A Question of Tradition: Culture Through the Lens of May Fourth
This article is part of an ongoing series on the centenary of China’s May Fourth Movement. The rest of the series can be found here.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth protests, which saw thousands of students — and later workers and businesspeople — pour onto the streets of Beijing and other major cities around China. Together, they demanded the country take a more active stance in protecting its sovereignty from colonial predation.
While the May Fourth Movement was motivated by a highly complex and diverse mix of ideas, one of its core defining tenets was iconoclasm: May Fourth advocates believed that the key to revitalizing China into a strong, modern nation-state was freeing the country from the burden of the past. Writing in the 1970s, the U.S.-based scholar of Chinese history Lin Yü-sheng describes the May Fourth Movement as being driven by a “totalistic anti-traditionalism,” and even went so far as to accuse it of setting the stage for later all-out assaults on Chinese traditions. In Lin’s view, the May Fourth Movement and its ideological heirs were characterized by an utter hatred of traditional ideas and values, as they were based on the same underlying premise. Lin writes: “The basic precondition for meaningful political and social change is a wholesale transformation of the values and the spirit of the people.” In other words, a radical rejection of the past.
But while Lin’s arguments have garnered plenty of support over the years, other scholars have argued that they are based on an overly negative reading of the goals of May Fourth leaders. As professor emeritus of history at Princeton University Yu Ying-shih once put it, while the movement’s leaders may have adopted radical rhetoric, their anti-traditional attitudes were in fact premised “on the recognition of the value of Chinese culture.” In Yu’s view, the May Fourth Movement was “restrained and limited” in its opposition to traditional Chinese cultural values, and it sought to reconstruct Chinese culture, not wipe it out. While the May Fourth Movement certainly wasn’t perfect, I would agree with Yu: We can’t blame it for the later disasters that took place.
When scholars talk about the May Fourth Movement, they refer not just to the short-lived protests of 1919, but to a wide range of radical intellectual and ideological currents that were prominent around that time. One of the most influential of these was the New Culture Movement, which called to abandon the “man-eating ethics” of Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture and embrace Western-inspired concepts like science and democracy.
In his “The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness: Radical Antitraditionalism in the May Fourth Era,” Lin writes: “One of the most striking and peculiar features of the intellectual history of 20th century China has been the emergence and persistence of profoundly iconoclastic attitudes toward the cultural heritage of the Chinese past.” At first glance, Chen Duxiu, a leader in the New Culture Movement, the founder of the highly influential magazine New Youth, and an eventual co-founder of the Communist Party of China, seems to epitomize this phenomenon.
Chen once said that there was no room for harmony or coexistence between the new — by which he meant Western values like democracy and science — and the old, which Chen identified as the “slave morality” of Confucianism. But a closer look at Chen’s writings shows that his fierce rejection of Confucianism was focused on keeping it out of two spheres he saw as vital to remaking the Chinese nation: the constitution and modern social norms.
To begin, Chen strongly opposed incorporating Confucian elements into any future Chinese constitution, which he believed should be based upon the freedom of belief and the separation of church and state. In 1913, just a year after the Republic of China was founded, the Confucian Association called to establish Confucianism as the state religion. A draft version of the constitution even contained the clause: “The doctrine of Confucius should be recognized as the basis of national self-cultivation.”
Chen did his best to prevent this. “The separation of church and state has become a general rule,” he wrote. He also pointed out that no other country’s constitution set arbitrary rules about educational principles. But that didn’t mean he wanted to exterminate Confucianism. “If the Confucian Association as a private institution wants to establish itself within society, then of course the state should grant it the same freedoms as other religions,” he explained.
As Chen saw it, the constitution was a guarantee of the people’s rights, and as such, he believed it shouldn’t stipulate preferential treatment for any race, religion, political party, or school of thought. He also worried about the consequences of forcing China’s diverse population of 400 million people to subscribe to a single doctrine or creed. “When the state uses its power to compel people to believe, the religious wars of Europe will not be far behind,” he warned.
Second, as a committed modernizer, Chen questioned whether the doctrines of Confucianism were compatible with republicanism and modern society. Noting that Confucius had lived two millennia ago and had written under a monarchical system, Chen claimed that all Confucius’ sayings were made with certain assumptions in mind — including the existence of a supreme ruler and aristocracy. If such a system were to reemerge in China, Chen believed it would spell disaster for the republic.
