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10-08-2015, 16:48

Social Change in Republican China

The transformation of the old order that had commenced at the end of the Qing era continued into the period of the early Chinese republic. By 1915, the assault on the old system and values by educated youth was intense. The main focus of the attack was the Confucian concept of the family—in particular, filial piety and the subordination of women. Young people demanded the right to choose their own mates and their own careers. Women demanded rights and opportunities equal to those enjoyed by men. More broadly, progressives called for an end to the concept of duty to the community and praised the Western individualist ethos. The prime spokesman for such views was the popular writer Lu Xun, whose short stories criticized the Confucian concept of family as a “man-eating” system that degraded humanity. In a famous short story titled “Diary of a Madman,” the protagonist remarks: I remember when I was four or five years old, sitting in the cool of the hall, my brother told me that if a man’s parents were ill, he should cut off a piece of his flesh and boil it for them if he wanted to be considered a good son. I have only just realized that I have been living all these years in a place where for four thousand years they have been eating human flesh.5 Such criticisms did have some beneficial results. During the early republic, the tyranny of the old family system began to decline, at least in urban areas, under the impact of economic changes and the urgings of the New Culture intellectuals. Women, long consigned to an inferior place in the Confucian world order, began to escape their cloistered existence and seek education and employment alongside their male contemporaries. Free choice in marriage and a more relaxed attitude toward sex became commonplace among affluent families in the cities, where the teenage children of Westernized elites aped the clothing, social habits, and musical tastes of their contemporaries in Europe and the United States. But as a rule, the new consciousness of individualism and women’s rights that marked the early republican era in the major cities did not penetrate to the villages, where traditional attitudes and customs held sway. Arranged marriages continued to be the rule rather than the exception, and concubinage remained common. According to a survey taken in the 1930s, well over two-thirds of the marriages, even among urban couples, had been arranged by their parents (see the box on p. 102); in one rural area, only 3 of 170 villagers interviewed had heard of the idea of “modern marriage.” Even the tradition of binding the feet of female children continued despite efforts by the Nationalist government to eradicate the practice. Nowhere was the struggle between traditional and modern more visible than in the field of culture. Beginning with the New Culture era during the early years of the first Chinese republic, radical reformists criticized traditional culture as the symbol and instrument of feudal oppression that must be entirely eradicated to create a new China that could stand on its feet with dignity in the modern world. For many reformers, that new culture must be based on that of the modern West. During the 1920s and 1930s, Western literature and art became popular in China, especially among the urban middle class. Traditional culture continued to prevail among more conservative elements of the population, and some intellectuals argued for the creation of a new art that would synthesize the best of Chinese and foreign culture. But the most creative artists were interested in imitating foreign trends, whereas traditionalists were more concerned with preservation. Literature in particular was influenced by foreign ideas as Western genres like the novel and the short story attracted a growing audience. Although most Chinese novels written afterWorldWar I dealt with Chinese subjects, they reflected theWestern tendency toward social realism and often dealt with the new Westernized middle class (Mao Dun’s Midnight, for example, describes the changing mores of Shanghai’s urban elites) or the disintegration of the traditional Confucian family. Most of China’s modern authors displayed a clear contempt for the past.

 

 

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