- A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World
This accessible, engaging book for the general reader introduces the history of twentieth-century China through the lens of the "May Fourth Movement," the complex agitation that engulfed China's intellectuals in reaction to the Versailles Treaty of 1919. Lest any complain that such a lens shuts out at least three quarters of the nation's population, Rana Mitter states up front that this is "a book about urban ideas." Because "urban ideas" are what interest China's ruling elites, they are what most histories focus on when relating modern China's "political, cultural and social history." Mitter's work is distinguished by its attention to middlebrow writers and activists, notably the influential publishers and opinion leaders Zou Taofen and Du Zhongyuan, who were not creators of the "New Culture" but transmitters of it to the urban middle class.
The collective protagonist of the story is "the May Fourth generation," whose Enlightenment agenda Mitter uses as the reference point for the achievements and the disappointments of succeeding decades. Apart from its literary convenience, how helpful is this reference point? To make May Fourth an effective narrative peg, Mitter emphasizes its iconoclasm, internationalism, individualism, and the rest of the hopeful "urban ideas" of the period. The result is, on the whole, a story of dashed hopes and disillusionment during the decades that followed. The stark choices faced by Chinese of the 1930s and 1940s ended the openness and experimentation of the New Culture movement, as intellectual life was increasingly radicalized. Optimism and openness were overwhelmed as Chinese entered "a land of death" during the decades of warfare that followed the Manchurian incident. [End Page 201]
The "land of death" theme continues into the People's Republic, ending in the Great Leap famine and the stultification of thought and discussion. "May Fourth," Mitter points out, was reduced doctrinally to a springboard for the Communist Party's march to power. This cynical exploitation of the May Fourth image by Party historiography is familiar to readers of modern Chinese history.
The Cultural Revolution, however, was another matter. Here Mitter introduces the "darkest side" of May Fourth: "obsession with youth, destruction of the past, arrogance about the superiority of one's own chosen system of thought," without the balance afforded by critical thinking and cosmopolitanism.
This sudden introduction of the dark side of the May Fourth image comes a bit late in the narrative. As a literary device, the bright and optimistic May Fourth is an appealing reference point. Yet it requires that the reader be shielded from the full picture of what really went on during the nineteen tens and twenties. The "New Culture" in which May Fourth was embedded—which included the Leninist-style political parties—displayed doctrinaire absolutism, xenophobia, ruthless opportunism, and other such "urban ideas" that were hostile to the liberal idealism that dominates Mitter's view of May Fourth. These darker currents in the Enlightenment agenda run through China's modern history like a turbid stream, suggesting that May Fourth may be less than an ideal hook on which to hang a narrative.
What Mitter does very well is to illustrate how the mythic May Fourth has become an emotion-laden reference point for the dimming of what, in retrospect, looks like a noble vision of liberation, rationality, dissolution of oppressive authority, and prospects of endless progress. He shows how much of what looked noble and liberating was used to impose upon the Chinese people a yoke even weightier than that of the old society they thought they were casting off.
Although this book will be appreciated by the general reader as a lively, readable interpretation of China's modern history, it is not ideal as a classroom text. The story line centered on "urban ideas" is too narrow, and the picture of the pre-twentieth-century background is not reliable. One comes across errors that suggest a hasty acquaintance with Chinese culture. Mitter cites Lu...