To Believe or Not to Believe: Zhou Zuoren’s
Alternative Approaches to the Chinese Enlightenment

Tonglu Li

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 25, no. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 206-260

This essay explores the enlightenment thought of Zhou Zuoren (1885-1967), a controversial figure who played a leading role in the May Fourth movement, but has long been marginalized afterward for questioning the mainstream thinking in the late 1920s and the 1930s, and for collaborating with the Japanese in the 1940s. Zhou has been highly regarded as an essayist. Through his highly fragmental and diversified essays, Zhou proposed and practiced an alternative version of enlightenment. He insisted that enlightenment does not mean replacing “old beliefs” with “new knowledge” as unquestionable truth, but a critical attitude to the “new knowledge” itself. He shared with other May Fourth enlightenment thinkers a distain for traditional Chinese culture, but instead of centering his attack on Confucianism, he adopted a cultural anthropological perspective to pay attention to diverse cultural practices and concluded that the Daoist religion, a form Of Shamanism, was the true dominant belief in Chinese society. Zhou was skeptical about the mainstream enlightenment, and all other “modern” social and intellectual movements during the 1920s and the 1930s. He was convinced that all these movements had taken on a strongly religious character and had become Boxer Movements in spirit. Regarding himself as the single rationalist to resist the fanatic trends of his time, Zhou endeavored to disseminate knowledge, to rationalize old beliefs through sympathetic understanding, to appropriate religious rites in practice, and to purge the fear and terror in beliefs.