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Xi Jinping’s Peculiar Packaging of the May 4th Spirit

By Rebecka Eriksson

Early this month, Chinese top leader Xi Jinping made a high profile visit to China’s most prestigious university.  While there, he had photographs taken with students and gave a speech that showcased, in revealing and sometimes bizarre ways, his penchant for drawing inspiration from a dizzyingly diverse array of parts of his country’s past, with Confucius and Mao Zedong and events of the early twentieth century all getting shout outs.

The setting for the speech was important.  It took place at an institution known internationally as “Peking University,” in Chinese called Beijing Daxue or simply “Beida,” for short, and sometimes described as China’s counterpart to Harvard.  The many claims to fame of Beida, whose website now features photos of Xi’s visit and a summary of some themes from his speech, include the central roles it has played in student struggles, from the great May 4th Movement of 1919, in which some future founders of the Chinese Communist Party took part, to the upheaval of 1989 that began in mid-April and ended with the June 4th Massacre.

The timing of Xi’s visit to Beida was notable.  He went to the campus to help the university mark the 95th anniversary of the May 4th Movement, which is important not only to the university but also to the CCP, which celebrates it as an event that helped put China on the glorious path to the “Liberation” of 1949.  His comments to students, not surprisingly, focused on the need to carry forward the patriotic “spirit of May 4th,” and, equally unsurprisingly, called on educated youths to follow the CCP’s guidance in doing this.

If it sounds a bit contradictory to call for students to look back on a time of radicalism, but do so in a way that supports the status quo, it is. Moreover, in speaking about any sort of student activism in the past, Xi was touching upon a potentially risky subject, given the nearness of the anniversary of the bloody 1989 crackdown that the CCP refused to talk about — or let others on the Chinese mainland discuss..

The fact that the anniversaries of movements that took place in years ending with a nine fall at roughly the same time makes things really complicated.  Student protesters of 1989 claimed inspiration from the May 4th Movement, just as the Chinese Communist Party does. By invoking May 4th and the intimately related New Culture Movement (a term for a variety of iconoclastic and experimental intellectual currents from the period lasting from the mid-1910s through early 1920s), the 1989 protestors at Tiananmen Square sought to reclaim a sacred part of national history for themselves, presenting themselves as truer patriots than the people ruling China, in doing so highlighting the ways in which the Party had strayed from its roots.  Without mentioning any of this history, when Xi invoked May 4th this year, he worked not just to reclaim it for the Party, but also to distance it from past debates by wrapping it in decidedly 21st century associations such as his government’s newly pronounced “Chinese dream.” Surely there must be some confusion as to what the “spirit of May 4th” really is, when it can just as confidently be used to incite protests and arguments for democracy and reform as it can be used to reaffirm the authority of whatever the CCP orthodoxy of the day may be.

One thing that makes all this variety possible is that the May 4th activists themselves hardly embraced a single ideological or political doctrine — if anything they could be described as a generation inspired by a multitude of ideas, ideologies, philosophies, and political struggles. The May 4th Movement and the New Culture Movement consisted of eclectic compilations of ideas perceived as “modern” (foreign or not) mixed with a sense of patriotism and combined with dissatisfaction with the national situation. If there is an ism at the heart of the “May 4th spirit,” Lu Xun’s concept of nalazhuyi, which can be translated as “grabbism,” perhaps comes closest to capturing its essence.

Lu Xun, who is widely seen as China’s most influential twentieth-century literary figure and has been treated extensively in an interview for this publication, described grabbism as taking bits and pieces of what was seen as useful, from Western culture as well as from Chinese history, to create a modern literature and a modern state. Now Xi could be said to be doing the same, collecting bits and pieces from the May 4th Movement itself, while also dipping back into ancient times and the periods in between 1919 and the present to suit contemporary purposes. To a degree, Xi’s grabbism could be seen as selective and strategic, whereas that of Lu Xun and his peers was more exploratory, testing the waters of modernity. I am not suggesting that the May 4th Movement did not use grabbism strategically — there was sometimes a bias then, too, for assimilating things that suited pre-existing ideas about social and cultural development. But “strategically using” is not the same as purposefully omitting, as is the case with Xi and the 1989 struggle, which could otherwise be regarded as a natural bridge between May 4th and today.

