Mothers and Daughters: Using Su Xuelin’s Novel “Thorny Heart” to Broaden the Definition of “May Fourth Modernity”

The Republican Era in China, which occurred between the fall of the Qing (清) dynasty in 1912 and the establishment of Communist China in 1949, was one of the richest periods of intellectual and literary fruition that mainland China experienced in the twentieth century, considered by many the “golden age” of modern Chinese literature. Caught in this uncertain transition between the centuries-old dynastic system and the eventual Maoist regime, author-intellectuals engaged in rich discourse about what form post-dynastic China should take. They wrote about China’s need for progress and modernization and debated what exactly these terms meant. In general, author-intellectuals of the Republican Era promoted egalitarian values influenced by western liberal discourse, including but not limited to freedom of expression, equality of the sexes, and the esteeming of science and rationality over superstition. They also wanted to instill nationalistic fervor for China in the nation’s people, a lack of which they felt was responsible for the apathy and complacency that had led to China’s being semi-colonized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[1]

Su Xuelin’s (苏雪林) (1897-1999) 1929 novel Thorny Heart (棘心) stands in stark contrast to other literature of the period in two senses. In an era where the majority of authors and intellectuals wrote only about modern women in relation to men, usually husbands or boyfriends, Su Xuelin’s novel quite self-consciously revolves around a non-romantic relationship between two women—main protagonist and “new woman” (新女性) Xingqiu (醒秋)and her mother. [2] Before the reader even begins the novel, she is confronted with a title page on which are two quotes. One is from the poem “Wind from the South (凯风)” in the Book of Odes (诗经) (1046 BCE-771 BCE): “The heart of the jujube tree is tender and beautiful. What toil and pain did our mother endure!”[3] The other quote is a dedication from Su Xuelin to her mother, which reads, “With my blood and tears, my deep-rooted shame, and my everlasting grief and admiration, I have produced this book to commemorate my most beloved mother.”[4] If these quotes alone are not enough to demonstrate the novel’s focus on the relationship between Xingqiu and her mother, it should also be noted that the novel both begins and ends with chapter-length, admiring reflections by Xingqiu on their relationship.Though Xingqiu and her mother are together for relatively little time in the novel—the story follows Xingqiu’s trip to study abroad in France—the narrative is inundated with her reflections on her mother.

Another unusual feature of the novel is its focus on religion—Xingqiu first encounters Catholicism after befriending a nun and a religious laywoman while studying abroad in France, and eventually converts before moving back to China. Views on religion and spirituality varied during the Republican Era. Many intellectuals uncompromisingly viewed religion as mere superstition that needed to be discarded with other antiquated ideas in order for Chinese society to modernize.[5] Others were open to encompassing a secularized idea of “spirituality” into their concept of modernity, seeing the fervor of faith as a desirable characteristic for strengthening China’s national character.[6] However, it was unusual for a Republican-era author to take a serious interest in highly-structured and formalized religion, such as Su Xuelin does with Catholicism in her novel. Furthermore, Xingqiu’s relationship with her mother is closely linked to her conversion to Catholicism—her decision to convert changes her value system in a way that enables her to decide to marry the man her mother has chosen for her, whom she does not love, in order to honor her relationship with her mother.

I argue in this paper that Xingqiu’s turn to Catholicism is caused by its ability to satisfy the shortcomings of Republican-era discourse, namely the related ills of promoting selfishness and portraying a one-sided perspective on the relationships of modern women.[7] Her loss of faith in the utility of secular Republican-era ideals cause her to re-configure her notion of a free life, which then enables her to turn to Catholicism as a discourse that values both selflessness and women’s work and incorporate it into her conception of modernity. These tools provided by Catholicism allow Xingqiu to not only value selflessness in herself and others, but also to appreciate and esteem women’s work, while still considering herself a modern woman. Su Xuelin’s novel is not at all about the failure of Republican-era values to impact Chinese society, as some have suggested.[8] It is rather an effort to broaden the scope of modernity as defined by Republican-era intellectuals through the incorporation of Catholicism.

