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The May Fourth Movement and the Search for Modernity, Essay Example

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To many historians, the May Fourth Movement represented a different type of history. Besides the Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989, the May Fourth Movement is a popular event in Chinese history. It is no accident, therefore, that the incident has served a key reference point for differing historians.  Some historians interpret the event as the starter for modernity: Beset by Confucian, dynasticand imperial forces, Chinese intellectuals finally threw off the yoke of oppression to embrace new enlightenment. Also included in this story is anassumption of linearity: Just as European nations gradually evolved from feudalistic empires to modern nation states, Asian states follow upon a similar trajectory.

In response to that interpretation, as Ben Wang points out, many scholars countered that May Fourth was not necessarily an awakening to modernity, but the awakening of a more conscious and visceral nationalism based on history and memory. Wang thinks that Lu Xun, one of the foremost writers of the May Fourth Movement, served as main figure steering China between a backward past and a perilous future. Finally, Michael Foucault proposes a “genealogical” approach that dissects historical events into different pieces; decomposing the event to core elements that although unrecognizable to the participants, saves the event from appropriation- the imposition of any coherent meaning.  Using Foucault’s notions, the May Fourth Movement would ironically be saved from the ideology of modernity and nationalism to serve another and potentially moredevious master: the narrative of power.

All these ideas fall short of serving as an authoritative guide to the May Fourth Movement as a historical event. This judgment is reasonable if one closely looks at the threads that composed the movement itself.  Hu Shih, an intellectual, pledged to reform China’s educational system; Lu Xun used new writing methods and appropriation of a painful past to bring China’s modern weaknesses into the open; Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao aimed at recruiting youth to form the Chinese Communist Party.  Any attempt to give one right interpretation via this diverse list of characters and motives results in oversimplification at best and willful ideological misclassification at worst.

Of all the theories mentioned, I am most interested in Foucault’s methodological approach. I don’t believe his final destination is a productive one, but I think his willingness to deal with complex analytical threads gets one closer to understanding the movement as a whole. That is to say: In interpreting the May Fourth Movement, there is no one interpretative framework that results in the “truth.” Due to the diverse nature of the event and its participants, the event was composed of many different components including modernity, nationalism, political opportunism, and anarchism.  Acknowledging that there are several strands, however, does not remove the event or result in the elimination of truth. It simply illustrates the complexity of understanding history with only one analytical lens, a battle to save the May Fourth Movement from simply becoming a symbol in the larger tidal wave of history. Indeed the final answer may be that the May Fourth Movement (except the March) wasn’t a codified movement at all- but one with disparate actors and aims that happened to occur during the same time on a calendar.

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