History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

By Paul A. Cohen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Anti-Imperialism and the Recasting of the Boxer Myth

When the past is treated as myth, its meaning is governed to an overwhelming extent by the concerns of the present. As the center of gravity of present concerns shifts, therefore, the meaning of the past necessarily shifts along with it, sometimes to a quite extraordinary degree. Something very much along these lines took place in China in the 1920s, as the preoccupations of the New Culture movement, which were fundamentally oriented toward cultural renovation, gave way to a new set of concerns that were far more political, both in their underlying premises as to how the world operated and in their understanding of the action program that flowed from these premises. 1

To be sure, the New Culture movement, in the sense of a collection of individuals who held that the task of remaking China was first and foremost a cultural one, did not just disappear. Many Chinese intellectuals, including people as diverse as Hu Shi and Lu Xun, continued to attach overriding importance to China's cultural transformation. Nevertheless, more and more Chinese, frustrated by the glacial pace of cultural change and profoundly influenced by a succession of jolts in the political sphere that underscored the continuing grip of imperialism on China's fortunes, gravitated to the view that the political problem had to be dealt with first. Such political shocks as the betrayal of China's interests at the Versailles Peace Conference (the immediate occasion for the protest demonstrations that broke out in Beijing on May 4, 1919) and the killing of unarmed student demonstrators by British police in Shanghai in the May Thirtieth Incident of 1925, in combination with the emergence of a revolutionary politics centered on the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and reorganized Guomindang and strongly influenced by Lenin's theory of imperialism, channeled the anger of politically engaged Chinese increasingly in the direction of a bitterly anti-imperialist nationalism. As animosity toward the foreign powers, and in many instances toward foreigners per

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