The Suicide of Miss Xi:
Democracy and Disenchantment in the Chinese Republic

By Bryna Goodman

Reviewed by Joan Judge

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2022)

Bryna Goodman, The Suicide of Miss Xi: Democracy and Disenchantment in the Chinese Republic. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2021, 339 pages. ISBN: 9780674248823 (Hardcover)

The Suicide of Miss Xi: Democracy and Disenchantment in the Chinese Republic is a deeply researched thick description of a dramatic suicide that took place on September 8, 1922, a pivotal moment in the unfolding of China’s troubled Republic. Goodman extracts three key facets of the incident that have ramifications for a fuller understanding of the period: gender and the ambiguous status of the New Woman; the stock exchange and the fragility of both economic structures and economic understanding; and the law as manipulable force rather than final arbiter. The story is layered, the key protagonists flawed, and the outcome neither clear nor satisfactory. Miss Xi’s suicide thus stands in for the complexity and unsettledness of the period.

The book “illuminates a moment, after the fall of empire and before the rise of central party rule, when urban Chinese improvised practices of liberal democracy in public life” (24). The moment coincides with the May Fourth period with its forceful narratives of newness and its invocations of the power of Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy. The suicide of Miss Xi highlights how removed those narratives were from the messy contradictions of what Goodman labels the “vernacular” realm. She probes reactions to the suicide in the periodical press and in associational life (native-place associations, chambers of commerce, trade associations [a.k.a., “guilds”], the Jingwu Athletic Association, etc.) for evidence of democratic forces that struggled to assert themselves despite the lack of state scaffolding to support them. Her rich primary source base includes newspapers; associational, professional and women’s journals; and police, commercial, native place, diplomatic, private, and court archives. Through scrutinizing of these materials, she uncovers what she describes as an active “public without a Republic.”

The first key figure in the story is Xi Shangzhen 席上珍, who hanged herself, after two previous failed attempts, in the Shanghai newspaper office where she worked. She is something of a New Woman manqué: she had attended a progressive girl’s school and was the first female employee at a prominent journal in Shanghai’s International Concession, but she lacked the exuberance of the ideal-type New Woman. She lived frugally and remained tied to her humble origins in Shanghai’s Chinese city. She never had herself photographed, forcing journalists to crop a cameo of her from a family portrait to print alongside their reporting on the suicide. She wrote fiction of which a public that was otherwise riveted by her story ultimately took no notice. Her interior life was of less interest than her status as a multiply-refracting symbol of the perils of new womanhood, the fragility of female personhood, and/or the uncompromised valor of female chastity.

The second key figure is Xi’s employer and nemesis, Tang Jiezhi 湯節之 (Fred C. Tong), the US-educated editor of the socially progressive Journal of Commerce (商報) for which Xi worked. Tang was a force, a man who seemed to live many lives with all of the exuberance that Xi lacked. He had trained as a doctor but didn’t practice as one—a detail that only becomes relevant in the broader drama in that he allegedly revived Xi with an injection after her first suicide attempt. He was a leader of the Guangdong sojourner community in Shanghai, and a civic and political activist. He was also the founder of a speculative trust company at the height of a financial bubble that would be the key backdrop to Tang’s entangled relations with Xi and her ultimate suicide.

Xi Shangzhen’s family alleged that Tang had defrauded Xi of 5,000 yuan by encouraging her to purchase stock, which she never received. When she attempted suicide in despair over her impending financial ruin, Tang supposedly placated her with an IOU, promising to return the money in three installments. Xi’s family further accused Tang of suggesting Xi become his concubine as a way of absolving his debt.

The book is comprised of a brief prologue and both an introductory and concluding chapter that discuss the broader issues of democracy and the “empty republic.” The three core chapters of the book closely examine the facets of the suicide that are Goodman’s focus: gender, the stock exchange, and the law.

“Prologue: A Scandal in the City” describes the suicide and the key players in the drama, which include not only Xi and Tang but the periodical press, Tang’s Commercial Trust Company, and the association of sojourners from Xi’s home area, the Dongting East Mountain association that mounted Xi’s defense. It also introduces Tang’s arrest and trial, which through an act of subterfuge, was conducted in the Chinese courts rather than the Mixed Court in the International Concession, much to Tang’s disadvantage.

Chapter 1, “Shanghai Democracy and the Empty Republic” provides the institutional background for both the incident and the study. It attempts to uncover something of both Xi and Tang’s elusive personas by examining Xi’s unpublished fiction and the founding of Tang’s Journal of Commerce. Xi’s three pieces of fiction were written in different registers, from melodrama to May Fourth-style social realism, but all highlight the theme of female self-sacrifice. The Journal of Commerce was acclaimed for its in-depth commercial and domestic news. It was perhaps most renowned for its bold editorials, a mark of Tang’s forceful political presence, and a contributor to his later legal undoing.

