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The May Fourth Movement

January 29, 2010

Chow Tse-tsung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Gerald Iguchi (2000)

This is an extremely detailed book covering the May Fourth Movement as broadly understood to encompass the years between 1917 and 1921. For Chow, the student demonstrations of May 4th, 1919 represent the most visible events in a process of change. For him, it was an attempt at “a combined intellectual and sociopolitical movement to achieve national independence, the emancipation of the individual, and a just society by the modernization of China” (358-9). The movement was furthermore led by intellectuals operating under the assumption that intellectual changes would lead to modernization in other senses. By the later part of the movement, pragmatic concerns were already driving those who had been leaders in the Movement, on both the Communist Left and Nationalist Right, to be less egalitarian in practice than the Movement’s rhetoric had suggested. However, in its iconoclastic attack on the socially fragmented, hierarchical structure of Chinese society, the Movement worked to eradicate the cognitive and social barriers to both consolidation as a nation-state and domestically-driven industrialization.

With regard to the context of the period in which the book was written, Chow seems remarkable for suggesting that China was “lost” (to the Communists), because of the fact that, first of all, Western Powers “supported the corrupt ruling forces in China which guaranteed them the most privileges in making profit, no matter to what extent these forces ran counter to the will of the majority of Chinese people and no matter how illiberal of antidemocratic” (368). Secondly, Chow blames Chinese liberals for ignoring “economic problems,” and failing to take an active role in social changes in the interests of China as a whole. Under these conditions, Marxism-Leninism, both in ideology and Soviet diplomatic and geo-political practice, presented itself as an answer to China’s problems with becoming modern in general and more specifically in its relations with the imperialistic West and Japan.

In the period of the May Fourth Movement as Chow defines it, there were obvious strides towards national-consolidation, and certain analogies with the ideological elements of the Meiji Restoration come to mind. However, it does not seem that Chinese intellectuals in the Movement were able to arrive at the kind of formula, employing both progressive or liberal elements as well as representations and putative embodiments of tradition or the past, which were key to the Meiji success. This shortcoming is probably due to the advanced stage of the West’s and Japan’s imperialistic exploitation of China at the time when compared to Japan in 1868: the imperialist nations were long entrenched in China and too many powerful Chinese had an interest in the perpetuation of a status quo which would not lead to China’s consolidation, democratization, and independence. This status quo was (somewhat problematically) identified with tradition. And this particular sort of tradition was identified too completely with China’s problems. Confucianism and so on as tradition were thus not available in the same way Japan’s “unbroken line of emperors,” the “family-nation-state,” and so on were. However, where a Meiji Restoration-like ideological recipe for becoming modern failed, the “grand narrative” of Marxist-Leninism, with its theory of history and explicit anti-imperialism succeeded. As Chow suggests, Communist theory and practice worked in China for rational reasons. However, because Chow was a Chinese intellectual living and working in the US he had to bury this argument deeply behind the massive accumulation of data his book represents. For book reviews see: Albert E. Kane in American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 332 (1960), 200-201; Harriet C. Mills in Political Science Quarterly Vol. 75 (1960), 617-618; Chester C. Tan in American Historical Review Vol. 66 (1960-61), 463-462; and C. P. Fitzgerald in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 34, No. 2. (Summer, 1961), pp. 199-200.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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