Keynote Speakers

  • Carine Defoort (KU Leuven, Belgium)

Paper: “May 4th as Past, Present, or Future? The Impact of Hu Shi’s Outline of the History of Chinese Philosophy”

May 4th 1919 represents a crucial moment in Chinese history: the present demanded a new vision of the past in order to meet the future. Since the early Republic, a whole century has gone by, but its imprint on Chinese philosophy has largely stayed. One of the most influential creators of this imprint was Hu Shi 胡適 (1891-1962), who published his Outline of the History of Chinese Philosophy (《中國哲學史大綱》) in that same year. This paper uses two case studies to illustrate how profoundly Hu and his contemporaries have shaped current views, namely on the issue of “correct naming” (zheng ming 正名) and on the philosopher Yang Zhu 楊朱. These one-century old views keep dominating the field because their historicity has been forgotten. They are largely treated as unquestionable matters of fact, the frame of current thinking that itself is hardly called into question. The present challenge is to reflect upon this past in order to meet the future.


Carine Defoort is Full Professor in Sinology at the KU Leuven, Belgium. She studied sinology and philosophy at KU Leuven, National Taiwan University, and the University of Hawaii. Her fields of interest are, primarily, early Chinese thought and, secondarily, the modern period interpretation of that thought. Some of her research topics are the Heguanzi, the “legitimacy of Chinese philosophy”, Fu Sinian, and the modern portrayals of Mozi, Mencius and Yang Zhu. She is the editor of Contemporary Chinese Thought (Routledge, Taylor & Francis, since 1997) and corresponding editor for Europe of China Review International (Honolulu, University of Hawaii, since 1994).

  • Joan Judge (York University, Canada)

Paper: “The Other Vernacular: Commoner Knowledge Culture Circa 1919”

Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936) wrote with characteristic clarity and bite in 1919 that nothing was straightforward in the May Fourth era: “All things have two, three, or multiple layers and every layer has its own self-contradictions.” While he was referring to divisions within academic culture, Lu Xun’s observation is even more apt when we examine the layers of complexity that extended beyond it.
This paper examines two of the most intractable “multi-layered” problems that Lu Xun and his cohort grappled with—how to deal with “the people” and how to formulate a new vernacular language—from another vantage point. Its source base is not New Culture journals but various genres of cheap print. Its protagonists are not intellectuals but common readers, editorial entrepreneurs, and those I call “forward-looking mundane traditionalists.” For these individuals, May Fourth was not a watershed but just another twist in the road: a moment that was relevant to the extent that it affected the kinds of information common readers needed and the form in which it could most effectively be delivered.
My focus is on the Guangyi shuju 廣益書局 (“Kwang Yih Book Co. Ltd”) which continuously produced cheap print and a certain register of vernacular knowledge in the decades both preceding and following 1919. I specifically examine one of Guangyi’s publications that obliquely but productively addresses the question of the new vernacular: the Suyu dian 《俗語典》 (Dictionary of common sayings) published in 1922.
The paper is attentive to key points of intersection among the multiple historical layers at play circa 1919. It ultimately questions how these sites of juncture—or disjuncture—might deepen our understanding of China’s long Republic.


Professor in the Department of History at York University in Toronto, Canada, Joan Judge is a cultural historian of modern China with a scholarly focus on print culture and women’s history at the turn of the twentieth century. She is the author of Republican Lens: Gender, Visuality, and Experience in the Early Chinese Periodical Press (University of California Press, 2015), The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China (Stanford University Press, 2008), Print and Politics: ‘Shibao’ and the Culture of Reform in Late Qing China (Stanford University Press, 1996). Her current research project is entitled “Quotidian Concerns: Everyday Knowledge and the Rise of the Common Reader in China, 1860–1940.” In this project she examines the processes of knowledge production and circulation that shaped modern China.

  • Sebastian Veg (EHESS, France) – Cancelled

Paper: “The Elite and the Popular: The May Fourth Tradition of Chinese Intellectuals and its Critique in the Long 20th Century”

