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Hideo Fukamachi

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Story of a Peculiar Mass Movement

Hideo Fukamachi
Professor (Chinese Political History), Faculty of Economics, Chuo University

Curious posters

“Comply with the rules”, “Walk on the left side”, “Minimize client entertainment”, “No gambling, smoking, or drunken behavior”, “Eat clean and drink clean”, “Be polite” —These are some slogans applied to the collection of 36 posters, illustrated with outdated pictures. The name of the series of posters is Xin shenghuo guatu (New Life Wall Chart), which was produced and published in China in 1938.

I first saw this in the stacks of the Harvard-Yenching Library, where I studied from 1994 to 1995 while I was a Ph.D. candidate, and I experienced a sense of déjà vu. Many of those slogans were very similar to the various slogans I saw around China during my three visits in 1985 and 1989.

I immediately knew that this poster collection was a product of a peculiar mass movement called the New Life Movement, implemented from 1934 to 1949 by the Kuomintang (KMT) administration. After completing and publishing my doctoral dissertation in 2002, which was related to the formation process of the KMT organization, the reason for me to choose the New Life Movement as my next research topic was nothing less than it stirring a sense of déjà vu from 60 years earlier

Issues with sensitivity and cleanliness?

“Button up”, “Bathe regularly”, “Return lost and found”, “Talk calmly”, “No spitting”, “Clean your house regularly”, “Get on and off trains and boats one person at a time”, “Keep parks and theaters clean”--These kinds of rules surrounding everyday life that are extremely specific as well as extensive were the content being advocated as the New Life Movement.

In 1934, when the New Life Movement was launched, the KMT was carrying out an encirclement campaign to destroy the base of the Chinese Communist Party in Jiangxi province. Also, approximately two and a half years had passed since the Manchurian Incident (1931), and territorial forfeiture in the four northeastern provinces was almost permanent. However, the movement was constant and survived for 15 years through the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), while transforming in content and nature, until the end of the KMT administration on the mainland.

While confronting these serious troubles both at home and abroad, why did the KMT embark on improving daily lifestyle customs, which was thought to be a superficial and trivial enlightenment campaign, and why did this national mass movement last over such a long period of time? Were the Chinese people of this time suddenly overcome by collective sensitivity and compulsive cleanliness? Or was it no more than the people simply being forcefully mobilized by an autocratic regime?

Physical discipline politics

Appearing like nitpicking in these times of turmoil, this peculiar movement thought to be out of touch with the times, actually appeared condensed in terms of politics, society, culture, military, and international relations of Republican China, and even as far as the overall trend in modern Chinese history. That is to say, by peeping through the window at the New Life Movement, a kaleidoscopic image of Republican China appears.

The focus of this odd movement was actually on body maintenance, management, movement and instruction methods. To be more precise, the New Life Movement was the KMT propagating modern physical and social values, and an attempt to discipline the Chinese people to be appropriate for the modern times (for more information regarding those assertions and activities, see Shintai wo shitsukeru seiji: Chuugoku Kokuminto no Shinseikatsu Undo (Physical Discipline Politics: The Kuomintang’s New Life Movement), Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, 2013).

Although the doctrine of modernization is not easy to define, in the non-Western world (or East Asia at least), it can be confidently said to have progressed through the process of self-formation of nation-states or colonization by great powers (or both). More specifically (especially in the case of the former), in order to oppose the great powers and maintain independence and unity, it was necessary for the state to maximize human and physical resources procured from society through so-called social organization such as spreading education and promotion of industry.

On the other hand, in order for the people who were originally the mere passive subjects of tax collections and maintenance of public order to become active citizens to bear the nation’s growth, demand for the institutionalization of political participation gradually increased. The creation of modern citizens through physical discipline was a uniform organization of society planned to nurture diligent and healthy soldiers and workers in order to maximize the military and economic potential of the nation-state.

Adam & Eve vs. the snake

As in the story of Adam and Eve, who lived innocent lives in the Garden of Eden and were seduced into eating the forbidden fruit, the New Life Movement behaved like the snake and made people aware that their own bodies could be seen by others and realize that the natural body was an ugly thing to be ashamed of. In the face of this, the Chinese people, who could no longer live in a self-sufficient paradise, often complied in public while opposing it privately, and the New Life Movement became a theatre which stalled and ended in failure.

