20th century, Arts

Ding Ling’s ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’: Gender and the Act of Writing in 1920s China.

By Ellie Winter

The link between the act of writing, and gender has recently been a topic of discussion between academics and the media. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dr Lucy Delap, Deputy Director of History and Policy at Cambridge University commented on the problematic use of terms by examiners such as  ‘genius’, of ‘brilliance’ and of ‘flair’[1].  Such terms suggest a particular style of writing, which is praised for its confident and risk-taking prose and is perceived as more academically ‘successful’. In 2017, in a subject that has a 50:50 female/ male intake, 42 female students gained Firsts in History at Cambridge compared with 59 men (in 2015, 33 females as opposed to 61 males). Such figures suggest not only a gendered disparity regarding the way one writes, but also that a more ‘masculine’ style carries more academic legitimacy. Historian Amanda Foreman has suggested that men tend to outperform women in their degrees because young men are encouraged to be ‘risk takers’, while young women are encouraged to be ‘conformist’[2].

Questions around what constitutes ‘genius’ and legitimate ways of reading and writing are of course not a specific problem of our time or culture. Ding Ling’s ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’, published in 1927, transports us to a period when ideas of gender were being negotiated alongside a burgeoning print sphere. The novel was a commentary on the patriarchal structures that repressed women’s sexual freedoms in China and particularly how this repression manifested itself into language, reading and writing. An exploration of Ding’s novel shows how the link between the act of writing, and gender has historically mapped onto men and women’s lived experiences.

In order not be anachronistic about ideas of gender and writing in 1920s China and modern-day Western culture, it is first important to explore how these concepts were understood in Ding’s time.  How we understand the novel requires one to interrogate our own familiar categories and associations, and how these reveal what we perceive as our own sexual codings.

Ellie’s drawing of Ding Ling

Linguistic and conceptual understandings of gender in 1920s China were in a state of change and negotiation. Unlike Western concepts of gender, which historically mapped gender onto sex, traditional Chinese ones were based on social and hierarchical relations of power. It was not until the 1900s that biological ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ were adopted in China. In this context, the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘he’, and their relation to the individual, were cemented as concepts and linguistic categories[3]. Male writers used these new linguistic identifiers in modernist forms to explore their transforming and individualising identities. The ‘she’ in this relation was, however, often heavily sexualised and denied a central narrative by the male subject and writer.

‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’ was used by Ding as an attempt to pen female self-hood through the individualist, modernist form that male writers had so successfully used to reflect their own. The diary form is significant as it re-positions Sophia, the diary’s protagonist, as the voyeur, gaining an intimate portrait of a woman’s struggle with identity and modernity; she is the ‘I’ (the writer), the ‘she’ (the subject) and the ‘you’ (the reader), combined in one person[4]. This mirror-like form, however, also reveals the essential inadequacy of such a subjective mode of writing to describe Sophia. The modernist, masculine, narcissistic linguistic tropes that had so successfully reflected Chinese manhood, failed to create such a coherent image of female self-hood. Sophia’s attempt to convey her identity is circumscribed by the very form with which she seeks to express herself. The mirror scene that opens the diary introduces this inadequacy: ‘glancing from one side you’ve got a face a foot long; tilt your head slightly to the side and suddenly it gets so flat you startle yourself… it all infuriates me’[5]. The process of self-interrogation, narcissism and ambivalence that permeate the text seek to define the ‘I’ as an autonomous female subject, previously non-existent in traditional Chinese discourse. This search, however, fails to ever create a cohesive whole.

The frustration associated with Sophia’s attempts to pen her self-hood are further emphasised by the act of reading. The diary is initially written to be read and understood by her late female lover Yun. Her new male lover, Weidi, however, fails to grasp the intended meanings of the entries and perceives them as proof that she loves another man, Ling Jishu, more than him[6]. Weidi’s superficial and gendered reading of Sophia’s diary therefore demonstrates the inadequacy of writing to describe Sophia.

In contrast, the metaphor of tears in the text acts as an alternative form of expression and release. Sophia calls her diary a ‘sum of my tears’. The literary critic Lydia Liu effectively illustrates that the metaphor of tears become a female signature, marked from its alienation from the world of men’s writing of pens and ink[7]. However, the nature of tears, their blankness and ability to evaporate, fail to create a permanent meaning and a satisfying alternative to male dominated language. Although the diary attempts to reject male forms of writing that describe the self and female desire, both Sophia and Ding Ling fail to find a satisfying alternative.

Ding Ling’s ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’ is significant in illustrating that ‘legitimate’ and ‘successful’ ways of writing are not set in stone, but are part of social and historical processes. These processes are often mapped onto the gendered experiences and roles that people assume within society. Sophia’s inability to articulate her selfhood, suggests that so-called ‘successful’ and hegemonic forms of writing can fail to truly express certain forms of identity. The gender disparity of exam results between men and women at institutions such as Cambridge also reveals that academic success today is bound by ‘legitimate’ and ‘successful’ forms of self-expression. Of course, such a statement fails to consider how categories of class and race also affect these results. However, it does prompt questions as to how far ‘successful’ thought and prose are affected by our socially and historically constructed gendered identities… questions that Ding’s ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’ attempted to explore 90 years ago.




[1] Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity: China, 1900-1937 Stanford: Stanford University Press, (1995) p. 173

[2] Ding Ling, ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’ (1927) in Tani Barlow and Gary Bjorge, I Myself Am A Woman (2001) pp. 44

[3] Ding Ling, ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’ (1927) in Barlow and Bjorge, I Myself Am A Woman (2001) p. 74

[4] Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity: China, 1900-1937 p. 177

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tbdtq

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/06/12/cambridge-university-examiners-told-avoid-using-words-like-flair/

[7] Lydia He Liu, Rebecca E Karl, and Dorothy Ko. The Birth Of Chinese Feminism. 1st ed. New York: Columbia University Press, (2013)

Photo Credits:

Header: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ding_Ling

First Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ding_Ling

Last Photo: https://everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org/2015/03/20/ding-ling-writing-beijing-1979/

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