INTRODUCTION, by LUCAS KLEIN
Every so often social media lives up to its potential. Here we have a fascinating discussion that ensued in response to a question I tossed up on Facebook about modern Chinese writer Ding Ling 丁玲 (1904–1986, pen name of Jiang Bingzhi 蒋冰之) and a moment in one of her most famous stories, as translated by Tani Barlow. The network of literature scholars, translators, historians, and readers of international poetry and fiction came together to produce, comment by comment, a web of opinions on literature, sexuality, implication and inference, and the roles of the translator, teacher, and reader.
In her translation of Ding Ling’s 1928 story “Miss Sophia’s Diary” 莎菲女士日记 (in I Myself Am a Woman: Selected Writings of Ding Ling, Beacon Press, 1989, pp. 49–81), Tani Barlow adds a note to the sentence, “As the sunlight hit the paper window, I was boiling my milk [煨牛奶] for the third time” (50): “A reference to masturbation” (355). I remember this footnote from my first encounter with the story, in my first year of college, roughly twenty-five years ago, in a class taught by Thomas Moran (eventually the author of the entry on Ding Ling in the Dictionary of Literary Biography volume Chinese Fiction Writers, 1900-1949, which he edited (DLB 328. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007), but I was not then in a place to question it one way or another. Since then, I have taught Barlow’s translation alongside Ding Ling’s Chinese text in a Master’s-level class on translation and stylistics in Hong Kong, but we did not discuss this particular moment. I am now teaching a class on modern Chinese literature in translation at Arizona State University, though, and re-reading Barlow’s version in preparation for discussing it in class, I became curious once again about the phrase and the translator’s certainty about heating milk meaning masturbation. I looked up the story and any commentary I could find in Chinese online—and came up with nothing. The closest I got to an explanation of Miss Sophia’s boiling milk was that it was something she did out of boredom. I decided to ask Facebook, and because Barlow is a contact of mine, I tagged her. I did not expect the excited frothing up of answers!
I have to admit, I’m still of two minds, at least, about the footnote. Barlow explained on my Facebook thread that she learned from her teacher Maurice Tseng that “boiling milk” was a local Beijing euphemism—but if so, the euphemism is no longer current. My friend Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, an associate professor of English at Hong Kong Baptist University, emailed me about Lydia Liu’s discussion in Translingual Practice (Stanford, 1995):
It has been suggested that this passage is a coded reference to masturbation, which might or might not be the case, depending on how far one wishes to push a literal reading of the text. Suppose our act of reading is not simply to unravel coded messages, is it still possible for us to make a meaningful connection between Sophia’s writing and reading on the one hand and her milk and masturbation on the other at a figurative level?
Liu concludes that Sophia’s
act of reading is represented as a ritualistic performance, not unlike her writing of the diary. Insofar as these are intransitive acts whose significance extends only to the subject of the action, one can make a case for a figurative reading of masturbation in this text. In that sense, not only the boiling of the milk but Sophia’s idiosyncratic reading and writing may be viewed as textual instances of masturbation” (176–177)
If “boiling milk” is no longer current slang for masturbation, then readers of the English translation have information about this story that readers in Chinese do not. Furthermore, the footnote makes literal for English readers what Liu is suggesting should be figurative—implicit, not explicit. Then again, translation will always change the text to accommodate the change in context from one language to another, and footnotes are one way to address the changes necessarily involved not only in reading in translation, but also in reading at a historical remove of now nearly one hundred years since the story’s first publication.
At least one of my students experienced the fullness of this Facebook discussion in truncated form, explaining in class that he read the footnote—actually, endnote—only after having finished reading Barlow’s translation in toto. He got to have an array of readings, one on top of the other: first he saw nothing sexual about boiling milk, then in the context of the story he wondered if it might intimate something else, then when he happened on the note he had that wonder answered. This, too, is the power of translation, and the importance of the many kinds of work translators do.
I hope you enjoy this discussion, with further commentary by Barlow and by Roy Chan. I am grateful to Fabio Lanza for curating it for publication in The PRC History Review.
Lucas Klein, Arizona State University
I’ll be teaching the Ding Ling 丁玲 story “Miss Sophia’s Diary” 莎菲女士日记 tomorrow. Tani Barlow’ s translation annotates that “boiling my milk” 煨牛奶 is “a reference to masturbation.” But I can’t confirm this in a quick search in Chinese online–the commentaries in Chinese I see say it’s just something to pass the time. Is it a euphemism so obvious it doesn’t need explanation? Or is it so obscure by now that only a research translator would know about it? Or are the Chinese commentators being demure? What am I missing?
