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A Bitter Revolution

The May Fourth Movement took its name from a violent protest
in Beijing on the 4th of May 1919, sparked by
outrage at the Versailles Treaty transferring the German colonies in China to Japan. In A Bitter Revolution,
Rana Mitter follows the strands that run through that movement and the broader
New Culture Movement down to the present. The result is a refreshingly
different perspective on modern China
? one which avoids making the rise of communism the central story.

Mitter describes the events of the protest, in which a former minister was
beaten and a house set alight. He then steps back to give a history of
Confucianism, background on the May Fourth and New Culture Movements, and a brief
history of late-Imperial and Republican China down to 1919.

The May Fourth Movement was essentially urban and Beijing
and Shanghai were key centers; students and
institutions such as Peking
University were at its
heart. Mitter follows a few key figures: editor of Life Weekly Zou
Taofen, writers Lu Xun and Ding Ling, and entrepreneur and journalist Du

The period brought major social and economic changes: increasing numbers of
factory workers and jobs for women, the spread of literacy and rise of a print
culture, more freedom in social relationships, and openings for entrepreneurs.
Some of this is illustrated with cases from the Reader''s Mailbox
section of Life magazine.

Turning to politics, Mitter looks at attitudes to Confucianism, approaches
to the West, the rise of nationalism, the presence of Japan as threat and
model, the Communist and Nationalist parties (both of which subscribed to forms
of secular Enlightenment modernity), and the status of women. The
focus is on ideas rather than on a narrative of events:

The communist-dominated version of Chinese history
obscures the rich variety of political alternatives which the May Fourth era
brought forward. There were many different ideas put forward to save the
nation. Communism was the thread of thought which would ultimately win out,
but in the early twentieth century, there were Chinese interested in anarchism,
guild socialism, feminism, fascism, and liberalism, to name but a few.

In the dark years of invasion by Japan, World War, the Revolution,
and the Great Leap Forward, May Fourth ideas were if not forgotten then put

Overall, individualism, free-thinking, and iconoclasm,
as well as an embrace of the foreign as part of what it meant to be
Chinese, all typical of the New Culture thinkers, were not at a premium at a
time of mass unemployment, war, famine, and revolution. Nor did the mass
campaigns that shaped the early Mao era encourage these values

The Cultural Revolution saw some startling appropriations of May Fourth ideas.
Figures such as the conveniently dead Lu Xun were made into heroes, with their
rejection of tradition and appeals to destruction taken out of context. There
were real parallels in the emphasis on youth, violence, and iconoclasm, but the
Cultural Revolution was reactionary in its attacks on pluralism and its
imposition of traditional morality and gender roles.

Perhaps most notable was the Cultural Revolution''s
xenophobia. This was the diametrical opposite of the May Fourth era, which
often unthinkingly embraced western ideas.

The new era decade of the 1980s saw something akin to the New
Culture Movement, with an opening up to criticism, greater social freedom, and
economic opportunities. Two key cultural productions were Bo Yang''s novel The
Ugly Chinaman and the documentary Heshang. And the 1989
Tian''anmen movement was explicitly linked to May Fourth: students again played
a key role and there was a focus on science and democracy and a turning towards
the West.

Mitter argues that the Tian''anmen crackdown was not as dramatic a watershed
as it might appear: some of the ensuing changes might have come anyway, with
the collapse of the Soviet Unioend
of the Cold War, and reform did not stop. He looks at the dramatic changes in
twenty-first century Beijing and Shanghai, the turn to nationalism (most
notably in anti-Japanese sentiment), and the alternative offered by Taiwan. He
suggests that it may not be specific May Fourth ideas that are most important
for China''s
future, but rather an acceptance of pluralism and the ability to sustain
different and competing ideas about its identity.

Bitter Revolution is written for a broad audience. It would make
sense for a newcomer to read a more general history of modern China first,
but Mitter includes enough background that that''s not essential. And for those
inspired to further reading there''s a thematically organized guide to
further reading, in addition to endnotes.


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