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  • Documents on Democracy


On May 4, Deputy U.S. National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger spoke at an event entitled "U.S.-China Relations in a Turbulent Time: Can Rivals Cooperate?" at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. His remarks are excerpted below:

On May the fourth, 1919, following the end of World War I, thousands of university students from across Beijing converged on Tiananmen Square to protest China's unfair treatment at the Paris Peace Conference. Western nations chose to appease Imperial Japan by granting it control of Chinese territory that Germany had previously occupied, including the Shandong Peninsula.

The Chinese students who marched to Tiananmen that day shouted "give us back Shandong!" and "don't sign the Versailles Treaty!" Police forced the students to disperse. But, as frequently happens when governments close down avenues for peaceful expression, some protesters resorted to violence. In a principled move that acknowledged popular anger, China refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles later that year.

China would regain control of Shandong three years later with the help of the United States, which brokered an agreement at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922. But the movement ignited by those students exactly 101 years ago was about much more than nationalist outrage at "unequal treaties." The movement galvanized a long-running struggle for the soul of modern China. As John Pomfret wrote in his fine history of U.S.-China relations, the May Fourth Movement aimed for "a wholesale transformation of Chinese politics, society, and culture." "Mr. Science" and "Mr. Democracy" were the mottos of this movement to transport China into modernity. Some called the movement the "Chinese Enlightenment." . . . I would like to spend a few minutes highlighting a few Chinese heroes that I believe embody the May Fourth spirit, then and now. [End Page 179]

Hu Shih is naturally identified as one of the most influential leaders of the May Fourth era. He was already an influential thinker on modernizing China. Hu Shih's family was from Anhui province. Like Lu Xun and many other leading writers of their generation, Hu Shih traveled overseas to study. After switching his focus at Cornell from agriculture to philosophy, Hu Shih studied at Columbia University under the American educator John Dewey.

Hu Shih would contribute one of the greatest gifts imaginable to the Chinese people: The gift of language. Up until then, China's written language was "classical," featuring a grammar and vocabulary largely unchanged for centuries. As many who have studied it can attest, classical Chinese feels about as close to spoken Chinese as Latin does to modern Italian. The inaccessibility of the written language presented a gulf between rulers and the ruled—and that was the point. The written word—literacy itself—was the domain primarily of a small ruling elite and of intellectuals, many of whom aspired to serve as officials. Literacy simply wasn't for "the masses."

Hu Shih believed otherwise. In his view, written Chinese—in form and content—should reflect the voices of living Chinese people rather than the documents of dead officials. "Speak in the language of the time in which you live," he admonished readers. He believed in making literacy commonplace. He played a key role promoting a written language rooted in the vernacular, or baihua—literally "plain speech." Hu Shih's promotion of baihua is an idea so obvious in hindsight that it is easy to miss how revolutionary it was at the time. It was also highly controversial.

Gu Hongmin, a Confucian gentleman and Western literature professor at Peking University, ridiculed widespread literacy for China and what it implied. In August 1919 he wrote: "Just fancy what the result would be if ninety percent of [China's] four hundred million people were to become literate. Imagine only what a fine state of things we would have if here in Peking the coolies, mafoos [stable boys], chauffeurs, barbers, shop boys, hawkers, hunters, loafers, vagabonds, [etc.] all became literate and wanted to take part in politics as well as the University students."

Such elitist chauvinism was—and some would argue still remains—a headwind impeding the democratic ideals espoused by the May Fourth Movement. Hu Shih, wielding...


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