In this episode we explore the move from liberalism toward Marxism among progressive intellectuals in the 1915-1919 period, and how those ideas began to be brought to the working class in China’s cities. This includes the New Culture Movement, the May 4th Movement, and the June 5th Movement.
Maurice Meisner, Li Ta-Chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism
Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism
Some names from this episode:
Yuan Shikai, leader of the Beiyang Army and dictator after the fall of the Qing
Sun Yat-sen/Sun Zhongshan, leader of the Guomindang
Chen Duxiu, editor of New Youth and leading New Culture intellectual
Lu Xun, progressive writer who wrote “A Madman’s Diary” for New Youth
Li Dazhao, collaborator with Chen Duxiu and leading proponent of learning from the Russian Revolution
Welcome to Episode 13 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast!
Before our detour into the personal history of the young Mao Zedong in our last episode, episode 12, we had left off with the end of Yuan Shikai’s dictatorship in 1916 and the dissolution of Chinese political order into what is called the Warlord Era, which dates from 1916-1927, and during which time Chinese territory was divided up between competing regional warlords.
I want you to take a step back and imagine yourself in the shoes of a progressive Chinese intellectual or revolutionary activist. The Revolution of 1911 had been the culmination of so much struggle and frustration, and the republic that came as a result of the Revolution was the object of so many people’s hopes. Then, when Yuan Shikai betrayed the people’s hopes and established his dictatorship, and then especially after he beat the Guomindang’s attempted “Second Revolution” in 1913, you can imagine the sense of despair that so many people felt. While long-time revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen went back to Japan and started plotting yet another revolution, lots of other people were crushed and demobilized.
The New Culture Movement
The most important result of this demoralization with the political situation was something called the New Culture Movement, which is usually dated to beginning in 1915 when a new magazine called New Youth was launched in Shanghai by someone named Chen Duxiu. Disgusted by the degeneration of official Chinese politics into the competition between warlords, with China’s central government being manipulated by whichever warlord currently occupied Beijing, Chen announced that New Youth would turn away from politics and concentrate on what he called the “cultivation of the youth.” New Youth quickly became the flagship publication of the New Culture Movement, as many other similar publication were started around the country.
The emphasis of the New Culture movement was on promoting western liberal values, such as the promotion of science and democratic values (which proved the impossibility of foregoing political discussion entirely), and on attacking Chinese tradition, and particularly Confucianism, for landing China in the mess it was currently in. Chen and most of the New Culture intellectuals rejected Chinese tradition almost entirely.
The significance of the name New Youth as the name of Chen’s journal can be seen in this quote from his “Call to Youth” that he put in the inaugural issue of the publication:
“The Chinese compliment others by saying, ‘He acts like an old man although young,’ Englishmen and Americans encourage one another by saying, ‘Keep young while growing old.’ Such is one respect in which the different ways of thought of the East and West are manifested. Youth is like early spring, like the rising sun, like trees and grass in bud, like a newly sharpened blade. It is the most valuable period of life. The function of youth in society is the same as that of a fresh and vital cell in a human body…”
Chen goes on to talk about how China is dominated by the old and the rotten, while the values of science and democracy coming from Europe and America represent youth and vitality. So, while Chen and the other New Culture intellectuals were not the first Chinese advocates of science and democracy, they stand out for the vehemence with which they tended to attack Chinese traditional values.
One particularly important writer, Lu Xun, began writing at this time as part of the New Culture Movement. His first major work, “A Madman’s Diary,” which was published in New Youth, is a short story about a man who gradually comes to realize that Chinese civilization has been based on cannibalism, and that all the values of Confucianism which he had been taught were the basis of an ethical life and good society are in fact the values of cannibalism. The story ends with the line “Save the children…,” which gets to the heart of the goal of the New Culture Movement. Rather than advocate for political change in a political situation that they saw as hopeless, the idea of the New Culture Movement was to educate particularly the upcoming generation to reject Confucian values.
