Chen Pingyuan is a professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University. He has found his own research orientation by considering issues stemming from the May Fourth Movement. In him we can see how today's middle-aged scholars in mainland China are responding to, and transcending, May Fourth.
Although people today are critical of the May Fourth generation, I feel a great warmth for them. Especially in 1978 and 1979, as mainland China emerged from the Cultural Revolution after a long period of isolation from Western ideas, I thought fondly of the May Fourth spirit of openness. How to return to May Fourth was a very clear issue, and hence in the 1970s and 1980s the academic world was very strongly influenced by the May Fourth Movement and had an especially strong sense of identification with it.
But in the late 1980s things changed somewhat-after the reform and liberalization process began, people enthusiastically embraced the West, and condemned tradition. Strongly critical works like River Elegy appeared, and perceptions gradually altered. 1989 was the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, and many people were gradually adjusting and reexamining, preparing for a new dialog with May Fourth which would examine that era's attitudes towards Chinese and Western cultures. But with the abrupt turnaround brought about by Tiananmen, and a lack of proper theoretical preparation, the effort was hastily abandoned. In the 1990s, scholars have come to the realization that it is no good trying to tailor Chinese thought to fit Western thought, or trying to transplant Western ideas directly into Chinese soil. As a result, they are no longer so blindly enthusiastic about westernization.
You could say that in the 1960s and 70s the great Chairman Mao taught and guided us; in the 80s, it was whatever Max Weber and Heidegger said. But in the 90s? Most scholars hope to directly address China's problems, but they also wish to enlist the help of Western modes of thinking.
Starting from May Fourth
My master's dissertation and doctoral thesis were both about 20th-century Chinese literature, so they brought me into close contact with the May Fourth Movement. Many of my explorations of cultural and academic issues have started from attempts to answer questions about May Fourth.
From the May Fourth Movement onwards, China imported the Western education system with its emphasis on specialization. This promoted modern scholarship in China, but also had some undesirable side-effects. To take myself as an example, when discussing 20th-century Chinese literature I start from the late Qing dynasty, and this is considered a "broad perspective." But in effect this is still just cutting a section from Chinese literary history. By doing so I can seemingly write with perfect authority, but it is still problematic. Most scholars today are familiar with only one period of history, past or present. But I think that to have a complete overview one has to understand the full sweep of history and connect with the ideas of previous thinkers. Only then can one discuss specific issues with confidence.
Today, if we want to transcend the literary theories of the May Fourth period, we cannot be unaware of Western literary concepts, but we also have to understand traditional Chinese ideas about literature. Hu Shih said that [the Qing-dynasty satirical work] The Scholars is badly written, because he judged Chinese literature from the standpoint of the 19th-century Western realist novels of Balzac. But-to misquote one Qing commentator-anyone who looks at The Scholars as a realist story is a numskull. The Scholars is an extended essay, and seen in terms of the essay structure it is a masterpiece.
Today people in the literary world are in the habit of interpreting Chinese literature according to Western categories of literary form, and hence we have the problem that Chinese literature doesn't fit into those categories. For instance, in the past, under Western influence, people from Zhang Taiyan and Su Manshu to Hu Shih, Wen Yiduo and Lin Geng have asked: Where is Chinese epic poetry? Someone has assembled sections from the Book of Songs and called them Chinese epic poetry. But I believe this may be a search for something which never existed. Asking why China has no epic poetry is a meaningless question. I would say the question we ought to ask is this: If the Chinese had no epic poetry, why is it that from Du Fu to Huang Zunxian they poeticized narrative, thereby creating an endless supply of epic poetry?
If you insist on trying to apply Western categories, Chinese "prose" also becomes impossible to clearly define. Some people mistakenly believe that "prose" is the same as guwen [classical prose in the pre-Qin style], but I say that is not so. The whole definition of literature in China is different from in the West. The Chinese tradition recognizes many different genres. Ji [notes], lun [dissertations], shuo [discourses], tiba [epilogues] and muzhi [epitaphs] all have an important place in Chinese literature. The concept of biji [literary sketches, or note-form literature] is even more difficult to translate into English. From Su Shi to Ming and Qing works, they are hard to explain in terms of modern literary concepts. There are obvious deficiencies in the idea of using existing Western literary categories to examine China's native literary traditions.
The parrot firefighter
That's why I stress the Chinese approach to scholarship, and stylistic models for academic writing. In ancient China, scholarly writing was also regarded as a form of literary expression, subject to aesthetic appreciation. Even Zhang Xuecheng's Wenshi Tongyi and Lu Xun's Brief History of Chinese Fiction display excellent literary style, although they are academic works. Thus I hope I have three different pens-as well as producing specialist papers in my own field, I write informal prose pieces, and somewhere in between those serious papers and lighthearted scribblings, I also write a few essays which are readable yet have academic weight. For instance, I have written some articles expressing my opinions about the educational and academic systems.
I admit that today there is political and economic inequality between East and West, and this leads to cultural inequality. But as long as there is exchange, while I acknowledge the disparity I want to stay true to my own roots, and build on that foundation.
Hu Shih published Modern Review magazine, in which he talked about a "parrot putting out a fire"-trying to blow out the flames by flapping its wings, however weakly, for it knew that it was not true that "if the old world is burned down a new world will arise." When commenting on society and life, perhaps Hu Shih was not as incisive as Lu Xun, and critical words strike a chord with later generations because nobody is satisfied with the present. But Hu Shih was not just a thinker-he was a builder, with a need to get involved in current issues. When confronting real-world problems, on the one hand he considered practicality and compromise, but on the other he was always moving forward. Hu, Zhang Taiyan and Lu Xun are the May Fourth period figures I most admire.
