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July 21st, 2004

  The Flowers of May Fourth


A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle With the Modern World
by Rana Mitter
Oxford University Press; 360 pp. $30.00

Until very recently Chinese intellectual life had a peculiar frozen-in-time quality. Intellectual fads that, in the West, had come and gone in the early or middle years of the twentieth century, were regarded as exciting and new. I can recall, around 1982-3, being eagerly quizzed by Chinese acquaintances about topics like existentialism, Esperanto, and psychoanalysis. After a certain amount of this I began to notice that there seemed to have been a certain date at which the Chinese suddenly ceased digesting Western ideas. Anything current in the West before that date had been thoroughly internalized; anything from later was no more than half-understood, if known at all. But what was that date? And why that date?

The date was Sunday, May 4, 1919. On that day a demonstration took place in Beijing, organized by students and other, mostly young, patriots. The occasion of it was the news, which had reached China three days before, that the settlement worked out at the Paris Peace Conference would not return German territories in China to Chinese control, but instead would award them to Japan. The demonstration turned violent, and the home of a Chinese government minister was sacked and burned. Some of the demonstrators were arrested.

This was the "May Fourth Incident," from which sprang the "May Fourth Movement," a great sea-change in attitudes that gave rise to, or inspired, most of the important cultural and political developments of the twentieth century in China, from the founding of the Chinese Communist Party two years later to the popular disturbances of 1989 and the Tiananmen Square massacre that ended them. The students who took the lead in 1989 held one of their biggest rallies on May 4 that year, and among their marching songs was one from their grandparents' struggles: "The flowers of May bloom in the wild, / Their fields nourished with martyrs' blood …"

Rana Mitter, who lectures in modern Chinese history and politics at Oxford University, has set out to give an account of the past eighty-five years of Chinese history by using the May Fourth Movement, and its attitudes and ideals, as a connecting theme. May Fourth, and the New Culture Movement of the 1920s and 1930s that was one of its offspring, concentrated the minds of thoughtful Chinese on the essence of their modern dilemma. The great powers of the day cared nothing for China, and would trample on her interests for their convenience; yet if China was to rise and assert herself, she needed to harness just those modernizing forces that had made the West so strong — "Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy," as the May Fourth intellectuals referred to them. The West, and by extension modernity, was both attractive and repulsive.

Mitter does a good job of sketching out the main contours of China's cultural and political developments through the twentieth century. This makes for depressing reading. Everything that could possibly go wrong, did; every cure was worse than every disease. Some of this was not the fault of the Chinese: invasion, war, and natural disasters played their devastating part. Still, even under the clearest skies and fairest winds, the Chinese have had a knack of heading straight for the rocks. For example: one thing that occurs to any reader surveying the New Culture phenomenon is the solipsistic arrogance of many Chinese intellectuals — "the concern of the educated elites … that China's success or failure is ultimately about them," as Mitter says. The cure for this particular disease turned out to be Mao Tse-tung, who relegated intellectuals to the "stinking ninth" category of social usefulness.

I am not sure who the right reader for A Bitter Revolution would be. The story Mitter tells is well-known to students of modern China. While the idea of shaping it all around the ideals of the May Fourth Movement is imaginative and interesting, I did not feel much wiser about the New Culture writers, the failure of the Nationalists, Mao Tse-tung's shallow, nasty "philosophy," or the Cultural Revolution, than I was before. Much of the intellectual history is covered in Jonathan Spence's brilliant 1981 classic The Gate of Heavenly Peace (though Spence's narrative starts earlier and ends earlier). Probably this book will be of most value to readers who have a patchy, superficial knowledge of modern China and wish to fill in the gaps.

From that point of view, I think it is a very useful book. Not the least of its virtues is that it comes right down to the present day, when the events of the 1980s and 1990s are beginning to be seen in perspective, and we can form some reasonable estimates of the several probabilities for China's near future: advance to democracy, militarized fascism, Mexican-style "open kleptocracy," or violent disintegration. Mitter offers no clear guesses, but calls for new thinking on the part of Chinese intellectuals, and for a "letting go" of attitudes that have hindered or deflected China's progress towards a modern, rational state.

Chief among those destructive attitudes has been, and continues to be, a highly colored, passionately dramatized and romanticized view of the nation and her situation.

[A] sense of crisis is at least in part self-created … China may well find that the solution to its quest for modernity is to let the best part of May Fourth re-emerge: the ability to put forward a variety of experiments in happiness, and to choose between them … [T]he circumstances of the new century could bode far better for a new May Fourth. All that is necessary is that China is willing to try it out. Despite the gloomy declarations … that China must go through terrible pain to reach salvation, letting go might hurt a lot less than some people think, even though it might be at the tolerable risk of China's twenty-first century being blessedly less exciting than its twentieth.

I agree with that. My own dream for China is that she become a normal country, with a state ideology that people actually believe in, and with all the fevered fretting about 19th-century wrongs and China's proper place in the world tamed by prosperity, self-confidence, and contentment.

I can't say that I see much prospect of this, though. While China is much more like a sane, ordinary country today than she was thirty years ago, young Chinese intellectuals are still just as engrossed in the romantic drama of being Chinese as their great-grandparents were back in 1919. The impression lingers that the Chinese suffer from some deep, persistent collective neurosis; that still, after 150 years, the tremendous trauma of contact with the West has not yet been resolved; and that ordinary nationhood, assuming it is possible, is still a long way off in China's future. Rana Mitter's book did nothing to dispel these dark thoughts. If anything, it fortified them.