Remembered, Not Memorialized: May 4th, 1919
By Canaan Morse, published
For us at PR not to give a nod to today would be negligence.
Reports have been that the CCP has gone to lengths this year to keep people from publicly commemorating this day through discussion or presentation. At first thought, it seems unsurprising, but there is something special about the sensitivity of May 4th. It represents a movement the government would like either to appropriate or ignore, because it cannot afford to forget it.
The events of the day 92 years ago that came to represent a thirty-year cultural sea change had nothing to do with democracy. The students who marched into Tian’anmen Square were protesting the unfair terms of Versailles, which gave Germany’s holdings in Shandong to the Japanese even after China had sent medical workers to France, and venting their frustration at a society they believed to be stagnated by Confucian ideology. The spirit of their unrest was not so different from that of the students ten years ago who, with government approval, protested whitewashing in Japanese textbooks.
Nor do I think intentional “Westernization” to be the Party-line problem with the May 4th movement. In literature, of course, we see a move toward characteristically Western forms of genre, style and subject—the appearance of the modern novel, for instance, or free-verse poetry, or the abandonment of classical Chinese in favor of baihua. Yet we also find many of these forms appropriated historically by authors of that period in books like Hu Shi’s History of Colloquial Literature (baihua wenxueshi) or Lu Xun’s Brief History of Chinese Fiction (zhongguo xiaoshuo shilve), and the thread of nationalist sentiment was never lost. The only group of writers who diverged from that spirit and advocated art for art’s sake were cast out in the thirties and referred to as “the third kind of people.”
The topic is still touchy now because the architects of the May 4th movement were clear patriots as well as intellectuals. Am I stating the obvious? Maybe, but it’s worth remembering. Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun and the rest were unstable elements, underground organizers and instigators, the kind of people who would find themselves bunking with Ai Weiwei if they’d been alive today. Yet, for anyone in the current establishment to argue that those authors didn’t love their country would be a ticket to political embarrassment. The next step is to appropriate--that is, to call them Communists--but no one disagrees that Lu Xun would have been imprisoned or shot had he lived into the post-1949 era. The only choice for the government is to allow those authors and their spirit to have been, and hope that no one takes it in his heart to let them be again.