Back to where?
As part of the continuing debate since the May Fourth Movement on the direction which cultural development should take, in the 1990s a new cultural strategy has emerged in mainland China: people have talked of reviving guoxue [literally "national learning"-the philosophy, history, archeology, literature and language of ancient China]. But I am rather doubtful about this proposition, because it could imply a Chinese culture in opposition with Western culture. But Chinese culture has never been pure-in the Wei, Jin and Ming dynasties there was fusion with outside cultures. These past ten years I have been researching the history of academic development, and this has brought me to an understanding of the path of academic development during this century. I don't much agree with the idea of guoxue, because although it is highly critical of the antitraditionalism of this century, it is not possible to go back to the last century or to pre-1919 Chinese culture. Furthermore there have been virtually no guoxue courses in mainland China since the 1950s, and study of the Confucian classics, which is the core element of guoxue, has been split up among courses in philosophy, language and the study of ancient documents.
Never mind developing guoxue-even just reviving it would be difficult. We would have to rediscover a whole tradition-otherwise how could we carry it forward?
We can't overlook the difficult road China has taken over the past century. So many things in these past hundred years warrant critical examination. But I don't advocate dealing with these issues by returning to traditional guoxue and ignoring the West. Of course this depends which academic discipline one is referring to-but even if you are researching ancient history, national boundaries of research have gradually been breached and there is exchange between scholars all over the world. In fact, an overly entrenched position is untenable-when writing a paper no-one can escape the influence of the modes of scholarly thinking and expression introduced since the late Qing.
Extreme conservatives and extreme radicals both deride the West's cultural hegemony. There's nothing wrong with opposing hegemony, but the question is, where do we want to go back to? Should we fill our schools with traditional musical instruments, Chinese chess sets, and traditional books, paintings, poetry and songs? And what would we do with the computer experts, physicists and engineers? This kind of knowledge structure is inconceivable within traditional Chinese culture, because the purpose of education was to train scholar-officials, not specialists. Today there is such a vast range of finely differentiated academic specialisms that we couldn't, and shouldn't, change the whole structure. Thus we can only try to make certain adjustments. In recent years the language skills and cultural level of science and engineering students at Peking University have been abysmal, so the university has brought back Chinese classes for first year students. This shows awareness of the problems produced by specialization.
If you talk about guoxue, it would be heavy going for people of my generation. People my age have read too few traditional works. Having realized this, I've been working hard to catch up over the past ten years.
Immerse yourself in scholarship
Literary history was the first domain I ventured into-it's my academic stronghold. But these past few years I have also expanded into academic history and education history. In particular, just recently I have been trying to sort out issues concerning traditional academies and modern education. In the late Qing, China accepted Western education, for the reason that the traditional academies could not train people in the sciences. Thus to make the country prosperous and strong it was necessary to promote new-style education. At the time some voices were raised in favor of retaining old-style scholarship while also popularizing the new, but others called for abolishing the old learning lock, stock and barrel, and going over completely to Western-style schools as envisaged by Kang Youwei and Liang Qitao. By the 1930s and 40s, there were only a few traditional academies left in China, such as Zhang Taiyan's Guoxue Academy, Tang Wenzhi's Wuxi Guoxue College and Liang Shuming's Mianren Academy. Ma Yifu set up the Fuxing Academy, and even advocated not giving degrees. He asked: Has anyone heard of the scholars from the Song onwards who first established academies issuing degrees or certificates to their acolytes?
From the 1950s on, the imperialists were sent packing, and private capital was confiscated. Private schools, whether traditional academies or Western-style establishments, were abolished, and education was "unified" under national policy. I think that ideological homogeneity has its roots in monolithic education, and cultural pluralism has to start from educational pluralism. That is why I have been reviewing China's education history, with certain cultural concepts in mind. Of course I realize the education system can't go back to the old-style private schools, but I would like to see how effective the spirit of traditional education can be in the modern environment. What I want to draw on in traditional China is something spiritual, not some specific remedy to cure the country's ills or save the world. From a combination of China's literary, academic and education history, I want to think about the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese culture and the direction it is taking, rather than being limited to specific stylistic rules, writings, academic disciplines or attitudes.
In research, I agree with tackling Chinese issues directly, but I don't want to close off contact with the West. However, I am not interested either in merely adding footnotes to Western theory or applying Western theory wholesale. Of course, nor do I want to wear a robe and mandarin jacket or put on cultural poses. If one really has feelings for and identifies with Chinese scholarship and culture, it is not just a question of external appearances.
Although I don't want to strike some pose, my own interests are so close to this culture that I couldn't survive in another tradition. I'm comfortable this way, and I like this kind of intellectual life. That's my individual choice. Intellectuals can choose which style suits them best and which realms to enter. But if you want what you do to be constructive for Chinese culture, I believe that immersing yourself in scholarship-finding joy in a life of study and research, and making your scholarly activities an integral part of your life-will naturally bring results.
Throughout his academic career, Professor Chen Pingyuan of Peking University has tackled issues stemming from the May Fourth Movement. (photo by Vincent Chang)
The May Fourth Movement was launched as an enlightenment movement by members of China's intellectual elite. Eighty years on, its influence is still felt. Pictured here is Hu Shih in a group photograph with staff about to set off on China's first archeological expedition. (courtesy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing)