Article abstract: As the editor of a groundbreaking literary journal and Dean of Arts and Letters at Peking University, Chen Duxiu was a central figure in the Chinese “literary renaissance” of 1915-1921 and in the May Fourth Movement of 1919. He founded the Chinese Communist Party with Li Dazhao in 1921 and served as its chairman from 1921 to 1927.
Chen Duxiu’s (Ch’en Tu-hsiu) formative years spanned a time of great political, social, and intellectual ferment in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Foreign incursion, official corruption, and belated attempts at “self-strengthening” and reform impressed the young Chen with the need for China to become a cohesive and powerful nation-state. To a remarkable degree, his life was a continual quest for the best method of effecting this change.
Chen was born Chen Qiansheng to a modest gentry family in China’s northern Anhui Province. His father, who died when Chen was two, had served as an officer in Manchuria, and the Chen family reportedly boasted ties to the powerful official Li Hongzhang (Li Hung-chang). Following the practice of ambitious Chinese families, Duxiu and his brother Mengji were provided with a rigorous classical education in preparation for the examinations to qualify for government service.
At the precocious age of seventeen, Chen passed the initial test but in 1897 failed to obtain the provincial or chü-jen degree. He was free to try again, but this setback coincided with the aftermath of the humiliating war with Japan (1894-1895) and the European “race for concessions,” and Chen, like many of China’s young literati, now sought Western learning as a key to China’s salvation. Though the reform movement of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao was quashed in the Empress Dowager Cizi’s (Tzu-hsi) coup d’état of September, 1898, their attempted synthesis of Confucian and Western ideas would provide an important model for Chen’s thinking for most of the next decade.
During the next five years, Chen studied English, French, and various technical subjects at a school in Hangzhou and rounded out his basic studies at the Tokyo Higher Normal School. During this period, he formed the basis of his beliefs in vernacular language as a tool of reform and the need for China to be reconstituted by revolution. He also acquired a taste for the bohemian habits of Chinese expatriate intellectuals, indulging in frequent bouts of drinking and womanizing. Chen’s revolutionary activities at this point consisted of little more than flirting with romantic anarchism. Yet his literary accomplishments were considerably more advanced. In 1904, he founded the Anhwei su-hua pao (Anhui common-speech journal), one of the first vernacular publications in China.
In 1906, he again left for Japan and briefly studied at the University of Waseda. There he came into contact with members of Sun Yat-sen’s (Sun Yixian) Kuomintang. While generally enthusiastic about Sun’s program, Chen’s intellectual independence would not allow him to accept the alliance’s call for the suppression of the Manchus. In a pattern that was to repeat itself in later life, Chen maintained ties to the revolutionaries but refused to be subject to their discipline.
Following the abdication of the Qing in 1912, Chen’s ties to the revolutionary government and his reputation as a scholar and editor secured him a position as head of the Anhui Department of Education. Within a year, however, General Yuan Shikai, now president of the republic, moved against his parliamentary opposition, and Chen and his patron, Anhui governor Bo Wenwei, fled to Japan. Following a brief stint as an editor of the opposition Tiger Magazine there, Chen moved to foreign controlled Shanghai, where he founded Ch’ing-nien tsa-chih (youth magazine) in September, 1915.
Though the immediate reason for the founding of Ch’ing-nien tsa-chih—or La Jeunesse, as it was rendered by the Francophile Chen—was to oppose Yuan Shikai’s efforts to start a new imperial dynasty, it soon became a vehicle for articulating ideas on social reform. For Chen, the youth of a nation represented its potential for renewal and progress. In the West, he believed, the movements toward democracy and emancipation had drawn their impetus from this source. In China, however, the weight of the past retarded the progress of the nation in innumerable ways.
A dead classical language, accessible to only a fraction of the population, kept the people from reaping the fruits of their past, while it drained the time and energy of the few who could master it. The language ensured that Scholasticism rather than science would predominate in Chinese thought. Finally, it robbed the nation’s youth of the independence of mind and will needed to remake the nation and culture in their own image. Instead it burdened them with a cult of age and a slavish worship of ancient learning.
Perhaps the most direct expression of Chen’s iconoclasm may be found in his “Call to Youth”...
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