Fulfilling The Dream of a Modern China

mbaratta83 By mbaratta83, 22nd Aug 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

Marti, Michael. China and the Legacy of Deng Xiaoping. Washington, D.C.: Brassley's, Inc, 2002.

Schwarcz, Vera. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

Spence, Jonathan. The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.

Various Authors. 我參加了五四運動. 台北市: 聯合報社, 1979.

Zhou, Yongming. Historicizing Online Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.


History covers a long period of time, Chinese history especially, but in the long flow of history China's struggle with the problem of modernity is a relatively new one. Forced into the modern era in 1840, China has had a mere 170 years to cope with the cataclysmic changes that have since taken place. Two moments in time stand out in particular following the 1911 revolution. The May Fourth movement and the Chinese enlightenment in general differed somewhat than other efforts to deal with the problem of modernity, for instead of dealing with the problem of practical (e.g. economic, military, government institutions) changes the movement's proponents sought to rework the intellectual landscape of the country; for them, the problem may not have been a failure of reform so much as a failure to reject obsolete ways of thinking and adopt a more modern viewpoint. The ushering in of the neoliberal era in China, represented by such events as the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the CCP in December 1978, marked yet another “qualitatively new time in modern China. The changes brought about during the ensuing decades of reform constituted not only a stark departure from the immediate past of the early socialist period but also arguably a break from the regular Chinese pattern of dealing with the problems of modernity thrust upon China since her forcing into the global system following her first major clash with the West in 1940.

Stirrings: The May Fourth Movement

How can the May Fourth Movement be characterized as a break from the past and a harbinger of modernity in China? If colonialism and imperialism can be considered manifestations of modernity, May Fourth and that event's legacy are a modern response to the problem, beginning as it did as an anti-imperialist demonstration protesting the decisions of the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference as well as Japan's Twenty-One Demands. Both of the above things impacted China's territorial integrity and autonomy (perennial concerns since 1840). Thus, at one level the May Fourth protest was just another jiuguo or aiguo protest like many of the others that permeated the late Qing period (e.g. the Railway-Rights Recovery Movement) and the 1930's.

The temporal newness of this event is found in the transformation of the movement from a mere protest over political developments into one of political and cultural reawakening. In the past, Confucian intellectuals thought they had found the solution in facing up to the problems of modernity in the idea of tiyong, or using Western learning and technology to promote practical reforms while simultaneously maintaining the superiority of Chinese learning as the base of Chinese society. The students of the May Fourth movement rejected the notion of Confucian cultural superiority and their advocacy of taking a critical look at these deep-rooted values and throwing out those portions that would hold China back from the move towards a stronger (and by extension stronger) China transformed the intellectual landscape of the nation. They hoped to change the way the Chinese people thought as a whole but jump-starting the creation of a modern intelligentsia was achievement enough.

Vera Schwarcz, in his book on the Chinese enlightenment, does an interesting comparison between Chinese May Fourth intellectuals and the proponents of the eighteenth-century enlightenment movement in Europe, noting how enlightenment “connoted a refusal to abide by Christian dogma and to search for truth through reason and experience” (Schwarcz, 11). Similarly, “May Fourth intellectuals called for a critical evaluation of traditional ethics ” (Schwarcz, 288) and “used 'critical reason' as a code word for activity best suited to the talents and needs of intellectuals ” (Schwarcz, 292). Well, one might ask, what is the significance in changing the way of thinking of a mere few thousand that make up a nation's intelligentsia; how can changing such a small group impact a nation of millions? Jonathan Spence in Ch. 22 of his book provides clues to an answer, noting that one reason for China's partial opening up to the world in the early 1970's was a need for foreign technical expertise. Intellectuals are indispensable to any modernization program, versed as they are in technical knowledge gleaned from the intellectual environment of a university. Even today “it has become even clearer that the more China wants to modernize, the less it can risk to alienate its modern intellectuals” (Schwarcz, 293).

How can May Fourth be temporally linked to that event's immediate future (from 1919 on) as well as our own future? The ideals stirred and people inspired by the May Fourth movement went on to impact yet more “qualitatively new times” in Chinese history. Such individuals as Li Dazhao (librarian at Beijing University where the movement originated in 1919) and Chen Duxiu (Dean of Humanities at Beijing University) went on to help found the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. Beijing students such as Xu Deheng (who was among those students that broke into and vandalized the home of the pro-Japanese official Cao Rulin) and Zhou Enlai found further vent for the nationalistic feelings awakened within them as Communist revolutionaries (as evidenced by Xu's eventual sitting as vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the People's Political Consultative Conference and Zhou's premiership in the PRC central government). Moving beyond individual experiences to a more general view, an intellectual movement and push for cultural reawakening could in this context be seen as forerunners of later political upheaval and revolution (i.e. Establishment of the PRC).

In addition to its influence on Chinese socialism, May Fourth continues to impact the political and cultural aspirations of some today. Born amidst a pessimism emanating from the apparent failure of the 19911 revolution to fundamentally transform China, some proponent of the May Fourth legacy still await an enlightenment exalting not only critical thought and freedom from obsolete tradition but also the democratic environment of individual freedom that allows such ideals to flower into their fullest manifestations. For such a dream to be realized may require a venturing into yet future realms of temporal newness.

