A Bitter Revolution : China's Struggle with the Modern World, Paperback Book

A Bitter Revolution : China's Struggle with the Modern World Paperback

Part of the Making of the Modern World series

3 out of 5 (2 ratings)


China is now poised to take a key role on the world stage, but in the early twentieth century the situation could not have been more different.

Rana Mitter goes back to this pivotal moment in Chinese history to uncover the origins of the painful transition from a premodern past into a modern world.

By the 1920s the seemingly civilized world shaped over the last two thousand years by the legacy of the great philosopher Confucius was falling apart in the face of western imperialism and internal warfare.

Chinese cities still bore the imprints of its ancient past with narrow, lanes and temples to long-worshipped gods, but these were starting to change with the influx of foreign traders, teachers, and missionaries, all eager to shape China's ancient past into a modern present.

Mitter takes us through the resulting social turmoil and political promise, the devastating war against Japan in the 1940s, Communism and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and the new era of hope in the 1980s ended by the Tian'anmen uprising. He reveals the impetus behind the dramatic changes in Chinese culture and politics as being China's "New Culture" - a strain of thought which celebrated youth, individualism, and the heady mixture of strange and seductive new cultures from places as far apart as America, India, and Japan.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 384 pages, numerous halftones
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: General & world history
  • ISBN: 9780192806055

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Review by

This examination of the May Fourth Movement is divided into two sections: the movement itself and its long term effects. In describing the May Fourth Movement, Mitter’s analysis is fairly orthodox. The movement was a response to frustration with Confucian values and was devoted to avoiding “national extinction” threatened by western attacks on its sovereignty. It promoted individual freedoms, modernity and social justice, ideas which were incorporated into some CCP programs, and to a lesser extent some KMT programs, when May Fourth activists gained power in later decades. Mitter’s main argument about the movement was that it held near infinite possibility in 1919 and was not destined to be subsumed by other ideologies in the late 1920’s. The variety and intensity of the discourse allowed for enormous flexibility on what programs were put forth. Choices made by prominent May Fourth participants drove the movement in a way that ultimately marginalized it. Mitter argues that in addition to the leaders it produced, the May Fourth Movement served, and continues to serve, as a powerful national myth that is rebuilt for each new era in China.The myth of the May Fourth Movement maintained its power for a variety of reasons. The movement is often portrayed as the moment when China stood up and began its climb to rebuilding its national dignity. Its suppression by the KMT in the 1930’s, when Chiang Kai-shek attempted to build a powerful central government that did not place much value on individual freedom, did little to diminish its luster, particularly given the ineptness of the KMT. When the CCP won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, they harkened back to the May Fourth Movement as one of the party’s intellectual cornerstones, with many early CCP decrees were couched in the language of democracy and equality. May Fourth was then quietly put away until it was needed again. It was rarely discussed during the Great Leap Forward, when Mao Zedong tolerated very little dissent or discussion of his polices, but Mao resurrected it again for the Cultural Revolution. He used the May Fourth Movement to demonstrate how the communist revolution had lost its way and that it needed to return to its roots. He particularly exploited the movement’s iconoclast rhetoric and emphasis on rebelling against authority (all except Mao, who was a very authoritative icon). Non-officials invoke the May Fourth Movement as well, particularly reformers who suggest that China has a tradition of democracy. Mitter also connects the May Fourth Movement to contemporaneous events in Italy, Germany, Turkey, Russia and Japan, as well as later events in the United States, western Europe and India. He does not spend a great deal of time on the issue, but he argues that many countries were experiences the same sort of pains while growing into modernity.The May Fourth myth in Chinese national consciousness is the strongest part of Mitter’s work. He demonstrates how easily it can be manipulated by both the PRC government and its Chinese critics. Mitter’s research on that manipulation is masterfully done. He examined writing from May Fourth activists, CCP and KMT publications, foreign scholarly writing as well as the limited domestic criticism that has been allowed by the PRC. The myth has served as a powerful nationalizing and legitimizing tool for the government, although that tool has occasionally been used against it as well.

Review by

Survey of Chinese intellectual/social development in the 20th century. Tries to cover so much, and thus covers too little.

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