Public Passions Term Paper

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Public Passions

Shi Jianqiao became a media sensation in Nationalist China during the 1930s for shooting the ex-warlord Sun Chuanfang, a leading member of the Tianjin Qingxiu lay-Buddhist society (jushilin). She shot Sun three times on November 13, 1935 in prayer hall (congregation site) on Nanma Road. Although she was prosecuted for murder, the courts returned a controversial final verdict of judicial leniency, and the Nationalist (Guomindang) regime overturned this final verdict by issuing a state pardon. These events led to a public debate on the merits and demerits of filial revenge, although contemporary accounts do not examine the larger sociopolitical implications the case may have had. Shi Jianqiao represented the female assassin's singular and violent expression of filial sentiment (xiao), as well as the female warrior code of "chivalrous virtue" (xia), and helped give rise to a new communal form of ethical sentiment - "public sympathy" (tongqing). For liberal and leftist elites who hoped to modernize China, such a case of blood revenge based on filial piety was a throwback to the most regressive and feudal values of the Imperial state, although it certainly fit within the parameters of the neo-Confucian revival promulgated by the Nationalists in the 1930s. For the masses who supported her cause, the qing (emotion) associated with the case represented ethical sentiment in favor of her actions. Her lawyers also appealed to the "moral authority" of public sympathy and used the Confucian classics in court (Lean 73).

This case raises questions about whether the rationalist modernism of the Enlightenment really had mass support at all. To be sure, the Nationalist regime itself was hardly free of the taint of private violence, corruption, revenge and murder of political opponents, and could not exactly be considered a model of respect for liberal values and the rule of law. This paper therefore explores how the case of Shi Jianqiao prompted public dialogue over the relevance of sentiment (qing) to Chinese modernity, as the debate raged over whether filial heroism was suitable for a citizen in modern China. Public sympathy became a source of particular social anxiety for the educated elites, but on the other hand, this communal sentiment also served as an antidote to an era of inauthenticity generated by slick mass media, the corrupt factionalism of the Nationalist regime, and the lack of justice in its courts. Even so, the modernizing elites also regarded collective emotionalism as barbarous, reactionary and dangerous. In this sense, the crime of Shi Jianquing holds up a mirror the Nationalist society for conceptualizing the development of urban publics in modern China within the context of a burgeoning consumer mass culture and growing political authoritarianism

Lean based her history on extensive research in the primary sources such as the Municipal Archives of Beijing and Chongqing and the Academia Historia in Taipei, as well as contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts. This was a highly sensationalized event in Nationalist China in 1935-36, with even the most 'respectable' newspapers like the Tianjin Dagongbao (L'Imparial) running headlines that screamed "Blood Spatters Buddhist Shrine!" And describing in graphic detail shot how the calm and composed Shi Jianqiao shot Sun Chuanfang in the head and blew his brains all over the shrine (Lean 2). There were even plays, radio programs and films about her, with titles like All about an Avenging Daughter, while "the trial itself was a spectacle." Periodicals "gave substantial editorial space to the debate among urban professionals and social critics advocating reforms over the merits and demerits of filial revenge" (Lean 2). Her attorneys were first rate, and argued that she had the right and duty to seek revenge after Sun had decapitated her father and stuck his head on a pike ten years previously, while the prosecution upheld the role of law and public order. For the Nationalist government that finally pardoned her, warlords like Sun would not be missed, particularly since they already had the support of his rivals, the Zhili clique. On the other had, Sun had brutally repressed striking workers, dealt in opium and collaborated with the Japanese. Behind the scenes, the Zhili's were powerful lobbyists in Shi Jianqiao's cause, who became a Nationalist heroine although for the Left she was a throwback to the feudal and reactionary past of blood feuds and private revenge. This is why she suffered under the repression of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and was only rehabilitated shortly before her death in 1979.

Post-Confucian Social and Political Order

Studies the complex notion of qing that have primarily been focused on late imperial culture, philosophy and literature, rather that the fascist and quasi-feudal culture of violence in the Republican era, or the role of ethical violence in modern justice. Confucians and Taoists insisted that the moral and righteous had to 'identify himself with the Way's true nature (tongqing)'. By the late Ming period, a philosophical and literary movement known as the "cult of sentiment" challenged this classical ambivalence toward qing by reversing the trend of placing emotion below ritual authority. With the fall of the Ming, the celebration of qing as a foundational moral force once again became problematic, due to criticism of acts promoted by spontaneous feelings. While the late Qing saw tentative explorations involving new notions of interiority and emotion, it was not until after the collapse of the imperial system and the dethroning of its attendant Confucian orthodoxy during the May Fourth movement that the notion of modern subjectivity predicated on an emotional core became the basis of an entirely new cosmological order. Haiyan Lee (2002) points to this genealogical shift by characterizing the late Qing discourse on qing as a "Confucian structure of feeling" that sought to assert the moral authority of qing in order to rejuvenate what was essentially a Confucian social order that rested on hierarchical ethical relations.

May Fourth thinkers sought to put forth a radical reconfiguration of the relationship between sentiment and modern society. The May Fourth individual possessed psychological interiority and was part of a universal humanity in his or her ability to feel, to weep, and to fall in love. For many May Fourth writers, the New Woman (xin nuxing) was a model in her rejection of the strictures of Confucian arranged marriage and familial ritual obligation and her adoption of a life of free, romantic love and sexual liberation. Much of the moral venom was simply the sting of iconoclasm inherited from the May Fourth movement. Revenge was denounced as selfish because it was motivated by a dangerously outdated ethic of filial piety. Competing interpretations abounded over whether Shi's revenge was a treacherous product of the earlier decade or an effective resolution of it, and the divergence in the two interpretations stemmed from differences in views about the national and moral implications of female sentiment in the 1930s. Having matured significantly since the initial forays into anarchism and socialism during the May Fourth period, Chinese Marxism of the late decade articulated a more sophisticated narrative of historical materialism, at the center of which was the concept of society. In the 1930s Chinese Marxists believed that collective emotion posed a serious threat to the Chinese nation, these critics envisioned the new affective public as the inferior feminine 'other' with regard to the superior discourses of masculine rationality. Most legal observers of the case were left aghast at the thought that sentiment should ever take precedence over the faithful application of the legal code.

Western Marxist and neo-Marxist critics of liberalism like Habermas, Horkheimer and Adorno regarded mass-produced and mass-consumed culture as an instrument of domination and social control. Obviously, even within the cities the majority of Chinese hardly participated in a mass consumer culture in the 1930s. If they had been mostly middle class consumers, the Communists would have had little success in converting them to the cause or overthrowing the Nationalist regime. Just the opposite, the many social, political and economic failures of the regime and its lack of popular support opened the door to the Red Revolution. In the absence of a large middle class, at least outside the largest urban centers, liberal modernism and the Enlightenment did not have deep roots in the China of the 1930s. Those interested in the question of a 'public' in modern Chinese history have focused on finding evidence of an authentic rational, autonomous, and liberal public, and they tend, therefore, to gravitate toward either the late Qing period of the 1920s.

To an extent, the sensationalist mass media in the cities of the 1930s provides us with an interesting position from which to consider how this might have helped to mobilize or call to being, a modern public that expressed a powerful critique of an actively centralizing regime. Public sympathy could be mobilized into a force that could sway legal proceedings, threaten the moral authority of cultural elites, mediate center-warlord relations, and influence the state's tactics in legitimating its power. At the same time, the emotions of the masses always remained vulnerable to manipulation by higher authorities.…[continue]

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