The New Culture Movement continued along these lines for several years. And in the meantime, a few major things happened.
First, China was drawn into World War One. It didn’t send troops, but it did declare war on Germany and sent about 100,000 laborers to work on docks and construction sites in western Europe, which freed French and British men to fight in the war.
The conditions that Chinese worked in were not good. A short Chinese phrasebook given to British officers supervising Chinese workers included phrases like:
“Why don’t you eat this food?”
“This latrine is reserved for Europeans and is not available to Chinese,” which gives you a flavor for the sort of treatment the Chinese allies of the British and French got in Europe.
Most Chinese people hoped that with Germany’s defeat, and China’s contribution to the war effort, that the German colony in Shandong would be returned to China after the war. If you remember from episode 11, Japan had taken over Shandong when it declared war on Germany, but the hope was that with the final peace settlement at Versailles, that Shandong would be given back to China. This hope was particularly stoked by all of the talk of the importance of national self-determination by American president Woodrow Wilson. But, as many colonial peoples learned at the time, he really only meant self-determination for European peoples.
The May 4th Movement (and June 5th Movement)
As it turned out, when the peace agreement was finally settled in Versailles, Japan remained in possession of the former German colony in Shandong. Masses of Chinese people felt betrayed, and huge demonstrations broke out in Beijing on May 4, 1919, and soon all over the country, against the Versailles treaty, against Japanese and western imperialism, and against the Chinese government and warlords who had acquiesced to the continued occupation of Shandong. The New Youth magazine had relocated to Beijing in 1917, when Chen Duxiu was named Dean of the School of Letters at Beijing University and gave jobs there to many of his fellow collaborators on the journal. So when the protest movement erupted in Beijing, the leading lights of the New Culture Movement found themselves in the middle of the action, and suddenly they no longer felt it was responsible to abstain from political action.
There had always been a tension in the New Culture Movement between on the one hand seeing the western liberal democracies, such as Britain, France and the United States, as models to emulate, and recognizing that these countries were oppressors of China. After Versailles, this contradiction became more stark, and some New Culture intellectuals began to feel that perhaps there were some problems with liberal democracy. However, rather than retreating back into an embrace of Confucian values, many Chinese people who were being radicalized during the protest movement began to take a closer look at what was happening in the Soviet Union.
The Russian Revolution had begun in 1917, and progressive people in China were generally aware that it was happening, and in general wished the Russian communists well. Summing up the general opinion, it was that Chinese progressives were sympathetic to the overthrow of the monarchy in Russia, but were pessimistic about the Bolsheviks’ ability to hold on to power in the face of the opposition from and invasions by so many other countries (many of which, after all, had invaded China at some point and were constantly taking their pound of flesh from China). As the Bolsheviks persevered, Chinese progressives were impressed by their staying power, but the general feeling before May 4th was more one of general curiosity about and sympathy for something that wasn’t seen as being particularly relevant to China. Now, events took place in China which caused many who had previously idealized the liberal democratic systems of Europe and America to look at the Soviet Union as a more relevant, and less oppressive, model for China’s progress.
In early June of 1919 workers in Shanghai joined the protest movement by going on strike against foreign enterprises. As workers joined students on the streets in the national movement, a huge change took place in the outlook of the students who had been protesting. Prior to what started being called the June 5 Movement, the general outlook of the intellectuals who had been participating in the New Culture Movement was that China’s laboring masses embodied the sort of ignorance and backwardness that the New Culture Movement was trying to educate China’s youth away from. Now, confronted with large numbers of these laboring masses as allies on the streets of China’s cities, the intellectuals felt a need to bridge the gap between themselves and the workers.
The gap between the students and the workers was immense. Students from Beijing University went out to Beijing’s working class districts to unite with the workers, but often found communication difficult on their initial forays, even when they were armed with a ‘dictionary of popular usage’ to help them communicate with the workers. The past 150 years or so of world history is full of instances where radicalized students went out and tried to unite with and organize working people. Despite the difficulties that the May 4th intellectuals had in their first forays out to join forces with the workers, their situation was ultimately much more favorable than in many other instances of intellectuals going to the workers (or peasants, for that matter), because the strike movement against foreign companies had already set the workers into motion. So when the workers and students came together in China, it was ultimately like two rivers flowing together.
The joining together of the workers’ and students’ movements resulted in much more consciousness about the conditions of working people, which heightened Chinese radicals’ sense of the relevance of the Russian Revolution to their own situation. On the one hand, the mobilization of the workers made clear that China was growing economically as part of a world system. While urban and industrial workers were still a small part of China’s massive population, their populations were growing as China further integrated into the world economy, a process that was proceeding apace despite the chaos in the country’s politics.
Intellectuals began to become aware of and concerned about the working and living conditions of workers at this time as well, and they wrote articles about the long hours, low pay, inadequate food and crowded living conditions that workers experienced. Most importantly, fighting side by side with the workers in the streets led the intellectuals to no longer see the workers as objects to be acted upon, but as subjects of history. That is, the intellectuals had previously seen the workers as ignorant people who needed to be educated and uplifted, who needed to have their culture changed through education. They thought of the workers as people who needed to be “spoken to,” not “spoken with.” Now, they understood more and more that the workers didn’t just have things to learn from the intellectuals, they also had things to teach the intellectuals. And as the May 4th Movement activists began to think about workers as political actors, the socialist revolution next-door in Russia began to seem even more relevant.
The tension between the roles of workers, peasants and intellectuals in a revolution, and then in a revolutionary society created by a successful revolution, is one of the big themes repeated throughout the 20th century, so we will be coming back to it again in the future. But to just say a few words about it now, we can see right here in 1919, at the beginning of the immediate process that would lead to founding the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, this tension already coming to the fore. It’s only natural, after all, that people who deal with ideas, intellectuals and students, as part of what they do, are just about everywhere in the world the people who first pick up revolutionary ideology. But then, revolutionary ideologies require that the main actors in revolutions be the oppressed people themselves, the workers and peasants. And so this question of how ideas originally mainly held by intellectuals then come to be taken up by workers and peasants, and the transformations that those ideas necessarily undergo both through the extended experience of revolutionary practice and through being taken up by people in different social positions than the intellectuals who are always the first people to adopt Marxist ideas in their own country, is a crucial question in understanding any revolutionary process.
In China, there is some particular social baggage that forms part of the tension between revolutionary intellectuals and working people due to the cultural context. In China, scholars had historically been the ruling administrators. People studied in order to gain power, studying served in China even more to put distance between the scholar and the masses of people than was the case in other parts of the world. Of course, all over the world, the difference between people who work with their minds and people who work with their hands has been a huge division in society. But in China, it was even more-so. There is quote from Mao Zedong which gets at this question, this is from 1942, from his Introduction to the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art:
“I began life as a student and at school acquired the ways of a student; I then used to feel it undignified to do even a little manual labour, such as carrying my own luggage in the presence of my fellow students, who were incapable of carrying anything, either on their shoulders or in their hands. At that time I felt that intellectuals were the only clean people in the world, while in comparison workers and peasants were dirty. I did not mind wearing the clothes of other intellectuals, believing them clean, but I would not put on clothes belonging to a worker or peasant, believing them dirty. But after I became a revolutionary and lived with workers and peasants and with soldiers of the revolutionary army, I gradually came to know them well, and they gradually came to know me well too. It was then, and only then, that I fundamentally changed the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois feelings implanted in me in the bourgeois schools. I came to feel that compared with the workers and peasants the unremoulded intellectuals were not clean and that, in the last analysis, the workers and peasants were the cleanest people and, even though their hands were soiled and their feet smeared with cow-dung, they were really cleaner than the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois intellectuals. That is what is meant by a change in feelings, a change from one class to another. If our writers and artists who come from the intelligentsia want their works to be well received by the masses, they must change and remould their thinking and their feelings. Without such a change, without such remoulding, they can do nothing well and will be misfits.”
This question then got very complicated later, once the revolution was victorious in 1949. But we’ll get into that later on. For those who want to dip their toes into these problems more now, I’ve put a movie from China from the 1970s, called Breaking with Old Ideas, on the peopleshistoryofideas.com website. That movie gets into some of these questions, and if this is a topic that interests you, I think you will find it very interesting.
Anyways, back to the May 4th Movement in 1919!
By the end of 1919, Chen Duxiu, the man who in 1915 had said that he intended to just focus on culture and education as means to affect social change, now said: “I believe that measures concerning a society’s economy should take up the greater part of politics. Moreover, if the economic problems of a society remain unresolved, then neither can any important political problems be solved. A society’s economy is the foundation for its politics.”
No longer did Chen or many of the other New Culture Movement intellectuals feel that education was sufficient. Now, they felt that education could not be effective if underlying economic problems were not dealt with. By the end of 1919, as can be seen from the quote from Chen, many of the New Culture Movement intellectuals were now moving in a Marxist direction.
If there was one particular New Culture Movement figure who led the way in pointing out that there was something interesting going on in Russia that maybe the Chinese radicals could learn from, it was the head librarian and history professor at Beijing University, Li Dazhao. Li was somewhat different than most other New Culture intellectuals in that he represented a minority line of thinking which saw some value in some Chinese traditions. He felt that there was some good in Chinese culture which could be kept, and had not been as uncritically accepting of western liberalism as most of his colleagues.
Even as Li took the lead in calling on China’s radicals to look closely at the Russian Revolution for what they could learn from it, he emphasized the importance of adapting whatever was learned from the Russian Revolution to China’s specific circumstances. That might seem obvious, but as we have seen, many of his colleagues had taken uncritical attitudes toward western liberalism, and as we will see in future episodes, a similar uncritical attitude toward Russian experiences would go on to become a major problem for some Chinese communists.
Even as Marxism was first being introduced to China, Li put forward some novel ideas for adapting Marxism to Chinese conditions which would have major resonances in the future. In February 1919, not long before the May 4th protest movement began, Li wrote a series of articles titled “Youth and the Villages.” In these articles, Li urged urban intellectual youth to go return to China’s rural villages. Here’s a representative excerpt to give you a sense of what he was saying:
“How can you not hurry and pack your belongings, liquidate your debts, and return to your villages? Every day in the cities you seek a bit of compassion, and if you are lucky enough one day to obtain some, then is that really happiness?… If you return to the countryside soon, then no matter whether you engage in mental labor or physical labor, cultivate the land or become a teacher in a primary school, your own lives will become simpler. Each day you will be engaged for eight hours in work that will benefit the people and will benefit yourselves as well, and you can devote your leisure time to the development of the village and to the reform of the life of the peasants; thus, on the one hand, you will be engaged in labor, and, on the other hand, you will join with your fellow workers… to discuss the higher principles of human life. Only if the intellectuals enter the laborers’ organizations will the laborers’ organizations become enlightened; only if large numbers of youths return to the villages will there be any hope of reforming village life; and only if village life is effectively reformed will there be progress in social organization. Those robbers who plunder the rural workers and cheat the peasants will then disappear… Youth! Hurry to the villages! Each day go out and work in the fields and then return to rest, till the fields and eat, dig wells and drink… In these places you [should] settle yourselves and find your destiny.”
