The development of sociology in China constitutes a veritable case study of China’s integration into the global system of knowledge production and distribution dominated by the West, particularly the United States. Not only did the United States play the leading role in pioneering the teaching and research in sociology in China in the early 20th-century, but it also trained most of the leading Chinese sociologists, who replicated what they had learned in the United States upon their return. During the 1920s and 1930s, the entry of American philanthropies helped make China arguably the most flourishing sociological research site outside North America and Western Europe. While sociology was abolished by the victorious Communist regime in 1952, its rehabilitation in 1979 ushered in a new era of American domination with a vengeance, as it were. A case can be made that Chinese sociology under Communism today is more integrated into the global system of knowledge production and distribution than it ever was.
Among the leaders of the May Fourth Movement, Hu Shi was the one who was most aware of the movement’s historical significance. His emphasis, moreover, was not just on China, but the modern world led by the West, in which China was a junior but avid member. At his brief radical swing to the right in 1926 and 1927, he rhapsodized on the May Fourth Movement’s turn to politics and party discipline under the aegis of the Soviet Union and the Third International. As he turned conservative in the early 1930s, he reverted to his earlier position by emphasizing individualism and referred to the movement as a watershed that separates China’s “Victorian Age” from its “Age of Collectivism.” Toward the end of his life, he lamented that the meaning of this movement was hijacked by cunning and ruthless political parties. The fact that Hu Shi had always sought to situate the May Fourth Movement in a global, albeit Eurocentric, contexts—even when his political positions shifted—should lead us to follow his example and continue to (re)interpret the May Fourth Movement in its various historical and political contexts.