Skip to content

Response to Review of The Rise of Political Intellectuals in Modern China: May Fourth Societies and the Roots of Mass-Party Politics

I wish to thank the editors for inviting me to respond and to thank reviewer Chris Courtney for his attentive reading and critique.

One of the joys of writing, I think, is seeing how different readers derive their own understandings. I am therefore very pleased that the review highlights what I see as major points in the book: the importance of social networks and sociability in the creation of May Fourth (and by extension, other social movements); the fact that May Fourth did in fact resonate throughout China, that it was indeed a national movement; and the demystification of intellectuals as a social category and of ideas as abstractly propelling historical change.

The review raises questions which the book does not answer, regarding concurrent and subsequent developments in Wuhan, the relationships of the young male intellectuals at the center of the book with other members of other social groups (particularly workers and women) and the subsequent career of Yun Daiying. Many of these are questions of context, or of framing. With hindsight I might have added a bit more context at certain points. But ultimately the context is derived from the questions one asks. The underlying questions that drove my research were: what is the role of intellectuals in bringing about social change? What did it mean to be an intellectual during the time of May Fourth? Regarding the life and career of Yun Daiying, for example, I understood early on that I could not write both a social history of ideas and a biography, and made a conscious choice to limit my time frame to May Fourth, precisely because I wanted to obtain a textured understanding of the movement. However, neither the subject nor the sources are exhausted and I believe much more remains to be done. While May Fourth is often referred to, not many studies, I think, have actually tackled the movement and its significance.

One problem in this regard remains sources. Many sources, as Courtney observes, remain in the central archive of the Chinese Communist Party and access to actual documents remains strictly limited, thus limiting researchers to edited anthologies, memoirs, newspapers, and journals.

In summary, I will be glad to see more work done on Wuhan, on May Fourth, and on the fascinating characters that appear in the book. If my work manages to provoke curiosity in readers to further explore these questions I shall feel gratified.