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May 9, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright May 9, 2008. Used by permission.


This past week marked the 89th anniversary of the May 4th demonstrations, the defining event of a decade of intellectual vitality and ideological debate as teachers, students, authors and scholars drew on a panoply of ideas to make sense of the world, their nation, and how best to build a strong and vital society.

At the heart of this movement was a true marketplace of ideas. Young intellectuals rushed to read the latest issues of their favorite journals, of which there were hundreds, pages brimming with the back-and-forth of open minds at work.

The question in the hearts of these youthful, educated elite: How to save Chinafrom the ravages of corrupt politicians, avaricious foreign powers, and the stranglehold of old thinking and culture? And yet while the question remained consistent, the answers were a glorious cacophony of disparate ideologies shouted in student halls and debated in faculty dining rooms, scrawled on notebook pages and set in printer’s ink.

Whether one was a follower of John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Herbert Spencer, or Karl Marx (among many others), or an academic focused on using new methodologies to mine China’s past and cultural heritage, or sought elsewhere for a way to unite a nation against the forces arrayed against her, what made the May Fourth era so special was the free expression of ideas, and the willingness of the intellectual elite to listen, discuss, and then accept or reject different viewpoints on the merits of the arguments presented.