The Politics and Portrayals of Voluntary Death in China and Korea – From Imperium to the Internet Age

Title: 1393 | The Politics and Portrayals of Voluntary Death in China and Korea – From Imperium to the Internet Age
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Yvon Wang, University of Toronto, Canada (organizer,presenter)
Peter Carroll, Northwestern University, United States (presenter)
Wesley Chaney, Bates College, United States (presenter)
Keren He, Dickinson College, United States (presenter)
Sun-Chul Kim, Independent Scholar, South Korea (presenter)
Janet Theiss, University of Utah, United States (discussant)
Changlin Liu, Shanghai University, China (chair)


This panel surveys the practice and representations of suicide in China and Korea, 19th century to the present. We discuss the definition and analysis of self-murder by legal authorities, intellectuals, trauma survivors, and those who attempted and, in some cases, successfully completed it to interrogate suicide as a collision between individual agency and larger structures of political and cultural power. Wesley Chaney extricates the significance of heretofore overlooked ethnic and religious differences in suicides relating to property disputes in Gansu province to highlight social fissures along the Qing empire’s borderlands. Keren He and Peter Carroll address assessments of self-murder as a response to the perceived bleakness of the dawning twentieth century. Examining the Buddhist writer and translator Su Manshu’s reworking of Hugo’s Les Misérables, He discusses Su’s contention that suicide was compelled by grim social realities. Carroll, in turn, considers intellectuals’ critiques of a purported suicide epidemic as the result of the rapid material and ideological transformations of modernity. Yvon Wang accentuates the political resonance of changes and continuities in the treatment of self-killing by official media during the Maoist period. Sun-Chul Kim then shifts our discussion to examine how South Korean self-immolations have been practiced by non-activists as well as political protesters, pointing to deeper cultural meanings behind this dramatic act. In sum, we distill changing assessments of the nature and influence of sociocultural factors in determining the calculus of suicide.

Panel Abstracts:
A Series of 'Unfortunate Events': Toward a History of Suicidal Narratives in the Early PRC
This paper examines suicide during the years between the ascendancy of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and 1966. In contrast to existing research, which has focused on sweeping statistics or the suicides of famous intellectuals and politicians during the violence of the Cultural Revolution, I trace the motivations ascribed by officially endorsed discourse, families, and social networks to everyday villagers and urbanites who attempted and completed suicides in the turbulent "First Seventeen Years" before the Cultural Revolution. I base this study on over 430 articles published in the national Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, as well as memoirs, internal circulars, and local archives. I outline three overlapping modes by which the Party-state interpreted voluntary death toward its political ends: the melodramatic, the social failure, and the victim-blaming. Each has critical continuities with earlier narratives of suicide in the Republican and late imperial periods. However, the PRC's promises to its citizens for total revolution in not just economy and society, but in the very interiority of each individual, made suicide a more potent act than ever. State agents became unprecedentedly able to dictate how voluntary death would be understood. Yet, despite its reach into the lives of its citizens, the Party-state never fully monopolized the ability to narrate suicide. My sources show state-sanctioned stories complicated, if not outright challenged, by other strands of official discourse as well as by suicide victims and those who survived them.

Material Civilization is a Killer: Suicide and the Mind in Early Republican China
“Suicide is the most dangerous phenomena in present-day society,” cautioned Liu Renhang, in his 1915/1916 best-seller on the salutary power of optimism. “It is a measure of the governing influence of New Civilization over all aspects of life.” The toll of self-killing revealed material progress in China to be fundamentally unnatural and insalubrious. As already demonstrated in other modern nations, whether European, American, or Asian—neighboring Japan being an especially chastening comparison—the burgeoning dominance of new technologies, materialist civilization, and the corollary increase in the pace of life could be associated with a proliferation of physical and mental illness, with suicide being the most malign effect. Liu, a prominent educator and lay Buddhist leader, was hardly alone in warning that suicide was endemic to modernity. This paper analyzes Liu’s analysis of suicide as a fatal result of contemporary civilization in light of other contemporary adepts of Buddhism, Theosophy, hypnosis, spiritualism, and other “new” noetic sciences, such as Wu Tingfang and Wang Yiting, who similarly recognized the burgeoning of suicide as resulting from the growing imbalance between materialism and mental life. Although common to all modern societies, Liu et al. argued that the extremity of the national suicide epidemic betrayed the profundity and traumatic abruptness of China’s appropriation of technological civilization, which displaced indigenous modes of life and thought.