Xingqiu’s failure to find in the secular discourse of Republican-era China a resolution to her struggle of having to decide between her own happiness and her mother’s reflects the limitations of these supposedly liberating ideals. According to the discourse of her time, “new women” were those who valued free love over arranged marriage. Consequently, Xingqiu is surrounded by classmates in France who devote much of their time to pursuing love and romance.[9] One problem with this model of the “new woman,” however, is that it assumes that all women, given the choice, would prefer to pursue romantic, passionate relationships over the pragmatic ones that their parents arrange for them. Yet, Xingqiu frankly admits that she has never seen the appeal in passionate romance, and in theory finds nothing wrong with her mother’s desire to facilitate her life by arranging a stable match. She believes that in general, the more people indulge in the pursuit of their own egoistic desires, the more they become slave to those desires and unable to live a healthy, emotionally-balanced life.[10] Her interest in moderation even leads Xingqiu to become receptive to the idea of being faithful to a God early on in the novel, though she is not yet herself religious. Having made two close female friends in France who are both devout Catholics, Bailang and Sister Masha, Xingqiu finds the idea of believing in a God an appealing means to keep people from becoming too headstrong, to protect them from themselves.[11] Clearly, she is a woman who values moderation. As such, she has always felt somewhat at a distance from Republican-era values, though she symphathizes with the movement at the beginning of the novel and believes in its power to modernize China.[12] Popular Republican-era ideals of the “new woman” allow no room for someone like Xingqiu to express such moderate, restrained beliefs concerning love—she must be devoted to the pursuit of passion, or else she cannot consider herself completely modern.

Eventually, when Xingqiu does start to resist going through with her arranged marriage to Shujian (叔健), a Chinese national studying engineering in the United States, it not because she ideologically opposes arranged marriage, but rather because she finds the unemotional and reserved man to be insufferably uninteresting.[13] Were she a woman who did not value her relationship with her mother, she would most likely have no qualms about defying her family’s attempt to wed her to Shujian in the name of Republican-era ideals that call for the resistance of stifling traditions and the embrace of modern life.

However, the secular ideals of the Republican Era do not provide her with the tools to both “act modern” and to continue to honor her deep attachment to her mother. According to Republican-era secular discourse, these two actions of either honoring her mother or refusing to submit to an arranged marriage she does not want are mutually exclusive. Republican-era discourse pits “tradition” and “modernity” against one another as monolithic, unchanging concepts. This false dichotomy is the cause of most of Xingqiu’s strife thoughout the novel. It is also the conflict that first allows her to see that Republican-era values, while at first glance devoted to creating a passionate, engaged society of enlightened people who lead progressive lives, focus on the desires and happiness of the self moreso than they do on selflessness and thinking of others. For example, at one point she questions why she ever saddened her mother so much by leaving her behind to study abroad in France. She realizes that while she claimed it was ultimately for the betterment of China, studying a modern society whose habits she could then incorporate into her life at home, an unspoken reason hidden within this nationalistic discourse was her selfish desire to find a way to continue pursuing her passion, academia.[14] Her thoughts suggest that her real reasons for parting from her mother were mostly driven by desire for self-gain. Any rationale of traveling abroad to ultimately help China modernize was simply a front for this less worthy cause. She regrets to admit that she even once wished that her mother would die so that she would not have to face the issue of whether or not to listen to her regarding her arranged marriage.[15] The atrocity of this desire, however immature, demonstrates to Xingqiu the extent to which Republican Era values instill a sense of valuing one’s own self-preservation over acting for the happiness of others. Xingqiu’s deep regret over ever having felt this way reinforces her own guilt and dissatisfaction at her self-centered actions that Republican-era discourse encourages. Selflessness is not of course inherently more righteous than any other perceived virtue is. My point is not to critique Republican-era ideals for valuing egoistic actions over selfless ones, but rather to highlight that in the novel, this characteristic means that Xingqiu has no way, using Republican-era discourse, to respect her deep bond with and attachment to her mother or to lead a life driven primarily by selflessness. She must choose either to defy her mother and break her heart, thus permanently damaging her and Xingqiu’s relationship, or else to concede to marry a man she does not love and thus abandon any hope of considering herself a modern, liberated woman.

