2022 Gulf Coast Prize in Nonfiction:
Revolutionary Acts

May-lee Chai

I have been wanting to write an essay about the Chinese woman writer Ding Ling, but for the longest time I could not muster the energy amid the pandemic and the continuing onslaught of anti-Asian attacks.

This past fall, I reported my ninth anti-Asian hate incident since the start of the pandemic. I was walking in my neighborhood in San Francisco around 5:15 pm after a long day of Zoom meetings when I saw two young, 20-something White men walking towards me. One of them pulled at the corner of his right eye with one finger. I stared at him, wondering, Is he doing what I think he's doing? But of course he was. The universal chink-eye gesture.

My heart fell to my stomach and I was in first grade all over again, thinking, Is he looking at me? Then he put his hand over his mouth and nose and stared straight at me, making fun of my mask. I picked up my pace as the second White man said, "And she was even wearing gloves." The first one snickered, and the second one shouted, "Hey, take off your gloves!"

I crossed to the other side of the street and hurried as fast as I could to the intersection, where it was busier, there were open businesses. I felt safer, but not safe. I felt stupid and shamed and humiliated, the way I had when White girls in school had made fun of the way I dressed, my hair, my glasses. When do I ever grow up? As a child, I'd assumed that once I was grown up, I would be safe.

Ding Ling was one of my favorite writers when I first started studying Chinese in college. I read her most famous story, Miss Sophie's Diary, in translation in a Chinese history class then later in the original Chinese in grad school for a literature class. She was considered a "revolutionary" writer, writing for women's liberation, sexual and political.

I had never before read a story centering a young Chinese woman moving to a city, living on her own, writing about her feelings, her sexual awakening, her perceptions of the world, her rather sardonic comments about the vanities and foibles of the people around her. Growing up in the U.S, I had never assigned a single book or story about a Chinese girl or woman much less written by a Chinese woman in any of my classes in my public schools. Bookworm friends had tried to get me to read The Good Earth in fifth grade but I hadn't wanted to read about a Chinese woman portrayed as a nonstop victim. Here, in Ding Ling, I found the protagonist I'd been looking for: fully human, respected by her author. I could see why Ding Ling had become a sensation when she first published this story in 1927. Two generations later when I discovered her, the writing was still startlingly fresh.

Ding Ling was part of the May Fourth generation of writers who were inventing the Chinese vernacular. Before them, all literature was written in classical Chinese but the May Fourth generation wrote as Chinese was spoken. They wanted to write so that young people could read their writing, not just the elite scholars. They wrote for a new generation. For example in “Miss Sophie’s Diary,” Ding Ling’s prose mixes the vernacular of spoken Chinese with phrases transliterated from other languages, like the name the titular character who decides to call herself  “Sophie” ( 莎菲), reflecting the international character of its Shanghai setting. Told in the form of entries in a diary, the protagonist mulls over her potential lovers, contemplating the men who try to woo her, noting her pleasure or disdain at their efforts, expressing bisexual feelings towards a friend. She writes of illness and exhaustion, of hope and desire. It is the story of a young woman who sees herself as part of a larger world while centering her own emotions and experiences of that world.

Ding Ling is the pen name that the author, born Jiang Binzhi, chose in order to evoke the sound of a bell to wake people up to possibility of revolution.

According to StopAAPIHATE.org, more than 10,900 hate incidents were reported to them between March 2020 and December 2021. More than 60 percent were reported by women. In a patriarchy it should not be a surprise that anger falls upon women’s bodies.

Shortly after the chink-eye incident, I hear on my local public radio station a report about White parents of adopted Asian children feeling panicked by the anti-Asian hate incidents across the country. The parents were reaching out to the adoption agencies for help on how to talk about racism to their children. One parent said with dismay that she felt the conversation about racism was going to be so "hard."

Hard for whom? I wonder. I'm sure the Asian children of non-Asian parents are already well aware of the racism they face in U.S. society.

I can't remember when exactly I first heard a racist remark directed at me. Was it in first grade when the White boy in my elementary school in New Jersey sang the ditty, "My father is Chinese, my mother is Japanese, look what I turned out to be" and then pulled his eyes back?

