A suicide scandal in Shanghai reveals the social fault lines of democratic visions in China’s troubled Republic in the early 1920s.
On September 8, 1922, the body of Xi Shangzhen was found hanging in the Shanghai newspaper office where she worked. Although her death took place outside of Chinese jurisdiction, her United States–educated employer, the social activist Tang Jiezhi, was kidnapped by Chinese authorities and put on trial. As scandal rocked the city, novelists, filmmakers, suffragists, reformers, and even a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party seized upon the case as emblematic of deeper social problems. Xi’s family claimed that Tang had pressured her to be his concubine; his conviction instead for financial fraud only stirred further controversy.
The creation of a republic ten years earlier had unleashed a powerful vision of popular sovereignty and a view of citizenship founded upon science, equality, and family reform. But, Bryna Goodman shows, after the suppression of the first Chinese parliament, efforts at urban liberal democracy dissolved in a flash of speculative finance and the suicide of an educated, working “new woman.” In yet another blow, Tang’s trial exposed the frailty of legal mechanisms in a political landscape fragmented by warlords and enclaves of foreign colonial rule.
The Suicide of Miss Xi opens a window onto how urban Chinese in the first part of the twentieth century navigated China’s early passage through democratic populism, in an ill-fated moment of possibility between empire and party dictatorship. Xi Shangzhen became a symbol of the failures of the Chinese Republic as well as the broken promises of citizen’s rights, gender equality, and financial prosperity betokened by liberal democracy and capitalism.