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University of California Press
Public Passions: The Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China / Edition 1

Public Passions: The Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China / Edition 1

by Eugenia Lean


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520247185
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/24/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Eugenia Lean is Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University.

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Public Passions

The Trial of Shi Jianqiao and The Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China
By Eugenia Lean

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24718-5

Chapter One

The Assassin and Her Revenge

A Tale of Moral Heroism and Female Self-Fashioning in an Age of Mass Communication

1. I dare not forget the revenge of my father for a single moment; It breaks my heart to watch my mother's temples turn gray. I am loath to let her suffer any longer, The opportunity should not be squandered.

2. I cannot bear to look back to ten years ago. Things have remained the same, only the scenery has changed. I arrive at the Society not to find the Buddha, I seek death, not immortality.

Just after killing Sun Chuanfang, Shi Jianqiao distributed the poem above to witnesses at the crime scene. Composed by the assassin herself, the poem was in the form of seven-character, regulated verse (qiyan lüshi). As such, it was part of the tradition of lyrical poetry (shi), a literary genre long regarded as particularly effective both for expressing one's innermost thoughts and sincere feelings, and for arousing the emotions of others. To an audience familiar with this poetic tradition, Shi Jianqiao's poem brimmed with passion and sincerity. Shi's obsessive dedication to avenging her father is evident in the first line, and the mention of her mother's graying temples conveys her filial dedication to her mother as well. In noting how she was deeply troubled because the retribution had remained unfulfilled for ten years, the poem expresses the urgency of the matter and underscores the intensity of Shi's hunger for revenge. The mention of ten years, moreover, is meant to invoke the popular saying, "For a Gentleman seeking revenge, ten years is not too late," which alerts readers to the virtue of the act and suggests that one should bide one's time and wait for the right opportunity to seek revenge. In the next clause, "only the scenery has changed," is also significant, suggesting that the desire for revenge has remained unabated despite the passage of time. The last line dramatically turns the Buddhist temple, a site usually reserved for peaceful enlightenment, into a place of heroic karmic retribution. The poem presents filial devotion as the motive that drove Shi to such an extreme act of revenge.

This poem was part of a larger set of mimeographed materials that Shi Jianqiao had brought to the crime scene. In addition to the poem, Shi also distributed copies of a single-page statement of intent and a longer testament entitled Gao guoren shu (A letter to inform my countrymen [hereafter, GGRS]). The succinct statement of intent was a list of four points:

Gentlemen take note:

1. Today, Shi Jianqiao (given name Shi Gulan) has killed Sun Chuanfang in order to avenge the death of her father Shi Congbin.

2. For concrete details of the situation, please refer to Gao guoren shu.

3. I have accomplished the great revenge, and am immediately turning myself in to the courts.

4. As for splattering blood onto the walls of the Buddhist hall and shocking everyone, my deepest apologies.

She signed the piece with "Female Avenger, Shi Jianqiao" and imprinted her fingerprint as a sign of authentication. The longer testament described in detail the tragic events that had led up to this final episode, including how ten years earlier Sun Chuanfang had ruthlessly decapitated Shi Congbin, a model military man and Shi's father, at the Bangbu, Anhui, train station. Ten years later, thirty-year-old Shi Jianqiao, a native of Tongcheng, Anhui, had finally come to avenge his death.

These richly suggestive materials showed how thoroughly the female assassin had strategically orchestrated this act of revenge. In an age of mass media, her revenge was available for public consumption from the start. The assassination was not an anonymous murder done on the sly, but rather a planned killing carried out in a lay-Buddhist recitation hall filled with people. With dozens of worshippers as her witnesses, Shi Jianqiao killed her sworn enemy and then distributed her materials, ensuring that not only the witnesses at the crime scene but a larger audience would learn the daughter's version of events. Almost immediately, the material was reproduced word for word for urban China's reading public to consume.

Shi Jianqiao's knowledge of public relations was evident throughout the course of the affair. The assassin continued to court the press after the killing. Upon turning herself in to the police, Shi gave a public statement and handed to authorities a preliminary will in which she had arranged for her mother and her children to be taken care of in the case of her demise. Two days later, Shi held another press conference at the local police station and elaborated on the circumstances of the revenge. She began the meeting by saying, "There are discrepancies in each section of today's newspaper [coverage]," and went on to provide what she said was the true account of the event. This meeting with the press was the first of several that she would hold during the lengthy trial. Often right before the courts would announce a verdict, or at other crucial junctures in the legal case, Shi granted an emotional interview from her jail cell. She also on occasion released heartfelt poetry she wrote in prison. Some of the poems described how she spent her time in jail studying classical poetry or engaging in admirable behavior, including teaching fellow inmates how to read. Others professed her concern and yearning for her mother and family. The poems and jailhouse interviews punctuated the emotional peaks of her pursuit for justice, and were thus reminiscent of traditional opera, in which prose dialogue is often interspersed with poetry that was sung to represent the dramatic high points of the narrative. This tactic proved successful in gaining sympathy, with several observers lauding Shi's poems for powerfully conveying her genuine feelings. It also reveals the lengths to which the female assassin would go to influence media coverage.