Chen also believed that formally sanctioning Confucianism would limit China’s potential by keeping it from developing into a fully modern society. Confucian edicts forbidding sons and daughters from acting against their parents’ wishes in any way or requiring women to always obey the men in their lives and focus on housework all ran counter to modernity as Chen saw it.
In short, Confucianism calls for people to be loyal to their king, filial toward their father, and obedient toward their husband. How could the state organizations, social systems, and ethical concepts of a democratic republic accommodate a doctrine centered on patriarchal hierarchy and inequality?
This doesn’t mean that Chen wanted to eradicate Confucianism, just that he opposed Confucian supremacy over society. Key to his ideology was a faith in the tenets of free thought and freedom of belief. He was willing to guarantee people’s rights to believe in or disseminate Confucianism — provided they respected others’ rights to their own faiths.
Chen also recognized the historical value of Confucianism, admitting that it was “China’s most powerful historical doctrine and an invisible tool for unifying the will of the Chinese people.” However, for a society entering the 20th century and beset by crisis, relying on a doctrine from the feudal era to unify the will of the people would only slow China’s civilizational progress. Far from being a totalistic anti-traditionalist, his views seem to back up Yu Ying-shih’s contention that the May Fourth Movement’s iconoclasm was “restrained and limited” in nature.
Tweaking was out of the question. Confucianism had developed over thousands of years into a fully formed ethical and philosophical system. There was no trimming it around the edges; the only answer was to block it from the public sphere altogether. While Chen acknowledged that parts of the Confucian tradition could be used for national construction, he maintained that these must be selected and integrated into a modern political and ideological system rather than trying to fuse elements of modernity onto a Confucian core.
Chen Duxiu was not the only influential early 20th century Chinese intellectual to question the Chinese tradition. Influential members of the New Culture Movement like Li Dazhao, Hu Shih, and Lu Xun all generally opposed making Confucianism a part of China’s revival plans. Again, however, that didn’t mean wholly erasing China’s past, but reexamining it and figuring out how to make it serve the goals of modernity.
In a manner resembling Friedrich Nietzshe’s concept of “transvaluation,” or reevaluating traditional values, May Fourth reformers questioning the meaning of the Chinese tradition was part of their advocacy for introducing scientific principles to China and restructuring Chinese civilization. They mined traditional Chinese culture for values that had been marginalized by Confucianism but could also be repurposed to serve their ends. Hu Shih identified traces of scientific pursuit in Qing dynasty academia, for example, and both he and Lu Xun wrote revisionist histories of Chinese literature — none of which suggests they were out to suppress traditional Chinese culture altogether.
Another point about the “restrained and limited” iconoclasm of the May Fourth Movement is worth emphasizing: Whether moderate or fierce, proponents limited their weapons to words. They were ultimately intellectuals, and their goal was to win a battle of minds. As Hu once wrote: “We have already raised the banner of revolution and cannot retreat, yet we should not maintain that what we advocate is absolutely right and not tolerate correction by others.”
Chen also made it clear that he would keep an open mind toward his opponent’s more rational ideas, even if he did not necessarily agree with them. Peking University, which was a hub for Chen and other leading May Fourth intellectuals, was also home to conservative academics like Gu Hongming. These attitudes stand in stark contrast to those of other, more purely political revolutions.
At its heart, the May Fourth Movement was about reconstructing Chinese culture and bringing it in line with other cultures around the world — Western culture in particular. While the solutions they proposed were sometimes crude, their calls for democracy, science, and modernity, as well as their desire to push China forward, were all noble.
Unfortunately, in many ways the May Fourth reformers left their work unfinished. Cultural movements require time to take root, not to mention concerted and practical effort to carry out. During the May Fourth era, China was beset on all sides by foreign powers and in the midst of a period of internal political turmoil. National independence and economic development ultimately took precedence over cultural reconstruction. And in the wake of this partial revolution, radicals have either sought to attack Chinese traditional culture in a more complete fashion or to embrace it as an antidote to the supposed ideological pollution of Western culture.
Rather than fall into these traps, we should work to fill in the gaps left by the May Fourth Movement. That means fighting for spiritual independence, encouraging diversity of thought, continuing to broaden and sharpen our understanding of Chinese and Western culture, and rethinking our values to bring them more in line with the needs of modern life. In other words, we must integrate Chinese and Western culture in a real, vital way.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A man dressed in Republican-era garb stands by a phonograph near the Beijing Luxun Museum and the New Culture Movement Memorial of Beijing, May 4, 2017. VCG)