May 4th is irrelevant

May Fourth is here and one of the things that makes the 21st century great is that if you want to read some May Fourth writers you don’t have to go to your local research library, you just have to google. With no effort at all I found Chen Duxiu‘s 1916 essay 袁世凯复活 “Yuan Shikai Resurected” or maybe “Zombie Yuan Shikai”. I was struck by how different May 4th and modern calls for democracy are.1

Chen begins by quoting an essay by Cai Yuanpei, in which Cai points out that while Generalissimo Yuan is still dead in a technical sense, he has returned to life in the sense that all of his backward feudal attributes are being carried on by the rest of the Chinese people. The bulk of the brief essay is a catalog of ways in which the Chinese people (or at least the bad ones, bureaucrats, scholars and gentry) are backward and ends with a call for the good elite (the military and the youth) to rise up and purge China of poisons and lead it out of darkness and into the light. To some extent this essay seems old because some of the concerns seem old (superstition) and some of the rhetorical forms (taking Europe as a model) are not common in China today. The most important difference, however, is a fundimentally different view of China’s problems.

I have not read ever single modern Chinese dissident, but the targets of May 4th are a lot different from modern ones despite the common interest in democracy. For all their talk of going to the people May 4thers were staggeringly elitist by modern standards, or to put it another way they were not yet quite to the modern concept of universal citizenship. May 4th was also explicitly culturalist. What needed to be fixed were the Chinese people and Chinese culture. Vile politicians like Yuan were just the surface froth of a sick society. Modern Chinese dissidents like the Charter 08 group shy away from blanket condemnations of the Chinese people in part because they would be unpopular2 and in part because they don’t see the Chinese people as a problem. China is going great, the problem is with its authoritarian government. (You can see this concern pretty clearly in the brief history of China at the beginning of the Charter.) I think the reason May 4thers get more lip service than long quotes from modern democracy activists is that they really are a part of the past that does not connect well to present concerns. Historians may like to draw connections between May 4th and 6/4, or Charter 08, or whatever, and there are lots of interesting comparisons. If you are a China democracy activist looking for good quotes or a useable past, however, you may find less than you had hoped in the May 4thers.

  1. Chen was one of the major May 4th figures, and Yuan was the first president of the Chinese republic, who betrayed the Revolution by making himself dictator and then, briefly, emperor. 

  2. The Chinese people already have plenty of national consiousness, so if you say anything that may offend them they will fill your inbox. It is a very different world than 1919 

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