the corruption and detachment of the Nationalists.

The Yan’an Way was elevated to myth not just by Chinese propagandists, but by Western journalists, including Annalee Jacoby, Edgar Snow, and Theodore White. Their firsthand reporting produced two books, Thunder Out of China and Red Star Over China, that portrayed a democratic and egalitarian Yan’an where lines between party leaders and ordinary peasants blurred almost out of existence.

But like most origin myths, the truth was not so straightforward. Without question, the Yan’an years were crucial to the formation of the CCP and therefore to the People’s Republic that it founded. It also seems that there was a broadly democratic ethos there, which is not surprising given its isolation, small size, and common cause, but reports of its utopian atmosphere were exaggerated. For a world premised upon equality and solidarity, there were striking hierarchies.

Ding Ling called out just one of these hypocrisies: the persistence of patriarchy.

Ding Ling was the nom de plume of Jiǎng Bīngzhī 蒋冰之, born in what is now Hunan in 1904. Her father died when she was a toddler, and her mother, raising three children by herself, was a powerful role model. Jiang moved to Shanghai, the center of progressive politics and creative art, in the 1920s, and at barely 20 years old married the poet Hú Yěpín 胡也频. Around the same time she made a name for herself with her short story “Miss Sophia’s Diary,” a bold and introspective commentary on sex, politics, colonialism, and feminism that even today sounds modern (if you haven’t read it, do!).

The intersection of politics and art that would define her life buffeted Ding Ling in the 1930s. Her husband was arrested and executed for his left-wing associations in 1931. A year later, she herself joined the party, leading to her arrest by Nationalist authorities in 1933.

After three years under detention, Ding Ling escaped in 1936 and made her way west to the newly established Communist base area in Yan’an. There, she resumed her career as a writer under greatly changed circumstances. In sharp contrast to Shanghai, Yan’an was a small collection of buildings, with barely reliable running water or electricity, hundreds of miles from a major city, thousands of miles from a coastline, in one of China’s poorest regions.

In her co-edited compilation of Ding Ling’s works, I Myself Am a Woman, historian Tani Barlow describes how Ding Ling threw herself into a leadership role, “revolutionizing the official arts” in Yan’an. That she played this role was not surprising: she was, after all, one of China’s most celebrated authors. Her politics were certainly progressive, as shown by her party membership and her place in Shanghai’s literary world. At the same time, though, her work had relentlessly interrogated women’s place in society, and her depictions of class relationships did not always accord with Communist orthodoxy. Barlow notes that two critical questions loomed over Ding Ling’s work in Yan’an: “Under what formulation would modern literature be judged? And how would women be represented under such an inscription?”

In “Thoughts on March 8,” Ding Ling points unflinchingly at the hypocrisy in Yan’an. She begins by asking, in terms that resonate in many political debates today on the nature of identity politics, “When will it no longer be necessary to attach special weight to the word ‘woman’?” She acknowledges all that is being done to mark Women’s Day: “meetings,” “congress speeches, circular telegrams, and articles.” Yet fundamental challenges remained unmet.

In particular, she calls out the leadership for their attitudes toward marriage and divorce. In both cases, Communist policies against arranged marriage and in favor of freer access to divorce were meant to liberate women, but in reality they did not always function in this way. Women were condemned for bourgeois attitudes if they wanted to marry, yet “single women are even more of a target for slander and gossip.” And once married, the care and raising of children quickly divided not only the “progressive” from the “backward,” but also those with means to acquire childcare and those without: “When women capable of working sacrifice their careers for the joys of motherhood,” she writes, “people always sing their praises. But after ten years or so, they have no way of escaping the tragedy of ‘backwardness.’” And when women who have raised their children are found to be wanting, either in their political consciousness or their careers, “in the great majority of cases it is the husband who petitions for divorce.”

“Women are incapable of being perfect or transcending the age they live in…They have their past written in blood and tears; they have experienced great emotions — in elation as in depression, whether engaged in the lone battle of life or drawn into the humdrum stream of life.”

She ends by saying that “it would be better if there were less empty theorizing and more talk about real problems.”

Ding Ling’s essay, published in the Liberation Daily newspaper, sparked fierce debate. Although she claimed to be caught off-guard by the controversy, she had held off publishing the essay for several months out of concern for its reception. Criticized, she apologized for embarrassing party leaders, and rejected the charge that her views were “narrowly feminist.” In the coming months, a wave of censorship and “rectification” shaped the range of acceptable artistic viewpoints, and from this point forward, Ding Ling’s writings became markedly less focused on women or their particular concerns. Her 1948 novel The Sun Shines Over Sanggan River is socialist-realism, set on a collective farm, with little attention to gender issues.

In 1957, Ding Ling was purged from the party and condemned as a “rightist.” Her works were banned until she was rehabilitated in 1978.

March 8 remains a powerful symbol in China, a touchstone moment for protests against and about the existing power structures and their abuse. In her book Betraying Big Brother, sociologist Leta Hong Fincher describes the events just prior to International Women’s Day 2015, when activists in a handful of Chinese cities prepared for a protest and public relations event to draw attention to ongoing sexual assault and violence. Among the planned activities were signs and stickers on public transportation directed at instances of groping on buses and subways.

Before the protests could be implemented, authorities in cities including Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Beijing arrested dozens of organizers. Most were released soon after being detained, but five — Lǐ Màizi 李麦子, Wéi Tíngtíng 韦婷婷, Zhèng Chǔrán 郑楚然, Wǔ Róngróng 武嵘嵘, and Wáng Màn 王曼 — remained in custody for more than a month. Fincher describes the harrowing experience of the women, dubbed the “Feminist Five,” during the 37 days they were held in Beijing’s Haidian detention center for (officially) “picking quarrels and promoting trouble.” The women gained attention and were eventually released. Though their protest was prevented, the international attention they gained not only achieved many of the goals they had sought, but also served notice that despite propaganda to the contrary, conditions for women in the PRC remain problematic.

Ding Ling in the Yanan years, when the Communist rebels were in exile in western China.

More info about her in this extended post I did on the Suppressed Histories page, including in Comments: https://www.facebook.com/333661528320/photos/a.423118913320/10158997412453321/

Ding Ling in 1979, when her writings had finally gained worldwide recognition.

Complete and Continue