I’ve taught that was the case every time I’ve taught it, but haven’t found anything beyond what you mention.
SI X WANG
Huh… I wonder. I’m not familiar with this term, but perhaps it was lingo from the epoch? Any rate all you did was send me on an internet search from which I learned the Chinese internet is full of misinformation about the health hazards of masturbation. And supposed TMC [Traditional Chinese Medicine] related imbalances that emerge from using milk with certain foods.
LUCAS KLEIN: it could be lingo from the era, or a regionalism, or a reference to actually reheating actual milk …
I always took it as an evocative suggestion. Don’t know of any hard evidence about this reference.
A boy of the brainier kind
Boiled his milk doing math in his mind —
He got great sensations
By solving equations —
And, of course, in the end he went blind.
LUCAS KLEIN: Since it’s Miss Sophia’s diary we’re talking about here, it should be “A girl of the sapient kind …”
MICHAEL GIBBS HILL: Marcus Bales, I think you may need to Zoom in and drop a few rhymes for Lucas’s class.
MARCUS BALES: Michael Gibbs Hill, Ohhhhh I don’t think he’ll let me. He’s read too many of the things I do.
LUCAS KLEIN: Steven Chan, so you’re implying that it does not mean masturbation?
STEVEN CHAN: Lucas Klein 這我不確定，但沈從文的“十四夜間”也有煨牛奶的記載：//桌子上，那個煨牛奶的酒精爐子同小鍋已經躲藏不見了。
LUCAS KLEIN: Steven Chan that doesn’t seem like masturbation!
I always teach Ding Ling and Yu Dafu together in the same week as my yearly unit on Chinese masturbation (which was last week). I always thought the fact that she’s doing it to “relieve frustration on a windy day” makes the suggestion clear enough.
LUCAS KLEIN: Roy Chan, I taught “Sinking” on Thursday!
ROY CHAN: Well, there you go. It’s my class on gender and sexuality in modern China, so I get to use both stories to discuss masturbation, non-reproductively-oriented sexuality, and compulsory heterosexuality.
DAVID HULL: I teach these two on the same week, too. It’s always fun to see which story students prefer.
LUCAS KLEIN: But I’m still not completely convinced that 煨牛奶 means masturbation. There’s enough about sexuality otherwise in both stories to link them regardless.
燰 looks better for the purpose
LUCAS KLEIN: true
I’ve always taught it that way. Have you checked Yi-tsi Feuerwerker’s book for any mention?
LUCAS KLEIN: No (thanks for the reference!), but I was tipped off to Lydia Liu’s discussion in Translingual Practices.
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Lydia’s chapter is a famous treatment and I don’t want to discount it, but before her there were Yi-tsi and Tani. Also, might want to look at Gary Bjorge’s dissertation for clues.
LUCAS KLEIN: I’m reading Andrew Schonebaum’s piece in the Harvard New Literary History now. Only so much you can do when you teach tomorrow and the libraries are mostly shut down!
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: I’m not seeing any reference to masturbation in Yi-tsi’s book. She does refer to the milk a couple times. That’s it.
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: I’m not sure it could be dialectal. Of course, Ding Ling was from Hunan, not too far from Changsha. But she lived in Shanghai for quite a while and the Diary is set in Beijing, I believe. It feels very putonghua to me.
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: You should check out Zhang Jingyuan’s chapter in Kirk Denton’s The Columbia Companion to Modern Chinese Literature.
LUCAS KLEIN: Christopher Lupke have you ever come across any other reference to 煨牛奶？
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: No. It generally means to braise – stew over low heat – or simmer.
LUCAS KLEIN: Right. I’m curious about Tani’s certainty.
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Also – Tom Moran’s bio in the DLB
LUCAS KLEIN: I’m in no place to agree or disagree, but I’m curious.
LUCAS KLEIN: Christopher Lupke reading 穆老師’s piece next!
