Core course: ¡§Cultural China in Contemporary Perspectives¡¨

Leo Ou-fan Lee

Lecture 5 May Fourth Movement (draft)


1. May Fourth, 1919

On Sunday, May Fourth, 1919, students from Beijing¡¦s 13 colleges and universities marched toward the Tiananmen Gate to demonstrate against a government position. During the signing of the treaty of Versailles that concluded WWI, Germany, which was defeated, gave up its leased territory in the Shandong peninsula to Japan, with the consent of Western Allied powers. China was split then, with the warlord government in the north unwilling to offend Japan on whom it had acquired several loans (Japan in turn threatened the government with its ¡§21 demands¡¨)..[In the south, the revolutionary forces under Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek took a strong oppositional stance against the treaty.] This was a national issue, the territorial integrity of China, and students were fired by the emotions of nationalism which had been brewing for the past decade. The students shouted patriotic slogans and wrote a manifesto:

¡§The loss of Shandong means the destruction of the integrity of China¡¦s territory. Once the integrity of her territory is destroyed, China will soon be annihilated...We earnestly hope that all agricultural, industrial, commercial, and other groups of the whole nation will rise and hold citizens meetings to strive to secure our sovereignty in foreign affairs and to get rid of the traitors at home. This is the last chance for China in her life and death struggle. Today we swear two solemn oaths with all our fellow countrymen: (1) China¡¦s territory may be conquered, but it cannot be given away; (2) the Chinese people may be massacred, but they will not surrender. Our country is about to be annihilated. Up, brethren!¡¨ (Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movement, p.106-107)

This is a very interesting manifesto for several reasons. Its rhetoric is a summary of what we have talked about last week, with its emphasis on territorial integrity and national sovereignty. To this is coupled the Social Darwinist warning that China as a weak nation (race) is about to be annihilated by the foreign powers which not only are the ¡§fittest¡¨ to survive but threaten to cut out China like a melon. It began to define the nation in terms of several social groups. It uses the term ¡§citizen meetings¡¨, and the word citizen was used in another document, a more formal ¡§declaration¡¨ that was adopted at the mass meeting. Above all it marked the first time in modern Chinese history that students banded together to show their power and to articulate a national stance. The tradition was set for subsequent demonstrations in the 1930s and 1940s all the way to the Tiananmen demonstration of 1989. Last but not least, though a more formal declaration was written in the classical wenyan language, this manifesto was written in the more colloquial modern vernacular, baihua (as a result of the Literary Revolution two years earlier). This day has since been commemorated as ¡§May Fourth,¡¨ not only as a student movement but as defined more broadly by its leaders as a movement of New Culture.


2. Modern Chinese Intellectuals: Knowledge as Power


Why is it that students could articulate the nation? Why could students claim so much power? [In America, the first massive-scale student movements did not occur until the 1960s.] There is, of course, an obvious social background behind it. In premodern China, elite power was defined by education and institutionalized by the civil service examination system--which was abolished in 1905. These students who demonstrated in 1919 were products of the newly established modern school system. Universities were just established as the highest echelon of this new system, which taught them new ideas and ¡§new knowledge.¡¨ (The word new is everywhere; see my article.) What was this new knowledge? This brings us backward to two decades of educational reform and the massive translation of Western books in all fields since the late 19th century. When a new nation was imagined, that imagination needed to be spread around to a reading community. In China since the early 20th century, print culture-- publication of newspapers, journals and books--began to thrive in Shanghai. Book publishers began to make money out of doing new textbooks: the most successful was the Commercial Press, a most appropriate name, which in Chinese means ¡§A press to print books for commercial purposes.¡¨ The Commercial Press soon grew to be the largest publishing company in China: it had a building in Shanghai of several stories high; a massive library of Western books, a printing plant and storage room, and above all it also published several journals, including the popular Dongfang zazhi (Eastern Miscellany), in addition to numerous textbooks, dictionaries, and other general books and pamphlets. Eventually it sponsored two gigantic publishing ventures called ¡§Eastern repositories¡¨ (Dongfang wenku) consisting of thousands of volumes each--with the specific purpose of filling up any new library. The books and journals published by the Commercial Press and other presses were used widely in the new classrooms and also by people who could not afford to go to school. In sum, they provided the material basis for new knowledge and new culture.


