The Incident of Miss Xi Shangzhen's Suicide at the Office of the Commercial Press

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Author(s) Chen Wangdao
Written 20 September 1922


Originally published in the Women's Critic supplement to the Republican Daily, September 20, 1922.
Keywords : China, Feminism, Suicide

On the seventh of this month, around seven o'clock, Miss Xi Shangzhen, a secretary of the Commercial Press, hanged herself in the office. This incident has become a hot issue in the public forums of Shanghai. She hanged herself using the wire of an electric teakettle. Newspapers speculate that she committed suicide because Mr. Tang Jiezhi, the general manager of Commercial Press, had borrowed five thousand yuan from her and refused to return it to her. Yet rumors have insinuated a different and very unsavory interpretation, one made possible by the evil side of Chinese national character. We should certainly not accept it without evidence.

Miss Xi, a native of Dongtingshan in Wu County, graduated from Shanghai East District Women's School. She was only twenty-four years old. Originally, she lived at 4 Tang Family Lane, Shanghai. When Commercial Press was first founded, her cousin Wang Boheng recommended her for the position of mail sorter at the Commercial Press. She shared an office with Mr. Tang Jiezhi. Her job was to open the incoming mail, show it to Mr. Tang, and then deliver it to various departments. Her monthly salary was twenty yuan.

Ms. Xi-Fang,[1] the victim's mother, told the coroner's office that Xi Shangzhen committed suicide because "Mr. Tang never returned her the money he borrowed last May." As Xi Shangzhen's sister, Ms. Wang-Xi, said,

Last May 3, Mr. Tang Jiezhi, general manager of Commercial Press, told my sister of the advantages of buying stocks and acquired 5,000 yuan from her. But the stocks did not increase in value, so my sister asked Tang to return her money. To her surprise, Mr. Tang told her that he had mortgaged the stocks. Up until mid-May this year, there was still no sign of his returning the money. My sister took an overdose of sleep medication; but she was saved by the doctor Tang got for her. She did not come home until daybreak. She was sent back home in a horse carriage by Commercial Press—it was claimed that she "had an acute disease." But my sister sat in the carriage and refused to get off, saying that she "would rather die right at work." So she was taken back and sent directly to Tongren Hospital. When I went to see her, she told me that "it was not because of an acute illness that I took the overdose. It was because Tang would not return my money and also said, 'You belong to me. Why don't you have some faith in me in terms of the money? Why don't you simply marry me?'" My sister said, "You have a wife; how can I be your concubine?" Tang had a written agreement with my sister, in which he promised to return the money in three installments. But he never kept his promise, which led to my sister's tragic suicide.

Nevertheless, Tang Jiezhi's statement completely denied the part about his proposition to Miss Xi. According to newspaper reports, he stated: "As for my asking her to become my concubine, that is an absolute lie. But even if it were true, why should she have committed suicide?" It is indeed exceptionally smart of Mr. Tang to have used words like "even if" and "why should she!" The urgent statement by Mr. Tang Jiezhi that was carried in various newspapers and checked and approved by his lawyer makes it sound as if his whole story were true. The following is his entire statement:

Regarding the suicide of Miss Xi Shangzhen, I feel obligated to issue the following statement to the public and friends. In order to buy stocks, the deceased had borrowed money from other parties and then asked me to purchase them. But when we were going to buy the stocks, I was under the assumption that all the money belonged to her. She intended to buy a large number of shares; but I believed that it was too risky and did not want to do it for her. Later, she raised a mortgage on her stocks from Shangbao Bank. When all her plans and efforts, unfortunately, fell through, she became very depressed and repeatedly asked me to help her out. She told me that she was under a lot of pressure and was getting reprimands from her debtors. She tried to commit suicide twice. Because she had been a great asset to me and the Press as a clerk, I, out of good will, had tried my best to assist her. On August 19, I gave her a written agreement in which I promised to pay back the 5,000 yuan in installments. It was stated in the agreement that, beginning from that date, I would pay 1,500 yuan in twelve months, then another 1,500yuan in another twelve months and finally 2,000 yuan after the total thirty-six months. This contract was given to her prior to her suicide and is now in the hands of her family. Her family showed it to the authorities right at the coroner's. To this day, her family still has the contract. Apart from that contract, I cannot be held responsible for anything. I assert that I did all this entirely out of sympathy and with the intention of helping her out of her predicament. Not surprisingly, she was quite delighted when I gave her my written agreement. I, for one, am still very puzzled why she would have committed suicide after receiving the contract. Therefore, I have written this public statement, which has been approved by my lawyer.