Death in War's Wake: Suicide, the Law, and Local Politics in Late Qing Northwest China
This paper examines cases of suicide in the wake of the ethnicized violence that tore Gansu communities apart during the 1860s. Official histories and male poets lionized those who perished during the decade of violence—loyal and chaste martyrs—but post-bellum archives from one small corner of the province reveal the distance between literati fantasies and social realities. Instances of self-killing in the immediate reconstruction years had meanings that transcended the individual and their kin; narratives of such suicides were used primarily by Han gentry and tusi lineages as they jockeyed for advantage in the post- bellum courtroom and village against Muslim defendants. These legal cases show how litigants and petitioners not only strategically appealed to state expectations of gendered and ethnicized violence, but also how these appeals occasionally masked far more complex ground-level conditions. Han litigants here manipulated the language of the imperial center but were operating with very local concerns. In tracing these stories, we see how suicide paradoxically hardened state-sanctioned identities and provided rare moments that complicated official discourse and reconstruction efforts.

Into the Miserable World: The Triple Suicide in Su Manshu's Translation of Les Misérables
This paper examines the curious recurrence of political suicide among radical revolutionaries in China at the turn of the twentieth century. Rather than unpacking the phenomenon as isolated cases driven by particular political convictions, I contextualize self-destructive impulses within broader affective conditions of China’s transformation toward political modernity. Taking the first Chinese translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as a case study, this paper delves into “suicide” on three levels: as a thematic focus of the story, as a transculturation process of the text, and as the spiritual and political transformation of the translator Su Manshu (1884-1918). His rewriting of the novel in 1903 presents a radical addition, where a chivalric hero becomes so disillusioned about the work’s original humanitarian ideal that he ends his life in a suicide attack. Reading the fiction in light of Zhang Taiyan’s (1869-1936) Buddhist treatise, I suggest that the hero’s renunciation of the “miserable world” registers an enduring tension between the emerging ideas of collective sovereignty and individual self-sovereignty, both of which turn out to be equally delusional. Eventually, the double negation of the world and the self reaches an aporia that can only be solved by suicide: as the hero kills himself, Su Manshu also left the translation unfinished, and embarked on a multi-year self-exile. As an allegory about the limitation of modern political life, I conclude that suicide in this case offers an existentialist critique against the formative discourses that at once shape and regiment modern subjectivity.

The Cultural Foundation of Self-immolation as a Political Act in South Korea, 1990-2010
South Korea’s tumultuous political trajectory has been punctuated by fiery acts of protest suicide that inspired and galvanized sympathizers toward political action. Consequently, suicide by fire, or self-immolation, has been examined foremost as a political phenomenon. An exclusive focus on political self-immolation resulted in a scholarship that stressed overwhelming state violence or lack of alternatives as the cause of self-immolations. While this conventional view has been challenged in recent years as research increasingly showed self-immolations were more prominent during times of political opening than in the direst of political conditions, an alternative explanation has not emerged. This paper aims to fill this gap. Based on systematic data drawn from newspaper reports, this paper shows that self-immolation in South Korea was used more broadly as a communication device that accentuates one’s suffering when a person was a victim of perceived wrongdoing, regardless of its appearance as a political act or not, by activists and non-activist citizens alike. This continuity between political and personal (non-political) self-immolations implies a shared understanding of self-immolation as an act imbued with cultural meaning regardless of its political implications. The paper submits this cultural foundation is what gives power to self-immolation as an indispensable component in the South Korean repertoire of protest

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