CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 18, June 2009


Re-conceiving and Un-learning May Fourth | China Heritage Quarterly

Re-conceiving and Un-learning May Fourth: Personal reflections on the ninetieth anniversary in Beijing

Vera Schwarcz, Wesleyan University, Connecticut, USA

History, despite its wrenching pain,
cannot be unlived, but faced
with courage, need not be lived again.

—Maya Angelou, 'On the Pulse of the Morning'

When I arrived in Beijing on 29 April this year these words by the African-American poet Maya Angelou were reverberating in mind. What, I wonder, would be the meaning of these lines penned for the first Clinton inauguration in1993 during China's public (as well as not so public) commemorations of the ninetieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement? Perhaps Angelou's words might provide a balm for wounded imaginations in a country in which some events are talked about too often and others remain unmentionable still.

Perhaps they could counter both the euphoria and the grief of the seventieth anniversary of May Fourth marked two decades ago. Both of these sentiments came together on 4 May 1989 when, as I recall, Professor Chow Tse-tsung (my distinguished predecessor in May Fourth studies) had rushed to Tiananmen Square and came back to our hotel in Beijing to report: ‘Vera, you cannot imagine the thrill of being carried aloft on the shoulders of students! May Fourth is coming back to life again!' Even before the tragic denouement of this latest student movement in China's capital, I thought of Professor Chow's words with unease: History coming alive again? I could not but ask my senior colleague: ‘Don't you recall Hegel's warning? An event never happens twice, unless tragedy at first, the second time as farce?'

Zeng Fanzhi's cover illustration for the May Fourth issue of City Life
Zeng Fanzhi's cover illustration for the May Fourth issue of Life

Twenty years later, Maya Angelou was my personal corrective; she provided a poetic fulcrum for more modest reflections about the much-commemorated May Fourth. Having myself been identified publicly with one version of May Fourth as an ‘enlightenment', in 2009 I was coming to Beijing to help perhaps add to a more nuanced view of the events of 1919. I knew there would be several different venues at which to present my considerations: at a formal Academy of Social Sciences Conference; at a lecture I was giving to the Chinese and Comparative Literature Department at Peking University (Beijing daxue 北京大学, or Beida 北大); and, in conversations at the university's History Department conference. Being housed as a guest on the university campus would provide me with an intimate connection to a corner of China's intellectual world where May Fourth reflections tend to be quite intense, and all too often also carry consequential repercussions for China as whole.

That first morning at Beida on 30 April I rented a bicycle and took my usual ‘May Fourth' tour: exploring the pathways of the old Yenching University campus as they stretch between the prominently displayed statue of Li Dazhao 李大钊 (a key May-Fourth intellectual canonized as founder of Chinese Marxism and of the Communist Party) and a more hidden bust of Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培 (the President of Peking University in 1919 and an advocate of broad-mined tolerance in liberal education). On that morning, Li Dazhao's statue was draped with many commemorative garlands, huge baskets of flowers were arranged at his feet while ribbons of black proclaimed eternal loyalty to his Marxist faith. One of the ribbons was signed by the administration of Beida, another by representatives of the faculty, yet another by the staff and graduate students of the Institute for Research on Marxism. As I wended my way down the hill and into the shaded grove in which stands the statue of Cai Yuanpei, I could see from afar that here there were no garlands, no floral baskets. One solitary bouquet leaned against the cement pedestal. It would be replaced every morning for the next two weeks. Long after the grand tributes at Li Dazhao's statue had been removed and discarded, the anonymous bouquet offered up to Cai Yuanpei remained fresh. By mid-May it had made its way up from the bottom of the pedestal to the bosom of the bronze statue hidden away off the beaten track. Someone must have strained, climbing up to reach that high.

The mystery of the grandiloquent garlands for Li Dazhao did not last long. The 30 April issue of Guangming Ribao 光明日报 carried an article about the official May Fourth celebration that had taken place at Beida on 28 April. The theme of this public commemoration attended by the Vice-Minister of Education, Zhang Xinsheng 张新胜, as well as prominent academics and party representatives was ‘The May Fourth Movement and National Renaissance: Commemorating the Ninetieth Anniversary of May Fourth and the 120th Anniversary of the Birth of Li Dazhao'. By linking the events of 1919 to the life of Li Dazhao, the Chinese authorities may hope to direct and contain discussions of ‘science' and ‘democracy' those still-troublesome twin ideals that remain controversial in China even to this day. In fact, however, the birth year of Li Dazhao is a matter of some scholarly controversy: While most researchers agree on the date of 29 October many have argued that the year was 1888 and not 1889. This disagreement does not seem to have had an impact on the official celebration at Beida in 2009. By linking May Fourth to the life of Li Dazhao, a more narrow and focused message could be conveyed to the students and the public alike.

