Touches of History:
An Entry into “May Fourth” China

By Chen Pingyuan

Tr. by Michel Hockx, with Maria af Sandeberg, Ugana Sze Pui Kwan, Christopher Neil Payne, and Christopher Rosenmeier

Reviewed by Tze-ki Hon
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2012)

Book cover for Touches of History

Chen Pingyuan.
Touches of History:
An Entry into ‘May Fourth’ China.
Leiden: Brill Press, 2011. 432 pages.
ISBN: 978-90-04-15753-8 (hard)

Despite being accepted as a pivotal event in modern China, the May Fourth movement remains ambiguous and highly contested. As Li Zehou points out, the ambiguity of May Fourth stems from its double nature—a symbol of nationalist resistance against Western (and Japanese) imperialism, on the one hand, and a cultural agenda to bring China into the modern age on the other. The tension of this double nature is clearly shown in the two different chronologies of the May Fourth: a one-day event of student protests against the Versailles Settlements that erupted in Beijing on May Fourth 1919, and a decade of literary and cultural reforms sparked by New Youth magazine (1915-1925). Although the political and cultural aspects of the May Fourth were closely connected, their relationship—particularly their relative importance—has been the subject of continual debate. In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, scholars of modern Chinese history and culture ferociously debated the legacy of the “May Fourth” struggle between the demand for national salvation and the need for cultural rejuvenation. Many participants in that “New May Fourth” debate, as it has come to be known, affirmed the Enlightenment values of liberty and freedom, while recognizing the importance of national salvation (especially the political unification led by the Chinese Communist Party). However, they questioned whether China has paid a heavy price by allowing “national salvation to prevail over cultural enlightenment” (救亡压到启蒙).

In Touches of History, Chen Pingyuan offers refreshing thoughts on how to come to grips with the ambiguity of the May Fourth. As a participant in the “New May Fourth movement” and a Peking University scholar of modern Chinese literature with extensive experience, training, and archival resources, Chen is ideally positioned to critically reexamine May Fourth history. Translated by Michel Hockx and a group of his students, Touches of History (first published as Chumo lishi yu jinru wusi 触摸历史与进入五四; Beijing daxue, 2005) can be read both as a series of essays based on Chen’s accumulated research into the May Fourth and as his subtle rebuttal to attempts at attributing a single definitive meaning to it. For him, the historical truths of the May Fourth and historiographical approaches to it are inseparable, because fact and myth have become entangled and self-replicating. “When you listen to friendly conversations between scholars who know the materials [of the May Fourth],” Chen comments, “they will not just tell you which historical mysteries have been resolved, but they will also openly admit that other details are subject to debate, their truth impossible to determine” (pp. 55-56).

To prove his point, Chen begins Touches of History with an essay on methodology. First, he recounts the manifold events of May Fourth 1919, showing the spontaneity and haphazardness of student leaders as the protests unfolded. Next, he contrasts these unscripted student protests with the edifying and uplifting newspaper reports in the following days that launched a “history of reminiscences.” This comparison demonstrates how deeply the “history of reminiscences” has shaped our perception of the May Fourth. “‘Lining up’ different versions side by side and presenting the richness of the historical materials,” Chen writes, “reminds the reader that by far not all ‘primary sources’ can be relied upon” (p. 56).

Chen’s skepticism of primary sources motivates him to look for new information, and to ask questions that are not usually asked. For him, the only way to break from the “history of reminiscences” is to carry out large numbers of small-scale studies. Describing them as “writings in the margins,” Chen sees these seemingly disjointed and trivial portraits as the building blocks for a more nuanced understanding of May Fourth. “The nice thing about being in the margins,” Chen tells us, “is that one need not shoulder the heavy burden of providing a comprehensive introduction, assessment, nor reconsideration of the ‘May Fourth’ Movement. One can follow one’s interests and select some individuals and events that are worth discussing, and write about them freely” (54).

In emphasizing the creativity in “being in the margins,” Chen does not imply that comprehensive assessments are no longer necessary. Instead, he sees the two as interdependent in the sense that small-scale studies are possible only with the guidance of comprehensive assessments and, conversely, broad sweeping interpretations require the support and authentication of small-scale research. This interdependency is clearly shown in the five case studies included in Touches of History. On the surface, the topics of the five studies seem a bit haphazardly selected from a wide spectrum: the popularity of New Youth(Chapter 2), Cai Yuanpei’s educational philosophy (Chapter 3), Zhang Taiyan’s attitude toward the vernacular language (Chapter 4), Hu Shi’s experimentation in vernacular poetry (Chapter 5), and archival sources about Fu Sinian, Liang Qichao and Wu Mei recently discovered in London, Paris, and Beijing (Chapter 6). But upon closer examination, these studies all concern historical figures and events central to the formation of the canonical image of the May Fourth as a literary and cultural movement.

For readers familiar with the argument that May Fourth was the “Chinese Enlightenment,” these studies both affirm and challenge that canonical image. Take, for example, the well-known case of New Youth, a journal whose editors, authors, and content have become synonymous with the canonical image of May Fourth as a literary and cultural movement. Conventional accounts tell us that the success of New Youthcame from the editors’ earnest advocacy for an independent spirit among young people, a new writing style based on the vernacular, and a critical reappraisal of the Confucian patrilineal family structure. These three concepts—new youth, new writing, and new culture—were arguably the very foundation of the “Chinese Enlightenment.” Chen, however, reveals that the reasons for the popularity of New Youth were more complex than what one finds in many of the established literary-historical narratives. In addition to its cultural agenda, New Youth attracted a large readership because of its cultural capital (i.e., its connections with Peking University) and its historical roots (i.e., the vernacular movement in the late Qing). Through such meticulous research into and re-contextualization of canonized May Fourth primary documents such as New Youth, Chen is able to elucidate the complexity of the cultural field of early twentieth-century China.

Similarly, Chen’s studies of Zhang Taiyan and Hu Shi remind us of the many voices in the vernacular movement. The conventional image of Zhang Taiyan is that he was a die-hard cultural conservative who preserved the old-fashioned belles-lettres. He was, in short, the antipode of Hu Shi, often considered the pioneer of vernacular Chinese poetry. Yet, in Chen’s two studies, the dichotomy between Zhang and Hu begins to fade. Focusing on a collection of Zhang’s speeches in Tokyo from 1906 to 1911, Chen shows that, as a revolutionary leader, Zhang did not adamantly oppose the vernacular language. On the contrary, he frequently delivered his public speeches in the vernacular and was skillful in using the language to motivate the masses. Conversely, Hu Shi’s experimentation in vernacular poetry was not as accidental and spontaneous as he claimed. By chronicling how Lu Xun and a team of literary scholars collaborated to “edit and modify Hu’s poems,” Chen demonstrates that Hu’s “experiments” were actually calculated acts to create a canon of vernacular poetry.

As a whole, Chen’s “writings on the margins” consistently edify and engage readers; they exemplify the joy and satisfaction to be obtained from literary historical scholarship, once the indeterminacy of the May Fourth’s meaning is taken as a virtue. That joy and satisfaction come from such things as the discovery of an obscure text hidden in a far corner of a library that unexpectedly reveals how little we know about early twentieth-century China; or when the hard labor of archival research yields new insights into a presumptively fixed historical account.

By reexamining both primary sources and received interpretive paradigms, Chen reminds readers of the complexity of literary historical scholarship, and thereby both reappraises the “May Fourth” and reinvigorate it as an intriguing subject for research and reflection.

Tze-ki Hon
State University of New York at Geneseo