Now, when Li Dazhao wrote these lines, he was just in the process of studying the history of the Russian Revolution and learning about Marxism. But, even as Li Dazhao later in 1919 became a leading figure in bringing Marxism to China, he continued to return to the theme of the importance of China’s countryside as a place where revolutionary intellectuals should work with the peasantry. In September 1919 he wrote the following lines, urging intellectuals:
“not to drift about in cities and become cultured vagrants existing outside of working society. We ourselves ought to go to the villages… and take up hoes and plows and become companions of the toiling peasants. During periods of rest… we ought to take the opportunity to teach and comfort them. It should be known that the term “dignity of labor” is certainly not applicable to those people who talk but don’t do a bit of physical work. Those intellectuals who eat but do not work ought to be eliminated together with the capitalists. The condition of China today is that the cities and the villages have been made into two opposite poles and have almost become two different worlds. The village people have not the slightest relation with the problems that develop in the cities and the spread of culture. Generally the city people are wholly unconcerned with life in the villages and are completely unaware of their conditions… In countries with a comparatively low level of culture [the spread of culture] depends entirely upon the propaganda activities of self-conscious youth who labor together with the peasants… The peasants, who are in close daily contact with the world of nature, come naturally to believe in humanism. By working together with them, not only can we informally influence them and spread culture, but also the cultural tools that are produced in the cities, such as publications, will necessarily follow in the footsteps of the youth and enter the countryside. In periods of agricultural slack we ought to come to the cities to study, and in times when the peasants are busy, we ought to work in the fields… then the atmosphere of culture will merge together with the shadows of the trees and smoke of the village chimneys, and those quiet, depressed old villages will become transformed into lively, active new villages. The great unity of the new villages will be our ‘Young China.’”
Here, in these articles by Li Dazhao, we see for the first time the introduction of a theme that will repeatedly come up in the Chinese Revolution and then during the period of socialist construction, at least up until Mao’s death in 1976. Until the victory of the Chinese Revolution, Marxism was seen by most people as a system of ideas for making revolution that was only really relevant to urban societies. When the Russian Revolution happened in mainly agrarian Russia, that was a signal to some Chinese progressives in the New Culture Movement, like Li Dazhao, that maybe Marxism could also provide guidance for making a revolution in China, which was even more agrarian than Russia was. But while the Soviet communists always privileged the cities over the countryside, both in the making of the revolution with urban insurrections and then in how they organized their socialist society, in China from the very beginning there were people like Li Dazhao who emphasized the importance of China’s countryside and the peasantry.
And starting with Li Dazhao, there was a kind of contradiction in how the countryside was viewed. On the one hand, the countryside was seen as somewhat pure compared to the cities. The cities were where foreign influence was greatest, where imperialism had corrupted life the most. So the emphasis on the role of the countryside in China’s revolution that Li Dazhao introduced definitely reflected a certain revolutionary nationalism alongside his taking up of Marxism. But while the peasants might be ‘pure’ of the corruption of the cities in some sense, they are also seen as in need of enlightenment, by intellectuals and, in later communist writings, by the proletariat. So, Li’s writings foreshadow themes that will come up later, such as the peasant-based revolutionary strategy that Mao Zedong later devises, and the continuing theme of “going to the villages” that will reappear all the way up to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, both as a way of developing and raising the level of China’s countryside, and as a way of modifying the outlook of intellectuals who distance themselves from the common people.
Next episode, we’ll be taking another look at what the young Mao was up to during this time period, and those of you who noticed some similarities between Li Dazhao’s thinking and Mao Zedong may not be surprised to learn that Mao worked as an assistant librarian at Beijing University under Li’s direction for a time.
So, to wrap up this episode, we saw the emergence of an important cultural movement in response to the hopelessness that progressive intellectuals felt at the possibility of engaging in politics at the beginning of the Warlord Era. Many of these important intellectuals, when they got tired of being screwed over by the western liberals who they had admired, then began tuning in to what was happening in Russia, where they saw that a Marxist revolution was having some surprising successes.
Like I said, next time, we’ll zero in on what Mao Zedong was doing during all this.