The term New Culture was invented by the May Fourth leaders, who used such books, sometimes written or translated by themselves, to teach their students. Some of them were educated in Japan or America; all of them considered themselves to be ¡§new-style¡¨ intellectuals as opposed to the old traditional scholars. These teachers and their students simply declared themselves to be China¡¦s new intellectual elite. Here we must also define the word ¡§intellectual¡¨--¡¨zhishi fenzi¡¨ means literally members of knowledge: it assumed a community of new knowledge, but more importantly it considered their new knowledge a form of power or their new cultural capital. That is to say, they wanted to use their new knowledge to engage in the task of what they called intellectual ¡§enlightenment¡¨--again the word is from Japan, which in turn was borrowed from traditional Chinese vocabulary, which meant ¡§beginning education¡¨. The kids who first read Chinese characters were supposed to have their minds opened to light from their ignorance. The word, with its heavy educational underpinnings, became a prevailing translation of the western word ¡§Enlightenment¡¨--and, together with the word, they bought the whole package of the legacy of European Enlightenment also, with its foregrounded notions of human subjectivity and instrumental rationality. Just as, so they learned, the French ¡§philosophes¡¨ --such as Diderot and Voltaire--influenced the French Revolution with their ideas, they wanted to do the same, by using their new ideas and new culture to effect a revolution. This was both a grand and naive vision, but they all believed in it--partly because this vision served to define their group solidarity as modern intellectuals, a collective successor to the traditional elite class of scholar-officials. Interestingly, in contrast to the ¡§hyphenated¡¨ link between the ¡§scholar¡¨ side and the ¡§official¡¨ side of the intellectual persona, the modern word ¡§members of knowledge¡¨ does not contain ¡§political office¡¨--in other words, they were alienated from the central government (like the Russian intelligentsia, which was the original source for the English word, intellectuals) which they wished to use to effect radical changes. This dilemma--of alienated intellectuals who refused to consider themselves alienated from politics--was what made the May Fourth movement, and all subsequent movements of students and intellectuals, so poignantly ironical. In cutting themselves off from tradition, and losing the institutional link to government service--the examination system--they could not shake off this ¡§traditional¡¨ habit of the elite: they must be the self-appointed agents of both intellectual enlightenment and social change. And if they could not enter government service--or refused to do so out of disdain--they must plunge themselves into a related domain, society--¡¨shehui¡¨ which was again a Japanese translation using two words from ancient Chinese, ¡§she¡¨ (associations like secret societies) and ¡§hui¡¨ (gathering, meeting). The university became, as it were, the last training ground before they enter ¡§society¡¨--whatever that means, since the concept was an intellectual abstraction which everybody took for real. They organized themselves into study societies, in the hope of serving larger causes. And the rhetoric of their manifestos is as rosy as the color of their prose, red--close to purple. Here are a few examples: (quotes)

But we should not belittle the power of words. The success of the May Fourth movement lies to a large extent in their rhetorical power--the power of their words with which they were able not only to defeat their enemies in the intellectual front but to invent several new terms and narratives--it is clear by now that they wished to put themselves at the crest of this high tide of linear history, first as its prophet (to know its direction before the people know), then as its agent and facilitator. (And finally, I am afraid to say, as its victim after Mao seized control of all words and alone defined the narrative of revolution.) It is not surprising that the professors who taught at Beijing¡¦s elite universities were very good with words, and some of the most charismatic ones taught at Beijing University, which can be called the Harvard of China, combined with the radicalism of Berkeley. (Yale or Tsinghua or Yenching would later challenge its hegemony.) The dean of liberal arts was man by the name of Chen Duxiu, who was a Francophile, though he never set foot in France. After Liang Qichao he was also among the first to proclaim his belief in the modern progressive scheme of time. In my article I have quoted an essay by him called ¡§The Year 1916¡¨: Let me quote it again:

