Sun, May 05, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Eschew the May Fourth Movement

By Joan Stanley-Baker 徐小虎

Over the past three decades people here have enjoyed the highest levels of prosperity, peace and health in the two millennia of Chinese history, reaching a "Materialistic Golden Age." Yet there is nothing we can show for all this effulgence. In culture, arts and education, we have hit one of the darkest nadirs ever reached in during this time frame. Why, in a society that claims five thousand years of uninterrupted civilization, should this be so?

It is because our civilization has in fact been interrupted, not by any foreign conquests of which we have seen plenty, but because of an internal cultural suicide committed in the May Fourth Movement led principally in 1919 by Dr Hu Shizhi (胡適之), which threw out the baby along with the bath water in an over-zealous, under-informed putsch for modernization.

First, they had a good thing: popular education. With new democracy won in 1911, China won universal literacy. Everyone had a right to education. Then came the breakdown: Reformers found classical Chinese (文言文) incomprehensible, and advocated the vernacular movement (白話文) so people could write exactly as they spoke. Installing vernacular literacy in school curricula they at the same time slashed the age-old medium for textual communication, that concise language at the root of literary writings of the past 2,500 years, used not only in official documents and personal letters, but in all forms of poetry, verse, essay, drama, lyrics and prose. In one stroke they destroyed the single link that had kept open the spiritual channels, the thought passages between generations and between dynasties, the single medium that gave a Chinese person possession of his awesome cultural heritage. From that dark day onward Chinese civilization was destroyed and the past obliterated. Whilst children of my father's generation had learned all the classics and the major poets of the six dynasties and the Tang and Song before their teens, and had learned to comprehend their import before reaching 20, children of my generation (1930s) and later were deprived of our cultural continuity by this half-baked education blindly founded on some American model in pursuit of everything "modern" but bereft of soul, emptied of historical awareness and devoid of cultural identity.

In fact it is just as hard to master written characters in the vernacular as in the classics. To speak in the vernacular was not enough; these monstrous pundits had to bury the past with this overblown May Fourth Movement -- and our too-fragile link with it. Classical Chinese became a hated, optional class taught by uninspired people who themselves had lost touch with its subtleties, its cultural uniqueness, its elegance and unequalled beauty -- qualities that made Chinese literature "civilized."

My generation is deprived of this precious link with the past that had been a palpable reality only a generation previously. Each May 4 I am in mourning (as much later I have come to mourn also June 4). Returning to a Chinese environment after some 40 years in Western climes, I find colleagues and students in Taiwan entirely alienated from that magnificent and irreplaceable heritage that should have been their birthright. No one in their fifties or below here has command of their past as had my father's generation. Instead, there is overblown self-interest generated by misguided notions of democracy which here is taken to mean "my rights and privileges." But never "my obligation to society." Not what I can and must contribute to society but always what I can get out of my present situation. How to make or take the most out of my job. So students want a quick degree, and teachers exploit their position to advance their standing outside, garner lucrative commissions, or move to a more prestigious university. Never in my 20 years teaching, from Taiwan University, Tsing Hua University to the College of Graduate Arts Institutes, have I witnessed meetings where faculty discuss the future of students, standards of excellence we should set, the relative position of our graduates in either the microcosm of Taiwan or the global one. There is nothing like an "educational policies committee" or a "faculty academic standards evaluation committee" as there are in the West. Why should this be so?

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