A feminist bestseller in China

The Jew who helped Chinese women confront modernity.

By RENÉE LEVINE MELAMMED
April 15, 2011 15:10
3 minute read.
Chinese flag

Chinese flag 521. (photo credit: Reuters)

We are all used to the phenomenon of the wandering Jew, and to finding a Jew in almost every nook and cranny. But who would have imagined that in the 1920s, a Polish Jewish woman was writing a best-seller in Chinese that was said to be “going like matza water” because half a million copies had been sold.

Prof. Irene Eber, an eminent scholar of Chinese literature and history and of Jews in China, was reading a fascinating travelogue by Mejlekh Ravitch, a Yiddish poet from Warsaw, written while he traveled in China for six months during 1935. Ravitch mentioned having met a landsman, one of the few women writers in the country. This discovery set Eber on a search to uncover the identity of her landsman as well.

Stephanie Rosenthal was born in 1885 and moved to France, most likely with her family around the turn of the century. She studied biology at the Sorbonne, where her teacher, after noticing her outstanding writing talent, encouraged her to pursue this avenue. During this time, she became acquainted with radical Chinese students in Paris and met Hua Nangui, a Chinese student of architecture and railroad engineering. The two married in 1908 and went to China in 1910, arriving just prior to the end of the empire and the establishment of the Chinese Republic.

Her facility with languages must have been remarkable, for she published in two non-native tongues, namely French and Chinese. In 1915, this Polish émigré, now known as Luo Chen, published a book of essays in Chinese dealing with women scholars. She lived in Shanghai as well as Beijing and consorted with the leading intellectuals in China. Luo Chen identified with the budding Chinese feminist movement, whose main goals at the time were to outlaw the binding of feet as well as arranged marriages.

In the 1920s, she wrote her best-seller, Love and Duty, in French; in 1926 an English translation appeared under the name Ho-Ro-se, and the preface of the Chinese version was written by none other than the chancellor of Peking University.

Eber had inadvertently bought a copy of this book in a library sale years ago, without knowing who Ho-Ro-se was. The novel deals with a Chinese woman caught between tradition and modernity. When the discovery is made that she and a young man she met on the way to school have done the unthinkable – fallen in love – her parents quickly force her into a loveless marriage and his parents send him away. When her path crosses with her beloved later in life, she leaves her husband and children, but her lover is consumed by guilt, especially when his father falls ill and he, a filial son, returns home. She bears a child from this union; after her lover dies, she struggles as a single mother to support herself and their child. Her status destroys her daughter’s standing in society, so in order to clear the way for her marriage, the heroine commits suicide as the ultimate sacrifice.

The author’s message to Chinese women was that there was a price to be paid for the education of women, which inevitably included the acceptance of Western ideas such as love and the right to seek it. Having Chinese women confront modernity was a daring step; the novel was made into a silent film in 1931.

Ho-Ro-se wrote about 15 books, as well as some poetry. She seems to have lived intermittently in China and France in the 1930s, although her and her family’s whereabouts during World War II are unclear. Eventually the family, including her son and his French wife, returned to China in the early 1950s. Her granddaughter still lives in Beijing.

Luo Chen wrote about the developments in the Jewish world as well as the Chinese one. In 1964 she published a book of poetry in French; one poem, “Oh, Israel,” deals with the Holocaust, while another, “Israel Revived,” relates to the people of Israel and its suffering, with an uplifting end owing to the fact that a Jewish state now exists. This Polish-French-Chinese feminist writer chose an unusual path for herself, but did not relinquish her ties to the Jewish people.

The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, academic editor of the journal NASHIM and the author of numerous articles and books on Jewish women.


Related Content