I reflected on this pairing of commemorations during my bicycle tours of Beida; I also noticed something new: a huge number of birds had returned to the campus in the past two years. Most noticeable were the magpies: large, lustrous flyers with black and blue tail feathers that crisscrossed the paths leading down to No Name Lake (Weiming Hu 未名湖). A poet-scholar friend from the Social Science Academy, Fu Hao 傅浩, came to visit me and remarked that these xi que'r 喜鹊儿 were bearers of good news for the Chinese landscape: ‘In preparation for the Olympics, the Chinese tried to repair their relationship with nature. In return, nature has been kind and responded with generous renewal.' Signs of this renewal were amply evident all over Beijing: It was not just the birds that had come back to fly freely, minds too were roaming less hindered, especially those out of the glare of publicity.

I savored this freedom on 3 May, during the first day of the formal, academic conference on the ninetieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement hosted by the Modern History Institute of the Social Science Academy. In the newly refurbished seminar room of their compound located in the north of the Wangfujing 王府井 area, seventy five scholars from different institutions in China and three foreign countries gathered to discuss new research on the events of 1919. Scholars from abroad were far fewer than they had been during the seventieth anniversary conference in 1989, which had brought to Beijing Chow Tse-tsung and others from the US as well as people from Europe, Southeast Asia and Japan.

Now, twenty years later, a couple of researchers from Korea, a few from Japan and two from the US were the only representatives from abroad. The limited numbers may simply reflect the ‘normalization' of May Fourth research over the past decades. Whereas in 1979 the national conference of the May Fourth Movement's sixtieth anniversary had been overshadowed by political condemnations of key intellectual figures such as Hu Shi 胡适, Chen Duxiu 陈独秀 and Fu Sinian 傅斯年 (because they had not followed the path of communist revolution), thirty years later the Social Science Academy conference had more that two dozen presentations on these formerly controversial figures.

Now it was possible to also have research presentations on the May Fourth origins of Wang Jingwei 汪精卫 (once damned simply as a ‘traitor' for this role during the Japanese occupation) as well as extended discussion of a paper on ‘the tragedy of modern Chinese intellectuals'. Broken up into three simultaneous sessions, each lasting an hour and a half, this conference was professionally organized and academically challenging. New explorations of archival sources enabled younger scholars to re-think earlier assumptions about the role of students in labor organizing not just in Beijing, but in Shanghai and Wuhan as well. Broad generalization about the ‘Chinese enlightenment' were challenged and redefined in light of careful historiographical reflection on European history, and this lead to new questions about the role of critical thought in challenging the abiding authority of religion and politics in French as well as in modern Chinese history.

My own contribution to this conference started with the above quotation from Maya Angelou (marvelously translated by a young woman editor of the Journal of Modern Chinese History) and concluded with a letter that I had received from the daughter of another prominent May Fourth intellectual, Luo Jialun 罗家伦, in May 1987. Writing from Taipei, she was sharing with me her father's frustrations with the politicization of the May Fourth legacy and how, finally, it was being used to expand genuine academic freedom at Taiwan National University in the 1980s. Twenty-two years later, I quoted this letter in Beijing to suggest that there is a ‘quieter', less bombastic May Fourth that it is possible to access in years when commemorations are not so sonorous and bombastic in the public domain. Even in the midst of this ninetieth commemoration, I argued, it may be possible to build upon the academic freedoms gained in Taipei and now manifestly explored by scholars on the Chinese mainland as well. Ninety years after the event, it may be possible to create a more expansive, more nuanced version of ‘enlightenment'.

'On New Democracy' (Lun xinminzhuzhuyi) dated January 1940, published under Mao Zedong's name and collected in his official works remains a major document for Communist Party historians and theoreticians.

In it Mao observes of the May Fourth Movement that:

The May 4th Movement was an anti-imperialist as well as an anti-feudal movement. Its outstanding historical significance is to be seen in a feature which was absent from the Revolution of 1911, namely, its thorough and uncompromising opposition to imperialism as well as to feudalism. The May 4th Movement possessed this quality because capitalism had developed a step further in China and because new hopes had arisen for the liberation of the Chinese nation as China's revolutionary intellectuals saw the collapse of three great imperialist powers, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the weakening of two others, Britain and France, while the Russian proletariat had established a socialist state and the German, Hungarian and Italian proletariat had risen in revolution. The May 4th Movement came into being at the call of the world revolution, of the Russian Revolution and of Lenin. It was part of the world proletarian revolution of the time. Although the Communist Party had not yet come into existence, there were already large numbers of intellectuals who approved of the Russian Revolution and had the rudiments of Communist ideology. In the beginning the May 4th Movement was the revolutionary movement of a united front of three sections of people--communist intellectuals, revolutionary petty-bourgeois intellectuals and bourgeois intellectuals (the last forming the right wing of the movement). Its shortcoming was that it was confined to the intellectuals and that the workers and peasants did not join in. But as soon as it developed into the June 3rd Movement, [19] not only the intellectuals but the mass of the proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie joined in, and it became a nation-wide revolutionary movement. The cultural revolution ushered in by the May 4th Movement was uncompromising in its opposition to feudal culture; there had never been such a great and thoroughgoing cultural revolution since the dawn of Chinese history. Raising aloft the two great banners of the day, "Down with the old ethics and up with the new!" and "Down with the old literature and up with the new!", the cultural revolution had great achievements to its credit. At that time it was not yet possible for this cultural movement to become widely diffused among the workers and peasants. The slogan of "Literature for the common people" was advanced, but in fact the "common people" then could only refer to the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois intellectuals in the cities, that is, the urban intelligentsia. Both in ideology and in the matter of cadres, the May 4th Movement paved the way for the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 and for the May 30th Movement in 1925 and the Northern Expedition. The bourgeois intellectuals, who constituted the right wing of the May 4th Movement, mostly compromised with the enemy in the second period and went over to the side of reaction.

A very different argument was heard on the morning of 4 May during the public session of the Social Science Academy conference. On this day, a large number of scholars and graduate students gathered in a capacious auditorium with television cameras in place and a dais heavy with senior officials from the leadership group of the Academy as well as the Vice-Chairman of the National Political Consultative Conference (政协). On the very day that, ninety years earlier, had brought students into the area in front of Tiananmen Gate to protest government policies, several speakers declared that there was only one ‘correct' interpretation of the May Fourth Moment: that presented by Mao Zedong in the his 1940 discourse on ‘new democracy' (Lun Xinminzhuzhuyi 论新民主主义). May Fourth was, in their view, primarily a patriotic student movement that led directly to the birth of the Chinese Communist Party and to the establishment of a new China. The discussions we'd enjoyed the previous day concerning the complex causality of the movement and of enlightenment in Europe and China found but slight resonance in these official speeches.

I spent the morning searching the eyes of the scholars and graduate students around me for some signs of a reaction. Each seemed well practiced in avoiding eye contact in such difficult, almost embarrassing, circumstances. Some dug out cell phones to text friends, most just let their gaze search the walls in what seemed to be a vain hope that time would pass more quickly. One young Chinese student scribbled in English on a piece of paper: ‘these are nothing but teaching materials'. (Daresay an ironic reference to the common official expression that certain arrant views provide fanmian jiaocai 反面教材, or ‘negative teaching materials' to those in the know.) He told me later that the speeches mirrored a version of May Fourth history that all school children had been required to memorize for decades. He shrugged as if these ‘teaching materials' were less compelling than the new scholarship being produced and published in academic circles. Yet, I could see the weight that such ‘teaching materials' placed on the shoulders of researchers as they seek to re-define and re-conceive the May Fourth legacy. Even after ninety years, this legacy remains a controversial and difficult.

In my talk for Peking University's Chinese and Comparative Literature Department on 7 May, I tried to bear witness to the need for nuanced understanding of the past. I spoke about my own first decade studying Chinese history (1969-1979) as one of ‘theoretically-inspired ignorance'. Unable to have direct contact with intellectuals of the 1910s, I had naively wandered into a ‘revolutionary' interpretation of the May Fourth, one animated more by Antonio Gramsci and Jean Paul Sartre than sources excavated from Chinese archives. Later, after I went to live and study on the Chinese mainland, after a painstaking slowly process of gaining access to survivors of the events of 1919, I began to re-conceive my approach to May Fourth studies. Gradually, I moved from the history of ideas to a more concrete appreciation of the history of men and women who clung to critical thought in dark times. This deeper, more tragic May Fourth has remained central to my subsequent oral history with Zhang Shenfu 张申府, my study on Chinese and Jewish cultural memory as well as my recent work on historical trauma on the grounds of the old Singing Crane Garden (Minghe Yuan 鸣鹤园) in Haidian.

I ended my lecture by quoting Zhu Guangqian 朱光潜, a May Fourth intellectual who became a philosopher of aesthetics. Zhu had maintained a life-long appreciation of the incompleteness and of the implicitness of beauty in times of historical tragedy. More than the old slogans of ‘science' and ‘democracy', I argued, what mattered during the May Fourth period (just as it does today) was the challenge of becoming more fully human: How to use the full array of critical reflection to craft a notion of selfhood that would withstand the pressures of political authority. This, I pointed out, was not simply a Chinese dilemma'but a universal one shared by us all in the face of rapid modernization and its accompanying dogmatisms.

The thoughtful questions that followed my talk revealed that I had struck a chord with my audience. It was gratifying to see how sincerely and earnestly a new generation of Beida students was struggling with the ideas and the legacy of May Fourth.

