ESSAY – China’s early feminism: The Ling Long Women’s Magazine Issue 135, April 1934

Ling Long Magazine, No. 135, 04 April, 1934[1]

  

                          Front Cover                                                                         Back Coverfront.png                back

Ling Long was a weekly pocket-sized women’s magazine published in Shanghai from 1931 to 1937.[2] The goal of the magazine, as stated in its first issue was to “enhance women’s beautiful life, and advocate refined entertainment in society”[3] by providing information on the latest trends, beauty, sports, personal hygiene and movies. However, the magazine was also an important space for women to speak up for themselves and to expand the growing community of urban independent women. This double nature of the magazine was represented by its division into two parts: one read from the front cover, which usually featured the picture of a woman impersonating the ideal of the modern woman, and the other read from the back cover, which featured contents related to Hollywood or Chinese movies.[4] The first part of Ling Long dealt with women’s issues, the second part with entertainment, new trends and cinema.[5]

Ling Long had the peculiarity of strongly engaging with its readers, who were encouraged to share their stories and photographs to be published. As a matter of fact, the first section of the magazine was a space to celebrate women’s experiences as strong and prominent figures in an evolving society in which they were key players and not passive actors. In this respect, Ling Long distinguished itself from other magazines of the time because it promoted a new modern woman, not engaged in cosmopolitan activities, but that was superior to men and capable of shaping the future of the nation – for example by opposing the Japanese atrocities. This essay will analyse the issue 135 of Ling Long, published in April 1934 and the historical significance of the magazine for the understanding of the new emerging concepts of being a woman in 1930s Shanghai, in a time and place of dramatic social and political changes. The paper will emphasise the double identity of the magazine, which ultimately reflected the multifaceted identity of Shanghai, a reality in which nationalistic sentiments and aspirations confronted with an unprecedented level of new goods, commodities and modern ideals that interacted with traditions for the creation of a new form of cosmopolitanism.

The cover of issue 135 of the magazine features a Chinese woman, as a clear symbol of being a women’s magazine, written by Chinese women for Chinese women. For instance, at page 578, there are pictures of two girls practicing sports or doing physical education at school: the magazine encouraged participation from women who had the chance to read the magazine and wanted to share their achievements. At page 591, a picture of two women sending letters is used to call for submissions. This inclusive attitude of the magazine can be understood as the emergence of a growing community of women, a new social group not identified by class or rank.

“Being a Contemporary girl”, written by Miss Li Ying and featured in the first part of issue 135 at page 583[6], can be considered a manifesto of the emerging feelings of feminism in 1930s Shanghai. The writer gives a specific description of how a “girl of today” (contemporary woman) should behave. The first characteristic cited is strength, both physical and mental, in order to be competent. In this respect, Miss Lin Ying, probably refers to the necessity of the contemporary modern woman of being able to work and to compete with men. The second feature of the contemporary girl is to be open-minded and never satisfied with what she possesses, essential attitudes to build a successful career. Third, she must be educated, a requisite to fulfil her ambition. Indeed, women’s education was extensively publicised and promoted in Ling Long, especially with pictures of young girls attending higher education institutions, such as at page 506 of issue 135. Moreover, Miss Li Ying writes that a “girl of today” must be financially independent to stand on her own. Finally, the last condition to be a modern Ling Long woman is to renounce jealousy and never be envy of other women. In these five points the writer summarised the principal requisites for a woman to be considered a “contemporary girl”. By reading these points is possible to understand how independence was central for the conception of the “modern girl” expressed by the urban women who wrote for Ling Long and by its readers. As a matter of fact, being financially independent and educated were seen as means to build a career, which would make women actively involved in the future of their nation. The heroine portrayed by Ling Long is a new “New Woman”.

As clearly evident in the five points expressed in the article, the emphasis on hard work and self determination exalt a new ideal of woman, capable of standing up against and being on the same level of men. Moreover, Ling Long celebrates the idea of a woman who can stand up in spite of privileged women from the traditional elites. Education is seen as a means to fulfil aspirations and must be used. In this respect, this vision represents a rupture with the traditional Chinese idea of educated women belonging to noble or rich households, who had the privilege of being educated but did not use it to be independent. In contrast, modern and strong workingwomen can be successful despite their origins and counting on their intelligence and strength.

The back cover of issue 135 features a picture of Jean Harlow, an American actress who was a symbol of elegance and femininity in the 1930s. Like all the other issues of Ling Long, the second part was in fact dedicated to cinema, entertainment and lifestyle. In this section, articles are dedicated to new movies, mainly from Hollywood, as visible in the list at page 632, and to the most popular stars of the time, whose names can be read in English in many pages. The pictures of women featured in this part are different from those featured in the first. As a matter of fact, physical appearance becomes central. Adverts and photos that exalt women’s bodies replace the achievements of new modern women as strong and independent figures. At page 608 and 609, a large picture titled “Fashions of 1934” shows women in a scene of a movie dancing with provocative clothes. This aspect, that is the “femme fatale” attitude portrayed by many celebrities of the time and sponsored in the magazine by many new products that the contemporary woman “needs” to look fashionable, seems to contradict the ideals of femininity and elegance that the contemporary woman should cultivate to build a career. In contrast, the celebration of the feminine body as a sex symbol is evident.

Looking at one issue of the magazine is a 360 degrees experience into the fascinating and evolving life of middle class urban women in republican China, a unique glimpse into their challenging experience, which gradually generated new concepts of femininity and feminism, incisive like never before but contradictory at the same time. The contradictions at the base of the ideals of the New Woman are not related to the values that they emphasised and promoted, exemplified in the article analysed in this essay or in the pictures celebrating women’s successes and achievements all over China. Rather, the main contradiction lies in the emphasis given to the cosmopolitan culture that was emerging at the time, shaped by the commodification of goods in Shanghai. In this respect, in the second part of the magazine, women are encouraged to pursue a new glamorous life style, which involved expensive clothes and make-up, new hairstyle and the imitation of famous American and European celebrities. In a broader context, the figure of the modern urban woman was also a symbol used to represent an “exotic” form of modernity and the transgressive experience of the city, in which the new woman was turned into an icon of the modernity provided by the new commodities.[7] This image of the contemporary girl, however, opposes the characteristics that the Ling Long heroine should posses by exalting other aspects of being a woman in the 1930s, mostly related to her physical appearance and to the use of her sexuality.

This “double nature” of the Ling Long woman and of the magazine itself can be connected and recognised in the multifaceted identity of 1930s Shanghai. On one side, sentiments of nationalism instilled by the 1911 Revolution were flourishing and creating a new intellectual urban elite consciously related to the concept of the Chinese nation and that opposed imperialism in its multiple forms; on the other, the presence of the West in Shanghai and the spread of its influence on every level, made Chinese inhabitants of the port city in growing contact with a new material culture. This ultimately resulted in the the creation of a form of cosmopolitanism and an hybrid modernity “that could be understood not as the cultural domination by the foreign but as the appropriation by the local of ‘elements of foreign culture to enrich a new national culture’”.[8]

[1] http://kjc-sv013.kjc.uni-heidelberg.de/frauenzeitschriften/public/magazine/issue_detail.php?magazin_id=3&year=1934&issue_id=200&issue_number=135

[2] Yen, Hsiao-pei. “Body politics, modernity and national salvation: The modern girl and the new life movement.” Asian Studies Review 29.2 (2005), p.168.

[3] Ibid., , p.168; (Ling Long 1, 1931, p. 13).

[4] Exhibitions.cul.columbia.edu,. 2016. “Columbia University Libraries Online Exhibitions | Ling Long Women’s Magazine”https://exhibitions.cul.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/linglong/about_linglong/magazine.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Ling long. Vol. 4, issue 135 (1934), page 583,” Columbia University Libraries Online Exhibitions, https://exhibitions.cul.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/linglong/item/9352.

[7] Dal Lago, Francesca. “Crossed Legs in 1930s Shanghai: How’Modern’the Modern Woman?.” East Asian History 19 (2000), p.117.

[8] Abbas, M. Ackbar. “Cosmopolitan De-scriptions: Shanghai and Hong Kong.” Public Culture 12.3 (2000), p.775.

References

  • Abbas, M. Ackbar. “Cosmopolitan De-scriptions: Shanghai and Hong Kong.” Public Culture3 (2000): 769-786.
  • Dal Lago, Francesca. “Crossed Legs in 1930s Shanghai: How’Modern’the Modern Woman?.” East Asian History 19 (2000): 103-144.
  • Lee, Leo Ou-fan. “Shanghai modern: reflections on urban culture in China in the 1930s.” Public Culture1 (1999): 75-107.
  • Yen, Hsiao-pei. “Body politics, modernity and national salvation: The modern girl and the new life movement.” Asian Studies Review2 (2005): 165-186.

 

 

 

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