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Dying against Democracy: Suicide Protest and the 1905 Anti-American Boycott

Keren He

Abstract: The joint rise of popular movements and mass media in early twentieth-century China gave birth to a democratic imagination, which culminated in the anti-American boycott of 1905. The transnational campaign nonetheless disintegrated as a result of partisan division—an ingrained predicament of democratic agonism that is best illustrated by the story of Feng Xiawei, a grassroots activist whose suicide in Shanghai constituted a key moment in the boycott. Juxtaposing a variety of accounts about Feng's death in journalism, political fiction, reformed opera, and advertisements, this article examines how, together, these texts construct democratic agonism and suicide protest as revealing two opposing political sensibilities as well as modes of action. Instead of expressing only nationalist passion, Feng's suicide reveals a deep anxiety of his time to locate a spiritual source of authority in the face of its glaring absence in social negotiation. This fraught dynamic between the democratic and the transcendent continues to characterize modern Chinese political culture to the present.
Keywords: anti-American boycott / Asia-Pacific / China / democratic agonism / Feng Xiawei / popular culture / popular movement / suicide protest

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