Ding Ling (1904–1985)

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Ding Ling (1904–1985)

Leading Chinese woman writer of the modern era and important figure in Chinese Communist politics. Name variations: Ting Ling. Born Jiang Bingzhi in Hunan province in central China in 1904 (some sources cite 1907); died of cancer in 1985; daughter of Jiang Yufeng (a Confucian scholar) and Yu Manzhen (Yü Man-chen, an early female political activist); attended progressive schools in Hunan, Shanghai and Beijing; married Chen Ming (a writer), in 1942; children: (with radical poet Hu Yuepin) a son (b. November 1930); (with Communist activist Feng Da) a daughter (b. around 1935).

Published "Miss Sophia's Diary," which defined her as a writer (1928); joined the Chinese Communist Party and rose through the party's literary ranks (1932); kidnapped and held by the Guomindang (1933); after four years under house arrest, escaped to the Communist-led base under Mao Zedong (1937); purged and exiled to Manchuria (1957); rehabilitated by the Communists (1978) and became an honored figure until her death.

Selected works, available in English translation: "Mengke" (1927); "The Diary of Miss Sophia" (February 1928); "A Woman and a Man" (1928); "Shanghai, Spring 1930" (October 1930); "Net of Law" (1932); "Mother, April 1933"; "Affair in East Village" (1936); "New Faith" (1939); "When I was in Xia Village" (1941); "Thoughts on March 8" (1942); The Sun Shines over the Sanggang River (1948); "People Who Will Live Forever in My Heart: Remembering Chen Man" (1949); "Du Wanxiang" (1978).

Walking an uneasy line between her two major roles as Communist Party activist and female writer, Ding Ling became the voice of the many Chinese women caught in their country's difficult transition from the old feudal Confucian society into the modern world. Although she always put China's political revolution ahead of the liberation of women, her inability to fully reconcile the two issues brought her into frequent conflict with authority. Over a long life in which she became the most noted Chinese woman writer of the modern era, she held many important offices and wrote numerous stories, books, and essays.

Ding Ling was born Jiang Bingzhi in 1904 to a family of the social gentry in the central Chinese province of Hunan. Her father Jiang Yufeng was a man of local power and wealth who held a degree in the Confucian civil-service system. Confucianism was the basis of the Chinese classical cultural tradition and was transmitted and interpreted largely through written works, making literature a critical influence in cultural and political events. The tradition was both extremely hierarchical and authoritarian, supporting a patriarchal gender system in which men held virtually all the legitimate authority; women were valued principally as wives and the mothers particularly of male children. In the long history of China, famines, wars, and other disasters were common, and the density of its population put enormous pressure on its resources. Despite its limitations, Confucianism was long found satisfactory to both men and women because it provided Chinese society with centuries of stability. The very rigidity of the system provided security and the prospect that if everybody pulled together according to assigned social roles, all might not only endure but prosper.

In the mid-19th century, however, the system began to collapse from overpopulation and the impact of the expanding Western powers—principally Great Britain, but also the United States. As the Western impact threw the weaknesses of the traditional Chinese system into sharp relief, many in China were particularly struck by the apparent strength and influence of Western women compared to their own culture. For many Chinese, both men and women, the liberation of Chinese women became an integral part of the freeing of China from Confucian control and the development of a modern, more egalitarian society. The practice of footbinding, in which the feet of young girls of good family were tightly wrapped beginning in childhood, deforming them to the point of restricting the women's mobility, is a primary example of social evils against women that survived in China into the 20th century.

As the daughter of a family of relative privilege, Ding Ling might well have had her feet bound and been married off into a family of similar status had she been born a few decades earlier. By 1904, however, a new and more liberated type of Chinese woman began to emerge, such as the rebel heroine Qiu Jin who became a political martyr in her attempt to overthrow the decadent Manchu regime in 1907; ironically, this event occurred when the Chinese imperial throne was controlled by another woman, very powerful but also conservative, the Empress Cixi .

Ding Ling's father, like many Chinese men, saw the value of a modern education and spent time in Japan studying modern law. Ding Ling's mother Yu Manzhen was a woman of foresight, capable of attacking the old society despite her high station within it. Inspired in part by the example of Qiu Jin, Yu Manzhen became a local activist who campaigned for political reform and entered a modern school in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. The death of her husband, when Ding Ling was only five years old, may have influenced Manzhen to raise her as a liberated girl.