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Lucas Klein To me, it’s not central. However, there certainly is a suggestion of same-sex love. The gap (I’m going on memory right now) in the Diary is critical. As you will see, the friend Yunjie 蘊姊, who only appears in the past and is the object of Miss Sophie’s lustful fantasies, is the one who urged her to write the Diary. Ironically, Yunjie’s unexpected death causes a 6-week gap in the Diary and what happens during this mysterious gap, perhaps a mental breakdown, is the source of Miss Sophia’s own emotional deterioration.
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Also, consult Tze-Lan Sang and Jianmei Liu.
YUE ZHUO: Christopher Lupke It is pretty central.蘊姊’s life is what Sophia tries not to get into, her death as a sign of “no-exit”. But the beauty of it is not to name and define it one way or another and just leave the desire hanging.
From my limited reference as a San Francisco foodie, the boiled milk image seems less than appetizing from a magnificent cuisine that seems nevertheless lactate dish lacking. One of the few reasons one would opt on an odd dinner-out occasion for French
But from another perspective of a teen ager in 1950s Chicago, there was a parallel term of “creaming”. As in creaming one’s jeans or drawers. Strangely, at the time, I only remember us applying this to boys. No reason but youthful ignorance
LUCAS KLEIN: yes, “creaming” was still around Chicago when I was growing up there in the ’80s!
DAVID HULL: Also of course in the lyrics for “Greased Lightning” in Grease. “The chicks will cream for greased lightning.”
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Dennis Dybeck, I wonder if it actually is a pasteurizing technique. Usually, pasteurizing is HTST, but there are low temperature variants.
GRAHAM SANDERS: “What’s her perfume?
“Tigress” by Faberge.
It makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way.’
GRAHAM SANDERS: Christopher Lupke, To be perfectly clear, I was quoting the lyrics!
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Graham Sanders, Two different signifying chains going at once!
GRAHAM SANDERS: Christopher Lupke, Every act of decoding is another encoding.
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Graham Sanders, That’s why they pay us so much.
GRAHAM SANDERS: As I have said to my students, when answering a question to their satisfaction, “That’s why they pay me the medium bucks!”
ROBERT HYMES: Graham Sanders and Canadian at that.
Following. I teach this every year and I’ve never been sure.
I don’t think this passage has any implication of masturbation at all, even though the phrase “didn’t play it for seven days” does sound a little fishy. In the context, she was stuck in a not very pleasant hotel room, and did have a small stove in the room for her to boil the milk, and she depicted boiling milk as “like a old person killing his time patiently”. After boiling milk for three times, she was so bored that she read newspapers, today’s and yesterday’s through and through. If she had masturbated for three times, she probably would not read the newspapers immediately after it. So I think we should take this passage literally.
I don’t think this is going to be of much help. But in China people 煨牛奶all the time in the morning, especially during the pre-refrigerator age. It can be a detail of everyday life no?
Even if “boiling my milk” isn’t a widely attested euphemism for masturbation, it’s a good one.
ESTHER SUNKYUNG KLEIN: Graham Sanders agreed! I always assumed it was just a contextual sort of private euphemism. I wouldn’t have got it myself, but after reading the note it seemed totally convincing based on how she talks about it! But the local Beijing euphemism thing makes it even cooler.
Hi! According to my Chinese teacher Maurice Tseng this was a local Beijing euphemism. I had asked him why she would boil the milk to pass the time and he looked at me rather uncomfortably — I was an undergraduate and he was a grandpa by that time — and explained. I felt that contextually his insight made sense since alternatives were less convincing and Sophia drinks a lot of wine. Everyone I know who is Chinese of a certain generation boils everything each day because even with refrigeration not everything tastes good after it is refrigerated so late husband and late husband’s late mother kept soup on the stove over night and boiled in the morning.
LUCAS KLEIN: Tani Barlow, wonderful, thanks!
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Tani Barlow, Interesting! My wife basically said the same this morning. I don’t know about the possible innuendo, but warming up milk or 豆漿 is common and still done this way. The only thing is that it’s more like “simmer” or “braise” (in some cases) or maybe as we say in English “a low boil” rather than a rolling boil. As I said above, although this has become custom I suspect its origin is as a sort of low-heat pasteurizing technique.
JIWEI XIAO: Fresh milk can still be ordered to be delivered in bottles in China every early morning in many places in China, like in old days. I think Chris you are right about pasteurizing method. Also no older Chinese I know of would drink cold milk or cold soy milk—ever. This doesn’t mean that the phrase could not be a euphemism though. One can have both ways with language.
