The May Fourth movement marked the beginning of the most important effort in modern China to build a new society by writing "new literature." But it was not the first such effort. In the early 20th century progressive young Chinese in Shanghai and Japan, hoping to make China as strong as the Western nations, had already reached the conclusion that the key to this effort was "new fiction." Their leading journal was called, in fact, New Fiction, and its editor, Liang Qi-chao (Liang Ch'i-ch'ao), explained in Issue One, 1902, that new citizenship, new morality, new religion, new government, new customs, new art, and new personal character all depend on new fiction. "If we wish today to improve order among the masses," he wrote, "we must begin with a revolution in the realm of fiction."
Liang's audience was small, but its response enthusiastic. Half a dozen new fiction magazines soon appeared in Shanghai carrying stories which upheld the social idealism of the new reformers. There were translations from Western literature as well as original creations. Qian Xing-cun (A Ying), in his History of Late-Qing Fiction, distinguishes seven categories among the progressive themes of the time: the national revolution movement, the debate over constitutionalism, the movement to liberate women, the anti-superstition movement, the exposure of official corruption, the industrial and commercial struggle and opposition to the comprador class, and the movement to oppose the American exclusion acts. In many ways it was as if the May Fourth movement had appeared fifteen years earlier. Except for translations, almost all the new fiction was in bai hua vernacular syntax as opposed to classical syntax, though without the pronounced Western influence of May Fourth bai hua. Bai hua newspapers appeared, as did bai hua poetry, and hopes were high that this new vernacular writing would penetrate and help remould all of China.
But the late-Qing progressivism in literature quickly degenerated, which is why China's modern literary revolution is generally marked from the May Fourth period rather than from 1902. By the mid-'teens, the overwhelming emphasis of the new fiction had become entertainment. Love stories and scandal stories predominated, and the urge to use bai hua lost its vigor. "Progressive" elements were still included in many stories, but now more as a matter of form, or even as a stylish gimmick, than because of genuine interest in progress.
There were several reasons for late-Qing fiction's decline. First, the idea that vernacular fiction should be progressive or morally uplifting did not rest well with traditional assumptions. Fiction reading had always been viewed purely as entertainment, and often, especially among the elite, as less-than-healthy . . .