In the early 20th century, Hunan was one of the centers of ferment for political reform. Included among the local activists was Mao Zedong, who would lead the Chinese Communist Party to control all of China in 1949. Yu Manzhen was drawn to the same revolutionary doctrine of Communism as Mao, which seemed, during the Russian Revolution of 1917, to free Russia from the decadent tsarist regime, and to be a doctrine capable of bringing both political and social reform that could usher China into the modern world. In 1927, Yu Manzhen joined the Chinese Communist Party soon after its founding; she also became a noted teacher for women in the modern educational system in Hunan.

Ding Ling has been one of the great survivors in modern Chinese literary history. Not only has she survived the dangers of war, exile, hard labor, and imprisonment by the governments of both right and left; she has also endured as a creative and practicing writer.

—Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker

In 1911, the Manchu regime ruling China fell, but a series of weak and often corrupt governments followed, sometimes dominated by military "warlord" leaders and sometimes by earnest but powerless reformers like Sun Yat-sen. At the side of her radical mother, Ding Ling lived an exciting childhood, exposed to the political chaos of the time, when suggestions for change came from all directions. In just one example, she was on hand to hear a debate on political reform in China from two great visiting Western thinkers, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey.

Ding Ling was captivated by Western literature and read translations of modern French, British, and Russian works. She was particularly influenced by Flaubert, and is said to have read his novel Madame Bovary more than ten times. Since the scholars who wrote and interpreted the works of the Chinese tradition were the most highly prized in Confucian society, all literary works were deemed inescapably political; even fiction was supposed to present "proper" values and behavior. In such a context, it was inevitable that contemporary Western literary works would be considered important both in discrediting that old society and in shaping radical alternatives, making Ding Ling's interest in Western literature appropriate to the times. This drawing upon Western and Soviet inspirations for their own political and social ideals by the Chinese youth came to be known as the "May Fourth Movement," after a series of nationwide demonstrations against the corrupt Chinese government. Ding Ling, like her mother and Mao Zedong, became an activist in the students' movement in Hunan.

In 1920, when she was probably 16, Ding Ling fled to Shanghai to avoid an attempt by her paternal uncles to arrange a traditional marriage for her. At the very center of the radical movement in Shanghai, she met and studied, or worked, with many of the young people who would one day be China's Communist elite. In the following years, she moved from Shanghai to Nanking, and then the capital of Beijing, where she either failed to pass the entrance exam to the University of Beijing, or simply did not attempt to formally enter the institution considered China's educational and radical political mecca. Enrolled or not, she studied with a number of China's famous intellectuals, particularly in the field of literature. In Beijing, she lived with a young poet, Hu Yuepin, a man committed as she was to both literature and reform.

In 1927, a strong government for China was temporarily achieved through the emergence of the Guomindang (Nationalist Party), unifying the country under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek, a military man who presented himself as the successor to Sun Yat-sen. Chiang and other leaders of his Guomindang Party wanted just enough reform to strengthen China against its internal and external enemies. In contrast, the Communist Party held the belief that more thorough-going reforms were necessary, to change both the political and social systems of China, and Chinese culture itself. By 1928, party followers were engaged in a life-and-death struggle.

Yu Manzhen (fl. 1900)

Chinese reformer. Name variations: Yü Man-chen. Married Jiang Yufeng (a Confucian scholar). An early female political activist and mother of Ding Ling.

Ding Ling lived a bohemian life during this period, troubled by the failure of her ideals and her own lack of achievement. While maintaining

a miserably poor existence in Shanghai, she drank too much and had at least one love affair outside her relationship with Hu Yuepin, but she also began to write. In 1928, she published the long story "Miss Sophia's Diary," which was to define her as a writer and be her most famous work. Tani Barlow, editor of a collection of Ding Ling's work, describes this story as "the emotional life of a tubercular woman driven to near madness by erotic passion for an unworthy man." Although the narrative drew upon elements of Ding Ling's life, it was not truly autobiographical. But the Chinese, unaccustomed to seeing such basic human drives presented so publicly, and particularly by a woman, took it as such, and Ding Ling became the notorious model of the liberated modern Chinese woman.