The new culture movement gave birth to a figure that played a central role in the history of 20th century China: May Fourth intellectuals. Inheriting some of the defining traits of the imperial literati – the propensity to take responsibility for society and the nation – they advocated “progressive” ideas (science and enlightenment), without renouncing their elite position. Although they were criticized – for their factionalism, their elitism, their fascination with theory, their snobbery and eagerness to imitate the latest Western fads – they dominated the intellectual field until 1949. After the establishment of the PRC, many of them were reincarnated as “Leninist scholar-officials” (even though some opted for expressions of loyal dissent or remonstrance), and again in the 1980s as “establishment intellectuals.” In the democracy movement of 1989 they once more took centre stage, claiming to speak for the nation. It was only in the course of the soul-searching after the violent crackdown that their claimed role as spokespeople for society and their organic links with the state were more radically challenged. The question was now: had Chinese intellectuals ever been autonomous?
In the late 1990s, a new role appeared which can be described as “minjian intellectuals”: situating their activity outside the realm of both state and market, they did not claim the elite privilege of producing abstract knowledge, but based their legitimacy on taking part in concrete actions at the margins of society. In fact, it was not the first time that such a challenge had appeared. Already in May Fourth times, some prominent figures of the new culture movement had called to “Go to the People” (到民間去 dao minjian qu). At various points throughout the 20th century, intellectuals similarly attempted to give substance to an alternative tradition of engaging with grassroots society and producing knowledge outside the legitimacy framework of state institutions.
This presentation will attempt to sketch out these two traditions in China’s twentieth century history and to disentangle some of the strands of the controversial legacy of the May Fourth intellectuals today.


Sebastian Veg is a Professor of intellectual history and literature of 20th century China at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), Paris, and an Honorary Professor at the University of Hong Kong. He was director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Hong Kong from 2011 to 2015. His interests are in 20th century Chinese intellectual history, literature, and political debates. His doctoral research was devoted to modernism and democracy in the May Fourth era (Fictions du pouvoir chinois. Littérature, modernisme et démocratie au début du XXe siècle, Paris : Éditions de l’EHESS, 2009), followed by a second project on the new role of intellectuals in China since the 1990s. He was the co-principal investigator for a France–Hong Kong research grant on “New Approaches to the Mao Era: everyday history and popular memory.” Most recently, he has published a series of articles on cultural and political debates in Hong Kong since the handover.

  • 張寅德 Zhang Yinde (Université Paris 3 – Sorbonne-Nouvelle, France)

Paper: “Ba Jin: ‘May Fourth Offspring’, Time Bomb, or Utopian Impulse?”

Ba Jin 巴金 (1904-2005), one of the most prolific and important Chinese writers of the 20th century, claims to be “the offspring of May 4th”. This statement is an invitation to revisit the complex relationship Ba Jin has with the movement, as well as some of the clichés around this literary figure. I first recall Ba Jin’s attachment to libertarian ideas introduced during these tremendous intellectual and cultural protest years: apart from his translations and essays related to anarchist theories and activities, his fictional work, also starts with an undoubted tropism to violent stories. Official criticism condemns this kind of destructive nihilism or, on the contrary, is in favor by considering it as a revolutionary patriotism. I propose an alternative reading to these reductive or instrumentalized interpretations, by coming back to Ba Jin’s first narrative texts, published at the turn of the 1930s, containing actually a great complexity.
It is such hidden aspects, the underlying utopianism in particular, that I attempt to rediscover by a detailed examination. My aim is to show that the utopian spirit, which Arif Dirlik defines as intrinsic to any anarchism characterized by a social revolution without purpose and end, is notable in Ba Jin’s work, permanently revolting against any authority, hierarchy and injustice, without intention of leading to any institution. His utopianism actually stands out from the self-deceived utopia cherished by the nascent century or the dystopian allegory by his contemporaries. He formulates the criticism of the reality, oppressive and inegalitarian, by adopting an otherness which warns against both revanchist statism and voluntary servitude. Instead of certainty of a heavenly elsewhere and a bright future, Ba Jin “makes violence” to the History to open gaps and possibilities, without stopping questioning or deconstructing. My presentation highlights the virtue of a writing that melts with tormented dreams, refusing models and normativity, and wandering between didactism and imagination, representation and fabulation, reason and faith. Finally, I consider Ba Jin’s loyalty to the legacy of May 4th as an ever renewed desire for the freedom of thinking and imagining, if not of acting.


Zhang Yinde is Professor in Chinese Language, Literature and Civilization and in Comparative Literature Studies at the Université Paris 3, as well as Visiting Professor at the East China Normal University. An renowned expert in the Chinese prose literature, he has been focusing his research mainly on contemporary Chinese literature, on Chinese identity (ideological, cultural, and literary representations), and on Chinese-Western literary and cultural relations in the 20th century. He is the author of Le Monde romanesque chinois au XXe siècle. Modernités et identités (Paris : Honoré Champion, 2003) and Mo Yan, le lieu de la fiction (Paris : Seuil, 2014).