The most vivid confirmation of the enduring significance of May Fourth for China today came, however, not on the campus of Beida but in the pages of Life (Shenghuo 生活) magazine, a strikingly imaginative periodical produced jointly by the Heilongjiang Provincial Publishing Group and the Modern Media consortium based in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Before receiving an email from a young journalist called Zhang Quan 张泉 asking for an interview about my work on the May Fourth movement, I had never heard of this journal. I usually ignore such emails, but from the first this one seemed more thoughtful. I agreed to respond to his questions. When Zhang Quan wrote me his second letter it became evident that he was exceptionally well informed about the history of the May Fourth Movement as well as about my work in oral history; it was also obvious that he has his own complex views about the history of Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century. I responded to his questions at length, both because they were truly interesting and because they enabled me to ramble about my four decades of China study.

Facsimile cover of La Jeunesse
Facsimile cover of La Jeunesse

Nonetheless, these email exchanges did not prepare me for the gorgeous and path-breaking special issue on May Fourth published by China Life on 10 April. When Zhang Quan (and his translator Sun Min) came to meet me in Beijing, they brought with them a large, glossy, artful journal with a striking blue cover depicting a tangled abstract garden evoked by the well known oil painter Zeng Fangzhi 曾梵志. The cover also carried the Chinese and French title of the most famous journal of the May Fourth era, Xin qingnian 新青年 or La Jeunesse. Inside there were charcoal-drawn illustrations of and essays about formerly controversial figures May-Fourth figures such as Luo Jialun, Fu Sinian and Zhou Zuoren 周作人, as well as unusually thought-provoking discussions of Chen Duxiu and Lu Xun 鲁迅. Style and content combined here to present the reader with an unconventional and complex image of the May Fourth moment. Furthermore, in a coup of imaginative design, the editors of Life decided to place inside the glossy blue covers a facsimile edition of La Jeunesse, with yellowing pages and right-to-left opening covers, exactly as it had appeared in 1919.

At first glance, it looked like a careful reprint of the old journal. On closer inspection it was clear that this La Jeunesse had a totally new content starting with a powerful essay by Zhang Quan asking readers to re-think the May Fourth Movement and the tragic disappointments of its main participants. It is in this old/new magazine that my interview appears along with extensive translations from oral history work I had done between 1979 and 1981.

It was not merely pride in seeing my own words in print that made me appreciate Life so deeply (see Schwarcz in Life). Rather, it was the fact that here was a forum that really seemed to embody the ideals of May Fourth. In this new version of La Jeunesse I found evidence of an independent spirit as well as a determination by the editors to re-conceive the legacy of 1919, as well as of the larger cultural movement that had framed student activism ninety years ago.

If Zhu Guangqian were alive, he would have seen in the April 2009 issue of Life the fruition of his hopes, hope for an aesthetics of morality. Expensive, glossy advertisements for Louis Vuitton bags, Pattek Phillipe watches and Montblanc pens did not detract from or diminish the thought-provoking message of this issue. Instead, these high-end commercial products perhaps helped frame a safe-space for a new kind of commemoration of May Fourth. For me, the most subtle message of the issue was embedded in a poem by Zhang Quan placed between eye-catching photographs of writing instruments portrayed in lustrous black and while. Entitled The Passion of Writing Zhang's poem was not about Montblanc or Cartier or Dunhill fountain pens, although it fit in quite well between them. Rather, to me, Zhang's lines spoke about the challenge of both re-conceiving and un-learning May Fourth:

The Passion of Writing

To grant a farewell, to a repeated story.
Sheep flowed, from murals in decay.
He kept asking every,
Blank shepherd by way.
Reaped refusal, and kept away
From the secrets panpipe blew, before the break of day.
In stead they replied,
You wayfarer, blind, with your quill
Smoked by the kerosene lamp,
How dare you tried to touch the telos of a thousand leaves.
They added,
You know, in your hands,
There remains a volcano in dormancy.
For which you have to pledge your fidelity,
While it requites with rivalry.



你這失明的旅人 你的筆
你的 被煤油燈熏黑的羽毛筆
而它畢生 與你為敵

The often told ‘story' commemorated this year is one that many are seeking to leave behind. This leave-taking from the ‘withering mural' of 1919, however, is not an easy task. For now, the ‘secret of the flute before sunrise' seems too locked up in the lives of intellectuals who had lived in an earlier, more independent-spirited era.

Nonetheless, Zhang Quan and his cohort of ‘new youth' have pledged a hard-won fidelity to the ideals of May Fourth. They grasp this volcano in their hands, knowing that it contains explosive forces that may well consume them. Yet they carry on both with grace and with courage. Here is the best omen I have found that the centenary of May Fourth will be even livelier still.