In the following years, Ding Ling wrote with a fierce passion, turning out collection after collection of short fiction pieces, most of which related directly to the problems of Chinese women like herself. In 1930, she had a son with her lover (some now say her husband) Hu Yuepin, and the child was sent to Hunan to live with her mother. In 1931, Hu and several other radical writers were executed by the Guomindang, and the following year Ding Ling joined the Communist Party, which treated women's issues as of major importance. The fact that she knew many of the party's leaders must have helped make the decision seem natural to her. In 1933, Ding Ling and a new lover, Feng Da, were kidnapped by the Guomindang and reportedly held under house arrest for four years; little is known of her life during this period except that she gave birth to a daughter, which her mother also took to raise, and Feng died of tuberculosis.

In 1937, Ding Ling was either freed or escaped and fled to Yanan, a Communist-based area where Mao Zedong was the leader. Although Ding Ling accepted the position of the party that all other reform movements were to be subordinated to its own seizure of power, she did not always believe that the party treated women equally. Her works during this period dealt with women's problems within a context that argued that the issues could be solved only through Communist victory. In March 1942, she published "Thoughts on March 8th," an essay relating to Women's Day (a holiday begun, ironically, but no longer widely celebrated, in the United States), in which she implied a split between theory and practice by questioning the treatment of women within the party.

Mao Zedong saw women as integral to revolution, and under his leadership the women's movement prospered. But nothing came before the victory of the revolution. In "Talks On Literature and Art at the Yanan Forum," an essay of his that followed Ding Ling's work, Mao took the hard line, stating that all art was subordinate to politics and must serve the revolution in a direct and obvious manner. Ding Ling was subjected to party discipline for presenting relationships between men and women within the party in ambiguous terms, and lost some of the power she had begun to accumulate as chief speaker for women's issues within the party. Essentially, the Communists, like the Confucians, were recognizing the power of literature to affect behavior and attempting in response to force literary content to conform to set standards.

Ding Ling's literary and political eclipse proved temporary; she wrote much in the following decades and also led entertainment troupes, edited plays and stories. In 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party triumphed over the Guomindang, her influence rose in national literary and political circles. She subsequently held many important posts in both the party and in literary organizations. Although her works could be openly didactic, they also usually presented rich characterizations amid supple and complex modes of development. Her major extended work, The Sun Shines over the Sanggang River, was published in 1951.

But Mao, dissatisfied with the steady pace of China's progress, launched a series of disruptive actions intended to take the country forward with unprecedented speed. Increasingly, he subordinated not only art but economic and political development to his own utopian vision. In 1957, after a series of minor writers and artists had been attacked as too individualistic and concerned with their own personal and selfish visions, Ding Ling became a target. Among other charges, she was held to have been too free in her past sexual behavior. As always, her own beliefs and activities were confused with those of the troubled heroines, like Miss Sophia, that she had created.

Sent into internal exile in Manchuria, Ding Ling attempted to keep writing while forced to do manual labor. In the final paroxysm of Mao's attempt to remold Chinese culture, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Ding Ling was attacked by the Communist Red Guards, and the long manuscript for her sequel to The Sun Shines over the Sanggang River was destroyed.

With the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, and the emergence of the reform regime of Deng Xiaoping, Ding Ling reappeared from exile. Widely honored for her works and her life of struggle, she lectured throughout China, received foreign visitors, and traveled abroad. This measure of fame and security lasted until she died of cancer in 1985.

The life of Ding Ling is difficult to assess from a Western perspective. The problems of Chinese women were not, and are not, those of Western women, though there is, of course, some overlap. Although Ding Ling sometimes disagreed as to the exact value of specific marching orders, she accepted the importance of a centralized political movement and did not doubt that politics must command art; in the course of her work for the party, she also disciplined other writers and artists for their political errors. Throughout her career, political and literary life remained indistinguishable.


Barlow, Tani E., with Gary J. Bjorge. I Myself Am a Woman: Selected Writings of Ding Ling. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Feuerwerker, Yi-tsi Mei. Ding Ling's Fiction: Ideology and Narrative in Modern Chinese Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Isaacs, Harold R., ed. Straw Sandals: Chinese Short Stories, 1918–1933. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1974.

Klein, Donald W. and Anne B. Clark, eds. "Ting Ling," in Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Communism, 1921–1965. Vol II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 843–846.

Ting Ling (Ding Ling). The Sun Shines over the Sangkan River. Translated by Yan Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1954.

suggested reading:

Chow Tse-tsung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.

Goldman, Merle. Literary Dissent in Communist China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Jeffrey G. Barlow , Professor in the Department of Social Studies, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon