Remembering May Fourth: The Movement and Its Centennial Legacy

Interview with Carlos Yu-Kai Lin, editor of Remembering May Fourth: The Movement and Its Centennial Legacy (Brill, 2020)

In recognition and celebration of the publication of Remembering May Fourth: The Movement and Its Centennial Legacy, the latest book of Brill’s series Ideas, History, and Modern China, we joined the book’s editor Carlos Yu-Kai Lin. We were fortunate to receive insight into the deep cultural and political history that arose from May Fourth and continues to influence Modern China.

What is the main message of this book? Why is it important to talk about the May Fourth movement? And if you must pick one word to describe the nature of this book, what would it be?

I think one of the reasons why we wanted to propose this book, aside from commemorating the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth movement, is that many of us felt a sense of urgency to issue a response to this time-honored intellectual and political tradition that constituted modern China.

You can see from the list of our contributors that many of them have a long-term commitment to researching, and even debating, various issues and topics related to “May Fourth”—either as a historical event or a cultural campaign. The passion in their scholarship on “May Fourth” is hard to miss. You can feel this passion in many of our contributors’ chapters.

There is an anecdote that may further explain this kind of passion. I remembered when my colleagues and I organized a roundtable at 2017 AAS to discuss the May Fourth new culture movement, our roundtable was assigned to a very large auditorium that can accommodate 200 persons. There are only four of us in this roundtable, and there were only about 10 persons sitting in the audience. The auditorium appears to be particularly quiet and a bit empty for its large space.

Yet after the roundtable started, and especially during the Q&A, the intensity of the discussion, or should I say, debate, in a literal sense, is truly astonishing. At some point, two of our discussants had engaged themselves in a debate on the interpretation of a living scholar’s work on “May Fourth”. At the same time, another discussant expressed his disagreement on my interpretation of a specific May Fourth writer. There were serious crossfire debates taking place during the discussion session.

It needs to be clarified that all the debates that took place at the roundtable were professional, constructive, and highly-illuminative. But the intensity of the debates is beyond my usual expectation either as a panel organizer as a conference attendee. It is nevertheless from this roundtable that the idea of coming up with a May Fourth volume started to emerge. More scholars have come to join us and it is through their efforts that this book takes shape.

Thus, I would say that the nature of this book is a kind of passion, a passion to explore and maintain the intellectual and political possibility of “May Fourth” as a thinking resource and as an open-ended political project. I think a key message of this book is that as inheritors and practitioners of Chinese and Sinophone cultures, we are not done with “May Fourth” yet. We still owe a lot of our intellectual (and even political) debt to it.

It’s very interesting that you use the word, “passion,” to describe the nature of this volume. Is there any chapter of this book that can demonstrate this kind of passion? And what kind of passion it is?

I think Gloria Davies’s chapter (“May Fourth as Affect”) is a good example. It examines the relation between memory and affect, demonstrating how our memories about “May Fourth” have actually aroused and have been facilitated by different kinds of emotions and feelings that need to be theorized. Gang Zhou’s chapter (“Chinese Renaissance, Other Renaissances”) is an ambitious attempt to compare and contrast varied versions of “Renaissance” that originated from different geographical and cultural contexts. The chapter is also a critical response to Professor Yu Ying-shih’s influential interpretation on the May Fourth movement. In her response to Yu Ying-shih’s work, Zhou argues for a renewed interest in the concept of “Renaissance” to reevaluate “May Fourth” in a global context.

Josephine Chiu-Duke’s chapter (“The May Fourth Liberal Legacy in Chan Koonchung’s Jianfeng ernian”) continues one of the most important May Fourth intellectual projects—the idea and ideal of liberalism. Chiu-Duke calls for the possibility of thinking of an alternative political path of China by pointing to the intricate relation between political reality and literary writing. The idea and ideal of liberal democracy, Chiu-Duke suggests, cannot be easily dismissed and abandoned. Chih-ping Chou’s chapter ("Two Versions of Modern Chinese History: A Reassessment of Hu Shi and Lu Xun"), for another example, represents a scholar’s lifelong commitment to providing a balanced view on modern Chinese history. Through his comparison of the reception of Lu Xun and Hu Shih in China, the implication of two versions of modern Chinese history can be revealed.

These are just some of the examples I can think of right now. There are many more examples in this book that can help us reflect on “May Fourth” from many other different perspectives.

As for the question on “passion,” I think this kind of passion—at least according to my personal understanding and interaction with these scholars—is not just a kind of academic passion, but a political-ethical one. It means that many of our contributors want to do some kind of justice to the understanding of modern China, which has in many ways become a debt to which many of us owe culturally, intellectually, and even politically.

For me, these scholars, and this book for sure, are responding not just to a topic, but to a kind of historic and political debt that has been constructed through language and discourses. And the only way to pay that debt is to write in response to that discursively-constructed “tradition”.

Hu Shih was mentioned a lot in this book. Is there any reason why there is a stronger emphasis on Hu Shih?

That is an interesting question. I don’t think there is a necessary or at least an intentional “stronger” emphasis on Hu Shih. Hu Shih is a leader of the May Fourth new culture movement and had repeatedly sought to reinterpret the legacy of the literary revolution that he and Chen Duxiu initiated. As Yung-chen Chiang, one of our contributors, points out, “among the leaders of the May Fourth movement, Hu Shih was the one who was most aware of the movement’s historical significance”.

I think instead of saying that there is a stronger emphasis on Hu Shih, we should probably say that there was a fewer emphasis on Hu Shih in the previous English scholarship on “May Fourth”. Lu Xun was always the focus of our inquiry into modern Chinese literature. And this has been the case for decades.

