Albert Wu, Department of History, American University of Paris
While universally hailed as one of the key intellectual movements in the history of modern China, the “New Culture Movement” has long been a subject of intense historiographical debate. Scholars have disagreed about when the New Culture Movement actually began, or whether it can even be called a movement. At various times, they have labeled it an intellectual “Revolution,” a “Renaissance,” or an “Enlightenment,” each designation charged by different ideological and historical contexts.
In this impressively researched, provocative book, Elisabeth Forster offers us a history of the New Culture Movement for the twenty-first century. Forster presents a history not of idealistic and visionary intellectuals’ intent on saving the nation, but rather a story of savvy entrepreneurs, marketers, and self-promoters. Originally identified with a “small circle of intellectuals in the humanities and education and among certain political groups,” the term “New Culture Movement,” Forster argues, became a “powerful buzzword” (p. 13). Seeking to upend teleological, hagiographic readings of the New Culture Movement, Forster instead shows the contingent, contested, and unexpected ways that the “New Culture Movement” emerged as an important intellectual and political force in 1919.
In its most thrilling moments, Forster’s book thrusts the reader into the vibrant, “messy,” and “cantankerous” intellectual, literary, and journalistic landscape of the immediate post World War I era. Reading through newspapers, personal correspondence, advertisements, textbooks, and diaries, Forster successfully conveys the immense intellectual energy of the period. The stakes were high, and everything was up for debate: intellectuals fought over their visions for language reform, over the relationship between academia and political power. Forster balances her panoramic view of the intellectual landscape by honing in on the conflict between the “New Faction” and the “Old Faction.” Both factions believed that China needed language reform, but the two diverged over how to implement it. The New Faction, endorsed by Chen Duxiu and Hu Shi, believed that China needed a new vernacular language. The Old Faction wanted to salvage the literary Chinese forms of the past.
Even though the New Faction eventually “won,” Forster brilliantly demonstrates how precarious and contingent that victory was. The members of the New Faction were beleaguered and constantly under threat: conservatives forced Chen Duxiu and Cai Yuanpei to resign from their positions at Beijing University, while Hu Shi was close to losing his job. All three were attacked viciously in the press. For instance, after Cai Yuanpei resigned from the post of president of the University, several newspapers portrayed him as a “mentally ill person who had lost control over the situation” (p. 88).
Ironically, the abundance of media coverage catapulted the New Faction to intellectual stardom, and solidified their place as spokespeople of the “New Culture Movement.” Forster’s account points to the symbiotic relationship between the press and academia: as the intellectual star of the Hu-Chen faction rose, different groups sought to co-opt or lay claim to the label—Christians, Communists, feminists, and supporters of Taiwanese independence all claimed to represent the “New Culture Movement.” But even when competing groups disagreed with the Hu-Chen faction, these groups had to refer to them to gain credibility. Forster, influenced by the work of the economic historian Douglass North, argues that the initial elevation of the Hu-Chen faction created a path-dependency, further canonizing the Hu-Chen faction as central to the “New Culture Movement.”
And the Hu-Chen faction sought to shape the media coverage as well. Through their own journals and personal networks they promoted their own causes. Hu Shi emerges in Forster’s account as particularly savvy and self-promoting. He relished his intellectual stardom—he drew packed crowds in his lectures and allowed newspapers to report on the contents of his luggage when he traveled to Shanghai. He drew upon his international connections, such as the academic Lewis Chase, who traveled throughout China and the U.S., popularizing Hu’s ideas. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hu continued to fashion himself as the “father of the Chinese Renaissance” (pp. 162–163).
In short, Forster offers a deeply revisionist and critical take on the Hu-Chen faction: she argues that the Hu-Chen faction never had a coherent “strategic vision” for the country. They did not succeed “because of their merit,” nor did they tap into a certain Zeitgeist (p. 196). For Forster, the success of the “New Culture Movement” was predicated on a transformation in the structures of how ideas were adjudicated, transmitted, and presented. In this new landscape, it was the savvy entrepreneurs, the self-promoters, and the intellectual superstars who eventually captured the market. While Forster’s analysis is compelling and captures the contingent nature of the ascendance of the Hu-Chen faction, Forster’s account leaves one wondering whether the group was aware of the structural transformations of the new intellectual landscape. Was the Hu-Chen faction unconsciously “playing the game” better than their competitors, or did they somehow “game” the new system to their advantage? The Hu-Chen faction certainly had much to say about other broad issues related to China’s relationship to the geo-political and capitalist world system. In other words, one wishes that Forster engaged a bit more with the Hu-Chen faction’s ideas for China’s structural—economic, political, and social—reforms, rather than parsing their contributions solely within the realm of language reform.
One also wonders if there are aspects of the traditional historiography that can be salvaged in Forster’s account. Was there really no particular “merit” to the ideas of Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi, Fu Sinian, and Cai Yuanpei? Compared to the ideas of the Old Faction, did the New Faction truly not capture a spirit of the times? If nothing else, the members of the Hu-Chen circle embodied an openness to the world, a belief in the possibilities of radical change—for both self and society—in fundamentally different ways than members of the Old Faction. Forster’s own account conveys the intellectual ferment that the end of World War I sparked in China, when the futures for China’s reform and rejuvenation seemed manifold. Choosing between the Old Faction and the New, I would argue, was not like choosing between Pepsi or Coke; these were not indistinguishable products in an amoral “marketplace of ideas.”
In a final chapter, Forster traces how the New Culture Movement has been invoked for divergent political purposes since 1919. After 1949, Communists and Nationalists across the Taiwan straits claimed to descend from the New Culture Movement, further canonizing it. Forster offers an insightful discussion of how presidential candidates in Taiwan invoked the term “New Culture Movement” in 2007, but this time the debates refracted different concerns related to Taiwanese independence and identity. Forster’s book offers us a wonderful guide to thinking about why the New Culture Movement will continue to be used as a slogan to mobilize political and intellectual support in the Sinophone world. Just in the past year, for instance, protesters at National Taiwan University invoked the “New Culture Movement” and the legacies of Hu Shi and Fu Sinian. Forster’s excellent book helps the reader to understand why these figures and slogans continue to mobilize political and intellectual support. It will be of interest to historians and literary critics of modern Chinese history, and it deserves to be widely read and discussed.