LANG CHEN: Lucas Klein, I wonder if Shenxin had heard of this euphemism. I didn’t, as her fellow Beijinger. I guess neither of us dare to ask the elderly in our families 😝 , though they might know…
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Jiwei Xiao, yes. For what it’s worth, my wife will not drink cold milk either.
TANI BARLOW: I lived in a Chinese family so long I won’t drink cold things either (for fear of being nagged to death?). Habit.
CHRISTOPHER LUPKE: Tani Barlow I drink tall tumblers of San Pellegrino steeped in ice much to the horror of those around me and to my own delight. Very refreshing.
I didn’t know the local Beijing euphemism but the “explicitation” is accurate in its context (Bravo translator!). By context I mean both textual and intertextual: foaming milk, time needed for both activities, the unmissable resonance of the word “écume” for any late 19th-century French lit reader (in Mallarmé’s poem “salut” and other works where “rien”, “vierge”, solitude…dominate), milk alone here =>”play” alone three or four times, milk + egg (鸡子）=> when a man appears (penis or sperm?). The real influence here is not Madame Bovary, but Maupassant. The story is almost a copy of La Horla (where obsession of liquid in a container [bottle of water, wine] is an indicator of the protagonist’s mental state + themes of maladie [vraie ou imaginaire?], folie, ghost, sexual repression/meaning of existence, etc.), + Baudelaire: “Anywhere out of the World”, even with the May 4th movement.
YUE ZHUO: But mostly I wanted to say your posts get better and better everyday!
LUCAS KLEIN: hey thanks!
LUCAS KLEIN: and wonderful reading, Yue Zhuo!
YUE ZHUO: Lucas Klein I know nothing of Ding Ling, Lucas, I just read the story this morning thanks to your post and was struck by the parallel to Maupassant. Milk + 鸡子 appear twice (Jan 1, Mar 21) so the metaphor is consistent. Onanism, in Freud, is described as “play,” referring to Dostoevsky and Zweig, it connotes latent (or repressed) homosexuality/bisexuality… and a “refusal” to reproductive sexuality. The list can go on…
TANI BARLOW: Yue Zhuo remarkable exegesis. Since the issue of sexual play among woman was an issue in her time there are indications in Sophia’s Diary of the possibility as well and since she is so sick with tuberculosis she is hypersexual.
YUE ZHUO: Tani Barlow Thanks. On that equally exciting topic (tuberculosis and sex) – it makes me think of Wong Kar-Wai’s exquisite contribution to the 3-part anthology film called “Eros” (2004). His segment, played by Gong Li, is called “The Hand”!
TANI BARLOW: Yue Zhuo this I need to see. And add to our collection. Thank you so much.
ROY CHAN: How one takes the euphemism becomes a point I always emphasize about how visible woman’s sexuality is compared to men (esp. compared to Yu Dafu). I use the story as an occasion to talk about the history of the vibrator, “hysteria,” and just how confused men were about women’s sexual pleasure.
ROY CHAN: Incidentally I’ll probably mention this discussion (in an anonymized, vague fashion, of course) thread to my students tomorrow — it’s been interesting to see the varying reactions of how to read the euphemism among experts in the field, of what seems visible and what doesn’t. To be honest, I’ve always wondered if my own queerness inflected the ways I’ve taught this story — it has certainly shaped the way I’ve taught a class on gender and sexuality over the course of 8 years. In those years, many queer, trans, and gender non-binary students have reached out to me because the material and how I approach it has resonated with them in some meaningful way.
For some reason, this discussion put me in mind of the mysterious term “paulownia wheel matchmaker” 桐輪之媚, which I came across in a Tang dynasty anecdote collection. It took me a while to track it down to this rather remarkable source passage:
GRAHAM SANDERS: …Lü Buwei, fearing that discovery would cause disaster to befall him, secretly sought a man with a large penis, Lao Ai, whom he made his retainer. Sometimes he would have music performed and order Lao Ai to put his penis through a wheel of paulownia wood and walk about, making certain that the queen dowager would hear about it to entice her. The queen dowager did hear about it and consequently secretly desired to obtain him.