Another shortcoming of Republican-era ideals is that, by insisting on a strict dichotomy between “tradition” and “modernity,” they do not allow Xingqiu to respect her mother as a modern, intelligent woman whose feelings and thoughts deserve to be taken seriously. Xingqiu’s mother, despite being uneducated, actually exhibits several characteristics of the Republican-era ideal of the “new woman.” Born in a time when women were not allowed to study in school, Xingqiu’s mother was never given the same opportunities to educate herself that Xingqiu has been.[16] However, her mother values schooling immensely—she secretly sees no harm in Xingqiu’s wanting to further her education when her family first objects, but is unable to say anything in defense of her daughter because of her low status in the family.[17] Furthermore, she tries in her later years to teach herself how to read and understand some characters. Xingqiu remembers how her mother would use the spare moments between waiting on everybody like a servant to use her son’s homework to studiously practice her characters until she could actually read a decent amount of texts for a self-educated housewife, including some Tang-dynasty poetry. Rather than admiring her fortitude, her family teases her for wasting time studying texts that have no relevance to her everyday life. Xingqiu even remembers with guilt that when her mother asked her for some help in learning characters, she refused in annoyance because she did not want to take time away from her own reading and learning. Because of the continuing pressures of everyday chores and the lack of support from the family, her mother eventually gives up her attempt.[18]

This story demonstrates that Xingqiu’s mother values learning and education, which Republican-era intellectuals as a whole considered vital components of a progressive, modern society. Furthermore, she was even supportive of her daughter becoming further educated, though she felt she realistically could not defend her daughter’s position because of her status in the family. Xingqiu’s mother in many ways actually expresses characteristics that Republican-era intellectuals value, but because of her status as an uneducated housewife in an arranged marriage to a man in a traditional household, she is automatically cast by Republican-era discourse into the realm of “traditional Chinese society” that must be defied by China’s modern youth. Xingqiu has no means to admire and respect her mother, as she dearly wishes to continue to do, using solely the discourse of secular Republican-era ideas—despite the value her mother places upon learning and her efforts to educate herself, as a woman in a traditional family who has chosen to retain her stability rather than rebel against her family and lose everything, she cannot be seen as a figure of respect and admiration. Xingqiu is very upset whenever she is reminded of how she selfishly refused to help her mother learn to read, and dreams every night while abroad in France of teaching her mother characters.[19] The frequency of this dream reinforces Xingqiu’s guilt, which she feels at every instance in the novel where she does something or considers doing something that would distance her physically and mentally from her mother. These feelings of guilt also reinforce Xingqiu’s reluctance to fully embrace secular Republican-era ideas. She values everything that her mother has done for her immensely, and is not willing to fully embrace a discourse that would force her to shatter her mother’s heart and permanently damage their relationship.

