Mourning China's Dead Ideals This May Fourth

Lionel M. Jensen is Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and concurrently Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

The Fourth of May usually marks a day of celebration in China.  For the families of Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiabo, Liu Xiaoyuan, Gao Zhisheng, the hundreds who have vanished in the shadows of a government driven by fear, this year it is simply another painful day in the grim rite of awaiting word.  The date signals the national recollection of the May Fourth Incident, an event that ignited a joyous movement of university students and their teachers demanding an end to their country’s political weakness and the embrace of the modern ideals of democracy, gender equality, and science. 

On May 4, 1919, several thousand students, inflamed with the passions of national character and obeying a desperate impulse to “save the country,” conducted a public protest in the wide square in front of Tiananmen Gate.  They were there to convey their indignation at Japanese imperialism, at the cynical impotence of their national government, and at what they believed was the imminent failure of the Versailles Peace Conference to guarantee sovereignty for China in its territorial claims against Germany and Japan.

This bold challenge to autocracy has become a legend; its significance abducted long ago by the propaganda apparatus of the Communist Party, which until June of 1989 drew legitimacy from this great “student wave” of protest announcing the dawn of “enlightenment.”  Even under the strains of the Party’s tarnished history, May Fourth remains a pivotal moment in the history of modern China.

In old photographs and a few seconds of grainy film footage one can see the May Fourth crowds marching along the streets, milling about Tiananmen Square, shouting, brandishing signs, listening to speeches.  Held high above the throng, cloth banners announce the heroes De Xiansheng (Mr. Democracy) and Sai Xiansheng (Mr. Science).  Mixed with national flags are posters exclaiming “China for the Chinese” and advocacies for universal peace and brotherhood. 

Protesters saw China’s salvation in popular and political embrace of universal values of freedom, equality, self-expression.  The “new youth” clamored for “enlightenment.”  Today, enlightenment and its clarion universals represent the very “global values” that just three weeks ago China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, maligned as irrelevant to China when explaining that Ai Weiwei’s detention should be of no interest to non-Chinese and had “nothing to do with freedom of speech.”

The once open space at Tiananmen not far from where the students demanded international justice and democracy is now crowded with monuments to revolutionary heroes and martyrs and a few public buildings, most prominently the National Museum.  Here, in a small section of this massive space the German government and the corporation Stiftung Mercator have generously exhibited a unique collection of eighteenth-century sculpture and painting from Germany’s finest museums to present “Die Kunst der Aufklärung” (Art of the Enlightenment).  However, in the wake of Ai Weiwei’s disappearance, the coincidence of the exhibit theme and today’s May Fourth celebration make for a very rich irony, one not lost on German citizens or politicians, many of whom have deemed the exhibit an embarrassment and called for it to be closed: a brute slap in the face of Enlightenment ideals.

It is an embarrassment because Aufklärung, as conceived by its most articulate voice, Immanuel Kant, required the release of humanity from its “self-incurred tutelage of unreason.”  Without self-assertion and the free exercise of reason, Kant opined, humanity would remain enslaved to the authority of alien guidance incapable of acting on the motto of Enlightenment:  Dare to know!  Kant added:  “nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.”

And, it is difficult to imagine a more self-imposed unreason than that which has been demonstrated by the Chinese government (a prominent, non-paying sponsor of the exhibit) in its determined disappearance of hundreds and hundreds of writers, artists, bloggers, Christians, lawyers, petitioners, spouses and friends in just the last few months.  Under the leadership of the Communist Party, whose beginnings remain loosely anchored to May Fourth, there could be no greater apostasy.

Now, in light of the history of protest impressed on the paving stones of Tiananmen and the blood of revolutionary struggle, the once breathless beauty of a new China, one can only mourn for the lives lost, the citizens disappeared and the even greater number of dreams extinguished by the rude retrogression that makes Enlightenment, democracy, and freedom the endless, unreachable objectives of today’s post-revolutionary China. 

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