Generation after generation of non-Asians have learned somehow, somewhere to make this gesture. I've seen it on schoolyards, on sidewalks, on television shows, in the U.S. and in Europe. Is there a secret club somewhere, and this gesture the code for inclusion?

I realize that I'm really tired of think pieces that center non-Asian people trying to figure out how to have this hard conversation with their Asian children about racism.

Instead I would like to see an article where non-Asian people examine the first time that they heard anti-Asian jokes or slurs. Was it in elementary school or at home? Where they taught to laugh along? Or to remain politely silent? Did it make them feel powerful?

I want the interviewer to ask when they will start to speak up when they hear an anti-Asian joke or slur. What kind of revolution would it take?

Ding Ling joined the Communist Party as a young woman, followed Mao Zedong to Yanan to wait out the Sino-Japanese war. She wrote a stinging essay critiquing the Communist Party for abusing women, for its sexism and patriarchy. In 1942 Mao gave a talk at Yanan in which he famously, among other things, banned the use of irony in literature as being against the tenets of socialist realism and thus counter-revolutionary. Irony was also harder for his censors to detect. In grad school, I was told this edict was directed in part at Ding Ling. Her bright, mocking pen attracted followers to her critiques. Young people liked her rebukes of the hypocrisy within party ranks, but Mao sensed a threat, and she was forced to publicly apologize.

After the Communists won the civil war in 1949, Ding Ling fell into more political trouble. In 1957 she was sentenced to prison for five years, in an anti-rightest campaign, for not being ideologically pure enough. The sensuous details and emphasis on the emotional life of her characters were now seen as bourgeois affectations rather than revolutionary. Later she was sent to work on a collective farm for nearly two decades, where she said she nearly starved.

She was rehabilitated publicly in 1978 and continued to write. She won prizes. She remained a firm believer in the Communist revolution.

It's been such a long time you've been in love with me, Wei. But has he won me? Of course, it's not my fault at all. It's how a woman is supposed to behave. In fact, I've been very straight with him. I don't believe there's another woman who wouldn't have made a fool of him. Besides, I really and truly feel sorry for him. Sometimes I can't stop my wanting to say to him, "Can't you change your tactics, Wei? The way you're acting only gets me down." Yes, if Wei weren't so stupid, I could like him a lot better. But all he can do is make this sincere parade of his devotion. Wei was satisfied to see my smile.– Ding Ling, "Miss Sophie's Diary" (translated by W.J.F. Jenner).

Late in her life, Ding Ling was interviewed on film praising Mao for his stewardship of the Communist Party and the Communist Revolution. In one segment of the film that I was shown, I recall that she had a wooden slanted board hanging around her neck. At first glance it seemed like a device for torture, like the "kangs" of old that were fixed around prisoner's necks, holding their hands and heads in place. But in fact it was a make-shift writing desk fashioned for her by a family member. She had spinal disc injuries, apparently suffered during her years in prison or hard labor, she could no longer bear to sit down, could not sit at a desk or table. Still she had a desperate need to write, and so someone had constructed this portable desk for her, which allowed her to stand and write with pen in one hand, paper on the slat.

It’s been decades since I’ve seen the film and I can’t find a copy of it online. I remember one refrain in particular, however:

I am writing a book about my mother.

In prison I began this book about my mother.

I am writing about my mother's life, Ding Ling repeated over and over and over, in the film meant to show that the great socialist and revolutionary writer was alive and well.

She was alive, but she no longer seemed physically or mentally well, but still this urge to write remained.

"I am writing a book about my mother," she said.

In 2018 I was invited to give a talk about my writing at Nanjing University, my alma mater in China, because of the book, The Girl from Purple Mountain, that I’d written about my grandmother. She had been a young woman in the era of Ding Ling, and she had to fight many battles as a woman: against an arranged marriage, insisting she would only marry a man she had gotten to know first; against her father, who tried to disinherit her after her mother died; against her in-laws, who tried to move into her house and treat her like a servant; against her brother-in-law, who tried to steal one of her sons; against the invading Japanese Army, who were targeting women and girls for rape as a weapon of war. By the time she immigrated to the United States in 1955, my grandmother was no longer young, and the battles she would have to face as a Chinese woman in a White supremacist and patriarchal country were just beginning.