Meanwhile, as the novel progresses and Xingqiu’s character matures, she gradually comes to tolerate religion. In the transitional period before she becomes a convert herself, she first becomes drawn not to religion, per se, but to religious fervor, specifically Catholic fervor. She realizes that the religious fervor she sees in her close friends Bailang and Sister Masha represents exactly the kind of nationalistic passion that the May Fourth movement seeks to instill in the Chinese. She also realizes that the May Fourth movement as it is lacks the ability to ignite this kind of nationalistic fervor because of its focus on fulfillment of the desires of the self, rather than on selflessness and thinking of others. In her diary, she critiques Chinese people who consider themselves modern for aiming to emulate only the material wealth and lifestyle of other so-called modern societies, insisting that from her own observations in France she can tell that it is the religious fervor of the people, which drives them to be passionate about causes and helping others, that makes France a strong nation. After complaining about how modern Chinese value their own fulfillment over resolving the suffering of others, she exclaims, “If we want to save China, promoting science is as a matter of course an urgent task, but we first must strive for transformation of our spirits! In order to transform our spirits, the first necessary step is to destroy the worldviews of self-centeredness and pursuit of selfish gain and to take note of moral life.”[20] Here, Xingqiu laments that the May Fourth Movement is promoting its own brand of selfishness despite purportedly fighting against the self-centeredness of traditional society. In her view, the May Fourth Movement’s failure to incorporate selflessness into its conception of modernity is a problem because without this focus on thinking about others, it is impossible to achieve the kind of compassionate society toward which the movement strives. Furthermore, she suggests that the only way to achieve this vision of a compassionate, caring society is to turn to a “moral life.” From context, she seems to mean a life devoted to living in moderation toward oneself and devotion to the wellbeing of others, as exemplified in the lives of Bailang and Sister Masha. This realization is her first step to understanding the usefulness of religious fervor in developing effective nationalistic discourse.

At one point, Xingqiu even equates religion with nationalism. She is upset because she has just learned that her family’s home in the countryside was invaded by robbers, who took most of their valuable possessions and injured her mother, nearly killing her. This act demonstrates that May Fourth movement ideals have been ineffective at reaching the Chinese populace outside of the group of elite intellectuals who formulated them. Xingqiu laments the hateful deed as evidence of the failure of forward-thinking Chinese to instill compassion in society. However, she reflects that her hatred of these robbers and their actions does not extend to China itself. She views “China” as an entity separate from the actions currently ongoing within it, a country of rich culture and history with much potential.[21] Xingqiu, who because of her disbelief in religion has insisted to Bailang and Sister Masha up until this point in the novel that she has no soul, suddenly exclaims, “China, lovely China, it turns out that you are my soul!”[22] Finally, Xingqiu is willing to concede the existence of a “soul,” but she is using the term differently than Bailang and Sister Masha. For her, China is her soul because she loves it so much that it infuses every part of her being. In thinking of China as her soul, she has effectively equated nationalistic discourse with religious fervor. In the same way that religious adherents devote themselves to rigorous prayer and routines to cultivate their souls, Xingqiu wants to devote herself whole-heartedly to the cultivation of China. She understands that nationalism is itself a kind of religion, the only difference being that it centers around an unconditional faith in one’s homeland, rather than in a god.

Thinking of this kind of “religious fervor” as necessary for the successful development of modern society in China, she reaches a crucial stage where she realizes that religion and the goals of the May Fourth movement may not be mutually exclusive.[23] She is beginning to resolve the conundrum of being unable to find space for respecting and honoring her relationship with her mother in May Fourth discourse. However, at this point in the novel she has only accepted that religious fervor is good for progress, expanding the defintion of religion to include not just fervor for a god but for a nation. In this, her viewpoint does not differ greatly from the perspectives of some May Fourth intellectuals who were more open to a kind of secularized spirituality, as mentioned earlier.

Xingqiu eventually comes to terms with Catholicism’s compatibility with her modern values and converts. Her actions demonstrate that she successfully reconfigures Catholicism as a compatible with modernity by adhering to a Catholic model of freedom, rather than a secular one. A quick glance at the law books of most secular countries in the world would demonstrate that non-religious definitions of freedom involve freedom of the individual from entities that have the potential to oppress her, such as the government and the church. The May Fourth movement’s definition of freedom is no exception—intellectuals of the period discussed at great length the need to be freed of the bonds of the traditional dynastic system, antiquated superstitious beliefs, and so on. The Catholic model of freedom differs substantially from this more familiar model, however. Essentially, Catholics assume that loving God and living a Christlike life is the only way to attain true happiness, and thus argue that freedom is the ability to choose to love God. It is the freedom, obtained from exposure, learning, and faith, to choose not to indulge in sinful acts that oppress one’s soul, but rather to live in bliss in the presence of God.[24] While I cannot be certain Su Xuelin was aware of this definition of freedom, it is unlikely that she was not, since she was both an educated Catholic and to some extent a scholar of religious studies.[25] In any case, regardless of whether she was aware of this definition or not, Xingqiu’s change in attitude toward Catholicism reflects a transformation in how she conceives of freedom.

