Touches of History

An Entry into 'May Fourth' China


The “May Fourth Movement” of 1919 is generally seen as the central event in China’s transformation from the traditional to the modern. It signalled the arrival of effective student activism on the political scene; it heralded the success of outspoken anti-imperialist ideologies; its slogans and pamphlets demonstrated the rhetorical qualities of the new vernacular writing; some of its participants went on to become leading cultural and political figures; it is said to have given birth to the Communist Party. The latter aspect has ensured that a particular narrative of the movement remained enshrined in official Chinese state ideology for many decades, a narrative often opposed by those outside China for similarly ideological reasons. No movement in modern Chinese history and culture has been more researched, yet none has been less understood. This award-winning book, by one of Peking University’s most famous professors, represents a groundbreaking attempt to return to a study of “May Fourth” that is solidly grounded in historical fact. Favouring smaller stories over grand narratives, concentrating on unknown, marginal materials rather than familiar key documents, and highlighting “May Fourth”’s indebtedness to the cultural debates of the preceding late Qing period, Chen Pingyuan reconstructs part of the actual historical scenery, demonstrating the great variety of ideas expressed during those tumultuous decades.

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Chen Pingyuan is Professor in the Chinese Department of Peking University. He is one of China's leading figures in the study of modern Chinese literature and culture. He has published extensively on a wide range of early modern, modern and contemporary topics, covering not only literary history but also increasingly intellectual history. His main works include The Transformation of the Narrative Mode of Chinese Fiction (1988) and The Establishment of the Modern Chinese Academy (2000).
Michel Hockx is Professor of Chinese at SOAS, University of London. He has published extensively on modern Chinese poetry and on the sociology of modern Chinese literature.
"As a whole, Chen's 'writings on the margins' consistently edify and engage readers; they exemplify the joy and satisfaction to be obtained from literary historical scholarship, once the indeterminacy of the May Fourth's meaning is taken as a virtue. That joy and satisfaction come from such things as the discovery of an obscure text hidden in a far corner of a library that unexpectedly reveals how little we know about early twentieth-century China; or when the hard labor of archival research yields new insights into a presumptively fixed historical account.
By reexamining both primary sources and received interpretive paradigms, Chen reminds readers of the complexity of literary historical scholarship, and thereby both reappraises the 'May Fourth' and reinvigorate it as an intriguing subject for research and reflection."
Tze-ki Hon, State University of New York at Geneseo, MCLC Resource Center Publication (March 2012)

"Touches of History is a fine work of literary history providing new insights into some of the literary and cultural debates of the May Fourth era, showing Chen’s erudition and meticulous scholarship...[T]he book does provide an “entry” into May Fourth China and makes a valuable contribution to scholarship on the early Republican period."
Edmund S.K. Fung, University of Western Sydney, The China Journal, No. 69 (January 2013).
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