¡§The epoch in which you are living--what epoch is this? It is the beginning of the 16th year of the 20th century. The changes of the world are evolutionary, different from month to month, year to year. The shining history is unfolding aster and faster...To live in the present world, you must raise your head and proudly call yourself a person of the 20th century, you must create a new civilization of the 20th century and not confine yourself to following that of the 19th. for the evolution of human civilization is replacing the old with the new, like a river flowing on, an arrow flying away, constantly continuing and constantly changing.¡¨

What Chen proclaimed --in this brave declaration of a 20th-century consciousness--is not only a new sense of time but a mammoth task: to create a ¡§new civilization of the 20th century¡¨ and to differentiate it from the 19th or any earlier eras. Now the word ¡§civilization¡¨ --wenming (bunmei in Japanese) also came from Japanese translation: it connotes a Western-inspired notion of modernity characterized by advancement in technology and material culture. With this the May Fourth leaders wished to contrast this new ¡§civilization¡¨ with the more spiritual--hence outmoded and powerless--tradition in the past. It was natural, therefore, that they first tried to imagine what this new wenming was all about. Chen wrote an essay in his new journal, in which he singled out France as the creator of modern Western civilization which invented the three most significant modern doctrines: the theory of the rights of man (Lafayette), the theory of evolution (Lamarck), and the theory of socialism (St. Simon and Fourier, only later picked up and developed by the Germans, Lassalle and Karl Marx). From this Chen and his colleagues began to evolve two slogans to sum up everything--and personalized them--Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science. From May Fourth onward, the two ¡§gentlemen¡¨ always walked hand in hand--or rather, marched together. In a recent book review published in the New York Review of Books, the famed Chinese dissident scientist, Fang Lizhi, once again invoked them.

With all these new ideas and writings and journals, the way was paved to launch an intellectual movement. Like Liang Qichao before him, Chen realized the power of the print media--esp. the journals-- and with the support of a small publisher he founded a journal called Youth in 1915, and changed its name to New Youth one year later. The journal became the required reading of all his students, and all students in Beijing and elsewhere read it, wherever they could find copies of this prestigious journal of new ideas and new knowledge. In order to publicize his cause, Chen also began to find allies--and he found one in a remote place, Ithaca New York where Hu Shi, a student on a Boxer indemnity scholarship (thanks to the invasion of 9 nations in 1900), was studying agriculture at Cornell University. [Harvard, true to its great tradition, attracted only Chinese conservative students who loved classical learning.]..But Hu was also gifted in literature and philosophy (for he soon transferred to Columbia to study with John Dewey). During the summer vacation in 1916 and in a boat ride he somehow waxed eloquent and talked about his ideas of language reform: that the literary language was too old and dead, that all living literature should be written in a living language of the day. Thus, not having convinced his friends (since some came from Harvard), he decided to write an article, and sent it to a Chinese student journal in the States. But then at a whim he sent a copy to this new journal in Beijing, called New Youth. When Chen read it, he loved it so much that he not only published it but turned it into his own manifesto of a ¡§Literary Revolution¡¨:

3. The Literary Revolution

Hu¡¦s article was published in January 1917, which was followed by another article by Chen, titled: ¡§On the Literary Revolution: ( Chow, The May Fourth Movement, p.275)

¡§What is the foundation stone of contemporary Europe which lies so brilliantly before us? It is the gift of revolutions. The term revolution in Europe means a change from the old to the new, which differs absolutely from what we call the change of dynasties. Since the Renaissance...there have been revolutions in the fields of politics, religion, ethics, morality, literature and the arts, and because of these revolutions there have been rejuvenation and progress. The history of modern Europe is the history of revolution.

