China today is poised to play a key role on the world stage, but in the early twentieth century the situation was very different. In this powerful new look at modern China, Rana Mitter goes back to a pivotal moment in Chinese history to uncover the origins of the painful transition from pre-modern to modern world.
Mitter identifies May 4, 1919, as the defining moment of China's twentieth-century history. On that day, outrage over the Paris peace conference triggered a vast student protest that led in turn to the May Fourth Movement. Just seven years before, the 2,000-year-old imperial system had collapsed. Now a new group of urban, modernizing thinkers began to reject Confucianism and traditional culture in general as hindrances in the fight against imperialism, warlordism, and the oppression of women and the poor. Forward-looking, individualistic, embracing youth, this New Culture movement made a lasting impact on the critical decades that followed: the 1940s, with the war against Japan and the civil war between the Nationalist Party and the Communists; the 1960s, with the bizarre, seemingly anarchic world of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution; and the 1980s, with the rise of a semi-market economy against the backdrop of continued single-party rule and growing inequality. Throughout each of these dramatically different eras, the May 4 themes persisted, from the insanity of the Cultural Revolution to the recent romance with space-age technology.
China, Mitter concludes, still seems to be in search of a new narrative about what the country is, and what it should become. And May 4 remains a touchstone in that search.