After my talk, many young women came up to me to talk about the stories they wanted to write.

"I want to write about my mother," several of them said.

"I want to write about my grandmother," another said. "She really suffered."

"Nobody has told this story before," they all said.

All these missing stories of Chinese women.

While I am thinking of writing my essay, at the start of the new year and the new semester, I am called a gender slur in a workplace meeting. We'd been discussing our campus Covid protocols, when a colleague mentioned that a certain celebrity had died and there was a digression about just how famous this person was, how many records he'd sold. I mentioned in Chat that the celebrity was known as an anti-vaxxer.

Suddenly a man's voice boomed out: What a cunt! She's glad he died because he's unvaccinated.

I was so surprised, my heart plunged, my body froze. I felt as though I've been stabbed. The anger in this man's voice was visceral.

My first impulse as a woman was to try to bring the anger down. A man's anger was so often prelude to violence. "I'm sorry," I said. Even as I apologized, I cringed internally, why am I the one apologizing? My heart was racing with fear, and I could not stop explaining, "I'm not happy he died. I don't want anyone to die of Covid." I babbled on. A colleague later told me I said we shouldn't valorize the celebrity who tried to discourage others from getting vaccinated.

I don't remember being so articulate. I just remember the fear, my heart jolting, the shock. Whose voice is this? Why is he so angry at me? What will happen?     

The last time I heard anyone say the c-word out loud, I was a twelve, and my family had just moved from New Jersey to South Dakota. A White man drove by our house and shouted this word out the window of his car. Later White men would drive by our house shooting, first in the middle of the night, and then during daylight hours. Over the years they would shoot and kill five of our dogs. I was told to my face by the White children of the White men in our community that God had wanted to keep the races separated and that is why he put them on different continents. My brother and I, as the biological children of a Chinese man and White woman, were a sign of the coming End Times when Satan would reign under a one-world government. At first I thought, This is crazy. But hate being irrational does not make it less pervasive in a given community or a nation. The hate once rationalized by various institutions and people in power can become pervasive, internalized, forming its own reality. Those who know better need only be silent for the hate to continue.

I saw a portion of the Ding Ling film in a Chinese language class in an Ivy League school many years after her death. I was still a young woman, in my early twenties. I was visiting a friend I'd met at a summer Chinese language program. He wanted me to meet his teacher who was going to lecture on Ding Ling. My friend knew I was a fan of her writing.

However, the day of the lecture, the professor denounced Ding Ling, mocked her in fact. He called her an apologist for Mao. "I would never make excuses for the Cultural Revolution," the man said.

The professor had not lived in China during these decades of political tumult. It was easy for him to denounce Ding Ling, who'd survived years of prison, because he felt superior to her: Who was this weak woman, this apologist?
I was a fan of Ding Ling, but I was young and socialized to respect all teachers, I did not want to make trouble for my friend, who after all had sought the professor's permission so that I could attend and who would be graded by this man. After living for years in a community that devalued my existence, I was shy, unsure of myself, anxious. I did not dare speak up for Ding Ling.

I see how easily one is intimidated into silence, even when the stakes are so very, very small.

Is this excessive when I report every incident of hate, even if it does not result in overt violence? I wonder.

I worry that other people will think I'm overreacting and think less of me. I worry that speaking up will do no good, no one will believe me, they'll think I'm the one at fault, why am I complaining, someone else has it worse.

As I child, I learned to be a pre-emptive worrier. If I could imagine a catastrophe, then I could prevent it from happening. The worst things always seemed to come out of the blue.        

Growing up in predominantly White communities, I experienced quite a selection of racist microaggressions. When the White people in our town in South Dakota called my father and brother and me slurs, chink and jap and gook, my mother did not respond. She'd look away. When I tried to tell her about bullying in school, she'd walk away or else she'd get angry. If I cried, she grew even angrier. She could be sarcastic. She could call me a "sourpuss" and tell me to stop ruining the holidays or dinner or a family photo, whatever the occasion, when she wanted me to Smile!