Chapter 2, “The New Woman, the Ghost, and the Ubiquitous Concubine” covers much already well-tread ground concerning transformations in gender relations in the early twentieth century. This includes tension-ridden discussions about who New Women were and should be, and whether there was a place for concubines in the Republic. A highlight of the chapter is further analysis of Xi’s own writing. This includes her commemoration of a chaste maiden that reveals the extent to which chaste suicide registered as heroism for Xi. Chastity evoked  a cacophony of responses within the broader public, serving as a barometer of the often deeply contradictory views of womanhood in the period. Illustrations from the mainstream and tabloid press eloquently punctuate the chapter.

Chapter 3, “Long Live the Republic, Long Live the Stock Exchange” is a fascinating exploration of, as the title suggests, the ways the stock market came to stand in for Republican aspirations, and, by extension, the profound sense of desperation that permeated society when the promise of the market proved to be as hollow as the promise of the Republic. The chapter describes the intersection between economic and political reform in the writings of prominent late Qing and Republican thinkers from Kang Youwei 康有為 to Sun Yat-sen 孫中山. Its focus is on the almost manic rush to create China’s first stock exchanges, an unregulated process fueled by the avarice both of stock exchange founders—such as the Shanghai banking comprador Yu Xiaqing 虞洽卿—and of those who bought into the mirage of stock market riches, including Xi Shanghzhen and her family. There were voices that attempted to moderate the process, including the Nantong industrialist Zhang Jian 張謇, but the power of the forces literally willing to gamble in order to seek wealth were indomitable. Goodman traces the links between Tang’s Journal of Commerce and both the stock exchange to which it was indebted from its inception, and the launching of trust companies the journal promoted as central to national development and economic sovereignty. She traces the intimate connection between the fevered economic impulses to establish exchanges and trust companies, on the one hand, and nationalist impulses, on the other: drivers of the stock exchanges promoted the adoption of ill-suited foreign economic models as a means of fending off foreign incursions into the Chinese economy. The stock market imbroglio further highlighted gender tensions beyond Xi’s suicide as a trusting but ill-informed investor. Although women were barred from working at the stock exchange, they were encouraged to invest in it. Finally, the chapter relates attitudes, highlighted by the swelling and bursting of the financial bubble, to longstanding Chinese gambling practices.

Chapter 4, “Morality and Justice in an Unsettled Republic” parallels the logic of the stock exchange chapter. It highlights the need for new legal pedagogies and the links between shallow understandings of the law and a superficial commitment to Republican values. It also foregrounds nationalist ambivalence about creating a modern Chinese judiciary based on foreign juridical models. In addition to investigating macro questions concerning the Sino-Western Mixed Court versus the Chinese courts, the status of the law as an institution in China, and the paucity of Chinese written law, the chapter also describes Tang’s criminal trial in granular detail. Tang was charged with committing financial fraud by luring Xi to buy stock that she never received. Goodman shows that the trial was ultimately not merely a clash of facts, however, but a clash of legal cultures: on the one hand, the Dongting native-place association and its appeal to an older moral calculus and righteous community valor in its mediating role on Xi’s family’s behalf; on the other, Tang’s assertion of the authority of formal law and his ties to foreign authority. In the end, his defense would be derailed not by formal justice but by Tang’s prior political tangles with the powerful Defense Commissioner, He Fenglin 何豐林.

The final chapter, “A Public without a Republic,” returns to the question of what the case of Xi’s suicide reveals about the impotence of Republican democracy in the context of the indeterminacy of the Chinese state. It reflects on the significance of the study itself, including its addition of a critical economic dimension to the literature on an unfinished or failed Republic.

The book is densely written and the narrative tightly layered as it repeatedly doubles back over various details of the case while uncovering a kaleidoscope of aspects of this fraught moment. Goodman categorizes this kaleidoscope—the object of her study—as the “vernacular culture of the everyday” (213). It encompasses “urban identities and networks, print culture and the forging of meaning, ideas of the market and a failing state, tensions of the sexually integrated workspace, and the dramas of the courtroom,” all of which she juxtaposes to “more familiar May Fourth themes” (213). Although this is a salutary conceptual move, scholars have been de-centering May Fourth themes for decades now, to the point that some have recently argued that it is now time to revisit the movement, if from new angles. Hopefully other studies will continue to unpack some of these other angles that Goodman has begun to unravel. “The vernacular,” as she capaciously defines it, was not singular but was multi-registered. The concerns of mainstream and tabloid journalists were not the same; the economic pedagogy in Tang’s popular reference book on trust companies was distinct from the economic pedagogy in professional journals; morality figured differently in a feminist screed and a juridical brief; members of the “public” made sense of the law and the market in a plethora of ways.

Goodman leaves us with many loose threads as does the case itself: who arrived first at the scene of Xi’s death? Was there a suicide note? Did Xi receive the shares and pawn them or never receive them? Given Xi’s previous suicide attempts and her stated determination to die in the office, why did her sister calmly finish her meal before heading to the newspaper office after having been alerted that something was awry on that fateful evening?

For all of its broader meanings and ramifications, which Goodman has so deftly extracted from Xi’s case, the suicide of Miss Xi is, in essence, a very human drama that, while entwined with the failure of the Republic, ultimately transcended it. It is the drama of a modest family whose hopes for riches were tragically thwarted, and of a worldly man of vision and energy brought down by his own hubris.

Joan Judge
York University