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Touches of History

An Entry into 'May Fourth' China


Pingyuan Chen

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.

Pingyuan Chen

Edited by Isabelle Rabut and Angel Pino

The seven essays by Chen Pingyuan gathered in this collection are mainly focused on the evolution of the fictional genre during the transitional period of late Qing and May Fourth : the role played by periodicals, the relationship between elitist and popular literature, the link between modern fiction and tradition. In a broader perspective, they address the cultural changes that took place in these challenging times : the teaching of literature or arts at the old Beijing University, the place of the Dianshizhai pictorial between popular culture and Western modernity.

Through their approach, these essays show evidence of the transformations that occurred in China during the last 25 years in the field of research on modern Chinese literature and culture.

Les sept essais de Chen Pingyuan que rassemble le présent recueil portent principalement sur l’évolution du genre romanesque lors de la période de transition de la fin des Qing et du 4 mai : rôle de la presse, rapport entre littérature élitiste et littérature populaire, lien entre le roman moderne et la tradition. Ils évoquent de façon plus large les changements culturels survenus à cette époque charnière : l’enseignement de la littérature ou celui des arts à l’ancienne université de Pékin, la place de la revue illustrée Dianshizhai entre culture populaire et modernité occidentale.

Ces essais témoignent par leur approche des transformations survenues en Chine même, au cours des vingt-cinq dernières années, dans la recherche sur la littérature et la culture chinoises modernes.