With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, China faced an uncertain future. Indeed, not only did the imperial political system fall, but perhaps more importantly: Chinese intellectuals started to question the cultural and literary underpinnings that gave rise to that structure. The “May Fourth Movement”, composed of writers and intellectuals, explicitly called into question the past in order to forge a new future; the movement held profound implications for the cultural and political future of the country, with each intellectual stressing different ways to innovate.
For Lu Xun, China’s dependency on the past was literally a pathology. Xun’s general training in science, and specific training in medicine, proved an apt metaphor for his role as China’s cultural and literary doctor- pointing out how outdated cultural practices and superstition was carcinogenic, slowly killing the country as its geographical neighbors (such as Japan) rose to technological and global prominence. Xun’s “Preface to a call of Arms” serves as a rallying document to wake up the moribund nation from a devastating sleep.
Hu Shi arguably was one of the main warriors of the May Fourth Movement. Hu was the consummate scholar and writer, proposing a new means to democratize the language, which did not necessarily involve classical language. Hu innovated in new areas of poetry, prose, and reporting. This spirit is clearly seen in Hu’s “Some modest proposals for the reform of literature” in which he tries to recalibrate the arc of Chinese literature to be more readable and meaningful for the masses- his second admonition in the piece “Do not imitate the ancients” serves as a symbolic indicator that he is focused on creating a national literature that focuses on what China should become in the future rather than the past.
Chen Duxiu, in many senses, served as a hybrid of the cultural effacements of Hu Shi and the political firebrand of Lu Xun. Duxiu was a key founding member of a new newspaper and magazine in Beijing that focused on promoting the broad goals of literary and cultural reform that infused the May Fourth movement. His “On Literary Revolution” serves as a powerful manifesto that the powerful of literature was not only to effect the hearts and minds of the nation, but could also serve as the platform for greater political revolution.
Qian Zongshu continued on similar themes of Xun, Shi, and Duxiu: His “Reverse Symbolism” served as a powerful rereading of ancient texts in a modern context.
Overall, although each of these figures stressed a different and unique element of literary and cultural revolution, together they pushed forward an agenda that led to profound change in the nation’s future.
Duxiu, C. (1919). On Literary Revolution.
Qian, ZS. (1917). Reverse Symbolism: on The Ge革 (The Symbol of Change)” in Limited Views.
Shi, H., “Some Modest Proposals for the Reform of Literature,” in Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945.
Xun, L. (1916). “Preface to Call to Arms.”