The New Culture Movement (1910s-20s)


In the past few sessions, we have been exploring topics in the New Culture Movement: the search for new gender identities for both men and women, questions about Chinese tradition, and aspects of Western cultures that could be introduced to salvage China with. Thus, the definition of the New Culture Movement should be saving China through a transformation of Chinese culture, or an introduction of new culture into China. Under such circumstances, lively debates and discussions about what aspects of Chinese and Western cultures should be used to rebuild a new culture for China became commonplace.

Definition of New Culture Movement

Strictly speaking, the New Culture Movement started around 1915, with the publication of the journal New Youth in Shanghai. Chen Duxiu, founding editor of the New Youth magazine (which he subtitled La Jeunesse in French), was motivated by his anger against President Yuan Shikai's signing major portions of Japan's 21 Demands. The 1919 Paris Peace Conference triggered off a nation-wide call for an injection of new culture into old China, when Chinese delegates were asked to sign the Versailles Peace Treaty where China was to cede Shandong Province, formerly a German colony before World War I, to Japan. Over 6,000 Chinese college and professional school students marched in Beijing to protest the possible signing of the treaty, and Chinese students besieged the Chinese embassy in Paris to persuade the members within not to sign the treaty. Eventually, Chinese nationalism proved to be too heavy a pressure to Britain, France, and the U.S., countries that had initially agreed to give former German concessions in Shangdong Province to Japan. Japan lost its support at the conference, and Shangdong returned to China. Still, for many Chinese, they thought the imminent transfer of Shangdong from Germany to Japan taught them a good lesson: despite Chinese political changes from empire to republic, China still remained weak and could not protect its own sovereignty. Now that they had no Manchu government to blame, the Chinese began to search from within the Han culture for areas to work on, and their attention fell on the various aspects of Confucian culture, including Confucian subordination of women to men, children to parents, extended families where elderly male members reigned.  Science, democracy, Marxism, anarchism, and many other "isms"--ideas from the West, flooded China. When Li Dazhao, professor of history at National Peking University, wrote an introduction of the Triumph of Bolshevism (Cheng/Spence, chap.13), he was identifying it as one Western idea that could be helpful to China.

The Work-Study Movement

The New Culture Movement also fueled a Work Study Movement in France in the 1910s and 1920s. Organized by Li Shizeng, a former member of Sun Yat-sen's anti-Manchu Tongmenghui (United League),  it was an attempt to create an academic immersion in French  humanism for Chinese students who would work on the side to support their tuition and living expenses. Although it started in the early 1900s, it was actively promoted especially after World War I, and after the May 4th Movement, thousands of Chinese participated in the program.  Many joined the Communist party while in France, or Germany, where the program spread to, especially because of the low tuition of European universities after World War I, such as Zhou Enlai, the future prime minister of Communist China (1949-76), and Deng Xiaoping, who was the "paramount leader" that led Communist China onto a path of economic reform after 1978.

Lu Xun (Hsun) and Criticism of Chinese Culture

The most scathing criticism against Chinese culture was probably made by the Chinese novelist Lu Xun (Hsun). The eldest son of a family of declining gentry in southern China, Lu, who lost his father to tuberculosis when he was 15, was resolved to be a doctor and eventually went to study medicine in Sendai, Japan. Strong Chinese nationalism, especially at what he perceived as Chinese ignorance at their problems, made him decide to abandon his medical studies and pursue creative writing. His Madman's Diary, published in the New Youth magazine in 1918, was an indictment of the Chinese traditions, which he considered cannibalistic for destroying so many lives. He subsequently published many other stories, and has been considered one of the finest Chinese novelists in the 20th century. The two stories we are reading here reflect his criticism of the Chinese national character, and Chinese traditions' lethal effect upon women.