The Painful Transition: From Superiority Complex to Modern Neoliberal State

Throughout its history, China had clung to the idea of its own innate strength and the superiority of Chinese civilization over that of others. Other manifestations of this basic premise would continue throughout the modern era despite this viewpoints glaring lack of providing effective ways of addressing the problems of modernity and realizing the ultimate goal of establishing a modern Chinese state. The late nineteenth century saw the promulgation of the idea of tiyong, which – as had been the case throughout much of Chinese history (i.e. nothing very new here) – emphasized the preeminence of Chinese ways of thinking while allowing for the use of Western learning in areas of practical reform. The 1930's saw the rise of the National Products Movement which emphasized the buying domestically produced goods; the movement was yet another manifestation of turning inward and Chinese self-reliance. This ancient mindset was still evident in the People's Republic of China despite the upheavals that rocked China during the long struggles preceding and following the PRC's establishment in 1949. The socialist period was touted by the CCP as a new era qualitatively different from prior eras in Chinese history and yet this air of Chinese superiority and the self-reliance born of this attitude are clearly visible during the mass mobilizations of the Great Leap Forward or the constant exhortations to learn from Dazhao and Daqing; China is still seen as superior and in little need of outside help or contact in order to achieve the at that point unfilled dream of modernization.

The death of Mao, the ouster of his supporters, and the consolidation of power into the hands of the more practically-minded Deng Xiaoping finally set the stage for China to break out of this trap of her own setting. From the policy direction promulgated at the Third Plenum and in Deng's speeches outlining the “Four Modernizations” to Deng's southern tour and victory over the Marxist hardliners at the Fourteenth Party Congress (both occurred in 1992), China went through the throes of yet another “qualitatively new time in her history. Many of the changes which came forth during the ensuing fifteen years were generally economic in nature and involved the solving of old problems or achieving old goals utilizing new methods.

For instance, state control over the economy, a hallmark of Chinese economic activity since mining and salt production became dynastic monopolies a couple millenia ago (and throughout the Mao era manifested via the auspices of Soviet-style central planning), came to be increasingly displaced by private control over economic activity and regulation through market forces. Where before the Qing and Nationalist governments worried over such things as liquan (as evidenced during debates among government officials concerning the erection of telegraph lines in Qing China) and autonomy (e.g. launching the National Products movement as a result of fears of foreign encroachment on China's economic sovereignty), Deng and his successors was and continue to be open to any foreign contact which will serve to strengthen the Chinese economy. Mass movements and political revolutions/upheaval, hallmarks of the 1911 revolution and the Cultural Revolution, had been condemned at the Third Plenum in 1978 and replaced with the subordination of almost every other consideration to economic considerations. The changes discussed above are representative of an amazing about face in the way China had hitherto reacted when the country was suddenly thrust into the modern world, and in many ways these changes represent a counterweight of success countering a burden of disappointing past failures. If the Qing dynasty was paralyzed by the problems of building a state and Mao did not “seem to know how or where the nation should be heading” (Spence, 617), the events of the Deng era launched China into a new period of moving forward with purpose.

The “newness” of the Deng era reforms and the enthusiasm and support these changes had garnered are seen in the statements of several CCP leaders at the time. Hu Yaobang told SEZ local authorities in 1983 that “'since the special economic zone is a new emerging thing, we must be bold in exploring and blazing new trails'” (Marti, 13). Yang Shangkun, head of the PLA until his retirement in 1992, also spoke concerning the SEZ, saying that it “should not be too conservative but should constantly seek progress in its construction” (Marti, 88). During his historic southern tour in January 1992, Deng Xiaoping himself emphasized the importance of and his commitment to his policy of “Reform and opening, stating: “In reform and opening, it is necessary to be bolder and to open on a larger scale; without carrying out reform, China will not have a bright future. Reform and opening up is China's only option. If China does not carry out reform, it will just move into a blind alley” (Marti, 87). In the late 1800's, Qing officials had cautioned against adopting Western technology and resistance to modernization efforts abounded; Maoists of the early socialist period had equally decried such things as corrupt bourgeois influences. A new moment and chance to realize a possible solution to several of the problems of modernity had finally been seized and embarked on by Deng at the Third Plenum in 1978 and enshrined as the CCP's basic party line by the conclusion of the Fourteenth Party Congress in late 1992.

The impact of the events of the Deng era has become firmly enough entrenched that what was once a “qualitatively new time” in China has since become a norm in China. Deng's successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao continue in the spirit of that man's economic program and such formulas as the “Three Representations” and the “Harmonious Society” are meant to calm social tensions and allow the economic to continue smoothly along. These are manifestations of the new way of doing things just as “national products” and learning from Dazhao” were manifestations of the old; when the next significant “new time” in Chinese history appears, what will the exhortations that escape people's lips be then?


No matter which moment in modern China one may study, the manifestations of modernity are visible and intertwined within such moments. The May Fourth movement was born of nationalistic outrage and the inability of China to decisively resolve issues of continuing Western and Japanese imperialism/colonialism; the movement's fruits were a transformed intellectual climate in China which not insubstantially included the birth of the CCP.. The Deng Xiaoping reform era, kicked off by the Third Plenum in 1978, represented in many ways a clear break from set patterns of the past and a bold venturing into the realm of genuine reform and opening up to the world, as well as setting a new stage in the development of “Chinese-style socialism”. Considering the multi-faceted nature and linkages between historical moments such as these, it may be safe to say that instances of “qualitatively new time” aren't limited to mere events or moments in time but can also be fluid and lurk beneath the onward flow flow of history, ready to reemerge in new yet at the same time eerily familiar manifestations.

About the author:

Name: Mike
Country: United States
Interests: numismatics, reading, history, Star Trek, computer games, Chinese
Blogs: coming soon!


China, Deng Xiaoping, Four Modernizations, History Of China, Intellectual, Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong, May Fourth Movement, Modernity, Qing Dynasty, Reform, Society, Tiyong

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