The Life of Shi Pingmei:Some Love Stories Have Tragic Endings

March 19, 2008

Shi Pingmei [file photo]
Shi Pingmei is on the list of "the Republic of China (1912-1949)'s four most talented women" that has been compiled by contemporary Chinese literary critics. The story of the pure, yet sad, love between her and Gao Junyu is widely known throughout China. Shi died when she was 26. Her life is often described as an epic—and a most "moving tragedy."

The Prodigy 

Shi Pingmei was born in Pingding County, Shanxi Province, on September 20, 1902. Her father, Shi Ming, a knowledgeable man and a juren (successful candidate in the imperial examinations, at the provincial level, during the late Qing Dynasty [1644-1911]), had been a teacher, education official and librarian at the local provincial library. Initially, he gave his daughter the more-elegant name of Rubi. Later, after she had grown up, she changed her name to Pingmei, because she was particularly fond of plum blossoms (Meihua in Chinese).

As a youngster, Shi Pingmei was a genius. She learned to read, when she was two, from her father. When she was four, she could recite the Three-character Textbook for Beginners, which reportedly was compiled by Wang Yinglin during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and the Thousand-character Reader (an ancient textbook for children, which was written in the sixth century by Zhou Xingsi. The book contained many rhymed sentences and 300 Tang poems.)

Later, she was able to read nearly all of the famous ancient Chinese literary works. Thus, she had a solid foundation for creating works of literature.
Pingding County was widely considered to be the "Athens of Shanxi," given its long literary tradition. The county produced 130 palace graduates and 680 juren. Shi's father was known for being open-minded—he was not influenced by the overwhelming feudalist thinking that "illiterate women are virtuous."

He sent his daughter to study in a primary school in Taiyuan, the provincial capital. Shi Pingmei, who was versatile, was soon widely recognized as being very talented. She later enrolled in the Taiyuan Women's Teaching College. Her tuition and boarding fees were waived because she had high grades. Shi Pingmei began reading revolutionary newspapers, such as "New Youth," and she grew increasingly concerned about state affairs.
In 1920, when she was 18, Shi graduated from the college. Influenced by the "New Culture Movement" (1915-1919), she enrolled in Peking Women's Teaching College, in old Beijing, which was considered to be the cradle of the Movement. She majored in physical education, as the Chinese literature program didn't recruit students that year.

Li Dazhao, one of the founders of the Communist Party of China and who once taught Socialism and the History of the Woman's Rights Movement, became Shi's most respected teacher. Shi got involved in revolutionary activities, and she began her writing career.
In December 1921, Shi published a new- and free-style poem, entitled A Journey Made at Night in Xin Gong He, in which she expressed her ambition to pursue a bright future. In April 1922, she published in Chen Bao Fu Kan, Whose Sin It Is, which was a love tragedy involving two returned overseas students. It was in the form of a play's script. The story revealed her deep concern about freedom of marriage and women's emancipation.

Later, she published many more poems, essays and novels, which caused her fame and reputation to grow.   

Devoted to Education
In June 1923, Shi graduated from the college. With recommendations from the headmaster, Xu Shousang, and the dean of her department, Zeng Zonglu, Shi was named director and physical education teacher of the women's section of the affiliated middle school of Peking Normal University.
Shi was tireless as a teacher. She used her knowledge and personality to encourage the students, and her teaching ability was highly praised by the school's officials. 

On the afternoon of April 28, 1924, renowned Indian poet Tagore arrived in Peking (which was later renamed Beijing) and met people in the local literary community, including young students, in a park. Shi participated in the activity. When she returned to her dormitory, she received some bad news—her father had written that Yin Mei, her best friend from childhood, had died. Shi felt deep sorrow and, eventually, she began having a headache and she was spitting blood. Red spots were prevalent over her body. She slipped into a coma, which lasted for three days and three nights. A German doctor diagnosed her condition as scarlet fever.

After she had recovered from the disease, she kept busy teaching and contributing to newspapers. She published an anthology, which contained more than 100 new poems, in the Wen Xue Xun Kan. 

By that time, Shi had become one of the most influential writers in Peking. She was invited to become an editor of the Women's Weekly of Jing Bao. After that, Shi published many profound, and revolutionary, articles in the newspaper.

Shi wrote articles that supported the uprising against imperialism. In 1925, students held a strike at Peking Women's Normal University to protest against the school's decision to dispel three students. To support the students, Shi wrote the article The Course of the Tragic Incident at the University. She wrote: "We'll forever remember the humiliation! We'll forever fight! This tragic incident is an outrageous insult to women, and the first sign of the collapsing Chinese education."

In November 1926, Shi and two of her friends launched Rosebush Weekly, which was affiliated with World Daily. Shi was the editor and designer.
Shi devoted all of her life to education. Her unselfishness and strong sense of responsibility earned her praise from students and colleagues. 

Pure Friendship

Shi was hurt deeply by her first lover, Wu Tianfang, who had hidden his marriage from her. Shi once promised Wu that she would never love another man, regardless of the difficulties they might encounter. But after she learned that Wu had a wife, she knew she had been cheated. The incident resulted in lifelong misery for Shi.

