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New Culture Movement distinct from anti-traditionalism

ZUO YUHE | 2021-05-13 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A historical site of the New Culture Movement in the Red Building, which was established in 1918 and was part of the former campus of Peking University Photo: CFP

In recent years, there has been heavy discussion about whether or not the emergence of the New Culture Movement and the May Fourth Movement qualifies as radicalism in modern China. Some people regard movements against traditionalism resulting from the New Culture Movement as the origin of the trend of radicalism which emerged in following years. They argue that anti-traditional radical thoughts and shifting mindsets (known within the movement as enlightenment) prevalent throughout the two movements, together with the violent revolution that followed, caused a rupture in China’s tradition. In order to overthrow the revolution’s validity, they equated the New Culture Movement with radicalism while denying its enlightening value. This article questions the rationality of this claim, and seeks further exploration based on historical facts. 
Some people blame the New Cultural Movement for 20th-century China’s radicalism. They claim that the radical thoughts prevalent in the New Culture Movement “completely denied the value of traditional academic achievements.” However, this is a misunderstanding of facts, and a misinterpretation of history. 
It was reasonable for the New Culture Movement to criticize traditional Confucianism. Yuan Shih-kai (1859–1916) became the President of the Republic of China in 1912 after the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and ended monarchy in China. Yuan attempted to restore hereditary monarchy in China by proclaiming himself the Emperor of China in 1915, although he abdicated not long after this announcement due to strong opposition and public unrest. There was another short-lived effort in 1917 to revive the Qing Dynasty, led by the former Qing official Zhang Xun (1854–1923), but his forces were defeated by rival military powers later that year. Since both Yuan and Zhang advocated for Confucianism when they tried to restore hereditary monarchy in China, Chen Duxiu (1879–1942), a leading figure in both the New Culture Movement and the May Fourth Movement, connected Confucianism with hereditary monarchy in China. He thought it would be difficult to establish a republic in a country shaped by the ethics, education systems, thoughts, and literature of a feudal era. Therefore, many believed the path to solving China’s problems should begin with ideological changes. Only enlightenment could free people from the constraints of Confucian ethics and lay an ideological foundation for the republic.
In addition, although the New Culture Movement was highly critical of traditional Confucianism, it didn’t deny the value of traditional Chinese culture. Chen and other intellectuals realized that Confucian ethics and rites belonged to an age of feudalism, and not the modern age, which severely obstructed social development. So the New Culture Movement dismantled authoritarianism centered on respect for rulers, and feudal ethics centered on the San Gang, or the Three Bonds, which are the three fundamental principles of human relations confirming the authority of rulers over subjects, fathers over sons, and husbands over wives. This was not a denial of Chinese traditions as a whole. 
Moreover, while criticizing Confucianism, the New Culture Movement acknowledged the historical value of Confucius and Confucianism. In his letters to Wu Yu (1872–1949), Chang Naide (1898–1947), and other participants of the New Culture Movement, Chen continued to restate the reason for his critique of Confucianism: “We challenge Confucianism, not Confucius himself, and this doesn’t mean that Confucius made no contributions to society in ancient times.” Chen agreed with Confucius’s attitude towards religion: “Confucius suggested not talking about deities and supernatural beings. His attitude was close to modern science.” Therefore, what the New Culture Movement argued against were the negative parts of traditional ethics, largely represented by the San Gang. Movement participants acknowledged the achievements made by Confucius, and Confucianism, in China’s history. Their opinions represented the New Culture Movement’s general attitude towards Confucius and Confucianism.
Rupture in traditional Chinese culture?
Some people accuse the New Culture Movement of causing a fissure in traditional Chinese culture. History has proven this claim incorrect. 
Confucianism has had a profound influence on traditional Chinese society because it has filtered into common people’s daily lives, merged into the Chinese culture, and had a lasting effect on people’s behaviors, their way of life, and ideology. Traditional Confucianism is not only a political philosophy, but also a philosophy of daily life. Confucianism won’t be eliminated by a cultural campaign. 
The New Culture Movement did disrupt the negative parts of Confucianism that constrained individuality, but did not overturn positive Confucian values and beliefs. In fact, this campaign highlighted the essence of Confucianism, and drove people to reinterpret Confucianism, so as to promote the modernization of traditional Confucianism after the May Fourth Movement. In an essay about new changes made to Confucianism, the renowned Chinese philosopher He Lin (1902–1992) analyzed ways the New Culture Movement enhanced the development of Confucianism. The New Culture Movement’s intellectuals advocated for new ethics while criticizing outdated ones. It freed people from the bonds of old ethical models and made way for new Confucian ethics. This movement encouraged various philosophies and schools of thought to flourish together, thereby inspiring the reformation of traditional Confucian thoughts. Moreover, the extensive introduction of Western culture brought about by the New Culture Movement transfused new blood to Confucianism.
It is a mistake to confuse the New Culture Movement or the May Fourth Movement with the radicalism that emerged afterwards, which denies the campaign’s focus on enlightenment. 
The New Culture Movement was directly against authoritarianism and feudalism, while calling for liberation, personal independence, and freedom. It represented the Enlightenment of modern China. The democracy it advocated for contained a liberating spirit which offered alternatives to traditional ethical and authoritarian systems. The science it advanced referred to scientific rationality, featuring objection to superstition, theocracy, blind faith, and arbitrary actions. The democratic and scientific notions that the New Culture Movement and the May Fourth Movement promoted are completely different from thoughts and practices that emerged later, such as obscurantism, revolutionary fervor, and a frenzied call to eliminate the so-called feudal-capitalist-revisionist. To confuse these practices with the New Culture Movement or the May Fourth Movement is a misunderstanding of these movements and a distortion of their enlightening spirit.
After the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, Western culture had a strong impact on the ancient Chinese civilization, which previously had a history of 5,000 years of independent development. China was charged with the mission of transformation, and felt a draw towards modernity. This transformation was forced by the jarring impact of Western culture, and for decades has been plagued by cultural conflicts between ancient versus modern, new versus old, Chinese versus Western. Therefore, for a long time, Chinese people had been unable to find the core values of modern China’s new culture. The New Culture Movement attached equal importance to science and human rights, and formed new cultural norms such as democracy, science, human rights, and rationality. It clearly identified “democracy” and “science” as the core values in modern China’s new cultural construction. 
This article was published in the CSST in 2017. Zuo Yuhe is the deputy director of the Institute of Historical Theory at the Chinese Academy of History CASS.