And then, although the creation of a modern nation-state could not be accomplished, the voice of the people (or Heaven) was overly harsh towards the KMT, for China’s independence and unity were somehow protected in the end by becoming a victorious country in the Second World War. And like the cunning yet wise snake which made Adam and Eve aware of a source of embarrassment, and the KMT, which once scorned and denied the Chinese people in a comparison to the non-existent “Chinese citizens”, became the target of curses, hatred and fear was detested and driven out of the continent by the people.

Conversely, by legitimizing itself as representing realistic profit of the specific classes that made up the majority of the Chinese people and instigating and utilizing social competition, another vanguard revolutionary party succeeded and took control.

Postmodern superpower

With the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the evil customs of the Chinese surrounding rules and hygiene in everyday life were pointed out in detail to such a point that it could have been mistaken for the return of the New Life Movement. In Beijing before the hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, the 11th of every month was designated as Voluntarily Line Up Day, and random acts of spitting was also looked down upon. In Shanghai, in preparation of the 2010 World Expo, the municipal government called on people not to go out in their pajamas, which attracted much controversy. In 2012, “Chinese-style street-crossing”, which means ignoring traffic lights, became a popular phrase. And even now, slogans similar to those in the New Life Wall Chart, mentioned earlier, can be seen throughout the country.

So, today, nearly 80 years since the introduction of the New Life Movement, is China still failing in becoming a modern nation? It is certainly difficult to say that the creation of modern citizens through physical discipline has been a total success. In recent years, patriotism has often taken a violent manifested form, displaying a weak public awareness more than a powerful national consciousness. On the other hand, China has continued to develop while navigating through all of this, and now, it goes without saying, has become a superpower that possesses enough military and economic might to influence global affairs.

In other words, while making a detour around the stage of creating citizens through physical modernization, China has increased its military and economic strength, and by doing so, has succeeded in raising its position on an international level. If we put it another way, without following the modernization process taken by developed countries, 21st century China has gained power as a so-called unique post-modern superpower. Is China pressing to rewrite the old term of “modern” in textbooks, or will the current development methods lose their significance and, at that point, China be obliged to take modern supplementary lessons? – That answer is yet to be known.

Hideo Fukamachi
Professor (Chinese Political History), Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Professor Fukamachi was born in Tokyo in 1966. He graduated from the Department of Aesthetics, Division of Philosophy, Faculty of Letters, Kyoto University in 1988. He studied for one year from 1994 at the Ph.D. program in History and East Asian Languages, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, and graduated from the Doctoral Program, Graduate School of Area and Cultural Studies, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies with a Ph.D. degree. He then served as a full-time lecturer and an Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University before assuming his current position in 2004 (also a visiting fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University from 2004 to 2006). Professor Fukamachi's major publications include Party, Society, and the State in Modern China: The Making of the Chinese Nationalist Party [Kindai Chugoku ni okeru Seito, Shakai, Kokka: Chugoku Kokuminto no Keisei Katei]; Party, Society, and the State in Modern Guangdong: The Making of the Chinese Nationalist Party and Its Party-State Regime; 100 Years of China's Political Regimes: What has been pursued? [Chugoku Seiji Taisei 100 Nen: Nani ga Motomerarete kitanoka]; A Revolution Anthology of Sun Yat-sen [Sonbun Kakumei Bunshu]; and Physical Discipline Politics: The Kuomintang’s New Life Movement [Shintai wo shitsukeru seiji: Chuugoku Kokuminto no Shinseikatsu Undo].

Hideo Fukamachi, Party, Society, and the State in Modern China: The Making of the Chinese Nationalist Party [Kindai Chugoku ni okeru Seito, Shakai, Kokka: Chugoku Kokuminto no Keisei Katei], Chuo University Press, 1999.new winow
Hideo Fukamachi, Party, Society, and the State in Modern Guangdong: The Making of the Chinese Nationalist Party and Its Party-State Regime, Social Sciences Academic Press, 2003.new winow
Hideo Fukamachi, ed., 100 Years of China's Political Regimes: What has been pursued? [Chugoku Seiji Taisei 100 Nen: Nani ga Motomerarete kitanoka], Chuo University Press, 2009.new winow
Hideo Fukamachi, trans. and ed., A Revolution Anthology of Sun Yat-sen [Sonbun Kakumei Bunshu], Iwanami Bunko, 2011.new winow
Hideo Fukamachi, Physical Discipline Politics: The Kuomintang’s New Life Movement [Shintai wo shitsukeru seiji: Chuugoku Kokuminto no Shinseikatsu Undo], Iwanami Shoten, 2013.new winow