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This Year, I Couldn’t Avoid May Fourth

The one hundredth anniversary of the 1919 May Fourth Movement came and went last week much as one would have expected: in a series of tightly controlled commemorative events, Chinese Communist Party leaders claimed the movement as part of its own spiritual founding, characterizing it as a moment of rousing patriotism in pursuit of national strength and rejuvenation. In response, foreign commentators relished in the irony and hypocrisy of the Party’s celebration of a leftist student movement, when it had spent much of the past year cracking down on leftist student activism in support of southern Chinese worker movements. The Chinese Internet, placed under tighter-than-usual content control due to the year’s string of politically sensitive anniversaries, was largely subdued.

For others, myself included, the 100th anniversary of the Beijing student protests against the Treaty of Versailles, which quickly snowballed into a nationwide “New Culture Movement,” evoked a set of more complicated emotions. For years, these complications have pushed me to mentally dance around the movement’s significance: On most May Fourth anniversaries, I have pointedly ignored the historical discussion bubbling up around me. Instead, I wished my friends “Happy Star Wars Day” (“May the Fourth be with you!”). Serious discussion of May Fourth tended to put me at odds with friends on both ends of the Chinese ideological spectrum.

But with all of the excitement surrounding the 100th anniversary this year, avoidance was no longer a viable tactic. It was time to confront my ideological demons head-on. Whereas both Chinese liberals and leftists tend to remember May Fourth in predominantly positive terms, at most lamenting its “lost promise,” some of us do not. For all its sense of patriotism and public responsibility, its undeniably charismatic passion and audacity, the movement also represented a destructive, wholesale rejection of China’s sociocultural traditions that would lead the country down some truly dark and twisted alleys in the decades that followed. It was, to some extent, the moment that China lost its sense of self, replacing it with a frenzied, radical, yet disturbingly empty search for identity and normative orientation that continues to this day.

“Traditional Chinese society” was, it must be said, an often oppressive place, full of explicit social and political hierarchies—based on, among other things, age, gender, ethnicity, and sometimes questionable measures of intellectual merit—that appear fundamentally at odds with modern sensibilities and moral commitments. It was, without a doubt, one of the primary losers in the economic and military race that consumed much of the globe in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. That said, for its final three or four centuries, it was also a society in which government actors treaded very lightly, the economy and population expanded at a fairly healthy rate, wealth inequality was kept somewhat in check by a host of “Confucian” legal and political institutions, and a vibrant scholarly community of enormous intellectual and ideological diversity emerged and flourished. In other words, it may have been deeply imperfect by modern ideological standards, but it was not unusually so relative to most contemporary societies—including most contemporary Western societies, lest anyone forget how racist, misogynist, and patriarchal they often were.

From this perspective, what was unusual—relative to, for example, Japan or the Middle East—was the all-consuming zeal with which elite Chinese thinkers turned against Confucianism and “traditional culture” in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. When May Fourth leader Chen Duxiu called for the wholesale rejection of “the way of Confucius,” in favor of some vaguely defined but presumably Western-oriented “modern life,” he spoke for a generation of intellectuals who viewed their own ideological lineage with near-total distrust. Their skepticism may not have had much immediate impact on the norms and institutions that continued to shape everyday life for the vast majority of Chinese households, but over the next five to six decades, it gradually became dominant in two critically important domains: elite intellectual discourse and high politics. In terms of how he viewed “traditional culture,” at least, Mao Zedong was very much a product of May Fourth: The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was, after all, a truly cultural revolution, and explicitly made the total eradication of Confucian tradition one of its top priorities.

This decades-long process of cultural self-mutilation is, in fact, one of the major reasons why May Fourth has left such an uneven and tragic legacy by the standards of modern liberal democracy. Building a functional liberal democracy in large, economically diverse countries almost always requires a stable social consensus in favor of some set of core political principles—mere institution-building is rarely sufficient without corresponding ideological buy-in. But by obliterating the ideological legitimacy of China’s Confucian past, May Fourth and its intellectual aftershocks made it much more difficult for any stable political or intellectual center to emerge. Instead, they facilitated radicalization across multiple ideological dimensions, encouraging widespread intellectual fascination with fascism, radical Marxism, and anarchism. During the 1920s, the primary political contest was between semi-fascist warlord regimes, a Nationalist Party remodeled under Soviet and fascist influences, and the Communist Party, essentially guaranteeing that, no matter which side emerged victorious, no liberal consensus would form in China any time soon. Then, as now, the disconnect between the government’s nominal ideological commitment to some transplanted notion of “political modernity” and the lower-tier social norms that still structured most facets of everyday life tended to produce ever-escalating levels of political paranoia and therefore control.

