CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 17, March 2009


The May Fourth Spirit, Now and Then | China Heritage Quarterly

The May Fourth Spirit, Now and Then

For an extended discussion of the May Fourth and its commemoration in 2009 by Xu Jilin, see also 'Historical Memories of May Fourth' in this section of China Heritage Quarterly.

Modern Chinese intellectuals, progressives and revolutionaries, have increasingly felt strangled by the seeming invincibility and deadly pervasiveness of tradition. The outstanding exponent of the struggle to get rid of the past was of course Lu Xun, who analyzed with unique clear-sightedness the desperate nature of the modernizers' predicament: they can never pin the enemy down, for the enemy is a formless, invisible ghost, an indestructible shadow.
—Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys)

On 4 May 1919, more than three thousand students from thirteen universities in Beijing gathered in the area in front of Tiananmen (at the time there was no square as such) to demonstrate against imperialist aggression toward China, in particular against the Versailles Peace Treaty, which gave the former German imperial concessions in China to Japan. Together with a concomitant, progressive movement to 'modernize' Chinese culture, this became known as the May Fourth Movement.

The May Fourth Movement grew out of the New Culture Movement, including the literary revolution of 1917 during which it was first proposed that the spoken language replace classical Chinese as the major written form. Liberal intellectuals such as Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu, Zhou Zuoren, and Lu Xun, as well as students, campaigned for an end to what they perceived as the stifling and antidemocratic influence of Confucianism on Chinese society. Many hoped that the New Culture Movement, which stressed the importance of democracy and science ('Mr. D. and Mr. S.') would allow people to liberate their thinking and free themselves from the past.[1] However, the pressing issue of national salvation came to overshadow that earlier movement for cultural renewal and self-liberation.

Throughout the 1920s and '30s, Chinese intellectuals grew increasingly politicized, most of them aligned with the Communists or the Nationalists depending on which one they perceived as being more capable of "saving the nation." Inevitably, the May Fourth Movement became a symbol used by both the left and the right for their own purposes.

Floodwaters and Wild Beasts

Cai Yuanpei

Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940) was an educationalist and revolutionary. He was the chancellor of Peking University from 1917 to 1919, forced to resign at the height of the May Fourth period. In 1932, he founded the China League for the Defense of Civil Rights with Lu Xun, Yang Quan, and Soong Ch'ing-ling (Madame Sun Yat-sen).

While head of Peking University, Cai, a leader of the intellectual revolution of the period, tried to turn the university into a school to train China's new intellectual leaders. He employed such controversial intellectuals as Chen Duxiu, Liu Shipei, and Hu Shi. He also encouraged scholars with markedly different views from his own, as well as traditional studies, and for a time both Gu Hongming and the philosopher Ma Yifu lectured at the university.[2] Cai's tenure fostered an atmosphere of intellectual variety and tolerance never seen before or since at a modern institution of learning in Mainland China.

In the following article, first published in 1920 in La Jeunesse [Xin qingnian], a leading journal of the May Fourth Movement, Cai describes a situation that would have familiar resonances in the late 1980s. The 'floodwaters' of liberal thinking in the late eighties were in some ways remarkably—some would say depressingly—similar to those of Cai's time. Although there were no longer warlords to torment the people and live off the fat of the land, the Communist Party, widely perceived as corrupt and parasitic, would probably fit Cai's notion of 'wild beasts'—it too sent an army to crush the students.

About 2,200 years ago there lived a Chinese philosopher called Mencius. He said that the history of a state often went in cycles of chaos and order. He named the great flood of 4,200 years ago as the first great chaos; the second occurred 3,000 years ago, when there was a plague of wild beasts. The next, he said, was in his own day, referring to the appearance of the theories of Yang Zhu and Mozi.[3] He likened his own attack on Yang and Mo to the taming of the floods by the Emperor Yu and the dispersing of the wild beasts by the Duke of Zhou. Thus the admirers of Mencius like to say that the threat posed by Yang Zhu and Mozi was 'even greater than the floodwaters and wild beasts' [hong shui meng shou 洪水猛兽].[4]

As time passed, whenever a scholar wanted to attack another school of thought he would accuse its adherents of being 'worse than flood-waters and wild beasts.' The Confucians attacked the Buddhists an Taoists in those terms in the Tang and Song dynasties; such was also the case in the Qing dynasty, when the Cheng-Zhu school attacked the Lu-Wang school. Today the traditionalists say the new school [of the May Fourth Movement] is 'worse than floodwaters and wild beasts.'

