Today in women’s history: Ding Ling, forgotten Chinese author, remembered

On this date in 1986, the writer Ding Ling, a champion of women’s rights, died. Born as Jiang Bingzhi in Linli, Hunan province, China, on October 12, 1904, Ding Ling (her pen name) was the prolific author of nearly 300 novels, as well as plays, short stories and essays. Among the most celebrated 20th-century Chinese authors, she received the 1951 Stalin Prize for Literature for her 1949 novel The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River.

Ding was born into the gentry. After her father’s death when she was three, her mother became an educator and Ding’s role model. Ding would later write an unfinished novel, titled Mother, which described her mother’s experiences.

Ding fled to Shanghai in 1920, repudiating traditional Chinese family practice by refusing to marry her cousin who had been chosen for her. She rejected the view that parents are a child’s owners, and she firmly asserted that she controlled her own body.

Ding Ling was influenced by progressive teachers at the People’s Girls School, and by her association with modern writers such as the left-wing poet Hu Yepin, whom she married in 1925. She began writing stories around this time, most famously Miss Sophia’s Diary, published in 1927, in which a young woman describes her unhappiness in life and her confused romantic and sexual feelings. In 1931, Hu Yepin was executed in Shanghai by the Kuomintang government for his association with the Communists. In March 1932 Ding joined the Chinese Communist Party, and almost all of her fiction after this time was in support of its goals. She held a leading position in the League of Left-Wing Writers.

Active in the Communist revolutionary cause, she was placed under house arrest in Shanghai by the Kuomintang for a three-year period from 1933 to 1936. She escaped and made her way to the Communist base of Yan’an. There she became one of the most influential figures in Yan’an cultural circles, serving as director of the Chinese Literature and Arts Association and editing a newspaper literary supplement.

Ding Ling struggled with the idea that revolutionary needs, defined by the party, should come before art. She objected to the gender standards at work in Yan’an. In 1942, she wrote an article in a party newspaper questioning the party’s commitment to change popular attitudes towards women. She satirized male double standards concerning women, saying they were ridiculed if they focused on household duties, but also became the target of gossip and rumors if they remained unmarried and worked in the public sphere. She also criticized male cadres using divorce provisions to rid themselves of unwanted wives. Her article was condemned by Mao Tse-tung and the party leadership, and she was forced to retract her views and undergo a public self-confession.

Ding Ling developed a new kind of Chinese heroine – daring, independent, and passionate, yet perplexed and emotionally unfulfilled in her search for the meaning of life. Her main work in these years was the novel The Sun Shines Over Sanggan River, which followed the complex results of land reform on a rural village. Considered one of the best examples of socialist-realist fiction, it did not, however, address gender issues. It has been translated into numerous languages.

Always a political activist, in 1957 she was denounced as a “rightist,” purged from the party, and in 1970 imprisoned. Her writings were banned. She spent five years in jail during the Cultural Revolution and was sentenced to manual labor on a farm for 12 years before being “rehabilitated” in 1978. After the death of Chairman Mao, Ding was freed, her membership in the Communist Party was restored, and during her last years she enjoyed renewed attention. Late in life, she was allowed to travel to the United States, where she was a guest at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. She died at the age of 81 in Beijing.

In her introduction to Miss Sophie’s Diary and Other Stories, Ding Ling explains her indebtedness to the writers of other cultures:

“I can say that if I had not been influenced by Western literature I would probably not have been able to write fiction, or at any rate not the kind of fiction in this collection. It is obvious that my earliest stories followed the path of Western realism…. A little later, as the Chinese revolution developed, my fiction changed with the needs of the age and of the Chinese people…. Literature ought to join minds together…turning ignorance into mutual understanding. Time, place and institutions cannot separate it from the friends it wins…. And in 1957, a time of spiritual suffering for me, I found consolation in reading much Latin American and African literature.”

Some of her short works, spanning a 50-year period, are collected in I Myself Am a Woman: Selected Writings of Ding Ling.

Adapted from Wikipedia and other sources.

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)


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