"Don't you want to make your mother happy?" she'd exhort, she'd accuse.

But sometimes when I told her about the latest racist incident, something my brother or I experienced at school, she'd crumble.

Even when furious and mean, my mother was at least still an adult, but the sobbing truly terrified me. My heart raced, my stomach flipped, I would apologize immediately, trying to console her. Because when she cried, I felt I had truly lost my mother, and in her place, I was left with this child.

But for all her accommodations to the White supremacists, it didn't spare her their ignorant racist wrath. An anonymous letter was mailed to our house once, addressed in printed black letters to "The chinaman and the Floozy."

When I was in my twenties, my mother died of cancer. I was in grad school still, and she and I never got to talk about the racism and violence that our family had experienced when I was growing up. First I was too young, then I was away from home in college, then working, then grad school, and then she was ill and it seemed inappropriate to worry her. We never got to process our trauma, as a therapist might say.

What would I tell my mother if she had lived? What would I want to tell her now?

But no, I’m not being honest. If she returned, I wouldn't bother with any of that. I'd simply cry out, "Mama, you're back! You're alive!" I'd wonder what the other side was like. Could she remember? Or would death have been simply another horrific experience, like the abuse she'd suffered as a child at the hands of her parents, one more thing that she'd need to block out, dissociate from, re-enact?

This line of thought is absurd, of course. My mother is dead. I am the body she left behind.

Four months after Ding Ling’s death in 1986, the New York Times ran a review of a series of translations of five Chinese authors under the title “Rebels, Victims and Apologists” in which the male reviewer wrote of Ding Ling’s known love affairs with two prominent male writers. He included this assessment, “Her fame rests on this remarkable life, and rightly so. It rests less securely on her fiction.” The male writer did not mention any of the known love affairs of the three male authors in the review. This is a choice. This is a misogynistic choice that a man made in a patriarchy when he wanted to belittle a woman writer.

In the unattributed obituary from a wire service that ran in the Los Angeles Times, Ding Ling was labeled a “controversial” author but she was given the last word on her own writings: “No matter what we write, we must proceed from life and describe it in depth, warm-heartedly and in a detailed and bold fashion. No matter how much we shock or anger the readers, in the end we must give them strength, leaving them with a picture of the future. Our literature must be thought-provoking and encourage people to march forward.”

It takes me a long time to find the proper method to report the hate incident in which I was called the c-word in a workplace meeting. Women in other universities warn me that I may be disappointed by the results. They tell me their Title IX horror stories. I spend seventy hours the first month just collecting information on how to report the incident and to whom.

I steel myself and tell my story to another person and another person and another person, report after report after report.

Finally the union advocate asks me to think about my "asks," what remedies do I ultimately want?

I realize that I don't know what to write in this part of the form.

I want to feel safe again, but that of course is impossible. I am a woman living in a patriarchy, a Chinese woman in a White-supremacist society.           

For days I cannot think of how to answer this question of remedy and I consider not filing my report at all. I speak to my female colleagues, and hear more stories of bureaucrats past, of all the years and decades and lifetimes of incidents without remedy. I feel despair like a heavy weight upon my chest. Drained, I cannot finish even the simple two pages of the incident report. I go to bed early, then lie tossing and turning, doom scrolling through Twitter, reading of new variants.

The next morning, I wake up late. It is almost noon and the sun is pouring through my blinds directly onto my face. I cannot remember a single dream. I've entered a state of exhaustion so complete, then I'm no longer aware of feeling tired or despairing or anything at all. I look at my to-do list for the day, finish the university's reporting form, and then hit send.

There is no perfect remedy, but I have chosen three, and in the meantime I have filed my report. I have chosen to bear witness to the unfairness of misogyny and slurs. I am not exactly hopeful, it is not my nature, but I am determined. I feel, rather than hope, a certain satisfaction that in reporting that man's misogyny, I have centered myself as a human worthy of respect. As Ding Ling and her many fans understood, such writing is a revolutionary act.