After Miss Xi's suicide, the news media in Shanghai carried many commentaries. I think the most representative are Mr. Zha's article in the "Women and Family" column of China New Tribune and Miss Huang's special report on Xi Shangzhen in the "Bright Light" column of Current Affairs. They represent two opposite positions. Please refer to the following:


The Shortcomings of Women's Education: Thoughts on Miss Xi Shangzhen's Suicide[edit source]

Zha Mengci


From various points of view, the recent suicide of Miss Xi Shangzhen can be considered a big social problem. As an outsider who does not know the details, I don't want to comment too much; but I cannot help but feel great sympathy for such a young woman who had a good new-style education and yet was killed by society as soon as she entered it. I think her untimely death has taught our society—especially the society of the new woman—a good lesson, warning us not to let such tragedies happen again and not to take risks with women's education. That is the only way for us to show our sympathy for and commemoration of the deceased.

However, at the same time, I have to say that "there exists a big problem in China's education for women." Why is that? Aren't we who actively advocate women's education also advocating for women's independence? For their participation in society and for their economic independence? If so, we need to provide the appropriate preparation and training. Those who educate women need to give their students this kind of preparation and training. The lack of this kind of preparation and training is a reason for Miss Xi's tragedy.

First, we must teach women to get rid of vanity, to reduce their materialistic desire, and to foster a serious and honest outlook. Of course, this should be required for both sexes; yet it is more urgent for women, for they are less resistant to such desire. Take Miss Xi for example. From what we gather from both sides, it was she herself who wanted to buy the stocks. This tragedy was caused by a moment of mistaken thinking. According to her family members, even if she did get all the stocks she purchased back, they would have been gobbled up by last year's stock market collapse anyway. How can the little pin money gathered by several women not be taken away by those wicked stock-mongers? Last year when the stock market was in its upswing, even many old moralists were tempted, never mind a young woman like her. But China's women's schools generally do not teach how to guard against vanity. Miss Xi's ignorance was certainly no wonder.

Second, contemporary Chinese society is very depraved, thus making service to society an arduous task even for men, not to mention women. Consequently, those who educate women should train and prepare their students well. In other words, rather than merely learn how to sing and dance, students should be equipped with social skills and necessary knowledge about the world. Although the whole truth is not yet out, the suicide of Miss Xi can still be attributed to her lack of social experience. Otherwise, she could have thought of a solution or some other way out of the situation. Though a promising young woman, Miss Xi committed suicide. This is a really tragic incident, but it should also serve as a really good lesson for educators.

Third, for a woman to be independent, it is necessary for her to be strong. This also means that she should be able to establish herself in society and solve all sorts of problems. As the Chinese saying goes, "Be able to cope with a predicament," or as the Western saying says, "Be able to tackle the problem head-on." hi such an evil society as ours, one needs a lot of patience; if one tries to solve any problem one encounters simply by ending one's own life, one has a very capricious attitude that has nothing to do with what we call independence. Traditionally, Chinese women have been inclined to commit suicide when confronted by a problem or when insulted and humiliated. This is all because they lack rigorous training and sufficient experience to deal with social pressure. We really feel sad and sorry for Miss Xi, who ended her life for merely 5,000 yuan. According to the information we have, both parties had already agreed to settle the issue by paying the debt in installments. If there were no other major problems, perhaps the tragedy was caused by a severe nervous breakdown. Understandably, a nervous and unstable person simply cannot take any mental duress. But at any rate, even though the death might have been triggered by a biological factor, educators should also bear some responsibility.

