Taelspin: The Spirit of May Fourth

"Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many people pass one way, a road is made." - Lu Xun

This past week marked the 89th anniversary of the May 4th demonstrations, the defining event of a decade of intellectual vitality and ideological debate as teachers, students, authors and scholars drew on a panoply of ideas to make sense of the world, their nation, and how best to build a strong and vital society.

At the heart of this movement was a true marketplace of ideas. Young intellectuals rushed to read the latest issues of their favorite journals, of which there were hundreds, pages brimming with the back-and-forth of open minds at work.

The question in the hearts of these youthful, educated elite: How to save China from the ravages of corrupt politicians, avaricious foreign powers, and the stranglehold of old thinking and culture? And yet while the question remained consistent, the answers were a glorious cacophony of disparate ideologies shouted in student halls and debated in faculty dining rooms, scrawled on notebook pages and set in printer’s ink.

Whether one was a follower of John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Herbert Spencer, or Karl Marx (among many others), or an academic focused on using new methodologies to mine China’s past and cultural heritage, or sought elsewhere for a way to unite a nation against the forces arrayed against her, what made the May Fourth era so special was the free expression of ideas, and the willingness of the intellectual elite to listen, discuss, and then accept or reject different viewpoints on the merits of the arguments presented.

It is a legacy of which China can be justifiably proud. Not only was this a glorious time in the nation's own intellectual history, it was one of the great periods of intellectual dynamism in the 20th century. Whenever I hear the callous remark—too often bandied about these days—that the ability to think for oneself is not a part of Chinese culture, I simply refer them to the debates between Hu Shi and Li Dazhao, the essays and reports which filled the pages of Chen Duxiu’s seminal publication New Youth, or the acid satire of Lu Xun’s stories.

And it wasn’t only between the pages. The young people of the May 4th generation organized, demonstrated, boycotted, loved, and lived according to a myriad of competing ideals.

In the PRC, May 4 is celebrated as “Youth Day” and as this important anniversary approached this year (with the added convenience of a May Day holiday), the self-conscious heirs to the May 4th generation organized their own series of demonstrations and boycotts to mixed success.

Like their May 4th predecessors, the young people of China today write espousing a strong Chinese nation and their rhetoric is filled with pride and optimism for their country’s future. The passion and fire of May 4 is certainly there as well, even if the new media is an electronic one: Sohu, Tianya, and a universe of blogs and BBSs represent the new New Youth.

But something is missing: That marketplace of ideas.

Today in China, even with the government tirelessly trying to limit access to alternative perspectives, bookstores and the Internet still abound with news, essays, translations, history, and philosophy, providing young people with an access to information far beyond the wildest dreams of the May 4th students. But the desire to find out more, the craving to challenge assumptions and formulate multiple perspectives on complex issues is woefully absent. The youth of today write more than ever, more than any generation in recent memory, terabytes of opinion available online—but the anger and passion and fire of the May 4th generation are now enlisted in support of a single worldview and a single perspective on a range of issues. A whole generation whose arguments are hard-wired: an authoritarian success story.

The actions of netizen fenqing and “Pro-China” protesters along the Olympic torch route around the world are strikingly antithetical to the spirit of May 4. For too many, it is no longer about expressing one’s own views, supported with the best argument and the most relevant available evidence; it is about using mob psychology, ridicule, intimidation, ad hominem attacks, and a variety of other means to silence those with whom they disagree. And the reasons for their disagreeing are for the most part anti-intellectual: I don't like you, what you say is not what I've heard or learned, and those ideas make me uncomfortable--ergo, you're wrong.

On the more extreme end of the spectrum, in the last few weeks we have seen physical violence in South Korea, the mobbing and intimidation of protesters in Australia, and death threats against a Duke University co-ed. This is not debate. This is debate with CCP-characteristics. Students grow up immersed in a system that teaches people what to think and not how to think. The culture of debate, critical argument, and the rigorous scrutiny and questioning of assumptions is simply not a part of the PRC educational regimen.

