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A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with…

A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World

by Rana Mitter

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Survey of Chinese intellectual/social development in the 20th century. Tries to cover so much, and thus covers too little. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
This examination of the May Fourth Movement is divided into two sections: the movement itself and its long term effects. In describing the May Fourth Movement, Mitter’s analysis is fairly orthodox. The movement was a response to frustration with Confucian values and was devoted to avoiding “national extinction” threatened by western attacks on its sovereignty. It promoted individual freedoms, modernity and social justice, ideas which were incorporated into some CCP programs, and to a lesser extent some KMT programs, when May Fourth activists gained power in later decades. Mitter’s main argument about the movement was that it held near infinite possibility in 1919 and was not destined to be subsumed by other ideologies in the late 1920’s. The variety and intensity of the discourse allowed for enormous flexibility on what programs were put forth. Choices made by prominent May Fourth participants drove the movement in a way that ultimately marginalized it. Mitter argues that in addition to the leaders it produced, the May Fourth Movement served, and continues to serve, as a powerful national myth that is rebuilt for each new era in China.

The myth of the May Fourth Movement maintained its power for a variety of reasons. The movement is often portrayed as the moment when China stood up and began its climb to rebuilding its national dignity. Its suppression by the KMT in the 1930’s, when Chiang Kai-shek attempted to build a powerful central government that did not place much value on individual freedom, did little to diminish its luster, particularly given the ineptness of the KMT. When the CCP won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, they harkened back to the May Fourth Movement as one of the party’s intellectual cornerstones, with many early CCP decrees were couched in the language of democracy and equality. May Fourth was then quietly put away until it was needed again. It was rarely discussed during the Great Leap Forward, when Mao Zedong tolerated very little dissent or discussion of his polices, but Mao resurrected it again for the Cultural Revolution. He used the May Fourth Movement to demonstrate how the communist revolution had lost its way and that it needed to return to its roots. He particularly exploited the movement’s iconoclast rhetoric and emphasis on rebelling against authority (all except Mao, who was a very authoritative icon). Non-officials invoke the May Fourth Movement as well, particularly reformers who suggest that China has a tradition of democracy.

Mitter also connects the May Fourth Movement to contemporaneous events in Italy, Germany, Turkey, Russia and Japan, as well as later events in the United States, western Europe and India. He does not spend a great deal of time on the issue, but he argues that many countries were experiencing the same sort of pains while growing into modernity.

The May Fourth myth in Chinese national consciousness is the strongest part of Mitter’s work. He demonstrates how easily it can be manipulated by both the PRC government and its Chinese critics. Mitter’s research on that manipulation is masterfully done. He examined writing from May Fourth activists, CCP and KMT publications, foreign scholarly writing as well as the limited domestic criticism that has been allowed by the PRC. The myth has served as a powerful nationalizing and legitimizing tool for the government, although that tool has occasionally been used against it as well. ( )
  Scapegoats | Dec 23, 2007 |
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Raises such big questions and does so in such strikingly good prose.
added by JeffR132 | editSunday Times
This is a brave book of big ideas sketched onto a huge canvas... a luminous and original study, written in a lively style, which will serve for years as an outstanding introduction to its subject.
added by JeffR132 | editHistory Today
Imaginative and interesting.
added by JeffR132 | editNew York Sun
Impressive and inventively researched.
added by JeffR132 | editFinancial Times
Skilfully blend[s] discussions of cultural, intellectual, and social history in a single highly readable narrative account.
added by JeffR132 | editChina Quarterly
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'Didn't you say, as we were going through those streets, "They never greet me, the hate me?" Well, you're a clever man, you ought to know that those children don't hate you at all - it's just that they've got nothing to eat.'

'I think they hate me,' [the priest] told me, slowly, 'because they've abandoned their belief in God.'

(Ödön von Horváth, The Age of the Fish, 1939)
For Pamina
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An observer standing by the back wall of an old, attractive house in a back alleyway in Beijing, late in the afternoon of 4 May 1919, would have glimpsed an unusual sight.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0192803417, Hardcover)

China today is poised to play a key role on the world stage, but in the early twentieth century the situation was very different. In this powerful new look at modern China, Rana Mitter goes back to a pivotal moment in Chinese history to uncover the origins of the painful transition from pre-modern to modern world.
Mitter identifies May 4, 1919, as the defining moment of China's twentieth-century history. On that day, outrage over the Paris peace conference triggered a vast student protest that led in turn to "the May Fourth Movement." Just seven years before, the 2,000-year-old imperial system had collapsed. Now a new group of urban, modernizing thinkers began to reject Confucianism and traditional culture in general as hindrances in the fight against imperialism, warlordism, and the oppression of women and the poor. Forward-looking, individualistic, embracing youth, this "New Culture movement" made a lasting impact on the critical decades that followed: the 1940s, with the war against Japan and the civil war between the Nationalist Party and the Communists; the 1960s, with the bizarre, seemingly anarchic world of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution; and the 1980s, with the rise of a semi-market economy against the backdrop of continued single-party rule and growing inequality. Throughout each of these dramatically different eras, the May 4 themes persisted, from the insanity of the Cultural Revolution to the recent romance with space-age technology.
China, Mitter concludes, still seems to be in search of a new narrative about what the country is, and what it should become. And May 4 remains a touchstone in that search.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:49 -0400)

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"The defining moment in the development of a modern China is shown to be 4 May 1919 at the Tian'anmen gate in Beijing, where a new generation rejected Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture, and protested violently against the Paris Peace Conference. Chinese cities at that time still bore the imprints of their ancient past, with narrow lanes and sacred temples, but they were starting to change with the influx of foreign traders, teachers, and missionaries, all eager to shape China's ancient past into a modern present. People's lives changed, from the politicians and novelists adapting to the realities of a globalized world, to the men and women who worked, loved, and laughed in the parks and cafes of the new China."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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