Xi implies that the May 4th activists would have supported his Chinese dream — that their movement could even be seen as its predecessor.Shannon Tiezzi, writing about his speech in The Diplomat, suggested that May 4th could be interpreted as the “first button” in Xi’s likening of China’s development to a shirt being buttoned. In that case, the analogy of this modern Chinese shirt could be regarded as a way of reinforcing the CCP’s claim that the Communist Revolution fulfilled the promise of May 4th and the New Culture Movement. With this interpretation, the analogy cancels out the need for future student protests: that button has already been buttoned. (For this to work the shirt must perhaps represent a Hegelian/Marxist theory of history, but then I might be reading too much into this…). To take this a step further one might look at the way Xi describes the university students of today’s China as “loveable, trustworthy, precious” etc., painting a picture of sweet and obedient youngsters, unable and unwilling to take to the streets in anger. Again, that button of history is already fastened. Considering this, perhaps the allusion to a time of student protests is not such a risky one to make after all.

As it is, it is difficult not to think about what the May 4th activists themselves would have had to say about Xi’s speech and the grabbism of China today. (Although I suspect that Lu Xun’s account on Weibo, a Chinese counterpart to Twitter, would have been purged by now; Mao Zedong did after all rationalize that the author, while to be admired for many things, had a satirical style unsuitable for a Communist society). Perhaps the youth of 1919 would have been pleased with some aspects of Xi’s phrasing, in particular his apparent belief in the “force of literature” and his insistence that the young intellectuals of Beida can represent socialist values to society. Similarly, the idea that academic research is needed for people to better understand themselves, in order to work towards social progress, seems like a nod back to Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy, the two celebrated symbols of the New Culture Movement.

But the fact that the May 4th Movement saw a third mister, Mr. Confucius, as the antithesis to Science and Democracy, seems to have been overlooked as the ideology behind the modern Chinese dream has been put together with selected pieces of his classics woven in. The New Culture Movement rallied against imperialism and feudalism, and many saw Confucius as the prime representative of the latter — Confucianism was one of the main targets of the movement, a figure practically all the most vocal participants in the struggles of the time agreed should be criticized. One might question how this resonates today, when “Chinese culture” is spread throughout the world through Confucius Institutes.

One of the May 4th Movement’s primary ideals was that of individualism and the freedom of independent expression, an ideal that seems difficult to reconcile with some aspects of today’s China as well as with Xi’s speech — particularly his wish that students follow the CCP’s guidance. When young activists today take to the streets, or rather to the web, they are still taking a risk by expressing their dissatisfaction. Most protests are deleted within minutes, although not all without first being shared/retweeted/reposted/reblogged (see for instance the recent Weibo-campaign showing support for Pu Zhiqiang, after he was among the intellectuals who came under fire from the state for daring to insist that the anniversary of 1989’s events be marked). Without the focus on individualism and the freedom of independent expression, what exactly remains of the May 4th spirit that they students at Beida are encouraged to follow?

Lu Xun defined grabbism at one point as borrowing with confidence from other cultures, an informed and conscious assimilation of ideas that were useful for the modernization of culture and society. Today’s grabbism seems confident enough, and confidence is undoubtedly necessary to combine allusions to the “American dream” with the reinstatement of Confucius as a national treasure, all while claiming the May 4th Movement as an ideological foundation and treating Mao as a heroic figure…But it is hard to shake the feeling that this use of grabbism is quite different from that of 1919, more about excluding inconvenient traditions and parts of the past than experimenting with different schools of thought. Assuming that grabbism is what remains of the May 4th spirit, it is important to look not only at what is grabbed, but also at how the grabbing is done.

Rebecka Eriksson recently completed her doctoral work at Lund University and is the author of Changing the Colours of the World: Modernism and Modernity in Chinese Drama and Film, 1919-1937.

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