I think there is something to be said for calling the tide of new thought a 'great flood.' It is, after all, like a deluge that has washed away the habits of the past, and naturally there are those who find this very painful. It's as if the flood tides are too strong, overwhelming the old riverbeds, and the waters are spilling out, devastating the surrounding fields. Yet if you try to block the waters as Yao did [in antiquity], it will only make the flood worse, the damage irreparable. That's why, Yu instead channeled the floodwaters to the great rivers. Not only did this prevent destruction, it was also beneficial to irrigation. Similar in dealing with the tide of new thought one must allow it to develop freely; only then will it be beneficial and not destructive. Mencius said, 'The way Yu controlled the waters was by doing it in a way that cause no trouble.' This is the best way the old school can deal with the new.

As for 'wild beasts,' that's a perfect description of the warlords. Mencius quoted Gongming Yi as saying, 'You have fatty meat in your kitchens and fine horses in your stables, but on the faces of the people is the pallor of starvation, and in the wilderness there are the bodies of those who have died from famine. You give the wild beasts a lead by devouring your fellowman.' Today the warlords possess immense personal wealth and enjoy unimaginable luxuries, while those who work for a living are starving to death in poverty. Isn't this like leading the beasts to eat other men? The armies in Beijing and Tianjin have been instructed by their leaders to attack patriotic young people. Are they not acting like wild beasts?

The situation in China today could be described as one in which the floodwaters and the wild beasts are in competition. If the wild beasts can be quelled and the floodwaters run free, China will immediately find peace.

—1 April 1920

A five-part television documentary entitled We Are Writing History made by the Taiwan photographer Chong Chao-tang was screened in Taiwan and Hong Kong in early 1990. Filmed in Beijing during the 1989 Protest Movement, the second part of the series, 'Peking University,' included an interview with Ding Shisun, then president of the university.

Here at Peking University we have a very strong sense of our historical responsibility. The university is the product of the 1898 Reform Movement, and we have a tradition, especially after Mr. Cai Yuanpei's incumbency as president. That was a period of immense change in China. Our ninety-year history—ninety-one years this year—has been inextricably tied up with the modern history of China.

We say we breathe with the rhythm of history. So our teachers and students have always felt it imperative to make our contribution to the creation of a new and strong China and to push history forward. This is an intangible thing, an ambience if you will. ...

—Ding Shisun

President Ding was relieved of his position in late 1989 for allowing the students and staff of Peking University to take part in Protest Movement.

A High Price

Li Ao

Unfortunately, after the May Fourth Movement, as both the Nationalists and the Communists adopted Soviet-style organizational methods and party discipline under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, the goal of 'healthy individualism' was abandoned for that of collectivism. This foreign import brought disaster on China, for it stilled intellectual liberation. Hu Shi recalled, 'The ironfisted discipline introduced from the Soviet Union was excessively intolerant; it outlawed heterodox opinion. It was diametrically opposed to the liberalism we had advocated from the inception of the May Fourth Movement.'... And so it was that both the Bolsheviks and the fascists embarked on the path of collectivization, diverting China from the individual and intellectual liberation of the New Culture Movement.

The theme of the New Culture Movement was 'enlightenment, intellectual and cultural self-renewal, and self-transformation.' The call of the May Fourth Movement was for 'national salvation,' its thrust was primarily political, and it led people to join parties for self-benefit. Renewal and transformation became something to be imposed on others. The feeling that national collapse was imminent sent the whole country into a frenzy. It's understandable that since people felt time was running out they became quite desperate, and began aligning themselves with whichever faction seemed to benefit the cause of salvation. The question remains, however: If all those committed heroes hadn't come forth to save the nation, would China have been any worse off? Was it really a matter of such urgency?

Thirty years after the 1898 Reform Movement, Wang Zhao, a reformist colleague of Kang Youwei, the leading Salvationist at the time, wrote the following in his memoirs:

In 1898 I said to Old Kang, '... only by building more modern schools and expanding our [educational] base will the atmosphere gradually change. Only then will it be possible to establish a new polity.' But Old Kang replied, 'The nation is about to be sliced up like a melon [by the imperialist powers], there's no time to pursue your methods.' That was thirty-two years ago. All talk of whether there was sufficient time or not is irrelevant.

Wang Zhao observed that thirty years later, China was still there. If, back in 1898, they'd concentrated on saving the children instead of saving the nation, and if that generation had gone on to save the next generation and the next, after three decades there would have been a large enlightened population with liberated attitudes and a sense of personal freedom. The second and third generations, no longer slaves, could have formed the basis for the establishment of a new China. Of course, no one was interested in listening to an old pedant like Wang Zhao.

Instead, people were busy declaring that China was finished and arguing with one another over what emergency action should be taken. It was this sense of urgency that led so many of the outstanding intellectuals of the New Culture Movement to throw themselves body and soul to the political agitation of the May Fourth Movement.