In fact, we still have a very interesting chapter devoted solely to the study of Lu Xun. Nick Kaldis’s chapter (“Aesthetic Cognition and the Subject of Discourse in Lu Xun’s Modern-Style Fiction”) examines some of Lu Xun’s best-known stories, configuring Lu Xun’s characters and their relationship to then-dominant ideological discourses, thereby teasing out the heretofore rarely-observed vital features of Lu Xun’s canonical works.

In short, we did not have an intentional strong emphasis on Hu Shih. Maybe it’s because we did not explore his works enough in our past inquiry into “May Fourth”.

Many chapters in this book discuss Hu Shih’s theoretical essays on a literary revolution. But Hu Shih himself has also published a collection of literary works, Experimental Collection. How would you compare this book with Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” and what impact did that book have on encouraging vernacular writing?

I think we can say that Hu Shih’s Experimental Collection (嘗試集, 1920) represents one of the earliest attempts of a Chinese writer to consciously dismantle the convention of classical Chinese poetry by creating a new one. The work also embodies his early theoretical rumination on the possibility of writing Chinese poetry in vernacular Chinese.

But it’s probably better to compare Hu Shih’s Experimental Collection with Lu Xun’s Wild Grass (野草, 1927), since both works focus specifically on poetry. If we judge from a modern standard of literature, the literary achievement of Experimental Collection is not high. Yet the work had in a way invited other Chinese writers to experiment new ways and new forms for writing poetry. Lu Xun did not begin to write his innovative prose poems until the mid 1920s which were later collected in the Wild Grass. It’s probably safe to say that Hu Shih’s early theoretical exposition of vernacular writing in the late 1910s and his own poetic works in Experimental Collection in 1920, had played a pioneering role in fermenting a literary environment that calls for the practice of literary experimentalism.

Hu Shih is also one of the first modern Chinese writers to provide a theoretical framework for the writing of vernacular literature. Lu Xun's “Diary of a Madman” is of course and no doubt one of the most important works in the history of modern Chinese literature. But our evaluation of “Diary of a Madman” will not be complete if we do not account for Hu Shih’s theoretical contribution to the vernacular literary movement.

Many critics have pointed out that Hu Shih, as did many other May Fourth intellectuals, have violently discredit the value of classical Chinese literature and target it as an easy example of a dead language (updated allusions, obsession with style over content, and etc.). How do you make of this common perception of the May Fourth literary discourses?

This is a very interesting question. It’s a common misunderstanding that Hu Shih is targeting classical Chinese poetry or literature as a convenient example of a dead language. In fact, he is simply arguing that each dynasty should have its own literature, and that literature needs to be written in a way that reflects the genuine feeling and observation of the writer about the real world. The connection between a literary work and the writer’s personal and genuine observation and reception of the contemporary reality is key to Hu Shih’s theory of vernacular writing.

For example, in an article, Hu Shih discusses a poem written by his friend, Jiang Kanghu, who at that time lived in the United States. The poem contains a lot of allusions such as “butterfly-tile” (鴛鴦瓦) and “twinkling flames (of an evening lamp) that look like tiny peas” (熒熒如豆) to depict the poet’s living condition. But Hu Shih argues that it is impossible for readers to relate these literry expressions to the actual living condition of the poet since there is no “butterfly-tile” and also no “evening lamp” that can produce “twinkling flames like tiny peas” in a modern house in America!

Hu Shih had a lengthy discussion on what and what does not count as an “allusion” in “Some modest proposals for the reform of literature.” It’s very interesting to see how he actually had a difficult time defining the proper use of “allusions”.

How are Hu Shih’s writings received in Taiwan nowadays compared to China? Are his essays and poems still taught in schools in Taiwan, and not in the mainland? What about in Hong Kong?

The time in which these late Qing and early Republican gurus’ writings were widely read has probably passed. In today’s Taiwan, only a few of Hu Shih’s essays are listed as required readings for the middle school students. According to my knowledge, only “The biography of Mr. Almost” (差不多先生傳) is listed as a required reading in the textbook. The short biographical essay, “Mother’s Instruction” (母親的教誨), is occasionally mentioned by the teachers. While one may say that Hu Shih’s writings are limited to pedagogical purposes in today’s Taiwan, the political implication of Hu Shih's words seems to be rediscovered in Hong Kong nowadays.

I came to Hong Kong to take up a teaching position in August 2019, during which the protest against the extradition bill had just reached a new climax. When I walked into the campus of the City University of Hong Kong, where I teach right now, I noticed that there is a black marble plaque installed on the ground at the main academic building. The words on the plaque read “Better to die with a voice than to live in silence” (寧鳴而死, 不默而生). This sentence can also be seen quoted or mentioned on social media in Hong Kong at the time. This sentence actually derives from Hu Shih’s essay under the same title, “Better to die with a voice than to live in silence” which was published on the Free China Journal (自由中國) in 1955, a journal that seeks to promote the value of free speech and liberal democracy as a political system.

It’s interesting to see that the political momentum of Hu Shih’s words was rediscovered in a different social and historical context. Some say that the meaning of “May Fourth” is always “political” and “contemporary” since the studies of this movement often contain the possibility of referring to the political reality in the contemporary era. Perhaps there is some truth in it.

Nevertheless, as the political situation in Hong Kong continues to develop, which shows no sign of stop even among the current COVID-19 crisis, I think there is a good chance for us to see a revived interest in some of Hu Shih’s writings—particularly those concern with politics.

-Carlos Yu-Kai Lin 2020.5.4

Find the book here.
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