- Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm: In Search of Chinese Modernity
What happens when good essays are trapped in an unproductive framework? Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm is a collection of well-researched, well-written, and insightful essays, which are, however, compiled within a largely sterile agenda. While the collective contribution of the volume is, indeed, noteworthy and valuable, one cannot but regret that the paradigmatic trope chosen (an essentialized May Fourth) does not coherently structure and highlight the many insights. However, let us leave the paradigmatic issues for later and deal first with the substance of the book.
The essays in this volume ostensibly share the goal of "decentering May Fourth," that is, displacing the position of centrality of the new culture intellectuals and activists (largely writ) in defining and shaping the Chinese experience of modernity. In that, Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm follows in the well-trodden path marked by, among many others, David Wang and Leo Lee and forms a pair with another edited volume, The Appropriation of Cultural Capital. The book is organized in four thematic parts "Commercial Printing and Language Reform"; "Gender and Family"; "Nation, Science, and Culture"; "Modernity and Its Chinese Critics," but it is perhaps easier to group the contributors according to the strategy they adopt in dealing with the May Fourth albatross. Some of the authors focus on the late Qing period, not simply as a precedent, but as the beginning of a longer process of change and debate, especially concerning themes that have been historically associated with the 1910s and 1920s: Xiong Yuezhi looks at women's rights in Shanghai, Viren Murthy delves in the multiple and shifting meanings of fengjian, and Denise Gimpel insightfully analyzes the debate on female physical culture. Other contributors point to those intellectuals outside the new culture radical circles, be they members of the Xueheng group who found inspiration in Babbitt's New Humanism (Tze-ki Hon's essay) or the "Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies" writers examined by Jianhua Chen. In a similar vein, Fa-ti Fan introduces vocal champions of science and scientific methodology who were, however, culturally outside the May Fourth frame of reference; and Frederick Lau illustrates the case of the musician Zhang Jinwen and his formulation of a kind of music (guoyue) that incorporated Chinese instruments and indigenous forms while remaining modern. All these essays can be subsumed under what the editors call the strategy of "activating the plural," that is, "attending to those whom the May Fourth activists excluded and earlier scholars ignored" (p. 3). Other contributors [End Page 170] choose instead to highlight the internal inconsistency within the May Fourth intellectuals, or, in the editors' words, they try to "destabilize the center." Kristin Stapleton's essay on Wu Yu places the contradictions between Wu's stated ideals on family reform and his own (far from ideal) family practice within his personal history and the milieu of the Chengdu elites. Similarly, Tze-ki Hon traces Su Manshu's imaginings of love to a path that, filtered through his Buddhist beliefs, was personal, Chinese, and yet unmistakably modern.
Taken together, the essays in this collection present a more complex view of the Chinese experience of the modern, one that—even if it is never cogently and theoretically formulated as such—is closer, in practice, to the perspectives proposed by Harry Harootunian and Dipesh Chakrabarty.1
Modernity is a global experience—owing to the desire of colonialism and capitalism to establish similar conditions everywhere—but one that is shaped by different spaces, diverse topographies, the resilience of the preexistent social rhythms, and cultural constructs. Some of the essayists (Gimpel, Ip, Hon) take advantage of the possibilities of a global frame of comparison to argue how many of the contradictions usually viewed in China under the dichotomy modern/ traditional or Chinese/Western were part and parcel of the modern experience elsewhere. Similarly, some of the most...