Her changing attitude toward freedom first emerges as she admires the demeanor and behavior of her two Catholic friends Bailang and Sister Masha. In terms of their carriage, she admires their reservation, elegance and sophistication. Their self-sacrifice and modest ways of living move her, although she does not initially understand why they believe denying themselves comfort leads to a closer relationship with God. She also admires their compassion for others, for instance Bailang’s insistance on praying for every individual that she knows every night before going to bed. In fact, she notices that Bailang’s compassion is such that everyone with whom she communicates, even people who are normally detestable, become happy and likeable in her presence. Especially in contrast to her own tortured feelings regarding her struggle between her feelings for her mother and her desire to embrace modernity, Masha and Bailang’s calm and serenity baffle and impress her.[26] These observations suggest that despite the suffering they put themselves through for the sake of worship, Masha and Bailang have found the key to leading a blissful and happy life. Xingqiu associates their unique behaviors with their Catholic faith, and begins to question whether or not religion might in fact be a viable way of finding satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment.[27]

When Xingqiu tries to convince Sister Masha to stop denying herself so much for the sake of her health, the young nun responds as though her friend has suggested something unthinkable. “We enter religious life precisely because of suffering. You do not understand the value of bitterness.” She goes on to explain how suffering is the way that she purifies her soul. A soul is so priceless, she argues, that any amount of suffering she might endure is a tiny price to pay for salvation. [28] Basically, Sister Masha is explaining the Catholic model of freedom. Her ability to disattach herself from worldly sundries and luxuries has allowed her to more easily access God’s love and salvation, so to speak. It is through living a clean and pure life, free from other distractions that distance her from God, that she can be free to truly know him and thus experience true bliss. Xingqiu is not yet convinced at this moment, but she does listen. Everything that Bailang and Sister Masha tell her help her to re-configure her definitions of religion and modernity. Eventually, of course, Xingqiu does convert. In the segment of the novel where the reader first learns of Xingqiu’s conversion, the young student provides a long, detailed account of the beauty and wonder she experiences every day as a converted Catholic, and of the bliss and joy she experiences whenever she imagines Heaven (161). From the lengthy detail devoted to describing Xingqiu’s newfound joy after conversion and the beautiful imagery she associates with Heaven, it is clear that Xingqiu has also found true bliss and contentment in the faith, in contrast to her tortuous internal struggles prior to her conversion. She thus evidently also has come to think of freedom as a freedom to embrace God, rather than a freedom from oppressive entitites.

This new conceptualization of freedom enables her to consider Catholicism as compatible with modernity. As she views it, she is not succumbing to an oppressive institution by becoming Catholic, but rather is making a choice to embrace what she considers true freedom, a value that May Fourth intellectuals also embrace. She is believes that through Catholicism, she is able to access the freedom to live a compassionate and fruitful life that secular May Fourth intellectuals also desire but cannot access through their emphasis on rationality alone. Thus, her changing conception of freedom enables her to consider Catholicism as not only compatible with Republican Era ideals of modernity, but necessary for them. Saba Mahmood discusses a similar phenomenon in her work on female agency in the conservative women’s mosque movement in Egypt. She uses the metaphor of a pianist who submits herself to many hours of grueling practice for the sake of having the ability to produce beautiful music to describe the thought process of women who choose to participate in religions where they are traditionally subordinate. Their choice to be religious has nothing to do with subordination to a male-dominated hierarchy, but rather stems from their own personal choice to subject themselves to restrictive lifestyles in order to attain some perceived transcendence.[29] Xingqiu’s choice works the same way: she finally learns how to embrace the freedom that Republican-era intellectuals value but cannot seem to attain by recognizing that they are searching in the wrong place for it.

