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  • A Century Later:New Readings of May Fourth
  • Ya-Pei Kuo (bio)

On May 4, 1920, when students from various colleges and universities in the nation's capital gathered at Peking University for a May Fourth commemoration, they had a rather clear idea about what they were paying homage to. The organizers designed and distributed for the occasion a tricolor of yellow, white, and blue with the characters for "May Fourth commemoration" (五四紀念 Wusi jinian) in red on it. The three colors, it was explained, symbolized "liberty, equality, and fraternity," and the red characters the solemn dedication of Chinese youth to the tripartite motto. All enunciations at the commemoration pointed to a concrete historical event—the student-led mass demonstration that had erupted on May 4, 1919, in Beijing. The collective action taken by Chinese students and citizens formed the basis of the shared understanding of what "May Fourth" (五四 Wusi) referred to. And there was little ambiguity about it.1

By the late 1950s, when Chow Tse-tsung (周策縱) wrote the defining Anglophone narrative of the May Fourth movement, much of that concreteness had vanished. In his introduction, Chow stressed that the student demonstration of May 4, 1919, was only a "pivot" in a larger process. The May Fourth movement in its broader sense, according to Chow, was an "intellectual revolution" that comprised an array of new developments—the rise of "patriotic and anti–Great Power sentiments," the idea of modernization through "intellectual and social reforms," and the embrace of "Western ideas of democracy and science." Chow provided only a terse account of how the diverse intellectual elements had been integrated into one movement. As to how they had come to be associated with the student demonstration and named as such, he simply noted that the term "May Fourth movement" had "acquired a broader meaning in later years than it had originally."2

What happened to the idea of "May Fourth" between the moment of the term's emergence and the writing of its master narrative is a question that intrigues many today. [End Page 135] No matter where this question leads one, the contrast between what May Fourth signified in 1920 and what it had come to mean by the late 1950s tells a familiar story of the evolving meaning of a historical term. That May Fourth meant one constellation of things in the years immediately after the incident and another 30 years later, in this sense, is simply logical. Different generations of history's students and different communities naturally go back to the same historical moment with distinct concerns and perspectives, and they thus offer different interpretations.

What is our take on May Fourth today, looking back a century after the event? This special issue presents a set of scholarly reflections on this question. Each of the eight contributions provides a glimpse into the current state of art of May Fourth studies. The collection starts with Q. Edward Wang's review of Chinese publications over the past three decades. The three trends that Wang identifies—individualization, localization, and memorialization—set a benchmark for assessment of the state of Anglophone scholarship. Among the three, the themes of individualization and memorialization are readily visible in the articles collected here. Both Peter Zarrow's comparative analysis of Cai Yuanpei's, Chen Duxiu's, and Hu Shi's thoughts on the place of religion and possible substitutes for it in modern Chinese life and Paul J. Bailey's essay on the work-study movement spearheaded by Francophile Li Shizeng focus on individual intellectuals. Certain aspects of Chen Duxiu's activities also receive close scrutiny in my own essay on the polemical culture of New Youth and in Xiaolu Ma's discussion of that journal's translation strategy. And Sofia Graziani's study of the politics of commemoration resonates with the trend of memorialization. This then seems to suggest a rather close correspondence between English- and Chinese-language scholarship.

Some contributions to the special issue, however, step outside the three trends Wang has identified, indicating a divergence. The tendency of localization is reflected only marginally in a single contribution.3 Zhao Xuduo's sociological analysis of the intellectual network that facilitated the spread of Marxism...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5065
Print ISSN
1521-5385
Pages
pp. 135-137
Launched on MUSE
2019-03-05
Open Access
No
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