Calligraphy of the title in Mandarin


The Thorny Paths of Su Xuelin

As a Roman Catholic, anti-Communist ‘New Woman,’ this Chinese writer and scholar led a complex life.

By Zhange Ni

Writer and literary scholar Su Xuelin (1897–1999) is one of the generation of women writers in China who were part of the New Culture movement, which in the 1910s and 1920s questioned traditional, classical Confucian learning and culture and embraced instead more egalitarian values, including feminism and use of the modern vernacular. Two of her contemporaries, Bing Xin (1900–1999) and Ding Ling (1904–1986), both writers with leftist inclinations, were canonized on the mainland. Meanwhile, Ling Shuhua (1900–1990), who is usually considered, together with Su Xuelin, as one of the “Bourgeois Boudoir writers,” has been attracting more and more scholarly interest, partly because of her connection with the Bloomsbury circle. Compared to these other writers, Su Xuelin seems to be a minor literary figure. She did not write much; most of her time was devoted to teaching and research. We have almost forgotten this literary critic, theorist, historian, and professor, but in so doing, we risk not exploring the role played by the history of religions in the institutionalization of literature in modern China, and vice versa. Su Xuelin’s career as a writer and literary scholar is closely entwined with the latent history of religions in China. Moreover, an exploration of her life story may help us understand the role played by women’s experience and gender perspectives in the modern Chinese formation of religion. It is my aim to highlight Su Xuelin’s involvement with the study of religion, showing that this involvement cannot be separated from her development as a writer and a scholar of literature, and suggesting that it may be among her most important contributions.


The institutionalization of literature studies in China was not an isolated phenomenon, but was part of the overall transformation of the Confucian system of four-divisional learning into modern, university-based disciplines in the early years of the twentieth century. During this process of recategorization, the contours and internal configuration of literature (wenxue in Chinese) evolved and distinguished itself from the original meaning of wenxue in the Confucian tradition. A parallel story to this transformation of literature studies is that of religion (zongjiao). Unlike literature, which was endowed with the grand agenda of nation formation and duly institutionalized, religion and religious studies were exiled from public universities and allowed only within theology departments in missionary universities, private Buddhist academies, and as a subfield under the rubric of philosophy.

I believe the formations of these two disciplines were intertwined—they informed each other. Christian missionaries worked toward a vernacular Chinese much earlier than the “New Culturalists,” and the Buddhist revival among late imperial and early Republican intellectuals also prepared for the rise of modern literature. Missionary schools and temple-converted public schools produced the first generation of New Culture writers and readers, including Su Xuelin. She was able to attend one of these newly established public schools since, unlike Confucian academies, they were open to girls. At the Provincial Women’s Normal School, and then the Women’s Normal College in Peking, she eagerly followed and absorbed contemporary intellectual debates on a variety of subjects, including religion, and wasted no time in fashioning herself as a New Woman (the prevailing term for feminists at that time).

Su Xuelin’s life would take some interesting turns, including her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1924 and her later interest in “folklore studies.” These have often been viewed as “conservative” moves, in part because they challenged the political secularism that dominated Chinese debates over religion. But I will argue that there are more complex motivations at work in this woman’s life than a simple “turn toward conservatism.” In fact, Su Xuelin’s artistic and scholarly activities, and her ties with other women, were closely related to the practice and study of religion that she chose to pursue.


It is impossible to cover Su Xuelin’s entire biography of 102 years, so I will focus on three specific and significant years: 1925, 1934, and 1943. In 1925, Su Xuelin returned from France, where she had not only studied literature and arts, but also converted to Catholicism. She wrote Ji Xin (Heart of the Thorn Bush, 1929), an autobiographical novel based on her conversion experience, after she returned to China to submit to an arranged marriage.

