Inside Story

Death in Shanghai

How Xu Shangzhen’s suicide gripped a city

Linda Jaivin Books 16 September 2021 1467 words

“Not a pen remained dry”: Shanghai harbour and the Bund, around 1920. Walter Gircke/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The Suicide of Miss Xi: Democracy and Disenchantment in the Chinese Republic
By Bryna Goodman | Harvard University Press | $65.95 | 352 pages

Xi Shangzhen, a twenty-four-year-old clerk at the Chinese newspaper Journal of Commerce, had been an exemplary “new woman” in the post-dynastic, early republican era — an educated advocate of women taking up paid work and a rare female employee in the male-dominated world of journalism. Her boss, Tang Jiezhi, was prominent in both commercial and progressive political circles, where he embraced the idea that business had an important role to play in nation-building. In 1922, Xi hanged herself in the office they shared, sparking such a furore that, as one observer wrote, “not a pen remained dry.”

By committing suicide in their shared office, Xi implicated Tang in her death: in the traditional moral code, suicide was the ultimate reproach, and the unsettled ghost of the dead was said to linger until justice was finally served. But Xi didn’t leave a note, or at least none was ever found. Did she kill herself because Tang had invested — and lost — a significant sum of her money on the stock market? Or because he had suggested she become his concubine, as her family later alleged? The tragedy and the surrounding intrigue, which touched on so many facets of China’s transition to modernity, captured the public imagination and inspired an outpouring of commentary. No fewer than three books about the incident were published within weeks.

Historian Bryna Goodman has delved deep into a story that has since lain forgotten among the greater dramas of the era. More than two thousand years of dynastic rule had ended only ten years earlier, with the republican revolution led by Sun Yat-sen. But the government had already split into warring factions, with further challenges to its authority from regional warlords, who carved off chunks of territory to rule themselves. The patriotic May Fourth movement of 1919 had galvanised students, workers and businesspeople alike to fight for national revival and cultural rejuvenation and helped to inspire the founding of the Communist Party of China in 1921. The semi-colonial exploitation of the country that had begun under the fallen Qing dynasty, meanwhile, continued into the modern era, with European powers and Japan controlling a number of key ports and resources.

Semi-colonial, transnational Shanghai was China’s most modern city, yet old ways and thinking maintained a stubborn hold. In The Suicide of Miss Xi, Goodman draws on a huge range of original sources, including court transcripts (Tang was subsequently convicted of financial fraud) and Xi’s own writings, to show how this incident illuminates the social, political and economic contradictions and tensions of its time.

Both male and female supporters of women’s rights had argued passionately for women’s participation in education, work and nation-building. Yet many also agonised about how women could preserve their “virtue” in male-dominated workplaces. After Xi’s death, even feminists spoke of her according to what Goodman describes as a “formulaic pattern of virtue”; she was, they said, “quiet, diligent and chaste.” That Tang might have proposed concubinage to her — as a way, perhaps, of helping her out of the financial hole he’d helped dig for her — struck them as particularly odious given that Xi had previously vowed that she would never marry.

Feminists of the time tended to view concubines as embarrassing, even morally tainted, leftovers from the old society. New marriage laws forbade a man taking more than one wife, and marriage was henceforth to be an arrangement freely chosen by both sides, in theory at least. Betraying their elite perspective, many feminists failed to consider that concubinage, which persisted as a practice, may have remained the only option for some less-privileged women.

Instead, they assumed that concubines, along with prostitutes, had made their choice out of avarice. Progressive women’s associations in Shanghai at the time of Xi’s suicide typically denied membership to concubines or even former concubines. To their minds, Tang’s alleged proposal was both outrageous coming from a man of supposedly progressive ideals and a profound insult to Xi’s character and identity as a modern woman.

Then there was the question of her shares. It was one thing for a woman to want to achieve economic self-sufficiency — to become, as Xi did, a provider for her family — but quite another to be greedy and profit-seeking. Many commentators, sympathetic and less sympathetic alike, noted that Xi was hardly alone in having risked money in this way. Pretty much everyone in Shanghai with money to spare was investing in the stock market — or rather, markets. By the end of 1921, more than 140 stock exchanges were operating, including some that traded in single commodities. Tang’s Journal of Commerce was one of many outlets founded on progressive ideals that promoted investment in stocks as a social and political good. Progressives had observed how stock markets in the United States, Japan and elsewhere contributed to the strength of these countries by raising capital for their industries as well as helping democratise wealth.

This is one of the details that has been largely lost in the telling of the story of modern China. As Goodman notes, “Historians have not generally placed economics, let alone stock exchanges, among the structuring ideas of the early Republic or as a constituent element of May Fourth ideas of science and democracy.” Her work here is a major contribution to modern historiography.

As Goodman shows, regulation was a lot scarcer than enthusiasm. The markets were rife with speculation, insider trading and other forms of manipulation. When the inevitable crash came, it took with it the precious savings of many, making Xi “a symbol of human vulnerability, an individual swept into the whirlpool of financial temptations, in a city of untrammelled greed.” Some of the fury that Tang copped in the aftermath of Xi’s suicide resulted from his paper’s previously enthusiastic endorsement of stock-buying combined with his own vested interests in the exchanges: he became, as Goodman observes, “a perfect target for public rumination over the immorality of the new order.”

That rumination had a platform in the vibrant and diverse local press that sprang up in the early republican era. In response to Xi’s suicide, the papers published a great stream of cartoons, commentary, reportage and even poetry written by readers; several even featured word-by-word transcripts of Tang’s trial. Women’s groups, chambers of commerce, and hometown or home-province associations — indeed, grassroots public organisations of all sorts — weighed into the controversy as well. With a dysfunctional polity, both public associations and the press stood in as arenas for public life, testing grounds for democracy, and arbiters of social justice.

The semi-colonial nature of Shanghai factors into this complex story as well. The Journal of Commerce had its offices in the city’s International Settlement, which had its own courts separate from China’s legal system. When Chinese judicial officials determined to put Tang on trial for financial fraud, they had to kidnap him in the foreign concession and take him across the street to Chinese sovereign territory. Yet because Xi had clearly killed herself and there was no evidence that Tang had committed any crime, and given that China was still years away from its first civil law, the fact that he was arraigned was a travesty of justice.

When Tang went to trial, the courtroom was packed with members of the public, journalists and even actors from a theatre troupe preparing to perform a play about Xi’s death. Despite the evidence for criminal prosecution being, as Goodman writes, “illogical, unsupported, and unwarranted,” the judge dismissed the brief prepared by Tang’s excellent legal team as “confusingly irrelevant.” Although the charges revolved around financial misdeeds, the judge was more interested in the accusation that Tang had pressured Xi to be his concubine. In the end, he sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment. Moral judgement, including the view that the stock markets were intrinsically malevolent and unethical, trumped the law.

Among those disturbed by the verdict was Sun Yat-sen himself, who asserted, “It is particularly inappropriate for a court of law to ignore the evidence in favour of the popular sentiment.” What’s more, a military man whom Tang had offended over other matters ensured that he served more than twice his sentence, and in a military prison.

The People’s Republic of China today continues to wrestle with many of the issues raised by Xi’s suicide. These include the relationship between private wealth accumulation and national flourishing, the nature of the judiciary and its relationship to the law, and the contradiction between the opportunities available to young women and societal expectations. Even concubines — now called “mistresses” — remain a hot topic that divides Chinese feminists. If, as ancient Chinese historians liked to say, history is a mirror, there are plenty of apposite reflections to be found in this one. •