That’s a shame. The CCP was founded by key members of the May 4th movement, including Chen Duxiu, and the Party is proud of this heritage. The May 4th demonstrators make up one of the iconic images on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. Sadly, though, while the image of the May 4 generation remains chiseled forever in stone, their spirit is rapidly being lost.


Anonymous said...

First, while the marketplace of ideas was introduced to fight against feudalist tradition since the early 1900s, it was the humiliation at the Paris Conference triggering mass demonstration that gave rise to the very May Fourth style patriotism. It is mostly agreed that there are mainly two important May Fourth legacies, the cause of national salvation and the cause of enlightenment. It would be inadequate to only mention one of them when talking about May Fourth spirit or in commemoration of the movement.

Second, the past two decades have seen perhaps the most exciting marketplace of a great variety of ideas in nearly every field of humanities in China ever since 1919, and most of the youth today were coming of age taking full advantage of this booming cultural scene, idolizing more western stars and values than previous generations did, which has effectively neutralized the CCP propaganda.

Third, would it be fair to pick up several unfortunate incidents occurred during the pro-Chinese demonstration recently as a proof of the entire youth’s lack of tolerance to different ideas, while ignoring at the same time how vigorously different opinions have been debating on web forums inside China and overseas among the Chinese youth?

The improper behaviors and languages used in debating different opinions did not surprise me, nor did the fact that few Chinese students on Tiananman Square in 1989 knew the true meaning of democracy. Sophistication and subtlety in any public debate can only be possible in a more democratically mature and orderly civil society which China is definitely not there yet. Two decades ago, I was so taken back by the Taiwanese politicians who physically attacked each other in the heat of a political debate caught by the TV camera. they are certainly behaving more civilized now. It’s not merely a youth problem, but a societal one.

I was surprised though how recent upsurge of spontaneous Chinese patriotism (which many wasted no time to demonize) following western media’s biased reports on 3.14 riots vigorously echoed the patriotism of the May Fourth movement, as for last three decades, the enlightenment tradition of the May Fourth, in both public and academic discourses, has been much prioritized over the tradition of national salvation as a reaction to the overly political earlier years of the PRC.

Anonymous said...

The ability to think for oneself is, and was a Chinese culture. It was terminated in 1949 on mainland China for most Chinese. It is still flourishing elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

i am a student from china mainland.
thanks for this great article!!!

Anonymous said...

Juxtaposing the May Fourth movement with today's China is an interesting idea. A potent spirit that I enjoyed in this recount. Yet I would like to raise a couple of points.

The lack of a 'market place of ideas' suggested here, seems like an oversight of an existing industrious, self-critical intelligentsia. The blogosphere mentioned in this article is only the tip of the iceberg,vital research centres of this kind largely go unnoticed. Activity that Hu Shi and Li Dazhao surely would be proud of.

Furthermore, the market of ideas should, and is, not limited to formal research. Contemporary Chinese art, film, literature - contrary to the conceptual homogeneity implicated here - is the most critical, expressive and exuberant it has ever been.

As a starting point, one only needs to see any of China's sixth-generation films to see the spirit of May Fourth in good health.

Anonymous said...

It's striking how so many of the same themes of the May Fourth period have shown themselves, in various forms, in the current protests: solidarity with the Chinese diaspora (made especially clear because of the journey of the torch), anxiety that foreigners are ganging up against China, youth as the driving force of protests, panic that China's sovereignty will be violated, and frustration at the inability of the Chinese state to successfully resist foreign criticism.

The May Fourth period had plenty of dogmatism, but its strong "marketplace of ideas" showed that working through the above issues and anxieties independently is the only way Chinese civil society can truly be strengthened.

Anonymous said...

what "fenqing", it makes it sound like something made in China only. It simply should be translated to "wingnuts", whose counterpart, in US, manufactuered a war can caused 1 million ppl die. They are what they are, nuts. Unfortunately they are well and alive in each and every country of this planet.