Mo Luo’s new book, China Stands Up, is the latest salvo in an argument that’s been raging since gunboats first sailed up the Yangtze River in 1840.
On one side are those who say China needs to examine itself with a critical eye. On the other are those, like Mo, who want the country to look inward to recover its ‘greatness’.
China Stands Up has been critisised as an appeal to “nationalism and populism”, and has even lost Mo some friends. That’s because his book takes aim at one of the most cherished undertakings in contemporary Chinese history: the May Fourth Movement.
The Movement began as a response to the failures of the China’s Republican government that came to power in 1912. Originally called the New Culture Movement, it’s leaders were students, professors and intellectuals, who argued that Chinese society was feudal and oppressive. They called for the emancipation of women, reform of the education system, as well as democracy and the protection of individual freedoms.
“Chinese culture is a culture of serving one’s masters who are triumphant at the cost of the misery of the multitude,” wrote Lu Xun, one of the Movement’s most outspoken leaders (see WiC44). “Almost all of those who praise the old Chinese culture are the rich who are residing in the [foreign territorial] concessions or other safe places. They praise it because they have money and do not suffer from the civil wars.”
The Movement took on an overtly political agenda during the Versailles conference in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. China’s young government was humiliated by the agreement (which it refused to sign) that reconfirmed Japanese, British and Portuguese control over Chinese territory. Fearing the country would be further carved up by foreign powers, sections of the public protested against the treaty in Beijing on May 4, 1919.
The writings that came out the movement, by Chinese intellectuals like Cai Yuanpei and Hu Shi, were suppressed after 1949, but find resonance with many Chinese intellectuals today who admire their democratic ideals.
Mo says he hasn’t completely rejected the May Fourth Movement – it was patriotic after all.
But in “Collapse”, the first chapter of China Stands Up, he accuses its leaders of having “lost confidence in Chinese culture and nationality [and having proposed a] strategy of ‘total Westernisation’… in the name of ‘blind faith in everything foreign’.”
He argues further that: “China needs a new enlightenment”, since “the Chinese [underwent] a spiritual self-castration a hundred years ago and still kneel down before Westerners… unconsciously wearing the spiritual shackles of ‘inferiority, ignorance, superstition, and backwardness’.”
It sounds like Mo might be keen on the Red Dawn remake (see page 14).
Mo’s views appeal to a more confident population. Liu Yang, contributor to the nationalistic bestseller Unhappy China (see WiC9), says: “Mo Luo was just telling the truth.” But some of Mo’s former friends think that calling the backers of the May Fourth Movement “slavish compradors” risks resurrecting the bullying atmosphere common during the Cultural Revolution.
Although it can be hard for outsiders to fathom, China is still coming to terms with its experiences during the era of the so-called ‘unequal treaties’. Along with a growing rekindling of interest in Confucian philosophy – as an alternative to Western equivalents – that’s likely to make the book a commercial success.
So expect more books like Mo’s – many locals seem to think that there is lots of ‘standing up’ still to do.
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