I begin with 1925 because it marks, interestingly, the end within the novel. Heart of the Thorn Bush, a kind of female bildungsroman, is the story of a Chinese girl who rebels against her Confucian family to acquire an education. The protagonist is lucky enough to liberate herself and travel to France in pursuit of an aesthetic education, but two equally gloomy options await her: the convent or marriage. To resist a marriage arrangement, she is baptized into a foreign religion. But then, to satisfy the last wish of her dying mother, and not yet ready for the life of a nun, she returns to embrace the lesser evil, marriage. Not unlike its European literary counterpart, in which girls either got unhappily married, sought consolation in religion, or died, Heart of the Thorn Bush can be read as a failed attempt at educational formation, and that is how it has often been interpreted.

I choose to read the novel differently. What intrigues me is the intersection in this novel of the female coming-of-age trope and the central theme of religion. I call Heart of the Thorn Bush a narrative of post-secular conversion. First, ironically enough, the protagonist (echoing Su Xuelin’s experience) arrives at the gate of Catholicism thanks to Enlightenment critiques of religion popular among Chinese intellectuals at the time. I would suggest that what the protagonist in the novel embraces is not Catholicism or Western religion per se, but a not-so-readily-available, still-struggling-into-being Chinese discourse of religion, which cannot be reduced to a slavish adoption of modern Western concepts of religion.

The novel is closely related to Su Xuelin’s own narrative. Starting in the late 1910s, Chinese intellectuals debating religion tended to prefer a rational, private, and apolitical religion—in other words, a secular model of religion. Because they did not observe this ideal model in existing religious traditions, they called for further secularization and criticized religion for acting as a hindrance to the Chinese path toward modernity. Xuelin was attracted to these radicals. She left for France in 1921, shortly before the outbreak of the antireligion (more specifically, anti-Christian) movement. She devoted herself to literature and the arts—the “aesthetic education”—which was raised up as a nation-saving pursuit. In France, she continued to read journals sent from China, and she arduously copied critiques of religion into her diary.

Given this context, Xuelin’s conversion to Catholicism in 1924 may seem to be a surprising reversal, but it was not. Her break with the mainstream secularist discourse of religion was not sudden but gradual, not whimsical but rational, as the novel and her later writings tell us. Indeed, it was significantly linked to gender roles in the history of Chinese religion, an angle that has been greatly neglected in accounts of her life and the lives of other women of her day. The first generation of Chinese advocates of women’s liberation was nearly all male, such as Liang Qichao, who was also, by no means accidentally, the first to use the term zongjiao to mean “religion.” To these men, 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. Because she refused to cut off these ties with women, which were so important to her, she turned from a “radical” into a “conservative,” experiencing a conversion by Catholic nuns and practicing filial piety to her Confucian mother. I would argue that this conservatism is radical in that it acknowledges the bonding of women across generations, which is crucial to any real expression of feminism.

Moreover, the concept of religion was not introduced into a vacuum in China, nor was Chinese heritage completely overwritten. In Chinese discussions and debates about the definition of zongjiao (for which the Western concept of “religion” is not an exact equivalent), references are frequently made to Confucian classics and Buddhist canons and to the urgent political agenda to enlighten the nation. Chinese intellectuals accepted religions in their own symbolic and political contexts, which, intentionally or inevitably, distorted the meanings of zongjiao. It is this Chinese wrestling with religion—not religion as something fixed in the West and then delivered to China—that Su Xuelin embraced. She has been critiqued as a conservative traditionalist; but for her, “tradition,” because of its openness to revisions, was capable of a revolt against both the rigid model of Western religion and the secularist orthodoxy of the New Culture movement.

In Heart of the Thorn Bush, marriage ends the novel anticlimactically. For the author, the most interesting parts of her life story were only beginning in 1925, when she married. Xuelin lived with her husband, an engineer who received a PhD from MIT, for only four years, in Shanghai and Suzhou, before their lifelong separation (though they never divorced, because Xuelin was a Catholic, and because her husband’s parents also would not allow a divorce). Xuelin was already gaining recognition for her beautiful prose, collected into the book Lu Tian (Blue Sky, 1927), her literary criticism, Li Yishan Lian’ai Shiji Kao (Love Affair of a Tang Poet, 1928), and her autobiographical novel Ji Xin (Heart of the Thorn Bush, 1929), and so she was invited to teach Chinese literature at several missionary and local universities. Her career as a professor of literature was fully established when she was hired by National Wuhan University in the 1930s.

In 1934, we arrive at another crucial moment in Su Xuelin’s life. At National Wuhan University, she began to teach “History of Chinese Literature” and “Survey of New Literature in the 1920s and 1930s,” two courses she designed herself. Teaching the history of both classical and modern Chinese literature makes her a founding mother of the study of Chinese literature as a modern discipline. During this time, the discipline of national literature was new and struggling under the joint burden of classical learning and the modern Western discourse of literature, more narrowly defined aesthetically than many Chinese scholars would wish. As early as the early 1920s, Hu Shi (1891–1962), a founder of the New Culture movement, shifted his position, proclaiming the need to reorganize and reassess the classical heritage. Meanwhile, Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967), a sympathizer of religion, developed a keen interest in British anthropologists of religion such as James Frazer and Andrew Lang. Under their influences, Su Xuelin had not only studied classical literature, but had studied it from the perspective of comparative religion. Su Xuelin’s essays published in the 1930s and 1940s were indebted to these two intellectual trends that converged in the “folklore movement.” On the one hand, historian Gu Jiegang (1893–1980), author and editor of the famous Symposium on Ancient History (Gushi Bian), initiated the school of “Gushi Bian” that attacked the sacredness of Confucian classics by reading their record of ancient history as mere myth; he also conducted extensive fieldwork documenting pilgrimages to sacred mountains and the worship of local deities. This iconoclastic attitude toward Confucianism was countered by efforts to reenact the sacredness of China, which included delineating the geographical border and cultural boundary of China. Folklorist Jiang Shaoyuan (1898–1983), a graduate of the comparative religion department of the University of Chicago in 1922, engaged in a collection and study of folk songs, customs, and superstitions in the name of reconstructing the national character of the Chinese people.

These efforts contributed to the rise of mythology or, more broadly construed, folklore studies in modern China, a field subsumed under literature and highly active long before the establishment of departments of religious studies in the 1990s. Though the rise and flourishing of folklore studies has usually been interpreted as a consequence of the introduction of German Romanticism and nationalism—not without the mediation of Japan, and the emergence of proletarian literature and culture inherited from Soviet Russia—I believe the Chinese encounter with religion was one of the neglected sources of folklore studies.

Su Xuelin pursued her interest in mythology, folklore, and comparative religion in her study of Chu-Ci (Songs of the South), a collection of mystic ancient poems attributed to Qu Yuan, a poet living toward the end of the Warring States. Given its distance from the Confucian north, the world that produced and was encapsulated in Chu-Ci, a highly revered ancient text beyond the strict boundaries of Confucian classics, proved to be a perfect candidate for Su Xuelin’s revisionist project, in which she imagined an alternative cultural foundation for China. While her fellow academics were arguing that Qu Yuan, the alleged author of Chu-Ci, might be legendary, she defended his authorship by referring to the defense of Homer’s authorship in the West. For her, Qu Yuan and Chu-Ci were mythical, not in the sense of being “untrue,” but in the sense that they were foundational and sustaining. In her endeavor to reground Chinese civilization, she found it inadequate to read this text merely as literary, because the narrow confinements of modern aesthetic literature would only rob Chu-Ci of its full complexity. Therefore, she emphatically asserted that Chu-Ci was a collection of ancient cosmologies, invocations to deities, and ritual practices. She also argued that religion existed at the very root and heart of Chinese civilization and permeated its history and literature. In 1929, Su Xuelin published her first essay on Chu-Ci, in which she discussed the famous Jiu Ge (Nine Songs). She argued that these poems were neither symbolic of Confucian virtues and nor were they love songs (as was suggested by the mainstream discourse of the New Culture movement). Instead, they were related to ancient ritual practices, especially human sacrifice under the disguise of human-divine love affairs, and she traced similar poems and legends in the history of classical literature. She challenged not only Confucian orthodoxy, but also the newly established authority of modern literature and aesthetics.

