Call for Papers

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International Conference

4 May 1919: History in Motion
A Political, Social and Cultural Look at a Turning Point in the History of Modern China

Université de Mons, Belgium
2 – 4 May 2019

Jointly organized by:
Université de Mons (UMONS), Faculty of Translation and Interpretation (FTI-EII) and School of Human and Social Sciences (ESHS)
Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Maison des Sciences Humaines, East Asian Studies (EASt)

Organizing Committee:

In January 1919, after four years of bloody conflict which had spread round the globe, the victors of the First World War gathered in Versailles to sign a document that would send the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires into oblivion, effectively drawing the borders of a new world. By joining forces with the Allies against Germany in 1917, the young Republic of China had hoped to reassert its sovereignty over those portions of its territory (Qingdao and Jiaozhou Bay, Yantai) that had been placed under German rule twenty years earlier. Unfortunately for China, the Treaty of Versailles attributed those territories to Japan, which, at the time, was also a member of the coalition against the central empires and which had demanded those territories as early as 1915 (Twenty-One Demands). Outraged by what they considered a betrayal – especially since the Chinese government was suspected of having offered the territories up in exchange for the promise of a loan from Japan – three thousand students gathered on 4 May 1919 in Peking before the Tiananmen to express their discontent and their anger towards the pro-Japanese officials. Very rapidly, in spite of the warlords’ attempts to intervene, the nationalist wave, accompanied by social movements, swept over Shanghai paralysing the entire Chinese economy. The movement succeeded in convincing the government to refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles in June, a decision that, ultimately, had little effect on the Japanese presence in China. Despite this, the student demonstrations marked the emergence of a veritable political consciousness among the Chinese population, who had seen their power usurped in 1912, after the Republican Revolution, by the autocratic interim president, Yuan Shikai. In particular, the movement served as a soapbox for a plurality of political doctrines, including the left. In fact, the Communist Party of China was founded in 1921 by intellectuals (Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao) who had actively participated in the May 4th events.
This nascent political and nationalistic dimension aside, the May Fourth Movement, led principally by an emerging class of young academics and intellectuals, was part of the larger New Culture Movement, which flourished between 1915 and the end of the 1920s. Students, who had been exposed since the end of the nineteenth century to Japanese and western influences, issued social and cultural demands which included their government’s engaging with other nations; they embraced such values as democracy, equality and individual freedom. The Confucian way of life was considered incompatible with the modern era and was rejected in favour of rationalism and science. Classical Chinese, too, was seen as a straightjacket that prevented new ideas from bursting forth, and became unpopular. Instead, the leaders of the movement sought to promote the vernacular, especially in literature, so that it could be made available to the largest possible audience, a mission which was carried out by such universally known figures as Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Lao She, Bing Xin and Hu Shih.
Given the decisive role it played in the construction of the modern Chinese state – an importance that has been recognized officially on both sides of the Formosa Strait – as well as in the literary and intellectual domains, the May Fourth Movement warrants a large-scale international scientific event in its own right. What better time, then, than the year marking the hundredth anniversary of those student demonstrations to organize, not just a cultural commemoration, but an academic conference befitting its imprint on the Chinese psyche? This project seeks to be interdisciplinary in accordance with the holistic character of the demands put forth by those demonstrators. Papers might focus, for example, on the following (non-exhaustive) questions:
— What were the premises on which, from the end of the Empire, the foundations of the May Fourth Movement were laid, and how did they manifest themselves? Can the student demonstrations be justifiably qualified as ‘revolutionary’, or were they merely one brick in a larger edifice?
— What role did political opposition to the central regime of the time (the Beiyang government) play, if any, in the explosion of patriotic fervour? How significant a role did the nationalist party, the Kuomintang, play in these events?
— What was the real weight of leftist and non-leftist forces in the movement? Should the importance of the Marxists, touted in communist propaganda, be relativized? Similarly, was the May Fourth Movement the intellectual catalyst of the Revolution which would result in the installation of the communist regime in continental China in 1949?
— Was the rejection of Confucianism by the intellectuals of the time justified? Did the agitation caused by the New Culture Movement not turn out to be sterile?
— Who were the conservatives who opposed the westernization of Chinese society, whose names have not received official recognition? Should their ideas be rehabilitated?
— Were the Japanese universally seen negatively in this movement, which was initially profoundly nationalistic and anti-Japanese? How can the possible influence of the Japanese in the New Culture Movement be estimated?
— How can the impact of the intense translation effort made in the early years of the Republic of China best be measured?
— Is it necessary to re-evaluate the literary modernity of the great canonical authors of the 1920s, such as Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, Mao Dun and Lao She? Or perhaps their forgotten ‘precursors’, including late Empire authors, should be re-examined in a more favourable and nuanced light?
— What role did women play in the May Fourth and New Culture Movements? Did the intensive reflection that accompanied these movements lead to a higher status for women?
— How much attention did the 1919 events receive abroad, in Japan, Europe (including Germany) or the United States?

Proposals should be sent to Kevin HENRY or Vanessa FRANGVILLE at They must include: title, full name(s) of the speaker(s), their institutional affiliations and e-mail addresses. Please include an abstract (maximum 300 words), in English, as well as a brief bio of the author(s) (5–7 lines).

The primary language of the conference is English. Submissions may be made in other languages if accompanied by a complete and detailed summary of the presentation and the slides to be used during the presentation can be provided in English in advance.

— Deadline for submission: 15 July 2018
— Notification of acceptance: Autumn, 2018

Keynote Speakers:

Carine DEFOORT (KU Leuven, Belgium)
Joan JUDGE (York University, Canada)
Sébastien VEG (EHESS, France) *to be confirmed*
ZHANG Yinde (Université Paris 3 – Sorbonne-Nouvelle, France)

Scientific Committee:

Serge DERUETTE (Université de Mons, Belgium)
Bart DESSEIN (Universiteit Gent, Belgium)
Éric FLORENCE (Université de Liège, Belgium)
Vanessa FRANGVILLE (Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium)
Gwennaël GAFFRIC (Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium)
Kevin HENRY (Université de Mons, Belgium)
Coraline JORTAY (Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium)
Françoise LAUWAERT (Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium)
Gregory B. LEE (Université Lyon 3 – Jean Moulin, France)
LIANG Hongling (University of Glasgow, United Kingdom)
Julia SCHNEIDER (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany)
SONG Mingwei (Wellesley College, USA)
Nicolas STANDAERT (KU Leuven, Belgium)
Andreas THELE (Université de Liège & Université de Mons, Belgium)
Mathieu TORCK (Universiteit Gent, Belgium)
Florent VILLARD (Institut d’études politiques de Rennes, France)
Florence ZHANG Xiangyun (Université Paris 7 – Paris-Diderot, France)
ZHANG Guoxian (Université de Mons, Belgium)