The True Story of Ah Q

In Lu Hsun's short story The True Story of Ah Q, Ah Q was meant to represent all Chinese. Ah, the prefix of his name, was a typical word southern Chinese use to address people they are familiar with. It is interesting that Lu Hsun picked an English letter, Q, to stand for his name. The glaring English letter Q not only stood as an abbreviation so it could refer to a wide range of people, but also indicate that Western culture, symbolized here by an English letter, was now becoming a tool of critique against Chinese culture.

One recurring theme in the story was Ah Q's constant attempt to prove his superiority, either through connections with local gentry (Mr. Chao after Chao's son passed the imperial examination), or through bullying those whom he felt he could win against. Invariably, however, these attempts would end in his being beaten up by both high and low. Then, he would always console himself with a "spiritual victory." Through exaggerated depictions of Ah Q's spiritual victories, Lu Hsun satirized the Chinese as always having a way of feeling good about themselves even though they were beaten once and again by foreign powers.

In the story, there were also brief episodes of depictions of women and satire of the idea of chastity. After being cursed by a nun that he would "die sonless," Ah Q's Confucian consciousness was awakened, as the greatest sin for a Confucian was to die without a male heir. Hence the episode of Ah Q's attempted tryst with Ama Wu, a middle-aged widow (ama was a common way to call a middle-aged woman) who was a servant at the Chao family. Ama Wu was obviously conscious of the idea of widowhood and chastity, hence her attempt to commit suicide. The farcicalness this generated--reflected in the women of the whole village shunning Ah Q, was Lu Hsun's way of dismissing the Confucian notions of the importance of the male heir and female chastity (as he said in comments on chastity (Cheng/Spence, 13.2), that male as well as female should practice chastity, if chastity was to be practiced.).

Another theme in the story was Lu Hsun's satire of the Chinese revolution. The 1911 revolution that transformed China from an empire to a republic, was totally beyond the comprehension of ordinary people like Ah Q, who interpreted it as something no different from grand theft or robbery. The revolution also became manipulated in the hands of opportunists such as the local gentry families Chao and Chien. Finally, Ah Q became a victim of the fruitless revolution which in many places did degenerate into robbery, and was executed for something he did not do, so the local government did not have to spend time and energy pursuing the real robbers. This theme of the fruitlessness of the revolution and alienation between the goals of the revolutionaries and the common people was repeated in several of Lu Hsun's stories.

New Year's Sacrifice

This is perhaps Lu Hsun's most direct indictment of the idea of female chastity and subordination to men. The protagonist, who first appeared as a widow in her 20s, was never connected with a name throughout the story. She was just called Xiang Lin's wife. A hard-working and honest woman, she however escaped from her in-laws household after her husband died, perhaps because her in-laws were arranging to marry her off to someone else, in order to get the dowry (in China traditional marriages required the groom's family pay a handsome dowry for the bride's family) from her new husband to fund the wedding of her late husband's younger brother. Indeed, she was eventually abducted by her former in-laws--showing that as a widow, she was still their property. Like a good, chaste widow, she tried to kill herself at her second wedding but failed. Eventually she bore a son. The subsequent deaths of her second husband and her son not only left her emotionally traumatized, but also made her unwelcome, especially during New Year's Sacrifice preparations, for fear of the bad omen she would bring to the family she served. Eventually, her death on New Year's Eve turned her symbolically into a sacrificial item, to the traditional Confucian society.

While the story was an indictment of the poor lot of many Chinese women like Xiang Lin's wife, it was also a criticism of the hypocrisy of Confucians. Xiang Lin's wife worked for a wealthy gentry family well-versed in Confucian teachings. Orthodox Confucians were not supposed to be bothered by things like ghosts and demons, but the Lu family that hired Xiang Lin's wife did worry about it, and feared the bad omen she would bring them if she prepared the new year's sacrifice for the ancestors. Further, they could not provide any effective help to her fear of being torn by two ghost husbands when she went to the underworld herself. The male protagonist, an educated visitor to Lu Village, felt ashamed of his inability to help this low, helpless woman. Lu Hsun's guilt was his self-censoring of the Chinese intellectuals' limitation at providing effective help to Chinese society at large.