I am willing to brave the enmity of all the pedantic scholars of the country, and hoist the great banner of the ¡§Army of the Literary Revolution¡¦ in support of my friend. On this banner shall be written in big, clear characters my three great principles of the Revolutionary Army:

1. To overthrow the powdered and obsequious literature of the aristocratic few, and to create the plain, simple, and expressive literature of the national people;

2. To overthrow the stereotyped and over-ornamental literature of classicism, and to create the fresh and sincere literature of realism;

3. To overthrow the pedantic, unintelligible, and obscurantist literature of the hermit and recluse, and to create the plain-speaking and popular literature of society.¡¨


And how many were in this Army? No more than half a dozen, to begin with, all university professors who were on the editorial board of his journal, including Lu Xun. Soon they were joined by students and their journals, with names like New Tide, Sprouts etc. So everything is new and young--Chen really captured that youthful atmosphere. But as an intellectual stance it marked a radical breakthrough, because Chen stood the typical Chinese conception of manhood--or the human individual--on its head: instead of showing a person growing up toward wisdom at old age, Chen was in fact suggesting that all new wisdom must be embodied in youth, not old men. Here he was influenced by the biological metaphor of organism--¡¨:youth¡¨, so to speak, constituted the crucial cell of the collective organism that was the nation and race.

The three tenets Chen raised about literature in this manifesto were largely followed by the new writers --or at least they tried to put them into practice, with all kinds of consequences. Being an elitist intellectual, he was however calling for a literature of the ¡§people¡¨--the term he used was guomin or national people, perhaps with nation preceding people in significance. This literature should be written in simple and plain language--ie, the modern vernacular--and not in the over-ornamental and allusion-filled classical language, which required years of learning in order to decipher its references. [Anyone who isn¡¦t convinced should enroll in the department¡¦s two upper-level courses on wenyan]. From this position he called for a literature of ¡§realism,¡¨ which is a clear reflection of his interest in the 19th century tradition of European fiction (which was widely translated into Chinese) on the one hand, and his modern time consciousness, on the other. For Chen, the literature of realism must be a reflection of contemporary reality: the here and now, and not of the distant past. To write something realistically means also to be sincere in one¡¦s attitude toward this reality. What is reality anyway and how can a writer fathom reality, much less reflect it, in a newly developed language of the modern vernacular? In his third principle, he tries to define a literature of society--or ¡§social¡¨ literature. This is where his didacticism really hit home: literature, in his view, must carry a social purpose; it was written not for individual pleasure but for a larger community which he called society. In other words, no literature for its own sake, or as an index to the linguistic games that academics can play with. Thus we can say that modern Chinese literature is ¡§Modern¡¨ in its intellectual orientation but not ¡§Modernist¡¨ in its literary technique. Unless Western high modernism, the author does not play God or genius who creates and has total command over his or her linguistic universe called the text (until he/she was decentered or deconstructed by ¡§post-modernism¡¨.). Rather a modern Chinese author shares that text with his/her ¡§broad¡¨ readers who formed also part of the imagined community of the nation or society. When we read the texts by such a complex writer as Lu Xun, we can see how these tenets run into all kinds of problems.

4. Critical Reflections

Problems do not exist for the other leaders of the May Fourth movement: with the proclamation of Literary Revolution, Chen and his friends simply declared the revolution an instant success. When no ¡§pedantic¡¨ enemies emerged, they fabricated an pedantic article (which then solicited another one by a genuine pedant.) Hu did write a series of articles about the use of the vernacular language in the construction of New Literature, but he pays attention mostly to how to write modern vernacular sentences--that they should follow grammar, be simple, use vernacular expression, do not use classical arcane allusions, do not exaggerate with excessive ornamentations etc. When it comes to matters of content, his most salient advice is ¡§what you write should reflect your own personality.¡¨ Thus, for Hu and Chen both, literature not only serves society and reflects reality, it should also be sort of transparent--mirroring the author as an individual. This sounds great as slogans, but it really imposes a lot of demand on literature itself. Chinese writers soon realized that a story or a novel of realism simply cannot shoulder all these burdens. How can a writer reflect his own personality and still write about the people and society? Which comes first? What if the people he wants to write about exists in a totally different world that he can hardly reach? The typical May Fourth story, as it turned out, is a story in which the author either tries to define himself or herself as a new individual or to reach out to some ¡§other¡¨ people--say, some poor peasants in a village--but fails to do so because of a lack of understanding. When they try to do both, the stakes are also higher. The short story form in which most May Fourth writers chose to write was itself both too free and too ¡§short.¡¨ And when they tried to write something longer, such as the novel, beginning in the late 1920s, immediately they got into the problem of structure and narrative sequence: how many characters? who goes where and when?

