What makes a writer worth our attention? What defining characteristics qualify a writer for history books? Most people would agree that a great writer must have prolific output and a unique perspective or style. After that, however, it is difficult to determine what exactly makes them valued.
When settling on a thesis topic, many people told me to shy away from Ding Ling, a Chinese woman writer, known in China for her socialist realism, and known by Western sinologists for her subjective modernism. Some said she was too political, too boring, too leftist. Others gossiped about her romantic lifestyle. Detractors called her a “bad writer,” unworthy of further research. Many compare Ding Ling to Eileen Chang, and woman from a similar time period that was able to write in the British-controlled and relatively free Hong Kong, rather than the chaos of Communist China. Others compare her to Xiao Hong, who died young, and did not get the chance to surpass Ding Ling, as their mentor Lu Xun predicted. These women were writers I was encouraged to research, because they were “good writers.” Because of a stubbornness on my part, I continued to study Ding Ling, and pondered what determines “a writer.”
Ding Ling participated the May Fourth revolution in 1919 as a teenage student rebelling against the traditional Confucian ways. During this time she discovered a passion for writing as well as the women’s movement. In 1928, she published her first popular short-story, Miss Sophie’s Diary, a ground-breaking work that bluntly detailed women’s problems from a woman’s perspective, unheard of in the strictly patriarchal society. She was immediately swathed in attention, and with this new-found power to influence, she decided to contribute to politics as well as literature. The focus of her stories slowly shifted from solitary women in the turmoil of a traditional culture’s upheaval, to a whole class of people exploited by a rotten system in process of revolution. Many literary critics from both the East and West believe the quality of her writing faded when she gave up on the subjective narrative.
Ding Ling, however, continued to write brilliant pieces that detailed the unfortunate lives of the women, the poor, and the oppressed of China in transition, even while being kidnapped by Chinese Nationalists, escaping to and working in the Chinese Communist Party base, and visiting borderland villages during wartime. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, she was a cultural leader figuratively and literally. She finished a novel that garnered a second place Stalin Award. Most of her writing became essays, the most famous was “Thoughts on March 8th,” a critique of the Communist Party’s treatment of women. Writing during the nascence of the People‘s Republic of China was particularly difficult, due to Mao Zedong’s general distrust of intellectuals. Ding Ling continued to fight for the importance of literature while balancing her role in the Communist Party, but after many years of political struggle, she was exiled in 1957.
Ding Ling continued to write during the following decades despite living in constant fear. Much of her writing was destroyed by police, the Red Guard, or village tormentors during the Cultural Revolution. After two decades of torture, public humiliation, imprisonment, hard labor, and solitary confinement, she was officially rehabilitated in 1979. When she came back to the public stage, many new young writers were expecting a moderate wise mentor figure because she had suffered so much for the literary cause. Instead, they were disappointed by her seemingly ultra-Leftist tendencies concerning literature and her competitiveness with new styles of writing. This coincided with a resurgence of research on Ding Ling, and the narrative was influenced by this disappointment. Undeterred, Ding Ling continued to write and was able to publish a few books and translations before dying in 1986.
Some researchers of Ding Ling dubbed her a failure. The last Western biographer of her’s, Charles Alber, believes Ding Ling will only serve as a cautionary tale for future writers. His discontent seems to lie with her behavior at the end of her life. Due to her reluctance to lay bare the facts of her personal life (she believed her life should be completely unrelated to her stories,) Alber was disillusioned with her identity as a writer.
I do not agree with Alber. A lifetime of dedication to the act of writing, as well the preservation of the art of literature, deserves attention and understanding. Her abandonment of the subjective or her extremely Leftist ways do not immediately tarnish her image as a writer. Ding Ling’s rebellious nature continued to her last years when she decided not to follow the trend of moderation. Her decision to act by writing in her own style about the Cultural Revolution (rather than the popular scar literature style) delivers in a similar manner as her pioneering first works. Ding Ling was not only a writer, but a writer worth my attention.
Readers are more than welcome to give their opinion on the matter. What makes a writer worthy of your attention?
– Sophie Xiong