After thirty years of activism, we won back Taiwan and lost Outer Mongolia (a territory forty-four times larger than Taiwan). We invited Soviet wolves right into our homes and repaid the cruelty of the Japanese with kindness. Then, with the nation covered in wounds [from the war], the right-wing fascists in the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan and the left-wing Bolsheviks of the Communist Party took over the mainland.

The Chinese have paid dearly for those decades of 'saving the nation.' China may finally have stood up, but the Chinese have fallen down.

—April 1989

Vicious Cycle of the May Fourth Movement

Xu Jilin

The political and cultural rebels of the May Fourth period encountered virulent opposition from conservatives who perceived themselves as guardians of Chinese tradition... [E]ven in the 1980s 'totalistic inconoclasm,'[5] the radical reassessment of an entire culture, could still bring down the wrath of conservative forces. What is ironic is that the new self-appointed guardians of tradition are leaders of (or advisers to) the Communist Party, a party that was conceived in the spirit of radical iconoclasm—and indeed, of the May Fourth movement itself.

As a youthful organization in the 1920s and '30s the Communist Party won the hearts and minds of many intellectuals with its antitraditionalist and anti-imperialist stance. It jettisoned Confucianism, however, only to put a new state ideology, a new tradition as it were, in its place, that of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Gradually, the party appropriated China's cultural symbols and traditions for its own use: The People's Liberation Army, for example, was officially dubbed the 'Great Wall of Iron' and loyalty to the party's cause linked with the Yellow River (as, for example, in the Yellow River Concerto). When faced with an unprecedented crisis of belief in its ideology and a general collapse of confidence in the 1980s, the party increasingly relied on its identification with tradition and the redefined symbols of national pride to prop up its authority.

In a further irony, the May Fourth Movement itself has, over the years, become a tradition and a symbol. In China, the past often gains significance only when it can be used to serve the present; the icon of the May Fourth Movement is no exception.

In March 1989, Xu Jilin, a Shanghai-based academic, summed up his view of the dilemma of Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century in an article entitled 'The Vicious Cycle of the May Fourth Movement.' Xu found that on virtually every tenth anniversary of the movement a new interpretation had been found for it. He also noted that in 1979, sixty years after the May Fourth Movement—in other words, a complete cycle in the traditional Chinese calendar—history appeared to have come full circle. The following is his summary with some additional information (in brackets) and an update by the editors to 1989:

1919: The May Fourth Movement calls for national salvation, science, and democracy.

1939: The [Communists] champion the idea of 'superseding the May Fourth Movement' so as to establish speedily a new national culture. [Renaming the holiday to commemorate the May Fourth 'National Youth Day,' they call on young people to join the war effort and unite with the workers and peasants 'in the May Fourth spirit.']

1949: The Communists [close to victory in their war with the Nationalists] confirm Mao Zedong Thought as the nation's ideology. [They also declare that the participation of the intellectuals in the workers' movement had been the greatest achievement of the May Fourth Movement.]

1959: The May Fourth Movement is celebrated as part of the Great leap Forward.

1969: The May Fourth spirit is completely negated by the Cultural Revolution [though still celebrated in name].

1979: On the sixtieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement the Chinese set out from the same starting point and once more call for democracy and science. There is also a renewed call for the 'liberation of thought,' this time in opposition not to Confucianism but to the modern dogma of Maoism; [it is aimed at validating the rule of Deng Xiaoping and his fellows.]

1989: The official government slogan to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the movement is 'Patriotism, Reform, Enterprise Advancement.' All mention of democracy and science is pointedly avoided. Meanwhile, students and intellectuals demonstrate in Beijing and other cities for greater democracy, using the original slogans of the May Fourth Movement.

According to Xu Jilin (and many other writers), the half-digested and often misunderstood ideology of Marxism-Leninism combined after 1949 with powerful although often unrecognized traditional modes of thinking and action to create a self-ossifying mechanism within Chinese culture.

As China approaches the twentieth century, one wonders, Are we bound to repeat the vicious cycle of the May Fourth Movement? This question cannot but arouse our vigilance.

The post-1979 intellectual enlightenment seems to have repeated the patterns of the first May Fourth Movement. There are startling similarities between these two periods: general anxiety over the backwardness of the nation and deep-felt anguish over the premature demise of democracy. As people in both periods looked beyond the superficial aspects, of the current system to delve into Chinese traditional culture, they discovered many elements there that were antagonistic to modernization. The result in both cases was cultural reassessment. But as this reassessment was in itself inspired by a mood of political utilitarianism rather than a quest for knowledge, all cultural debates have invariably been tinged with an ideological hue and marked by a desire for immediate results.

In mainland academic circles we cart still find some young people who are continuing the May Fourth spirit of totalistic iconoclasm. Liu Xiaobo is an example. I've read some of his articles. The way he writes reminds me of Bo Yang in Taiwan, for they both argue their points in a casual, random style.