In an era of modern communications, Shi Jianqiao managed to tap into the array of cultural and technological resources at her disposal to weave a highly compelling tale of ethical revenge. Every move appeared to be for public consumption. Shi vilified her enemy Sun Chuanfang, glorified her dead father Shi Congbin, and ensured that her self-presentation as a devoted daughter conformed to gendered assumptions about female heroism. Each public statement she made was imbued with great feeling and filled with gripping detail. The result was that much of urban China came to believe that the filial motive behind the revenge was sincerely felt, and public sympathy for her vengeful actions became remarkably widespread.


Extraordinary cases had gripped the public imagination and elicited collective sympathy through theater and storytelling long before the case of Shi Jianqiao. However, with the appearance of modern forms of mass communication in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, media sensations like the case of Shi Jianqiao became increasingly common and were unprecedented in their reach. Sensational cases were different from any before in their potential spread and the speed with which their impact was felt beyond the immediate communities involved. Local events were quickly transformed into universal tales that stirred the sympathies of urban or near-urban communities throughout China. By the 1930s, the media had expanded in scope and assumed the unprecedented characteristics of sensationalism and sentimentality befitting their mass audience.

The unprecedented impact of media sensations is a direct result of the tremendous growth witnessed by China's mass media in the early twentieth century. According to Perry Link, Shanghai's media industry expanded roughly six fold from the beginning of the century to the early 1930s. During the same period, the urban literacy rate at least doubled (Link 1981, 10). Circulation by the third decade of the twentieth century was as high as a hundred and fifty thousand for some popular newspapers. These highly circulated papers carried the news of the Shi affair. Major dailies that covered the event were not limited to those in the Shanghai-Nanjing and Beiping-Tianjin vicinities, but included those in Guangdong, Sichuan, Manchuria, and even Russia. Nor was readership restricted to urban areas. Provincial communities surrounding urban centers also had access to newspapers covering the story.

Circulation figures alone, moreover, do not reflect the true extent of the media's influence. People commonly followed the news by sharing newspapers and reading those hung on public bulletin boards. Lin Monong (1980), a Republican-period journalist who writes about the impact of the Shi Jianqiao media event on his career, describes how as a student in Tianjin he had not been able to afford a regular newspaper subscription and instead read newspapers that were posted daily at important junctions throughout the city. Lin describes in detail how daily papers from both Tianjin and Beiping were made available in the afternoon when people would quickly crowd together, stand, and read. Of course, this group was still relatively limited. As Lin notes, those with the appropriate literacy level and leisure time were still in a substantial minority among Tianjin's overall population. Yet, although the habit of reading the daily newspaper may have been limited to a small group, information and news were available to much of the rest of the urban population. The introduction of the radio, for example, made news readily available beyond the literate audience. Leo Lee and Andrew Nathan report that Shanghai by 1937 had an estimated one hundred thousand radios (Lee and Nathan 1985, 374-75). But the true size of the listening audience, like that of the reading audience, was much larger. As Carleton Benson notes, owning a radio may have been a luxury, but many were able to listen to the radio in the factories where they worked or in neighborhood shops (Benson 1995, 123-27).

The sheer diversity of media had also increased dramatically. In the late nineteenth century, the eight-page Shenbao (The Shanghai daily) was one of the few sources of information for Shanghai industrialists and political elites. By the Republican era, all major urban areas had not one but several major dailies, some of which ran well over eight pages. These papers now contained argument and opinion, chronicled spectacular events, and served as a compendium of information for a targeted reading audience imagined to be far more inclusive than ever before. Urban readers could also choose from a variety of xiaobao, papers known in English as "mosquito presses" because of their unpredictable life spans and their reputation for reporting "biting" news. In the late Qing, when the genre first appeared, xiaobao provided information on the entertainment industry and courtesan circles to literati (wenren) readers. By the 1930s, while remaining short in page-length, xiaobao were catering to a much larger audience and reported on a myriad of topics, including ones that big papers omitted because of censorship or commercial reasons. The periodical press had also grown substantially, and served as a forum for lively discussion on the case. Journals ranged from those that were highly academic and specialized, read by a select few, to popular weeklies and magazines for the general urban audience. News and discussion of the Shi case appeared in all forms, from large dailies to mosquito presses, from popular weeklies to specialized journals.