The one place in the Sinosphere where liberal democratic ideals eventually had a relatively happy ending is, of course, Taiwan, but there are strong reasons to think that the Taiwanese success story fails to put radical cultural iconoclasm in a better light. If anything, it may actually strengthen the argument against it. First, to state the painfully obvious, Taiwan is a much smaller political entity, so much so that almost any institutional comparison between it and the mainland is inherently flawed. If the comparison must be made, then it is worth pointing out that Confucian culture has fared much better in Taiwan than on the mainland, and that this may very well have aided its smoother transition into liberal democracy. The Nationalist Party that ruled Taiwan for much of the mid-20th century had actually turned its back on May Fourth’s iconoclasm in the later 1930s, partially as a backlash against the rising popularity of communism among radical intellectuals. Its rhetorical reacceptance of “traditional culture” further weakened the party’s already uneasy coexistence with urban intellectuals, who continued to move left during this period. When the Nationalist elite fled to Taiwan in 1949, these conservative leanings fled with them, and it is not hard to observe, even today, their social and intellectual impact: Taiwan remains a substantially more “traditional” Chinese society than the mainland, carrying much more intellectual continuity with China’s Confucian past. One could plausibly argue that this played a significant role in tempering and easing the island’s transitional politics in the 1980s and 1990s: it helped produce a more stable and arguably more moderate set of elite political norms, which, in turn, assisted with the relatively peaceful phasing out of the old regime.

None of this is to suggest that cultural change, even sweeping cultural change, was, or is, normatively undesirable in mainland China—few would deny, for example, that the movement towards gender equality that May Fourth facilitated was profoundly desirable—but rather that some respect for cultural and ideological tradition can be a positive sociopolitical force even, and perhaps especially, during times of enormous upheaval. The ideological continuity and moderation that it tends to provide, both normative and empirical, is all too often a necessary precondition for orderly, measured, and lasting change, without which the likelihood of both destructive chaos and, in response, suffocating governmental crackdown rise dramatically, as they clearly did during the half-century after 1919.

Societies can, and regularly do, experience deep cultural change without totally abandoning their sense of tradition: Taiwan is arguably one example of this, as are Japan and South Korea. In the mainland Chinese context alone, the political content of Confucianism underwent dramatic change over centuries of conflict with Buddhism, Daoism, and other ideological forces, shifting from a strongly pro-government position to a decidedly anti-statist one over the course of the second millennium. Who can say that, if given the political space and time to reinvent itself once again, it could not have incorporated substantial doses of Western liberalism perhaps in a more methodical, sustainable fashion—while maintaining its basic sense of self? A mere two decades before May Fourth, during the 1898 Hundred Days’ Reform, Confucian scholars still assumed that this was the proper way forward, feverishly proposing sweeping changes to state structure, education, economic regulation, and social relations. Little did they know that their time was almost up.

Symbolically speaking, May Fourth was the moment that China became an intellectual colony of the West, an abyss it has yet to climb out of even today, despite the emergence of a fledging Confucian revival movement on the Mainland in the late 1990s. The conscious or subconscious fetishization of some poorly-defined but psychologically captivating notion of “the West” remains a prominent feature of Chinese intellectual discourse, although its center of gravity has largely shifted from Western Europe to the United States. When the current Party-state lashes out at “Western influences and interference” in Chinese politics, it is, to a large extent, implicitly acknowledging both this phenomenon and the intense ideological vulnerability it creates. Although the adoration of foreign cultures, in and of itself, may not be objectively bad, the intellectual inferiority complex it has bred in the Chinese case is undeniably tragic: Wave after wave of Chinese intellectuals since May Fourth have essentially surrendered their ability to normatively and theoretically reason from self-defined first principles and, just as importantly, found their received intellectual mindsets frustratingly disconnected from the realities of their own country. Ironically, this combination of intellectual dependency and disconnection has also nurtured some degree of contempt towards the distant “patron,” leading to passionate but ultimately empty nationalism, due to its almost exclusively negative nature. Those of us who wish to escape this conundrum and regain a more nuanced understanding of our past face a treacherous climb. The government’s attitude is ambivalent and opportunistic at best, the social and intellectual environment continues to be largely hostile, and most importantly, we almost certainly remain subconsciously shackled by the intellectual legacy of May Fourth, even as we consciously struggle against it.

And yet, despite all this, I find myself unable to vilify the May Fourth Movement entirely. It was undeniably audacious, even heroic, in a way no true intellectual can completely fail to appreciate. While these redeeming qualities may seem paltry in comparison to the Movement’s many substantive failings, they take on a greater significance in light of the current political and intellectual environment in China. Since 2015, Chinese scholars, students, and pubic intellectuals have faced escalating levels of governmental control, intimidation, and occasional persecution. Academic freedom is arguably at its lowest point since the early 1980s, when the Party-state first committed itself to “opening up.” Whatever else May Fourth may or may not represent, it does indeed represent a genuine aspiration towards intellectual openness and a broadening of horizons. In its zealous vilification of the past and slavish adoration of “the West,” the Movement itself may very well have failed to live up to these aspirations, but never in my lifetime have they seemed so critical to the country’s wellbeing, even as they come under sustained assault. May the Fourth be with us all as we pursue them.