This article is written for people in America who really care about situations in China. With this article, I hope it can give a basic stretch of the cultural thread that China is coming from, e.g. China’s growth path, and thus might help Americans understand the real needs of China.
Every culture has its own growth path, and its own thread of stories. The one of China is very different from the one of the west. For a lot of things that the west takes for granted, China has to take a long time to cultivate them in the deep consciousness of the nation.
Individual consciousness is a strong tradition of the Greek culture from which the west inherited from. In China, however, individual consciousness is always an undercurrent, never became the explicit culture. As China was torn apart by the west, the pains caused Chinese intellect to reflect on our culture. When put our culture in the contrast with the western culture, it is much easier to find out our limitation and how to make it better. Gradually the efforts merged into a movement of Chinese Renaissance in the early part of the 20 century.
People at that time (including many early leaders of CP) were involved in some educational movement that they hope can have similar effect of European Renaissance. To be specific, they wanted to invoke the awareness of the people of their own individuality, pursuing their own happiness instead of always sacrificing for the country. For example, there were literature about the suppression of individuals by the family (typical big Chinese traditional family hierarchy), young men and women pursuing free love instead of marriage set up by their parents, women pursuing their independence (influenced by the same movement in the west. The work of Ibsen like The Doll’s House was very popular and widely discussed). There were writers experimenting writing novels like the western ones, such as deeply self-confessional. They deeply analyzed human nature, explored humanities under various circumstances. They advocated the potential of individuals. They practiced themselves developing their diverse personalities. They emphasized the potential of individuals to free themselves through learning, and the responsibilities to do so. They wrote essays to tell their countrymen to develop their body and mind so there can be a new young China.
They felt Chinese traditional written language is too obscure and difficult for the mass to learn. So they advocated writing the same way as the oral language and they explored how to write in that kind of language. This is a long time of practice. It took almost a century for some great Chinese writers to figure out how to write beautifully in the plain spoken Chinese.
They translated the Wealth of Nation and many such great works into Chinese to introduce western ideas. They criticized deeply the traditional Chinese culture, especially the Confucianism. Some even advocated young people not reading any traditional Chinese text, saying it is full of words that eat people.
They tried to adopt the three branch government structure of the west, even willingly to be killed for that cause.
Deeply, they wanted to wake people up of their individual consciousness, and develop their individual consciousness. They felt that was the future of China. That was the only way to fight the old deeply drenched habits of culture. This is indeed a trust in common individuals to find their own happiness instead of being bound by many traditional artificial values.
Above is just a glimpse of that movement of Chinese Renaissance. The task wasn’t accomplished. And we don’t know when it can be finally accomplished. But it did transform China in a great degree. I highly recommend the speech below by Hu Shih on Chinese Renaissance.
The speech was about the language movement. (I think it was originally in English. If so, he put me totally in shame. The intellects of that generation were well-trained in the traditional classic Chinese text. And their command of English is also so splendid, –I had always wondered how good their English were and how much they understood the western culture–, but I think I am better in science and engineering training, and about 80 years younger than Hu, I know many things that he didn’t know. 🙂 )
You can notice in this speech Hu mentioned Ch’en Tu-shiu, the founder of CP, and his early role in Chinese Renaissance. This is just an example of many of the early members of CP actually came from the same people who advocated westernization and democracy.
Another great speech is by Li Ao in Beijing University.
In that speech, Li Ao tried very hard to convey to Chinese people the way to obtain their freedom. I highly recommend this speech.
I think if you read these two speeches, you will feel they follow the same tradition. Actually Li Ao is Hu Shih’s little friend across generation. I don’t think they formally claimed a teacher-student relation. But the outsiders always treat Li Ao as Hu Shih’s student. Personally I feel that Li Ao has gone way beyond Hu Shih in knowledge and practice.
I think these two great speeches should give you an idea what kind of change that China needs. In the spirit of these two speeches, more peaceful bottom level cultural communication and engagement are the most effective way to bring about the fundamental changes.