Further breakthroughs in Su Xuelin’s research occurred in 1943, the final date on which I choose to focus in her career. In 1943, during her study of Chu-Ci, she realized that this literary text would not yield its secret treasures unless it was subject to an in-depth investigation in the context of comparative mythology and comparative religion, so she dedicated herself to these studies. In her words, “I am interested in comparative religion because I am religious in the first place.” Xuelin acknowledged that she was attracted to the affective, irrational, superstitious, and mythical in literature because of her religious belief as a Catholic. Thus, in 1943, after this realization, her 1929 essay began to grow into an extensive research and writing enterprise that demanded her devotion for over half a century, and included pursuing the study of comparative religion in modern China before it was an official discipline. The main thesis of Su Xuelin’s Chu-Ci scholarship gradually took shape during the 1940s, guided by her Catholic beliefs and supported by the small intellectual community of women professors at Wuhan University. During the Japanese invasion (1937–1945), she relocated to Southeast China along with the university’s entire faculty and student body. During air raids, she read the Bible for consolation, but also with the eye of a comparative mythologist, and she was unexpectedly struck by the similar motifs and structures in Chu-Ci myths and biblical myths.

Encouraged by her women professor friends (again, her ties to women were strong), she came up with a bold hypothesis: that prehistoric Chinese people were in contact with the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cultures in the Mesopotamian region. She suggested that in the time of Qu Yuan (ca. 340–270 BCE) during the Warring States period, a second wave of external influences arrived when Alexander the Great invaded India and scholars seeking refuge arrived in the Far East. Xuelin explained the absence of relevant historical records by reminding her readers of Jesuits who adopted Chinese names and wrote Chinese texts, and by blaming the policies of the Qin Empire, which included burning books and executing scholars. However, the influx of these foreign cultures (not just once, but twice) made an impact, crystallized in Chu-Ci. Given the loss of other supporting materials, she argued that Chu-Ci has been misread in the post-Qin Chinese history dominated by Confucian orthodoxy, and that the key to unraveling its mystery can be found in Chinese folklore and Western mythologies, thereby resisting the compartmentalization of the world into the East and the West. Su Xuelin proudly described her methodology as a collaboration of the traditional four-part learning structure with multiple modern disciplines, a bridge that connected elite Confucian scholarship with the folk culture of ordinary people.

Discernable in this new reading of Chu-Ci were Su Xuelin’s personal anxieties and aspirations. We see her as a Christian wrestling with the foreignness of her religion, a scholar exiled by war, and a vociferous anti-Communist struggling against the threat of totalitarian rule in China. At the same time that she was taking up her religious study of Chu-Ci, she continued to produce fiction, prose, and drama. However, as a Catholic conservative and a nationalist mythographer, her clash with the mainstream Leftist literature and its Communist ideology was inevitable. She is still known in Mainland China as “the crazy woman who dared to attack Lu Xun,” that iconic figure of modern Chinese literature.


To the dismay of Su Xuelin, the end of the Japanese invasion was followed by the civil war that led to the Communist takeover in 1949. Unwilling and unable to accept a Communist regime in China, she decided to give up her position at Wuhan University and leave the country. The Catholic Church in Hong Kong offered her a position as editor and translator. She stayed there only for a year, finding no resources for her research in the libraries of Hong Kong. In 1950, still supported by the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, she sailed to Europe, first to make a pilgrimage to the Vatican, and then to settle in Paris. Twenty-five years after her first stay in Paris, she was back, now a white-haired woman in her fifties.

In Paris, she undertook an ambitious plan to absorb the latest scholarship in comparative mythology. She took classes at the Collège de France, mostly with the specialist on religions of Babylon and Assyria, Édouard Paul Dhorme (1881–1966), and sought the tutorship of Paul Demiéville (1894–1979), the well-known translator of Buddhist manuscripts, both religious and literary. She also sat in on classes given by the comparative philologist Georges Dumézil (1898–1986). However, she left Paris two years later, disappointed, if not frustrated, because she found that French sinology was largely irrelevant to her project. Moreover, she felt that Indo-European mythology had no place for China in its conceptual map. She was later criticized for her failure to keep up with the latest developments in comparative religion, because she continued to work within the outdated framework developed by James Frazer and remained indifferent to Dumézil, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Mircea Eliade. Moreover, she was criticized for her self-serving reading of Chinese texts, her lack of expertise in research languages other than French and English, and methodological inadequacies, such as an uncritical embrace of evolutionism and making the leap from superficial similarities to claiming historical contacts between cultures.

In Xuelin’s later scholarship, Orientalism in comparative religion and the Western ideological production of religion replaced Chinese secularism as the main targets of her polemics. Her approach to religious studies had the potential to challenge the Western-centric frameworks of comparative religion, though she was not able to take her critique very far. Starting in 1959, her research was funded by the Nationalist government of Taiwan, where she had settled in 1952, and she produced the four-volume series Qu Fu Xin Tan (New Explorations into QuYuan’s Rhapsody). In the 1960s and 1970s, whenever commenting on her own research, she would elevate Chinese mythology above Indo-European mythologies, celebrating Chinese mythology as the first and foremost heir to the ancient Mesopotamian cultures, where human civilization originated. This remapping of the world, and resistance against submitting to Western hegemony, is highly intriguing.

Su Xuelin taught at Normal University and Cheng Kung University in Taiwan. She continued to publish essays on Chu-Ci, but did not revise or develop her original thesis. She simply tried to substantiate it with more and more textual and archaeological evidence from both China and the West. Su Xuelin’s four volumes received very little attention. They were not easily classified, since religious studies in China was still a nonexistent field.

However, Su Xuelin’s prose, fiction, and scholarship on Chinese literature were republished and categorized as the legacy of New Culture. She was visited by researchers from all over the world who revered her as a “living fossil” of the New Culture era and a rich reservoir of resources. At the age of ninety-four, she wrote her autobiography, Fusheng Jiusi (A Floating Life of Ninety-Four Years), returned to the mainland in 1998 to visit her hometown in Anhui province, and died in 1999, the very last year of the twentieth century.

Though Su Xuelin contributed to the discourse, institution, and practice of literature, her role as a scholar of literature has been eclipsed by her identity as a woman writer. The sexist message is clear: Some women may be good at the artistic, but never the analytical. Su Xuelin was not unaware of this, saying: “For them, it is OK for women to write poems appreciating wind and moon, but scholarship is what women are not capable of. So, they ignore me.” Moreover, she has been completely ignored as a scholar of religion.

In 2008, National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan established a research institute in her name. On their website, Su Xuelin is introduced as an influential figure, but only in modern Chinese literature. It is my modest ambition to persuade them to add a few more words about her expertise in the “history of religions in modern China,” to do fuller justice to her achievements. I plan to keep doing archival and other research to show that this important woman was not only a scholar of literature, but also, and perhaps more significantly, a scholar of religion.

At the same time, I also hope to show that the religious background and concerns of many renowned Chinese writers should no longer be overlooked. The particular ways in which religion (again, not something fixed, but fluid) was reflected at the thematic and formal level of literary texts await our investigation. After all, as Su Xuelin’s career exemplifies, the study of religion was embedded within the disciplinary history of literature. As Chinese scholars attempted to remake religion, conditioned both by China’s troubled encounter with the West and ambivalence toward its own past, the discipline of literature offered a shelter for the return of the exiled religion.

Zhange Ni received her PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech University. She was a Women’s Studies in Religion Research Associate at HDS in 2010–11, where she worked on her research project “Conservative Radicality: Women, Religion, and Literature in Modern China.”

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