Now please bear with me as I make some wild remarks. What do I mean by the shortcomings of women's education? It is my belief that women's education as it currently exists is not suitable for training independent women.

At present, our women's schools teach only a smattering knowledge of science, technology, or arts, and are, in various degrees, cosmetic, decorative, and recreational. The living standard is above average, and not tough enough to train and temper people. To a certain degree, it is meant to produce cultured homemakers for so-called civilized families and not to train independent career women for society.

Chinese women's schools have just started to develop; their students are primarily from upper-middle-class families. From the start, women from those families are usually pampered and not supposed to be concerned with social responsibilities or familiar with worldly affairs. Additionally, our women's schools do not teach their students the knowledge and skills necessary for dealing with society, and do not foster in them the courage to be self-reliant. Given all that, how could we expect women to be successful in society?

There are many highly respectable women in traditional families in China's hinterland. They are humble and content with their modest means; they are full of tireless, self-effacing spirit in their assistance to their husbands and in their education of their children; they possess the virtue of diligence and frugality in the day-to-day running of their family businesses and boast an admirably appropriate character in dealing with society and people. In terms of teaching literary knowledge, new-style education is far better than traditional education; however, when it comes to the above virtues and qualities, the newly trained students are actually inferior to those peasant women in the hinterland. Here, I would like to call the attention of our specialists in women's education to the fact that Chinese society is really evil and that law cannot correct the evils of our society. Law is only a formality. A lot of evil can occur despite the presence of legal formalities. That is why we still see endless crime in Western societies that are ruled by tight, strict laws. If a Chinese woman wants to be independent and serve society, she needs to rely on her own strength in her struggle. To be precise, she has to rely on her observational skills, strong character, wealth of common sense, and inflexible integrity in her struggle against traditional society. I believe that contemporary women's schools must overcome their shortcomings and make greater efforts to build the character of students. They must add, on top of the new scientific education, the self-effacing spirit and virtues of those hinterland peasant women, who are industrious, humble, and content. This last point is particularly important for women's schools in Shanghai.

Miss Xi's lot is really pitiable; one can only wish that such a tragedy will never happen again. The evil society that caused the death of Miss Xi, I think, will eventually be reformed by public opinion. For now, I only hope that our specialists in women's education will remember the untimely death of such a young woman and try to draw a lesson from this tragedy.

What Does China New Tribune Want to Say?[edit source]

Miss Huang Qinghua


The "Women's Forum" of China New Tribune recently carried a commentary titled "The Shortcomings of Women's Education," making arguments that are totally wrong. One paragraph in it goes likes this:

Take Miss Xi for example. From what we gather from both sides, it was she herself who wanted to buy the stocks. This tragedy was caused by a moment of mistaken thinking. According to her family members, even if she did get all the stocks she purchased back, they would have been gobbled up by last year's stock market collapse anyway.

This commentary was authored by "Mengci." We should point out Mengci's errors, as well as criticize the editor of the Women's Forum in China New Tribune. If an author commits an error, it is the editor's responsibility to correct it; otherwise, the editor should bear the consequences.

We should, first of all, make it clear who tempted Miss Xi to buy the stocks. Who talked her into this? And who actually bought the stocks for her? Now, as all the news media reported, it is Tang Jiezhi who tempted her, persuaded her, and eventually bought the stocks on her behalf. This was a man's mistake in judgment, not just a woman's; therefore, it is absolutely wrong to put the blame on Miss Xi herself for the tragedy. How the tragedy occurred has been reported by the media; yesterday's Xiao Shen Newspaper carried a particularly detailed report. Current Affairs also has a special column devoted to letters to the editor on this issue. So far, most people hold the view that the tragedy was caused by the fact that Tang Jiezhi refused to return Xi Shangzhen the 5,000 yuan and, on top of that, tried to force her to become his concubine. But it was Tang Jiezhi who beguiled her into buying stocks in the first place!

