Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

NEW CULTURE MOVEMENT (XIN WENHUA YUNDONG). Associated with the May Fourth Movement and motivated by an urgent sense of cultural endangerment, the New Culture Movement was born in 1915 when Chen Duxiu founded Qingnian zazhi (Youth Magazine), renamed Xin qingnian (New Youth) a year later. In its first issue, Chen urged the nation’s youths to throw away the “feudalist” shackles that had restricted the Chinese mind for more than a thousand years and to adopt Western concepts of democracy and science. He challenged them to be “independent instead of slavish,” “progressive instead of conservative,” “outgoing instead of withdrawn,” “down-to-earth instead of pretentious,” “scientific instead of imaginary,” and “open instead of unreceptive to the rest of the world.” When Chen accepted the offer of Cai Yuanpei, president of Beijing University, the center of the New Culture Movement shifted from Shanghai to Beijing. Cai, a liberal-minded administrator, recruited some of the nation’s best minds for his university, including Hu Shi, Li Dazhao, Qian Xuantong, Liu Bannong, Zhou Zuoren, and Lu Xun. These and other prominent intellectuals helped make Beijing University a breeding ground for the New Culture Movement.

In addition to the campaign for social reforms based on “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science,” which included educational reforms and the emancipation of women, the New Culture advocates waged a literary campaign to promote a new literature written in the vernacular instead of classical Chinese, which had a stranglehold on Chinese political, intellectual, and literary discourses. This linguistic reform, advocated by Hu and others, went far beyond the restructuring of the language; it had profound ramifications for the Chinese society as a whole. With classical Chinese taken down from its lofty pedestal, the authority of the classics and their intellectual and moral hold on the Chinese consciousness were loosened. The modernization of the country, the New Culture proponents argued, demanded a new written language and a new literature that was accessible to the broad masses not just the intellectual elite. In the 1917 February issue, Chen published “Wenxue geming lun” (On Literary Revolution), in which he defined the new literature as being “unassuming and expressive,” “fresh and honest,” and “plain and popular,” a people’s literature that was realistic and socially engaged. Xin qingnian was the chief venue for publishing new literary works. Pioneering writings such as Hu’s vernacular poems and Lu Xun’s short stories made their first appearances in Xin qingnian. These and other progressive writings offered critical examinations of age-old Chinese traditions, especially Confucianism, and advocated learning from the West, some going so far as to call for total Westernization.

Extremely popular among the educated youths, Xin qingnian inspired many reform-minded political activists such as Mao Zedong, who was introduced to Marxism by the magazine, as well as literary youths such as Ba Jin, who came into contact with it in the remote southwestern city of Chengdu. Largely confined to the intellectual elite, the New Culture Movement nevertheless brought widespread changes to Chinese society. In the beginning, the movement focused on attacking traditional thoughts and practices and bringing in new ideas and concepts from abroad. As some of the leaders became increasingly radicalized and opted for political action, as exemplified by Chen and Li, who went on to become founders of the Chinese Communist Party, the movement branched off in two separate directions: with Hu, Zhou, and others interested in gradual and intellectual enlightenment and Chen, Li, Lu Xun, and others pushing for political radicalism.