Sunday, May 4, 2008

Chinese Intellectuals and Revolution

89 years ago today and less than 8 years after the collapse of Qing Dynasty, the first and most significant mass movement in modern China – the May Fourth Movement 五四運動 began at the Tiananmen Square of Beijing. Thousands of university students gathered and demonstrated against the foreign imperialism and China’s government dominated by warlords when they learned details of the Treaty of Versailles of WWI in which the Article 156 stipulated transfer of German concessions in Shandong province to Japan.

One can’t overstate the significance of this event; it unleashed of the intellectual energy and emotion throughout the nation that has been bouncing against the corrupted and ignorant Qing Dynasty and foreign imperialism since 19th century; it unveiled debates of many competing western philosophies, ideas, and experiments in pursuit of ideals of freedom, democracy, science, and justice that form the paths of China of the ensuing century. Traces of it can be easily found as the country continued to try to find its own identity and define its future with sometimes critical self-examinations, doubts and complete rejections of certain traditions including the Confucianism.

Some of the most notable intellectuals on diverging paths (from the classical liberalism) include: Hu Shi 胡適, an America educated student of the famous philosopher John Dewey, who advocated pragmatic evolutionary change and made significant contributions to the language reform and Chinese Liberalism; mostly self-educated Chen Duxiu and Japan educated head librarian of Beijing University Li Dazhao (yes, Mao Zedong’s one time boss) who were initially attracted to anarchist communism and later turned to Marxism after they found the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. Indeed the movement reflected the public sentiments and urge of diagonal and seemingly paradoxical simultaneous responses of nationalism on one end, and admiration and adoption of the western experience and theory on the other hand. Unfortunately disappointments at the conflicts and perpetual gaps between ideals and self-interest in Darwinian world politics, such as what was illustrated in post WWI negotiations regarding President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, only pushed most of these intellectuals and China down the paths of polarizing authoritarian choices of communism and fascism.

In The Gate of Heavenly Peace – The Chinese and their Revolution, 1895-1980 (and its excellent Chinese translation 天安門:中國的知識份子與革命 ), Jonathan Spence, a Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and foremost historian of modern China, recreated the turbulent, traumatic and yet romantic history in a sense through lives and stories of Chinese intellectuals who devoted and risked themselves for dramatic changes of the country. Most of them have experience and studied abroad to learn from countries include England, France, Russia, Japan, and U.S. With the flourishing philosophical, social, political debates and revolutions in Europe from 18th through early 20th centuries, these young intellectuals and scholars absorbed the theory and experiences like sponge and created their own adaptations for China, in a hurry.

In particular, three leading intellectuals and scholars of different beliefs and choices across generations were selected to highlight the threads of that 100 years and how they shaped and were shaped by the history. They are: Kang YouWei 康有為 (1858-1927), the leader and strong believer of the constitutional monarchy who convinced the 17 year old Qing Emperor GuangXu 光緒 of the ill-fated Hundred Day's Reform 戊戌變法 in summer 1898, against the will of the de facto ruler Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后; Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936), the founder of the modern Vernachular Chinese 白話文 and a staunch socialist, who was the harshest critic of the social problems of China and Chinese National Character as illustrated by his legendary book The True Story of Ah Q 阿Q正傳; Ding Ling丁玲 (1904-1986) on the other hand, an independent and spirited feminist writer, who have served high positions in Communist Party and survived purges and persecutions through her life but never wavered in her deepest belief and commitment to her reform cause.

The book ends with a brief story of Wei Jingsheng 魏京生, son of a Communist Party cadre, a former Red Guard during the violent Culture Revolution, and an electrician of Beijing Zoo. Shortages of paper, ink and strict control of news media and publication did not deter him. Lack of dissemination mechanisms and channels did not stop him (and many others) to engage in substantive debates and discussions (note that PCs, Internet, BBS, and WWW only became available and popular in US more than a decade later). On Dec 5, 1978, responding to Communist China’s supreme leader Deng XiaoPing’s call for reform with The Four Modernizations (Agriculture, Industry, Science and Technology, and National Defense), Wei put up a signed (handwritten) poster of his manifesto Democracy: The Fifth Modernization (第五个现代化民主及其他) on the famous Democracy Wall, a 100-yd. stretch of brick wall on Changan Avenue at Xidan Street near Tiananmen Square. He challenged directly the authoritarian Communist regime and inaugurated the public demands for freedom and democracy in China. 10 years later, on June 4, 1989, Communist China Army entered Tiananmen Square and massacred hundreds to thousands of protesting students and citizens. Wei spent the next 18 years of his life mostly in jail from 1979 till Chinese government exiled him to U.S. in 1997.

Of course, the story does not end there and there are many similar ones among the Chinese Intellectuals. Cross the strait, a highly respected intellectual and writer Bo Yang 柏楊 (1920-2008) just passed away 5 days ago in Taiwan. He was one time sentenced to death for treason and jailed for over 9 years for his sarcastic “translation” of popular American cartoon Popeye the Sailor Man dis-respecting president Chiang Kai-Shek and his son. His 1984 speech and essay The Ugly Chinese was extremely popular and generated a lot of discussions among Chinese throughout the world; the work was motivated by the well-known 1958 political novel The Ugly American and may be viewed as an echo to Lu Xun’s criticisms half a century earlier. Ironically, while Lu Xun’s work was banned in Taiwan until 1980’s, Bo Yang’s work was banned in Communist China until early 2000’s. These stories and recent political attacks on Barack Obama (and John Kerry in 2004 presidential election for the matter) do share at least one thing in common – an authoritarianism and populism tactic that attacks the intellectuals by equating criticalness to being unpatriotic.

On this day, as I read these and many other stories, I began to truly appreciate the old saying "The pen is mightier than the sword". I am deeply touched by the awesome power and selfless contempt to dictatorship and obscurantism demonstrated by so many courageous intellectuals and writers; they showed us the ultimate patriotism with humanity. Aided with technology like Internet, new generations of Intellectuals will continue to rise and flourish, to accelerate the social changes, and to lead forceful pushes for freedom and justice for us all.

Talk to you soon!

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