China New Tribune's essay also argued:

In such an evil society as ours, one needs a lot of patience; if one tries to solve any problem one encounters simply by ending one's own life, one has a very capricious attitude that has nothing to do with what we call independence . . . . We really feel sad and sorry for Miss Xi, who ended her life for merely 5,000 yuan. According to the information we have, both parties had already agreed to settle the issue by paying the debt in installments. If there were no other major problems, perhaps the tragedy was caused by a severe nervous breakdown.

The above is once again absolutely wrong. How could one commit suicide except as a last resort? Suicide is indeed a cowardly act. But how many people are there in today's society who would give a woman true assistance? Judging from what we have seen, even if Miss Xi had chosen to fight rather than to commit suicide, she might have very likely failed as well. Now she is dead, and anybody who still has a conscience should stand up for her, and at least say a few words in fairness. But instead, unfortunately, people like Mengci and the editor of China New Tribune have chosen to attack a dead woman who has been wronged. This attack should be viewed as a mistake, if not completely unconscionable. In my opinion, Miss Xi's suicide was partly because of the 5,000 yuan and partly because of the fact that she felt deeply insulted by Tang Jiezhi's disreputable proposition. Chastity is an important matter in China; even though nowadays some people want to abolish it, it is, after all, a good thing if a woman still respects it and tries to keep it. Miss Xi was one of those women and felt so insulted and ashamed by Tang's indecent proposition, compounded with the 5,000 yuan debt, that she ended her own life in uncontrollable rage. China New Tribune certainly took a very cavalier attitude in blaming her for killing herself simply because of 5,000 yuan. As for the contract in which Tang agreed to pay the debt in installments, Miss Xi knew that it was only a piece of blank paper, given the fact that Tang had repeatedly failed to keep his word. Therefore, when further insulted by Tang's proposition, she just ended her own life in protest. If an educated woman like Miss Xi was driven to suicide, a traditional Chinese woman would perhaps have killed herself even sooner. It is ridiculous to assert that the suicide was due to a nervous breakdown. Perhaps the one who made this remark was himself suffering from a nervous breakdown. Almost all the presses now favor the deceased; China New Tribune alone attacked the deceased—indirectly playing down the crime of Tang Jiezhi. Why? Where is their conscience?

The above are two opposing views. The reader can easily discern which is the stronger argument. Can Xi Shangzhen's suicide be attributed, as Cha Mengci claimed, to the shortcomings in her education; or is the suicide, as Huang Qinghua stated, because she had "no way out?" I believe that we should all judge from explicit facts rather than pure imagination. Right now, we are trying to gather all the evidence and will make a final conclusion on who is right and who is wrong.

P.S.: Due to the fact that Mr. Tang Jiezhi is the general manager of Commercial Press, the media in Shanghai are divided in their attitudes toward him—some with goodwill and others with ill intentions. Therefore, we need to be especially careful in making our judgment. The decision over whether to cover up for him or to attack him is itself a story taking place behind the dark curtain of the Chinese press. Witnessing the situation as inexperienced readers, we can perhaps do nothing but heave a sigh.[2]

  1. ↑ Traditionally, a Chinese woman's official name after marriage usually consisted of a combination of her husband's surname and her own surname, with the husband's name before her own. Thus, Xi Shangzhen's mother is called "Miss Xi-Fang" because her maiden name is Fang and she married Mr. Xi. Xi Shangzhen's sister was married to Mr. Wang and was therefore officially called "Miss Wang-Xi."
  2. ↑ According to Professor Bryna Goodman, who did a thorough investigation into the matter, the basic elements of Xi's suicide are spelled out in the newspaper clippings Chen cites in his essay and what happened afterward is that "Xi's family brought Tang to court, accusing him of defrauding Xi of money (they also accused him of responsibility for her suicide by pressuring her to be his concubine, but this charge was dropped by the court). Tang was convicted of fraud and sentenced to three years' imprisonment" (September 5, 1998).