China Beat Archive


Date of this Version


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2011 Nov 15 in The China Beat


Copyright 2011 Ling Shiao.


By drawing our attention to the previously unexamined question of space for student activism, Fabio Lanza has successfully remapped the May Fourth Movement, despite the fact that it is perhaps the most well-travelled terrain in historical research of modern China. This is not a revisionist study that seeks to de-center May Fourth in China’s passage from tradition to modernity by looking for pre-May Fourth modern experimentations and the continuity between the late Qing and May Fourth periods. In fact, Lanza travels back to the historical site of Beijing University (hereafter Beida) and the canonical moment of the May Fourth years (1917-1923) and locates the radical new beginning of the modern Chinese student. He provocatively claims that “There were no students before 1919” (172). By this, he means that prior to May Fourth, students were little more than a sociological designation. It was during the May Fourth years that students finally emerged as a modern subject and political signifier. Refusing to take the category of students as a given, as previous scholarship on Chinese students and student activism (Israel 1966, Wasserstrom 1991) has done, this study is an intense and fruitful interrogation of the crucial process whereby “students” were transformed from a sociological category into a political category—a category that would be re-appropriated throughout the next seven decades until 1989, when the student pro-democracy movement was crushed and the “students” as a distinctive political subject ceased to be.