Term Paper: Public Passions Shi Jianqiao

Pages: 13 (4266 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Sociology  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] Emotion-Based Publics vs. Rational-Modern Publics

In 1934, Jiang Jieshi initiated the New Life Campaign, a regime-engineered movement that advocated a reconfigured form of Confucianism as the basis of national spirit and civilian discipline. These were the prerequisites for the strengthening of society and the nation, moving away from May Fourth ideals of explicit female passion and to emphasize more sublimated, virtuous forms of qing, which could be used to legitimize terror and violence and assassinations, all of which could be deemed legitimate as means of pursuing justice. Sun's legacy was ambiguous, and some thought he clearly deserved to die because of his violent suppression of labor strikes in Shanghai, where he had been the military ruler from late 1925 -- 1927. Shi Jianqiao's provided a personal will and account of her father at the police station, which quickly became public and was widely circulated in the press. She cast Sun Chuanfang's murder not as a mere political assassination, but as a highly justified act of righteous revenge. Shi was mobilizing a range of powerful cultural motifs that proved to have great emotional appeal, both through her prose and poetry. Even Shi Jianqiao's marriage to Shi Jinggong was out of devotion for revenge rather than love, and her husband was seeking a divorce while she in jail

Media sensationalism and butterfly fiction promoted sentimentalized Confucian virtues such as filial piety as the basis of both modern, urban Chinese subjectivity and the collective identity of a sentimental reading audience. Haiyan Lee discussed how this mass-produced Butterfly fiction sentimentalized the motives of virtue that drove its protagonists and shows how they moved readers to sympathize with the plight and actions of the characters. In fictional adaptations of the Shi case, the heroic daughter's virtuous motive was fused with emotion. Hardly a disciplined, ritualized expression of filial piety, Shi Jingqiao's devotion to her father was passionate and heroic; as such, it inspired readers to consider new ways of being. Her story was widely adapted to pictorial series, serialization ads for 'reality-based' novels, and performances on the radio, as well as the theatre. These fictional adaptations were forms of sentimental narratives that helped shape modern subjectivity, although their themes were highly reactionary, feudal and pre-modern.

In this sensationalist fiction, filial piety as always the primary motivation for the protagonist's groundbreaking forms of female behavior and engagement in modern xia pursuits -- the crucial ethical sentiment required for modern moral subjectivity. Whereas in May Fourth thought, individualism was as important as nationalism, by the Nanjing decade the more statist and corporatist discourse on the nation had taken hold, and individual morality was not celebrated as an end in itself, but was mobilized in the service of national collective morality. Morality was crucial, it argues, because it serves as the lifeline of 'individual moral character' (geren renge) and thus as the strength of the nation. This link between individual morality and national strength was at the heart of the state-engineered New Life movement.

In a context where Nationalist courts were failing to persecute warlord traitors and ensure national security, the media celebration and public investment in Shi Jianqiao's killing of a militarist threatened to shed critical light on the ruling regime's failures. Celebrated in the media and entertainment worlds as a heroic xia undertaking, Shi's successful killing of a warlord was seen as an act of national redemption and as an expression of xiayi, or public justice. Nor was the media at all free during the Nationalist era, but subjected to ever-increasing censorship during the 1930s, although the regime clearly made no effort to suppress the sensationalism of Shi's case, which suited its own political purposes. Even among the elites, ambivalence about her actions was the norm, and the primary point of debate for this body of opinion-makers was the question of whether the female avenger's sentiment-based revenge should be praised as a public act of virtue morally beneficial to the nation or castigated as a private vendetta no modern society should ever condone.

Public Sentiment vs. The National Legal Code

Whereas the pardon for Shi Jianqiao was defensible from the perspective of sentiment, he elaborated, it was highly inappropriate according to the principles of jurisprudence. Writers commenting on the Shi trial were concerned that the state would once again use public sympathy to justify an official decision to overrule any court decision. Both sets of commentary contributed to the complete reversal of the long-standing Confucian view in which social and political truth stemmed from classically sanctioned moral sentiment. Now, more than any eternal Confucian virtue, modern notions of society and a rational legal code stood at the center of imagining the larger polity. For Leftists and advocates of legal reform, Shi Jianqiao's crime of female passion was the counterpoint to their implicitly masculine discourses of modernity. The May Fourth agenda of identifying the sexually liberated, romantically free New Woman as a harbinger of modernity had failed, and notions of unbridled female sexuality and desire associated with May Fourth cosmopolitanism increasingly smacked of bourgeois liberalism and selfish individualism. In this context supporters of Shi Jianqiao in the women's press shied away from touching upon her sexuality and focused on her heroic motive of virtue instead.

On August 25, 1936, the Supreme Court upheld as final the Superior Court's light sentence of seven years and the decision that her righteous vengeance constituted mitigating circumstances deserving of judicial compassion. Modeling its judicial system after that of Germany, Republican China did not establish a jury system, but had a panel of judges to decide cases. What was unprecedented with the arrival of the mass media in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the scope of public access to the courtroom. Shi's defense lawyers offered an official strategy of sentiment, but how Shi Jianqiao's family was able to procure trial lawyers of the highest caliber remains a mystery. As Shi revealed in an interview, she had received several letters from lawyers offering their services. She may very well have obtained funding and assistance from the Nationalist regime or the Zhili warlords, who felt no regrets at Sun's passing.

Sensing that the growing social resentment against warlords in the Nanjing decade could work to their advantage, the lawyers sought to channel the widespread social frustration with China's national problems into public sympathy for Shi Jianqiao. During the 1920s reformists had made significant inroads by establishing bar associations and law schools, and by reforming the courts. A reformist commitment to the institutionalization of judicial autonomy continued into the Nanjing decade. In the actual court proceedings, prosecutors and the attorneys for the plaintiff built their arguments on all three points, emphasizing the final warning that the failure to privilege the rule of law over the rule of sympathy would lead to social unrest. Demanding only a strict application of law, court prosecutors and the lawyers for the Sun family implored the courts to treat the modern legal code as the ultimate source of judicial authority. By extension, the prosecution reasoned that popular endorsement for Shi was yet another expression of an utter lack of faith in China's legal system. It was precisely as exceptional spectacles of justice that these cases helped shape the parameters of twentieth-century Chinese law.

Public emotions flared over the issue of whether female perpetrators' virtuous motivations or passionate heroism deserved judicial exemption, and had some influence on the process of adjudication itself. In the end, public sympathy not only influenced courts but also attracted the attention of the Nationalist regime, which agreed that "the moral authority of emotions has been a powerful motivating force" (Lean 212). For a government claiming to be 'modern,' the sanctioning of 'traditional' revenge motivated by filial piety was hardly a natural choice. On one level, these pardons were an attempt by the Nationalist regime to resolve tensions laid bare by the assassinations, both within the Nationalist regime and between the regime and elements in society. On another level, however, the pardons only made these tensions more apparent, occasioning a lively dialogue in print over the merits of official support of violence.

The Nanjing-based regime was probably not too disappointed to find Sun Chuanfang and Zhang Zongchang dead, since both Sun and Zhang had both been anti-Nationalists. In fact, it is precisely in the seemingly formulaic nature of the texts that we can see the regime invoking both the legal code and the authority of virtuous sentiment to justify the recourse to executive power, thereby papering over any apparent conflict between the letter of the law and ethical sentiment. In other words, executive pardoning -- issued only after the due process of law had run its course -- became the means to reconcile the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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