- Public Passions: The Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China
Kneeling during a sutra recitation at the Qingxiu lay-Buddhist hall in Tianjin, ex-warlord Sun Chuanfang never felt the three bullets that ripped through his body, killing him instantly on that day in mid-November 1935. Standing over Sun’s body holding a Browning automatic was Shi Jianqiao, an aggrieved daughter avenging her father’s death. Rather than flee the scene, Shi calmly waited to surrender herself to police and handed them a sheaf of mimeographed materials explaining her actions. The next morning, newspapers ran headlines such as [End Page 343] “Blood Splatters Buddhist Shrine” and “Bloodbath in the Lay Buddhist Society.” The media frenzy whipped up by the case was matched by an extended courtroom struggle to decide Shi’s fate. Shortly after the supreme court upheld a seven-year prison term, the national government granted Shi Jianqiao a full pardon to “demonstrate [its] sympathy” since she “was a lone woman acting upon filial thinking” (p. 149). This is the stuff of pulp novels from the 1930s, but in Eugenia Lean’s capable hands, it becomes an opportunity to explore the significance of media sensationalism, the role of public sympathy in politics, the expansion of the Nationalist state, and the culture of violence in 1930s China.
Lean’s main argument is that the assassination and media sensation surrounding it brought about a new kind of public in the 1930s. In analyzing this “critical urban public,” Lean rejects the notion of a Habermasian public sphere/civil society in China. Instead, she focuses on how new formations of modern subjectivity, consumer mass culture, and an increasingly authoritarian state (p. 10) became the breeding ground for the emergence of a public expressing themselves through “public sympathy” (tongqing) (p. 5). The spark that ignited the fire of this new public was Shi Jianqiao’s “violent expression of filial sentiment” (pp. 3–4) and the sensationalist coverage it received in the media. Since this new sensation-loving public of emotion was part of the “urban phantasmagoria,” however, it held an ambiguous position being subject to manipulation from above, but also able to mobilize itself to “sway legal proceedings, threaten the moral authority of cultural elites, mediate center-warlord relations, and influence the state’s tactics in legitimating its power” (p. 12).
This new “affective public” was first manipulated by Shi Jianqiao’s own “self-fashioning” for “public consumption” (p. 24). Immediately after her arrest and during the course of her trials, Shi managed the media and public perception through mimeographed materials or interviews—why the authoritarian Nationalists allowed her to give interviews while in jail is not clear. In these materials, Shi deftly portrayed herself as a filial Confucian daughter, a traditional female knight errant, and the tool of Buddhist karmic retribution—though always as a woman motivated by filial devotion to her exemplary Confucian father (himself a brigade commander under the rapacious warlord Zhang Zongchang).
Although Shi Jianqiao managed her media persona quite effectively, it was the journalists, writers, and playwrights who turned the assassination case into a public sensation (chap. 2). The very sensationalism of the case allowed writers to use their lowbrow columns, fiction, and theater adaptations as a “jianghu arena” (p. 74) to avoid Nationalist censorship while criticizing the regime. In fictionalized versions of Shi Jianqiao’s life, Lean contends, writers cast an “ideal ethical and sentimental modern subject” (p. 51) and used her story to “inspire readers to consider new ways of being” (p. 54). The most compelling image was Shi as a modern woman warrior using violence to mete out justice when the Nationalist state failed to do so. [End Page 344]
The lowbrow sensationalist media and the public sympathy it engendered for Shi Jianqiao, Lean argues, led to profound ambivalence and anxiety on the part of highbrow intellectuals, leftists, and judicial reformers (chap. 3). These highbrows understood public...