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May Fourth Romanticism. Views of the individual in the Confucian tradition family as the basic unit of society individual as part of two continuums: biological and social hierarchical society (all individuals obey some higher authority) Fate (individual will insignificant)

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May Fourth Romanticism

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May Fourth Romanticism

Views of the individual in the Confucian tradition

  • family as the basic unit of society

  • individual as part of two continuums: biological and social

  • hierarchical society (all individuals obey some higher authority)

  • Fate (individual will insignificant)

  • essential goodness of human nature

  • li, ritual behavior (vs. ethics of aspiration ren)

  • all of the above combine to deemphasize the individual and the role of the individual will in shaping the world

Landscape painting


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May Fourth Romanticism

I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be my self. Simply myself. I know my own heart and understand my fellow man. But I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be not better, but at least I am different—Rousseau, from opening to Confessions (1782)

Western views of individual

  • individual as basic unit of society sense of autonomy and uniqueness and dynamism

  • god/man relationship

  • the self is an essence which is not shaped by heredity or social relations

  • Romantic individualism

  • romantic individualism merges with capitalism


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Individualism in Chinese tradition?

poetic tradition of “poetry expresses the will” (诗言志)

Daoist “individualism”?

late Ming (15th/16th centuries) individualism

May Fourth Romanticism

Qu Yuan 屈原 (340-278 BC) in a “modern” romantic pose


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May Fourth Romanticism

  • What is Romanticism (1790s to 1830) in the West?

  • subjectivism and individualist reaction against Enlightenment rationalism

  • emotion, sentiment, intuition, irrational (against Enlightenment reason)

  • breaking of literary forms; new language

  • new role of writer (the “lamp” not the “mirror”)

  • aesthetics of feeling (not aesthetics of representation of ideals of order and beauty

  • cult of genius of writer/artist (e.g., Beethoven)

Wanderer above the Sea, Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840)


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May Fourth Romanticism

  • Langmanzhuyi浪漫主义 (romanticism)

  • Self-discovery as part of critical strategy, a means to an iconoclastic goal rather than a goal in itself

  • Fades as a value after 1928 along with the rise of leftist thought

  • Subjectivism as a reaction to (1) fate; (2) family and state authority; (3) authority of tradition; (4) li and social hierarchies, etc.

  • Liberation of self often tied to nation and national struggle


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May Fourth Romanticism

Manifestations (in lifestyle)

  • assertion of self in the face of authority (parental, school, political, ideological)

  • rebelliousness

  • sexual expression as part of the individual

  • rejection of arranged marriages

  • school protests, political protests

  • love

“Love is the most significant of all things. And yet this simple truth has never been recognized in the sickeningly long history of China, and even today my personal experience has only discovered two classes of people in China: namely, cynics who despise love, and cowards who are afraid of it. Had the tree of knowledge been planted in the middle of the Chinese empire, instead of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve would have remained superb creatures, blind of heart as of eye and insensible to the life promptings within—Xu Zhimo, “Art and Life” (in Denton 1996: 174)

Xu Zhimo (徐志摩) and Lu Xiaoman (陆小曼)


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May Fourth Romanticism

Manifestations (literary)

  • first-person fiction

  • close relationship in fictional content to author’s life

  • autobiography

  • stressing emotional life

  • diaries (much less objective than previously)

  • love letters

  • Guo Moruo, “Preface to Sorrows of Young Werther” (Denton 1996: 206-08)

Guo Moruo’s 5 characteristics of Goethe’s romanticism

1. Emotionalism

2. Pantheism

3. Exaltation of nature

4. Reverence for the primitive life

5. Respect for children


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May Fourth Romanticism

Creation Society (创造社)

  • founded in 1921 in Japan by Yu Dafu 郁達夫, Guo Moruo 郭沫若, Cheng Fangwu 成仿吾, Zheng Boqi 鄭伯奇, Tian Han 田漢

  • lasted until 1929

  • journals include Creation Quarterly (創造季刊), Creation Weekly (創造周報) and Creation Monthly (see right)

  • avant-garde position in the literary field (against the Literary Research Association 文學研究會), who had come to dominate the field of the new established “new literature” (新文學)

  • art for art’s sake?

  • literature as self-expression

  • source of poetry in genius and inspiration


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May Fourth Romanticism

  • Foreign works offered literary models and models of behavior

  • Ibsen’s A Doll House: Nora as a metaphor not only for the liberation of women, but the liberation of the individual, of humanity from tradition

  • Sorrows of Young Werther, translated by Guo Moruo (1921)

  • Byron, poet/revolutionary

  • Wertherian versus the Promethean and the paradoxes of May Fourth romanticism

Above: Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), author of A Doll’s House

Depiction of Goethe’s character Werther at his desk, pen and pistol nearby


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May Fourth Romanticism

Romanticism and Revolution

  • “From the literary revolution to revolutionary literature” (從文學革命到革命文學)

  • After 1925 Creationists moved from radical individualism to radical Marxism

  • But, they continued to stress the very Romantic notion of the writer as shaper of cultural consciousness.

  • view of Marxism was voluntaristic-activist and not determinist

  • Radical individualism can lead to a radical attempt to transcend the self and merge with a higher order (ie., the nation, the people, the party)

  • Marxism’s view of the organic, holistic relationship between society, politics, and ideology

Karl Marx


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Yu Dafu 郁達夫 (1896-1945)

  • native of Zhejiang (like Lu Xun, Mao Dun, etc.)

  • Studied in Japan (1913-22)

  • Founding member of the Creation Society

  • Abandon leftist politics in the 1930s

  • Does anti-Japanese propaganda work during the war

  • Killed by Japanese in Southeast Asia in 1945

Above: A young Yu Dafu; right: Yu Dafu and the beauty Wang Yingxia (王映霞)


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Yu Dafu 郁達夫 (1896-1945)

  • Sinking (沉沦; 1921), Yu’s first collection of short fiction

  • comprise of three stories, one of which is “Sinking”


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