The question about how to interpret the nature of May Fourth Movement has been at the center of many debates concerning the development of Chinese history, culture, and politics. Yet the studies of “May Fourth” had met with new challenges in the twenty-first century due to a number of reasons. First, the movement became a subject of studies in the U.S. in the 1960s, in which scholars began to inquire into the nature and rise of Chinese communism. A key question debated at the time is whether the movement is responsible for, or analogous to, Chinese Cultural Revolution. The rise of “May Fourth studies” is thus essentially a reaction to the Cold War in the 1960s and 70s, a political situation that is very different from today’s world. Second, many slogans and key ideas once associated with the movement such as anti-imperialism, anti-traditionalism, science and democracy had gradually lost their critical edge in reflecting as well as addressing the political reality of contemporary China, which is no longer a small and weak nation struggling for survival but a formidable power on a global stage. The ethos of patriotism and nationalism that the movement once embodied thus lost its necessity under the new circumstances. Third, the recent trend of Sinophone studies have also challenged the literary paradigm laid by the May Fourth writers. While the former embraces the value of dialects and articulates a de-centered perspective on Chinese culture at large, the latter envisions a standardization and nationalization of Chinese language and literature. The ultimate different visions of the two discursive paradigms thus warrant our consideration. In face of these challenges, I argue that the primary task for intervening “May Fourth studies” is to designate a set of new keywords to reshape and redefine the field. It is also imperative to perceive and present May Fourth Movement as not only a cultural-political symbol of China, but also a relatable example of modern knowledge production that can be used and reflected upon in other fields of studies.
Carlos Yu-Kai Lin is a Lecturer of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. His primary research interests include modern Chinese literature and intellectual history, the concept of fiction in the late Qing and early Republican periods, theories of world literature, and Sinophone studies. His current project examines the rise and fall of “May Fourth studies” in the United States, in which he seeks to unravel and contextualize the different ways in which the May Fourth Movement was perceived and debated in the Anglophone world during the Cold War period.