GRAHAM SANDERS: Talk about “performance anxiety”…
GRAHAM SANDERS: I may as well tell you the rest of the sordid tale…
Lü Buwei thereupon introduced Lao Ai to her. Deviously ordering someone to accuse Lao Ai of a crime punishable by castration, Lü also privately told the queen dowager, “If we can fake the castration, we can make him a servant in the harem.” The queen dowager therewith covertly gave a generous bribe to the officer charged with castrations to falsely sentence him and to pluck out his eyebrows and beard to make him appear a eunuch. As a result, he was made a servant of the queen dowager.
The Queen Dowager fell in love with Lao Ai and had him enfeoffed as the “Marquis Changxin”. After she became pregnant, he recklessly took control of the Qin government.
The Shuoyuan mentioned:
Lao Ai had sole power over the affairs of state and grew increasingly arrogant and extravagant. The high officials and honoured ministers of government all drank and gambled with him. Once when he got drunk, he began to speak belligerently. In a provocative fashion, eyes glaring with anger, he bellowed, “I am the stepfather of the emperor. How dare some wretch oppose me!” One of those with whom he had quarrelled ran to report this to the emperor [Ying Zheng], who was outraged.
Ying Zheng learnt that Lao Ai was not really a eunuch, and had plotted with the Queen Dowager to make their illegitimate son become successor. In 238 BCE, Lao Ai launched a revolt in an attempt to seize power from Ying Zheng, but the rebellion was crushed and Lao Ai was executed along with three generations of his relatives. Ying Zheng stripped his mother off her position as the Queen Dowager and ordered the two sons she secretly had with Lao Ai to be put into sacks and beaten to death. Lü Buwei was implicated in the incident and was stripped off his posts and titles and banished to the remote Shu region in the south of Qin. Lü Buwei feared eventual execution so he committed suicide in 235 BCE by consuming poison.
GRAHAM SANDERS: Source: The Annals of Lü Buwei, translated by John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel.
GRAHAM SANDERS: Now, I’m wondering if “spinning the wheel” and “beating the sack” could make it as entries in the Duke University book Leon Rocha is compiling.
LEON ROCHA: Graham Sanders If you put your mind to it, you can fap to anything.
EILEEN CHOW: Graham Sanders Am still stuck on the 使毐以其陰關桐輪而行 bit – what is the physics of this?
GRAHAM SANDERS: Eileen Chow Ummm…I am assuming that Lao Ai had to “rise” to the occasion.
GRAHAM SANDERS: (I claim no knowledge as to the size or weight of said paulownia wheel.)
LEON ROCHA: This thread is amazing 🔥🥛💦
ROBERT HYMES: Graham Sanders sent me over here just to say:
Sophia felt under her silk
And set about boiling her milk.
(For experts confirm
That this is a term
For stuff of the onanist ilk.)
TANI BARLOW: You guys know I was the translator, right? The reference appears nowhere else because I am the origin of the interpretation. It was contextually suspicious and although I knew very well that people boil things to prevent spoilage I also contextually wondered and asked Maurice Tseng. That is all. Yi-tsi and I were translating Ding Ling early and she was a kind mentor to me in a time when people did not take Ding Ling seriously as a writer. Cold War and all that.
ROBERT HYMES: Tani Barlow Yes that was clear even to uninformed-kibitzer me from the start. In fact the whole thread felt to me like an hommage (femmage?) to your work.
GRAHAM SANDERS: Tani Barlow Lucas Klein credited you in the original post!
TANI BARLOW: So embarrassed
TAMMY LAI-MING HO: Have you finished that class, Lucas? Did you discuss this? What did your students think? I hope they all considered this quite an education
YU HEIDI HUANG: I suggest you compare the milk-boiling description by Eileen Chang in her 餘盡錄. She was boiling milk in a copper container in the HKU hospital by the dying beds of the war victims. To me boiling milk in both the texts of Ding and Chang resembles the desire for normality and serenity during the turmoils, rather than sexual pleasure.
(I SEE YOU) by ROY CHAN
Ever since I started my career as a Chinese literature professor eleven years ago, I have always included “The Diary of Miss Sophia” in my teaching. However, when I joined the University of Oregon in 2013, I inherited a course on “Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese Literature,” and thus have primarily taught the story within this context. I’m currently teaching this course now, and I happened to cover “Miss Sophia” just days before the Facebook exchange. I want to focus my remarks on how the Facebook exchange bears strong resonance in the general context of teaching the story in a class that focuses on gender and sexuality. Moreover, in a class that often attracts students who are not just interested in these issues, but also claim gender identities and sexual orientations that go beyond the heteronormative mainstream, I would like to suggest how “Miss Sophia” and the Facebook exchange touch on notions of “visibility” — what kinds of gendered and sexual subjects are seen? What forms of sexual expression are legible? This is not just a matter of textual interpretation, but also of social recognition. It leads to a much more fundamental question of teaching practice — do I teach in this material in a way that students themselves feel seen and recognized?
As a cisgender man, I am aware of the disconnect between my gender and the fact that I teach a course that focuses primarily on the lives of Chinese women in the 20th and 21st centuries. I am gay and queer, and have always been open about my sexual orientation with my students. The various components of my identity allow me perhaps an easier way to communicate issues of sexuality in a frank, but sensitive way — on the other hand, I have also had to confront my own obliviousness and ignorance when it comes to women’s issues and trans issues. I have had to come face-to-face with my own misconceptions, prejudices, and just outright factual errors. Teaching this class five separate times has been a humbling experience, where I am constantly learning something new, both about gender and sexuality, but about myself as well. My aspiration to learn and reflect more has been motivated by the fact that, as I mentioned above, quite a few of my students come to my class because they have experienced marginalization due to sexuality and gender identity; they seek a kind of reflection of themselves, even if it’s about people living a continent away, at very different historical moments. They often teach and correct me (I confess that I didn’t even know what “cisgender” was until a student told me!) These students have suffered discrimination, misunderstanding, and trauma. I realized early on that I had a duty of care to these students, to make my class as open and welcoming as I could. In seeking to create an atmosphere of inclusion, I’ve had to make myself vulnerable, to expect that I will likely err and thus must be open to hearing my students’ feedback.
The question of how we read the purported reference to masturbation in “Miss Sophia” is paradigmatic of this question of visibility and recognition. I have always taught Tani Barlow’s translation and have included the footnote. While I am not personally familiar with this phrase, I assumed the meaning was clear and have taught it as such in my classes. I always pair this story with Yu Dafu’s “Sinking,” whose references to its male protagonist’s masturbation is unambiguous. I always bring up the issue of solosexuality common to both stories, and ask why in Ding Ling’s text it seems to be covered up with euphemism, while in Yu Dafu’s text, it is plain, clear, even clinical (after all, the protagonist is horrified at the consequences of his habit after reading medical journals). Why is male desire so visible, so unambiguous (and thus worthy of shame), while female desire so obscured, coy? I often talk about how medical science has been reluctant to acknowledge women’s sexual desire (as well as women’s experiences of pain), and how this has often led to women being confused about their own sexual experiences and feelings. I am frank, perhaps overly so, about the fact of masturbation, not because I want to scandalize my students, but because I want to make it okay for us to discuss these issues in the open. (On the first day of class, I will often say something along the lines of “I use words like ‘penis,’ ‘vagina,’ and ‘genitals,’, and I want all of us to be comfortable using clear terminology…” I sometimes get interesting looks on students’ faces.)
As a closeted child who once struggled to make sense of his desires and attractions, I know what it means to struggle to interpret one’s own feelings and sensations, especially if they seem counter to the heterosexual norm. I’m sure for trans and gender non-binary individuals, this struggle to make sense and acknowledge what one feels is even more pronounced. How tragic it is that to articulate what one feels can be subject to fear, shame, self-hatred? I feel fortunate that I was able to come out in high school, that most people around me were supportive, and that I never had to experience being shoved against a locker, disowned by my parents, or disciplined by teachers. Some of the Facebook comments categorically rejected the possibility of a sexual reference; I have no reason to doubt the posters’ conviction. And yet, I could not help but see the categorical nature of such disavowal as resonating, at least partly, with the foreclosure of sexual possibilities, and as such, a repetition of the enforced invisibility that women, sexual, and gender minorities often face.
However, the fact there was a robust debate forced me to think harder about how to treat this euphemism. It made me realize the brilliance of what Ding Ling was doing — in choosing a local vernacular figure to represent masturbation, the complexity of its illocutionary force indexes the social need to be discrete, to dissimulate. For both those who can view the latent sexual content, and those who are satisfied with the banal, manifest expression, the text works nonetheless (I will admit that my mom [literally] boils a bowl of warm milk for herself each morning, and when I visit home, does it for me as well — totally habitual, boring, nothing salacious or Oedipal about it at all!) The expression performs the very ambiguity of reading and understanding that attends not only internally within the text, but also the reception of Ding Ling’s story when it was published. Let us remember that Miss Sophia is forever seeking the one who will understand her — and the only one Miss Sophia thinks does understand her is her dead, female friend Yun. Her deep homosocial attachment exceeds in depth and meaning her heterosexual travails with Weidi and Ling Jishi. She writes her diary, her soul, at the behest of her deceased friend, and when she lends her diary to Weidi in a bad faith effort to seek understanding from him, he outright misinterprets the diary as all he can see is himself (more specifically, her rejection of him — again, the eternal wisdom of Carly Simon).
Women, sexual minorities, and gender minorities have always had to find creative ways to encode their feelings and desires in forms of Polari, in order to seek recognition from those who will understand and accept them, and to hide from those who may not only reject them, but bring harm as well. My students do it all the time. I think this speaks to the power of what Ding Ling can do for a class focused on gender and sexuality.
However, I want to end my comments by making more complex the issue of “visibility.” We live in an extraordinary time, when sexual and gender minorities are more visible than ever, and unabashed about demanding recognition and rights. The galvanizing eruption of Black Lives Matter during conditions of pandemic siege has forced us to reckon, yet again, with how we have rendered Black and Brown lives invisible. In recent years, I have seen students empowered to demand recognition, to reject their marginalization without fear. 后生可畏也, as the saying goes, and I am deeply inspired. On the other hand, this push for maximal visibility sometimes veers into an impossible imperative to name, categorize, and thus recognize ever finer distinctions, and to overly lambaste those who fail to acknowledge the most current iteration of an increasingly complex, evolving matrix of intersecting identities. Sometimes students want to project what they see today in terms of identity onto the past (both recent and distant) without taking into account the need for historical mediation. I try to remind my students that every manifestation of the visible casts a shadow on a dimension that remains obscured, and we always have to look behind our shoulders and at least acknowledge that the shadow is there, even if we can’t yet make out what resides in it. I have spoken here about my identity, and it is important for all students to affirm their identities. However, my relationship to my identity has always been speculative — to be living, growing, learning beings means to bear identities that are ultimately not self-identical. I hope that my class does some work toward helping students reflect on their ever evolving, churning identities.
And finally, I’m sure I’m not the only one who experiences both compulsion and fatigue when it comes to Facebook. Checking our Facebook feed is often an exercise of masochistic, neurotic repetition, and it’s rare for us to feel refreshed after rendering our fee to the Mammon of the attention economy (seriously, talk about a depressing onanistic exercise!) So how rare it is to encounter a lively, entertaining, instructive thread that underscores the enduring importance of Chinese literature! Truly, there remain some unexpected wonders in this world.
Roy Chan, University of Oregon
WHEN TRANSLATION HAPPENS, by TANI BARLOW
Super realistically I can still feel the moment I decided to publish the footnote at the center of this discussion. It was 1989, and I stood back and waited for accusations that never arrived, it turns out, because readers who thought it was “wrong” paid it no mind. And then another generation came up, open to erotic possibilities, and I found that a lot of people felt what I did, that milk repeatedly referenced on a windy day felt sexual. My language professor Maurice Tseng had confirmed my feeling (http://www.drbachinese.org/vbs/1_100/vbs39/lectern.html). In this Facebook discussion, Yue Zhuo offered a sublime intertextual meditation on Freud, milk, and masturbation, which says to me, okay, it can be literal – the young woman had to keep her milk from spoiling – but there’s a whole literary textual universe revealing that it is also masturbatory.
I started reading Ding Ling with Howard Goldblatt when he, like many professors at that time, wondered what a bright youngster like me saw in such a terrible fiction writer. I translated another story, I don’t remember which one, and he wrote on my text, “you mistranslated this sentence but your errors are the only good thing about this story.” This was not the only time a reader told me Ding Ling’s Chinese was horrible. But even more stubborn then than now, I went off to graduate school to figure out “Ding Ling’s Thoughts on March 8th” (I published Gregor Benton’s translation in Ding Ling, I Myself Am a Woman Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, Tani E Barlow, ed with Gary Bjorge).