Shi first met Gao Junyu at a gathering of people from her hometown.

Shi, like the rest of the audience, was impressed by Gao's excellent lecture about the significance of the May 4th Movement (1919), which was the political and cultural movement against imperialism and feudalism.

Gao was born in Jingle County, Shanxi Province, in 1896. He had been a student of Shi's father. He had extraordinary talent and he took an active role in revolutionary activities. He enrolled in Peking University in 1916, where he majored in English.

When the May 4th Movement occurred, Gao was the students' representative at Peking University. In October 1920, he became the first member of the Communist Party from Shanxi Province. He helped organize the Great Strike of February 7th, 1923, (anti-imperialist and anti-warlord strike of the Peking-Hankou Railway workers, which was led by the Communist Party of China). In 1924, he participated in the Kuomintang's first Representative Conference, on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, with other leaders, including Li Dazhao and Mao Zedong (who later became the Chairman of New China). Gao was also a talented poet who had written many works.

Shi and Gao began to adore each other; however, their love encountered many obstacles.

Gao was married—through an arranged marriage—when he was 18. After a futile fight to prevent the marriage, he left his hometown. Gao told his father that he would never recognize the arranged marriage. It was a direct challenge to feudal ethics, but he was helpless.

Gao fell in love with Shi, his first true love. But, as Shi had lost confidence in love, as a result of her first experience, she kept her distance and would only accept friendship from Gao.

In October 1923, when he was vacationing on Beijing's Xishan Mountain, he picked a maple leaf and wrote a love poem on it. He mailed it to Shi. But Shi was determined to remain single. On the leaf, she wrote: "A withered flower basket can never accept the fresh leaf." Still, she was conflicted.
Gao never abandoned his desire to escape his arranged marriage. He asked his parents to renounce his engagement, and he told Shi about his efforts. Shi tried to stop him, as she only wanted a friendship. In the summer of 1924, Gao divorced his wife.

To pledge his fidelity to Shi, Gao bought two ivory rings. He wore one and sent the other to Shi, for her birthday present. He wrote to her: "I hope you accept it. Or maybe you will reject it, like that maple leaf. I want to memorize the death-like silent reality with the white of the ivory ring." Shi accepted the ring, and she wore it until her death.

Shi and Gao often went to Taoran Pavilion, in Peking, for a walk and to talk. Once, Gao pointed to an empty lot on the riverbank and said: "I'm lonely while living, and I will still be lonely after death. I wish to be buried on this barren hillock, alone, after death."

Lifelong Regret

In October 1924, Gao was hospitalized, in a German hospital in Peking, due to a lung disease. He still attended the fourth congress of the Communist Party of China, which was held in Shanghai, in January 1925. He attended another political conference held in March of that year.

On March 4, 1925, Shi received a phone call to inform her that Gao was seriously ill, and that he wished to see her. She was astounded when she saw him lying in bed, reduced to skin and bones. His gray face looked horrible. Shi felt regret and sadness.

On March 5, 1925, Gao had a sudden onset of acute appendicitis. He died. He was 29.

Gao's death was a heavy blow for Shi. It was a pity that she began to recognize his loyal love to her only after he had died. She swore that she would love Gao until her death. 

Two months later, Shi buried Gao's ashes at the lot at Taoran Pavilion. She had his tomb built, in an oblong shape, with white stones. On the center of the tomb's surface stood a cone-shaped monument with her inscriptions:

I'm the sword and I'm the spark.
I wish to live a dazzling life like a bolt of lightning, and I wish to die as quickly as a comet.
And these are the sentences Junyu had written on his photos. Now after he died, I inscribed them on his monument.

I can't save your life that vanished like a comet. I can only shed my tears on your tomb until I die too.

Shi also wrote a poem, Elegy by the Tomb, to express her love for Gao:

Should my tears coagulate into pearls,
Now I've finished knitting a scarf for you.
Should my yearnings crystallize into red beans (love peas),
Now I've developed unforgettable love for you.
I would burn myself to ashes, and
I would unleash my strong passion,
Only to have a chance to meet you in the nether world.

Taoran Pavilion became her haunt. Her tears irrigated the cypress and pine trees growing beside Gao's tomb. Shi gained a better understanding of herself and society. She constantly absorbed strength from Gao's spirit, and the love she shared with him.

Late in her life, Shi wrote a dozen novels and new-style poems and essays. A Horse with Red Mane and A Neighing Horse were two of her masterpieces. The novels, which dealt with the pursuit of truth, brightness and love, were heavily sentimental—and bleak.

Three years after Gao's death, the broken-hearted Shi was hospitalized, in Concord Hospital, with acute brain inflammation. Shi died on September 30, 1928. She died on the same day—and in the same ward—on which Gao had died. Shi was only 26.

In October 1929, two of her friends buried her ashes in a tomb beside Gao's. It was in accordance with her last wish.

In the early period of China's liberation, in 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai visited Gao and Shi's tombs. He reportedly said, "There's no contradiction between pursuing revolutionary course and love. The new generation can learn from them."


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