Furthermore, she realizes that it is literally impossible for religion to be mutually exclusive with May Fourth values for two reasons. First, she knows many religious people who are also rational and intelligent—not all religious adherents are cold, complacent traditionalists. In addition, the universe is so complex that it is impossible to understand it through rationality alone. She thus implies explicitly in the text that May Fourth intellectuals in their pursuit of knowledge will find it impossible to obtain a thorough understanding of the world around them through science and rationality alone.[30]

Converting to Catholicism also enables Xingqiu to resolve the question of whether or not to honor her relationship with her mother. In a key passage in an article on Su Xuelin, Zhange Ni writes:

…women were supposed to be liberated from Confucian ritual teachings and foreign missionaries, and part of the secular world, so that they might receive the tutelage of enlightened men. Xuelin saw that there was no place in this secular, intellectual world for her Confucian mother or her Catholic sisters, who had nurtured her in a way that male intellectuals tended to label as “imprisonment,” but that she knew to be central to her own development.[31]

Ni acknowledges the tendency of male intellectuals in Republican Era China to portray enlightened, modern women only in terms of their relationships with men, and argues that Su Xuelin sees in religion a way to nurture the female relationships that are so important to her. The novel without a doubt supports this reading of it, since Xingqiu forms close relationships with two women through Catholicism and finally reconciles her internal struggle after conversion, choosing to marry the man her mother has picked for her. Ni does not particularly explain here how religion creates a space for Xingqiu to bond with other women, what it offers to Xingqiu that secular discourse does not.

Essentially, it offers two tools for strengthening relationships, one of which is not gender-dependent, and one of which is. The non-gender-dependent tool is that embracing religion allows Xingqiu to value selflessness as a crucial component of modernity, which she perceives is undermined in secular Republican Era discourse because of its focus on fulfilling the desires of the self against all odds. This value placed on selflessness allows Xingqiu to agree to her mother’s wishes to marry Shujian without feeling like she is a slave to traditional life. It also enables her to not feel guilty for wanting to obey her mother, who as the quintessential example of selflessness and compassion can now be accorded respect, rather than automatically being cast as a hopeless member of China’s traditional society. This tool is not gender-dependent because the value placed on selflessness could in theory deepen any relationship, regardless of what genders are involved.

The second tool through which embracing Catholicism as a vital component of modernity allows Xingqiu to respect her mother and deepen her relationship with her is the glorification within the religion of women’s work, particularly the suffering of mothers. First, mother imagery is predominant throughout the novel—every woman Xingqiu grows close to is described as a mother-like figure, not only her actual mother, but also Bailang and Sister Masha.[32] Intertwined with this mother image throughout the novel is the relationship of the mother to suffering—all mothers suffer, giving all of themselves for the sake of their children. Bailang and Sister Masha’s suffering are connected to their motherlike dispositions, and Xingqiu’s mother is almost always portrayed as suffering or compromising for the sake of someone else. [33]

Marian devotion is a significant component of Catholicism, in which religious adherents pray to the Virgin Mary separately from Christ and God and revere her as the ultimate example of the compassionate, suffering mother figure.[34] Marian devotion is referenced repeatedly throughout the novel. Xingqiu’s school in France has a statue of the Virgin Mary in front, which is referenced several times in descriptions throughout the novel.[35] A few days before Xingqiu goes back home, she stops in at a Cathedral devoted to the Virgin Mary in Paris to pray for her mother.[36] She convinces her mother to convert to Catholicism as well at the very end of the novel, where it is revealed that both of them have taken the confirmation name “Maria,” another name for Mary.[37] This quintessential symbol of honoring the mother figure watches over Xingqiu as she journeys throughout the novel. Toward the end of the story, she prays to Mary in the aforementioned cathedral in Paris, imploring her to be compassionate toward her mother in the final months of her illness before she passes away. She cries out to Mary that both she and her mother know what it is like, how much a mother suffers, and how many thorns a mother has in her heart.[38] At a later point, she also describes her mother’s suffering for the sake of her husband’s family as the crucifix that she has carried for forty years, which obviously elevates her sacrifice for her family to the same status as Christ’s sacrifice for mankind.[39] All of these examples illustrate that within Catholicism, women’s work is glorified and upheld as essential to the upbringing and continuance of the human race, whereas secular Republican Era ideals, in their efforts to promote learning and education in opposition to traditional life, tended to de-value non-intellectual work conventionally assigned to women in traditional China like raising children and doing housework. Catholicism’s glorification of the work and suffering of women enables Xingqiu to admire and respect her mother in a way that she could not with secular Republican Era ideals alone.