Here we enter into a matrix of new questions concerning literary form, which we will also explore in the course of this course. But before that we must ponder once again the relationship between literature (fiction) and history. If history is written anew, by its adoption of a linear master-narrative, should fiction follow suit? If so, how should fiction do it? What should be the proper relationship between the two anyway and how should a writer negotiate between them? Should he or she simply leave history out? Well, given what I said last week, it was almost impossible to do so, because history in this modern sense is a master-narrative of nationalism, and all modern writers in China considered themselves nationalists. James Joyce could construct a new mythology of the quotidian--that is, from one average day in the life of two Dublin bourgeois men and the wife of one of them--and turned it into a masterpiece, Ulysses. His modernism is a modernism that deconstructs linear time and progressive history and turns it into space; there is not much nationalism there either. Chinese writers choose not to write this way, though they were aware of Joyce¡¦s technique. In short, the May Fourth decade (1917-1927) produced a lot of fiction, all written in the modern vernacular, but none in a heavily ¡§artsy¡¨ fashion, because in all these texts are invested the enormous ethical burden of reality. Without knowing its implications, modern Chinese writers were already on their way toward another ideological position: in the ¡§Real¡¨ is contained Truth, and realism as a tenet of writing (¡§xieshizhuyi¡¨ a doctrine of writing reality) soon became a tenet of belief (¡§xianshizhuyi,¡¨ a doctrine of contemporary reality): when revolution came along, literature must attack this present reality and uphold a new Reality of the socialist future--hence Socialist Realism. Behind which lies, of course, a whole history Chinese nationalism and modernity.

What the New Literature really succeeded in doing was writing in the modern vernacular. The task was made more popular on the receiving end because students, especially in primary and secondary schools, were now reading all textbooks written in the baihua, by decree of the ministry of education in the mid-1920s. Shortly before that, the government also decided to unify spoken language, that this national modern vernacular should sound like ¡§Mandarin,¡¨ that is the language used by officials or mandarins residing in the imperial capital of Beijing. This is how and why you are still studying Mandarin, and not Cantonese or Shanghainese. [This is why I can speak a near perfect mandarin, though I crave to have more local accents, as in my English.] From hindsight we realize that language is not only power but one of the most powerful tools of nation-building. You will find that in several other countries (Greece and Turkey, for instance) the project of nation-building is likewise characterized by language debates which led then to language unification, which was central to nation-formation. Sometimes governments in new state-nations (modern Korea or Vietnam) even invented new written language by transcribing the sound of their national language into alphabetical symbols.

The term mandarin in Chinese was ¡§guoyu¡¨ --or national language--and Hu Shi did not know the full consequences of what he was talking about when he said that there must be a ¡§literature of national language, and a language of (national) literature.¡¨ For him, the two are two sides of the same coin--or the chicken and the egg, except that in this instance Hu was urging modern writers to write enough literature first, so as to make this national language reach a degree of maturity. Thus, the narrative language in the stories should be written as if it were spoken in mandarin, but what if a writer wanted to reach out to a people who do not speak mandarin? Either he makes his character speak it or, more realistically, he gets some local dialects or dialect expression sandwiched in his narrative prose, especially in dialogues. Finally, how should literature ¡§reflect¡¨ social reality? Reality is always too big and complex to be handled within the confines of a story with limited length. Fictional language, no matter how realistic sounding, is still fictional language, in the sense that it is already structured and worked at by the author¡¦s technique. Sincerity of purpose and intention does not translate necessarily into good works of art. This is where modern Chinese writers get into a lot of problems, and we will have opportunities to pursue some of them.

Suffice it to say, at this moment, that in the modern Chinese discourse of modernity and nationalism, literature played a seminal role, more so than, say, in this country. At the same time, when we discuss modern Chinese literature, we must also bear in mind that hovering over all these literary texts are the shadowy burdens of two ¡§master-narratives.¡¨ The writer I will soon talk about is Lu Xun; I already talked about him in a video--you will be hearing a younger voice talking, five years younger--so I will not repeat what I said, except to relate what I said to the textual world of Lu Xun¡¦s stories. We will be doing some ¡§close readings.¡¨


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