I recently got a postcard asking me to assign a pamphlet “Li Fengjin: How the New Marriage Law Helped Chinese Women Stand Up” translated by Susan Glosser and published by Opal Mogus Books. Somehow this postcard managed to beat the odds, and I actually looked at it on its quick trip to the circular file. The book is cheap (only $5.95) and students may actually read it, so I will probably end up using it next time I teach Modern China.
There are lots of interesting things in it. The story is about Li Fengjin, a woman who is trapped in an arranged marriage with a brutal husband and, eventually, manages to get out of it with the help of the 1950 Marriage Law, the text of which is attached. As always, the most interesting parts are those that don’t entirely manage to shake off the old ways. At one point when she has fled her husband’s house she meets up with a man Gu Shujin, and eventually ends up “shacking up” with him. The word ‘love’ is never used in connection with this relationship. This is something that always causes my students problems. Some of them watched Red Sorghum and they were mystified by the central relationship, since the woman and the man never showed the slightest interest in each other. My explanation was that a love relationship is a good modern thing, but too much interest in the other makes the woman a slut and the man a rake. So you fall in love, and everyone knows you are in love because you never give any sign of it. You are acting modern by rejecting the old feudal relationship of marriage but you need to preserve the proprieties or else you fall into another feudal relationship based on lust. So liberation and what we would call prudishness go hand in hand.
On the other hand, in the panel above Li Fengjin is standing in the doorway in what both Glosser and I see as a very provocative pose, as if the authors were trying to show that sexual desire could be acceptable in some contexts.
The Party does not come out all that well in this. One of the things about all of this immediate post-49 stuff is that it is aimed at much at lower level party members as at the masses. Li Fengjin asks the township chief for a divorce, but he turns her down since she can’t repay the 20 dan of rice her family got for her. The Chief is presented as a good person (peasant) who does not yet understand the party line. Actually, even his initial position of allowing a divorce after compensation is pretty revolutionary After a brief public self-criticism he comes around. This is sort of a stock character in these sorts of stories, the person who is on the road to revolution but has not gotten there yet. Revolution as a process that everyone is going through, rather than something imposed from above.
Frankly even at the top the Party is not quite revolutionized. At the very end Gu Shujin informs his new wife that they need to work hard at production and supporting the front to “return the government’s benevolence”, possibly the most traditionally way to express the relationship between the state and the people that I can think of.
Opal Mogus does not google, but you can e-mail them at opalmogusbooks at yahoo