Xingqiu redefines modernity by incorporating Catholicism into her lifestyle while retaining her identity as a modern woman. Her reasons for doing this are twofold. First, she finds that Republican Era discourse undermines itself by promoting the very self-centeredness it hopes to dispel from society through encouraging people to selfishly pursue their dreams and goals regardless of the costs to their relationships. To Xingqiu’s way of thinking, the only way to truly embrace the ideal of selflessness and compassion is to avoid a life driven by material gain and instead turn to the freedom that is the pursuit of spiritual transcendence. The second reason for her incorporation of Catholicism into her notion of modernity is that it allows her tools to respect and strengthen her relationship with her mother over her romantic relationships in a way that the one-sided portrayal of gender relations in much Republican-Era discourse fails to provide. The most obvious opposition to seeing Xingqiu’s incorporation of Catholicism into her conception of modernity as in itself a progressive move is to argue that this incorporation is in fact not a choice at all, that Xingqiu has been brainwashed, molded, and shaped by traditionalist and imperialist discourse, and that the novel represents simply the failure of the May Fourth Movement to have real impact. This argument is impossible to completely dispel, since ultimately it is impossible to discern to what extent Xingqiu’s actions truly stem from her environment versus herself, a dichotomy which most likely is in itself greatly simplified. The argument leads nowhere. It is sufficient to say that the bright, well-read Xingqiu, who is ambitious enough to study abroad in France and become bilingual in French and Mandarin (as well as knowing some English), should be considered an individual who is capable of acting in a self-determined manner. In any case, all of her decisions in the book go against the grain of someone’s convention—furthering her education, studying abroad in France, converting to Catholicism, and even submitting to her arranged marriage, which defies the expectations of the May Fourth Movement to which she adheres. This in itself suggests that her choices stem from a strong independent will, rather than from a tendency to be influenced and manipulated by her environment. This novel is of crucial importance because of its suggestions about re-configuring religious devotion by emphasizing certain elements and, in the process, re-shaping and broadening Republican-Era notions of modernity.






Works Cited

Catechism of the Catholic Church. USCCB, 1995.

Denton, Kirk. “Introduction.” In Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature,

1893-1945, ed. Kirk Denton. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

“Kaifeng.” In Chinese Text Project—Shijing (Book of Odes), trans. James Legge. Accessed May

7, 2015. [凯风].

Kinkley, Jeffrey. The Odyssey of Shen Congwen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Mahmood, Saba. “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on

the Egyptian Islamic Revival.” In Cultural Anthropology, 16.2 (May 2001): 202-236

Ni, Zhange. “Making Religion, Making the New Woman: Reading Su Xuelin’s Autobiographical

Novel Jixin (Thorny Heart).” In Gendering Chinese Religion: Subject, Identity, and Body,
edited by Jinhua Jia, Xiaofei Kang, and Ping Yao, 71-99. New York: SUNY Press, 2014.

Ni, Zhange. “The Thorny Paths of Su Xuelin: As a Roman Catholic, Anti-Communist ‘New
Woman,’ this Chinese Writer and Scholar Led a Complex Life,” in Harvard Divinity

School Harvard Divinity Bulletin 39, nos. 3-4 (2011). Accessed May 7, 2015.


Su Xuelin. Ji Xin. Beijing: Beijing Yanshan Chubanshe, 1998.

Su Xuelin. Tianwen Zhengjian. Wuhan: Hubei Wuhan Daxue, 2007.