While the influence of 'The Ugly Chinaman' has certainly been great, in terms of its antitraditionalism, there's nothing very new in it. Basically, Bo Yang is refrying Lu Xun's leftovers. He's far less profound than Lu Xun. Bo Yang's conviction that the Chinese have an odious national character is essentially a continuation of Lu Xun's line of thought. Indeed, while Lu Xun originated the expression the 'soy sauce vat [of Chinese culture],' Bo Yang has played up its horrors and taken on the expression as if it were his own. Bo Yang says exactly what most Chinese people want to hear. His popularity is due not to the profundity of his ideas but to the fact that the antitraditionalist thinking and methods he represents have a wide audience. This is the tragedy of Chinese culture. This shows how the May Fourth method of "using philosophy and culture to resolve problems" has been preserved to the present day and, in a manner of speaking, has even been immensely enhanced.

—The scholar Lin Yü-sheng in conversation with Xu Jilin

In the initial phase [of both periods], intellectuals were drawn to Western thinking and denounced their own tradition, but when this led to a serious loss of cultural standards, they backed down.

Whenever the paradigms of the social and cultural systems are going through a period of renewal or change, there will inevitably be a period of disorientation. The West experienced such a phase in its own recent history. However, because the cultural transformation experienced by the West was by nature spontaneous and independent, it didn't lead to a chain reaction by which the whole social, political, and economic frame-work was destabilized. But in China's case, the cultural crisis is part and parcel of the crisis of the society as a whole. Cultural and moral models have lost their authority and are thus powerless to ameliorate the crisis.

At this critical juncture, people pin their hopes on the emergence of rational forces. But what they find instead is the appearance of countless disparate, irrational, and chaotic influences. Before rational elements have a chance to join into a coherent whole, the blind destructiveness of the chaotic forces may push the society toward total collapse.

[The Chinese] want to catch up with and even surpass the rest of the world. But this requires a spirit of national determination, a near-religious spirit of sacrifice, on the part of every citizen. China lacks the kind of consensus that can act as an ideological foundation for such an enterprise. The twofold sense of anxiety is then exacerbated by calls for a new authoritarianism in the political sphere and an increasing demand for the speedy establishment of a national spirit in the cultural arena. Many intellectuals find themselves unable to tolerate the concomitant cultural disintegration and social disorder that comes with the loss of moral standards, and so, either consciously or unconsciously, they wish to reestablish or identify with a definite system of values and beliefs. The above outline [of the 1980s] is similar to the situation that developed in the 1930s. The 'vicious cycle of the May Fourth Movement' casts a long shadow not only over the past and present, but over the future as well.

Xu suggested that history offered at least two ways for China to break out of this vicious circle: first, reducing the ideological aspect of cultural debates and working toward a system that could encompass both Chinese and 'Western culture and, second, maintaining openness to the outside world and encouraging an atmosphere of cultural pluralism. Putting the onus on intellectuals rather than the power holders, he concluded:

It depends entirely on the practical choices made by China's intellectuals whether the 'Vicious Cycle of the May Fourth Movement' will repeat itself a second time.

This material was originally published in New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (New York: Times Books, 1992), edited by Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin. Minor stylistic modifications have been made.—GRB


[1] Science, as a symbol of modern, rational thinking and methods, was seen by intellectuals of the May Fourth period—and has been ever since—as the partner of democracy. For a study of these attitudes toward science, see David Kwok, Scientism in Chinese Thought, 1900-1950, New Haven, Conn.: Yale-University Press, 1965.

[2] A young provincial from Hunan by the name of Mao Runzhi, better known as Mao Zedong, worked in the university library during the May Fourth period. The offhand manner with which some of the lecturers, including Hu Shi and Yu Pingbo, supposedly treated him is said to have made Mao distrust, if not despise, men with book learning. It has been argued that his post-1949 anti-intellectual policies were to an extent informed by his experiences at Peking University.

[3] Mencius characterized his own time as a period when perverse doctrines and acts were rife. Yang Zhu propounded a philosophy of self-centeredness that excluded fealty to the ruler; Mozi spoke of universal love that militated against Confucius's teaching of respecting one's father above all others. Were these principles to gain currency, Mencius argued, there would be nothing to differentiate humans from beasts.

[4] See Mencius, Book 3B: 9.

[5] See Lin Yü-sheng's study of the significance of "totalistic iconoclasm" in The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness: Radical Antitraditionalism in the May Fourth Era. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979. A Chinese version of this book appeared in 1987 and has had a considerable, although not always acknowledged, influence in Mainland China. Lin's arguments are also relevant when considering radical antitraditionalism in China in the 1970s.