I had read Merle Goldman’s to my mind tendentious and egregious article about the 1941 zawen explosion, which claimed that Ding Ling was an anti-Party, literary dissident, who was no longer around to explain the complicated nature of her accusations and other decisions. I remember feeling shocked when news came that Ding Ling had survived and was back in Beijing. I managed to see her and hear her story at the end of 1981. Goldman had willfully and absurdly disregarded the clear fact that Ding Ling was a feminist, how ever defined or repudiated. Calling out feminist Comrade Mao Zedong for sexual hypocrisy in the middle of a war, a harsh political Rectification, and Party factional struggle: Ding Ling meant what she wrote.
I stayed with Ding Ling studies a long time. One year, in San Francisco, I somehow got invited to talk to a group of U.S. feminist socialist writers, who were about to leave for China. They wanted to talk to Ding Ling. Tilly Olsen was one of them, and I don’t recall the other names, but I remember saying to them, “Do not expect Ding Ling to agree with you, and keep in mind that she is a Maoist.” I heard back that the meeting did not go well.
I regret never asking Yi-tsi Feuerwerker (https://ii.umich.edu/lrccs/people/in-memoriam/yi-tsi-mei-feuerwerker.html) why she had pioneered the study of Ding Ling; my senior colleague was always just in front of me, welcoming me into Chinese modern women’s fiction. While we disagreed often on Flaubert, I recall most vividly the way she remained open in front of texts, willing to consider possibilities.
Anyway, the whole rhetoric about Ding Ling being a terrible prose artist had subsided. I don’t think Howard was 100% crazy, but I read everything Doris Lessing ever wrote before she became a Sufi, and her prose is wooden, but it did not occur to me, when teenaged-me read The Four Gated City, that prose made any difference one way or another.
There is another thing — Cold War Calvinism. I laughed helplessly after my father-in-law died and Don Lowe and I found his stash. Chuan-hua Gersham Lowe (https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/77631) not only broke my mother-in-law’s heart with his alleged philandering, his stash showed he was also committed to a largish view that erotic desire had to be expressed, should be regularly consummated, was part of being a good Chinese-race man. This made sense to me in light of my encounter with Ding Ling, since they were contemporaries, he born in 1902 and she in 1904. My point is that in my generation, we were the Calvinists longing to be free of admonitions about pretty much every bodily thing, starting with masturbation. Betty Dodson and her masturbation workshops emerged along with sex positivity. And I lived in San Francisco, so it seemed ecstatic but normal to live cheek by jowl with Harvey Milk, Annie Sprinkle, the Cockettes, Josie’s Juice Bar, Gail Rubin etc., and because I lived in the Castro, it gradually seemed that erotic life was not a guarded secret; we wrapped our heads around all kinds of other political issues after surrendering to the libidinous charge that being alive involves. In some ways, that made us better prepared, than the generation of scholars just before us, to see the erotic in Ding Ling’s work.
As I was conducting research on Ding Ling, her choice of character name was super important – Sophia, or wisdom. If I am remembering correctly, Peter Zarrow was just then writing about anarchist feminists, and someone’s dissertation was looking at similar topics (I don’t think it was Gary Bjorge’s, but maybe it was Roxanne Witke’s first history dissertation on women revolutionaries). Somewhere I had learned about all the other Sophias, such as the Russian revolutionary, Sophia Perovskaya, who were violent women, who insisted on the now. Of course, “Miss Sophia’s Diary” should come into English with all of its original erotic vibrations, especially if we accept, philosophically, that eros and truth are inseparable. There is a truth of desire, but Ding Ling would also write about political equality and truth in her agonistic story “When I was in Xia Village;” indicating that pleasure aside, the life of the body requires a pedagogy. When the female Comrade narrator encounters a wise young village woman, whose community will not accept her lack of shame after rape, this opens up a space for teaching ethics. The revolution cannot go forward until progressive elements grasp how sexual misfortune can be illuminated, not as a personal failing but as a survivable event, and then teach feudal elements to help them to overcome their ignorance.
The world is a better place for so many more of us now than it was in 1981. Forty years ago, Ding Ling’s story about a maddened, feverish, polysexual, intellectual girl seemed pretty wild, even in English translation. Now our classrooms are full of young boys and girls and non-binary students who love Sophia for who she is, as they like to say. I suppose they feel her truthful encounter with her own conflicted desire for Yunjie and Ling Jishi, for life and death, for wine and milk.
Tani Barlow, Rice University