Yang Tianlong. Jidujiao yu Minguo Zhizhifenzi: 1922 Nian-1927 Nian Zhongguo Feijidujiao

            Yundong Yanjiu.

[1] This general information about the Republican Era in China is generally considered common knowledge. Innumerable studies of this period have been undertaken, but one of the more well-known summaries is Kirk Denton’s “Introduction” in his Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature 1893-1945

[2] Ni, Zhange, “Making Religion, Making the New Woman: Reading Su Xuelin’s Autobiographical Novel Jixin (Thorny Heart),” in Gendering Chinese Religion: Subject, Identity, and Body, ed. Jinhua Jia, Xiaofei Kang, and Ping Yao (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), 71-99. “New woman” was a catchphrase used commonly in the Republican Era to refer to women who engaged in modern lifestyles. The most common characteristics intellectuals used to identify them were their interests in higher education and free love.

[3] The translation is James Legge’s. The original is: 棘心夭夭,母氏敬劳.

[4] This translation and all subsequent translations are my own. Original: 我以我的血和泪,刻骨的疚心,永久的哀慕,写成这本书,纪念我最爱的母亲.

[5] A good introduction in Chinese to this viewpoint is Yang Tianlong’s (杨天龙) (1951-) Jidujiao Yu Minguo Zhishifenzi: 1922 Nian-1927 Nian Zhongguo Feijidujiao Yundong Yanjiu (基督教与民国知识分子:1922年-1927年中国非基督教运动研究) (2005).

[6] See Jeffrey Kinkley’s work The Odyssey of Shen Congwen for an example of this approach.

[7] In this paper, I use the terms “Republican-era discourse,” “Republican-era ideals/ideas,” “May Fourth movement ideas/ideals,” and “May Fourth movement discourse” interchangeably to refer to the same concept—the set of egalitarian notions influenced by western liberal discourse commonly espoused by intellectuals at the time, some of which I have described briefly above.

[8] Ni, Zhange, “The “The Thorny Paths of Su Xuelin: As a Roman Catholic, Anti-Communist ‘New Woman,’ this Chinese Writer and Scholar Led a Complex Life,” Harvard Divinity School Harvard Divinity Bulletin 39, nos. 3-4 (2011), url: []

[9] Su Xuelin, Ji Xin (Beijing: Beijing Yanshan Chubanshe, 1929), 106-112.

[10] ibid., 89

[11] ibid., 61.

[12] Ibid., 9.

[13] ibid., 90.

[14] ibid., 60.

[15] ibid., 207.

[16] ibid., 75.

[17] ibid., 22.

[18] ibid., 75-79

[19] ibid., 79-80.

[20] ibid., 101.要救中国,提供科学固是急务,然而先要讲究心灵的改造,讲究心灵的改造,第一项须得打破传统的自私自利人生观,注意道德生活。

[21] ibid., 134.

[22] ibid.,,可爱的中国,你原是我的灵魂哪!

[23] Ni, 93

[24] “Man’s Freedom,” Catechism of the Catholic Church (USCCB, 1995),

[25] For instance, she wrote a book length work on the well-known ancient Chinese poem “Heavenly Questions (天问)” (Warring States Period) called 天问正简 in which she demonstrates her erudition in western religions while discussing allusions within the poem.

[26] Su, 85; 94-95.

[27] ibid., 97.

[28] ibid., 123. 我们出家修修道便是为了受苦。

[29] Saba Mahmood, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology, 16.2 (May 2001): 202-236

[30] Su, 183.

[31] Ni, Zhange, “ ‘The Thorny Paths’”…

[32] Su, 83-85; 94

[33] Her mother’s suffering is referenced many, many times throughout Su Xuelin’s novel. Some examples: 5-8, 54-55, 57.

[34] “I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church.” Catechism of the Catholic Church (USCCB, 1995)

[35] Su, 115.

[36] ibid., 181.

[37] ibid., 209. 马利亚。

[38] ibid., 186.

[39] Ibid., 206.

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