Touches of History: An Entry into "May Fourth" China

By Fung, Edmund S. K. | The China Journal, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Touches of History: An Entry into "May Fourth" China


Fung, Edmund S. K., The China Journal


Touches of History: An Entry into "May Fourth" China, by Chen Pingyuan, translated by Michel Hockx, with Maria af Sandeberg, Uganda Sze Pui Kwan, Christopher Neil Payne and Christopher Rosenmeier. Leiden: Brill, 201 1. ? + 437 pp. euro133.00/US$ 182.00 (hardcover).

Touches of History is a translation of Chen Pingyuans award-winning book, Chumo lishi yujinru Wu Si (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2005). A professor in the Department of Chinese at Peking University, Chen is one of China's leading scholars of modern Chinese literature and culture. In this book, Chen seeks to provide "a thorough understanding of the historical context, the political stances, the cultural tastes, and the academic directions of the 'May Fourth' generation" (p. 3). He does this by first linking the May Fourth generation of literary figures with the earlier 1898 generation of late-Qing intellectuals. There were overlapping elements between the two generations; together they created what is referred to as the "New Culture" of the early Republican period. Chen shuttles back and forth between them, viewing New Culture through historical texts. For him, touching history means reconstructing historical events in some detail, unearthing ideologies from historical texts and illuminating events through case studies and sometimes fragmented materials. Instead of focusing on the central issues, Chen elects to delve into the "margins of history", the "tiny places and the deep parts" (p. 6), which strike him as equally pertinent to a thorough understanding of the May Fourth Movement.

Chen's detailed description in Chapter 1 of the events of 4 May 1919 provides a fascinating narrative of the movement. He reconstructs what happened, based on later reminiscences of events that we did not know much about, such as the Beijing students' humiliation at East Jiaomin Alley, the burning down of the Zhaojiaolou and the detention of some of the students overnight in the police station. Chen takes us to the "actual scenes", without providing his interpretation or assessment of the events.

Chen is at his best looking at literature from the perspective of history. In the chapter on studies of New Youth, he locates the magazine in the context of the numerous periodicals of the late Qing and early Republican periods, arguing that the thinking of the New Youth writers was inextricably interwoven with that of writers for the other periodicals. He points out that New Youth, as it developed, had its internal editorial and personal differences. What began as a group journal morphed into one containing differing political views expressed individually. From the outset, New Youth had no common cause apart from the muchcelebrated slogan "Mr Democracy and Mr Science", nor did it have a "concrete academic standpoint" (p. 83) to unite the diverse reformist intellectuals. Instead, it accommodated a variety of ideologies and explored a wide array of social and cultural issues. Even after the "Manifesto of the Journal" rejecting party politics was published in December 1919, politics remained a contentious issue among the Afe w Youth writers. Meanwhile, Hu Shi and his likes kept the focus on philosophy and literature, spearheading the vernacular movement and the Literary Revolution to which there was much opposition from cultural conservatives.

On the vernacular movement, Chen devotes an entire chapter to Hu Shi's "New Poetry" contained in his anthology Experiments (1920), which went through four editions, two of them revised and each with a new preface by Hu himself.

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