In addition to the boom in journalism, different kinds of entertainment also proliferated, providing yet another forum in which information on the affair was disseminated. In the early twentieth century, China's urban audience increasingly consumed fiction, film, radio, and theater. After late Qing reformers like Liang Qichao had argued for the inspirational power of fiction, literary magazines of all stripes were founded in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and the popular fiction market greatly expanded. As the rise of commercial publishing houses continued to flood the market with affordable books in the following decades, readers could also simply open their newspapers to peruse literary supplements or read daily installments of serialized novels. For fans of live drama, the theater world expanded in quantity and quality, especially in Shanghai. Audiences could choose from traditional opera, regional operas, reformed Shanghaiese theater, and modern spoken drama. Finally, with the arrival of new technologies, leisure in urban China changed drastically. Radio modernized the "traditional" story-telling arts, while film completely revolutionized urban entertainment. It was in this context of a burgeoning mass media that Shi Jianqiao held court.


Who exactly was this woman? Shi Jianqiao was born in 1906 in Tongcheng, Anhui. In addition to her father, Shi Congbin, her immediate family included her mother, an elder brother, three younger brothers, and a younger sister. Her ancestral home was a small village near Tongcheng, called Shazigang. Her grandfather was a farmer and bean-curd seller. Her father, the eldest son in the family, and her uncle, the fourth son, Shi Congyun, became decorated soldiers in the early part of the twentieth century, raising the overall social status of the family. Shi Congbin, whose courtesy name, or zi, was Shi Hanting, was the deputy commander of Shandong's military affairs and served as a brigade commander to Zhang Zongchang by 1925, the year he was killed by Sun Chuanfang. Shi Congyun, Shi Jianqiao's uncle, had served in a garrison of the Qing dynasty and died a martyr in the anti-Qing Luanzhou Uprising in 1911. Shi Jianqiao had wed a fellow Anhui-native with the same surname, Shi Jinggong, who had been her cousin Zhongcheng's classmate at Baoding Military Academy and, by 1935, had bore him two sons, Jinren and Yuyao.

Accounts of Shi Jianqiao's education differ, but it was very likely that she had a combination of both a classical and modern education, something quite common for privileged women at the time. According to a Shanghai Shibao (The eastern times) report printed in the days following the assassination, Shi had been educated at home, learning the proper womanly arts, including lyrical poetry. The Beiping Shibao (Truth post) claimed that Shi Jianqiao had received an education in the classics and national literature at a private family school. A retrospective account describes rather admiringly how she had been tutored at home along with her male cousin Zhongcheng in the Confucian classics, and how she had excelled as a pupil (Chen Jin 1991). Other reports note that she had graduated from Tianjin's Girl's Normal School (e.g., Wu 1990). The divergent accounts notwithstanding, it is clear that her upbringing and education were certainly marked by privilege and provided her with the cultural resources that she would later use in justifying her revenge. Her literary skill was needed to prepare the written materials she distributed at the crime scene and to write classical poetry while in jail. By displaying her knowledge of classical poetry and literature, Shi succeeded in implicitly likening herself to the classic figure of the cainü, or "talented woman" of the inner chambers of the late imperial period, a figure whose moral fortitude she no doubt would have wanted to claim.

Given the complexity of the tasks at hand (both the assassination itself and the campaign to win public sympathy for her actions), one would think that Shi Jianqiao had backers in her quest. Yet the extent to which she received outside help to plot and engineer the revenge killing is still unclear. Contemporary observers of the case pondered over this precise issue. Some commentators wondered how she gained access to a mimeograph machine to prepare the printed material that she distributed. The legal investigation inquired into how she acquired her Browning gun, the weapon with which she killed Sun. Others speculated that Feng Yuxiang, a retired militarist turned Nationalist statesman, not only helped Shi secure an official pardon, but also had a hand in helping her engineer the whole affair. Not until thirty years after the event did the avenging daughter openly address some of these questions. While she made no mention of Feng's role in planning the killing, she did acknowledge that she had conspired with her brothers and sisters (Shi 1987, 514). She also claimed that she had purposely left many of these issues ambiguous during the trial, since she had not wanted to implicate others in any wrongdoing.


Excerpted from Public Passions by Eugenia Lean Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. The Assassin and Her Revenge: A Tale of Moral Heroism and Female Self-Fashioning in an Age of Mass Communication
2. Media Sensation: Public Justice and the Sympathy of an Urban Audience
3. Highbrow Ambivalence: Fear of the Masses and Feminized Sentiment
4. The Trial: Courtroom Spectacle and Ethical Sentiment in the Rule of Law
5. A State Pardon: Sanctioned Violence under Nationalist Rule
6. Beyond the 1930s: From Wartime Patriotism to Counter-Revolutionary Sentiment


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"Even more compelling than this thrilling story is what Lean does with it."—The China Beat Blog


"Bristles with ideas."—China Review

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