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Chen Duxiu, "The French and Modern Civilization"

Billet d'Olympia Lui

Chen Duxiu’s “法蘭西人與近代文” / The French and Modern Civilization was published in the September issue of “青年杂志” in 1915, later reprinted in ”陈独秀文章选编” (Selected Essays by Chen Duxiu) 3 vols. Beijing, Sanlian Press, 1984, pp. 79-81. It was translated and published in the Contemporary Chinese Thought, vol. 1, no. 1, Fall 1999, pp. 54-57, by M.E. Sharpe Inc.

Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) was a reformist, teacher and political leader, and was one of the co-founders of China’s Communist Party. He took the traditional path of studying for the civil service exams and passed the first one with the highest distinction. However, he wasn’t persuaded by China’s traditional education system. He spent a few years abroad studying in Japan. Upon returning to China, he published a journals, one of which was called “
青年杂志” which included contributing writers who later became important political figures, such as Lu Xun, Hu Shi, Lu Dazhao and Mao Zedong. As Dean of the School of Letters at Beijing University, he played a big role in the May 4th Movement and lost his job following the protests. Upon converting to Marxism, he cofounded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 and was elected secretary general. However, due to the failure of being able to collaborate with the Nationalists, he lost his position in 1927, then was expelled from the CPP in 1929.
 “法蘭西人與近代文” / The French and Modern Civilization, he proposes that “the youth of China undertake a vast intellectual, literary, and cultural revolution to rejuvenate the nation”, in the worlds of Tse-Tsung Chow, Professor of East Asian Languages, Literature, and History at University of Wisconsin.

Chen’s essay does not highlight a question. The idea he brings forth in this text is that the French have brought the 3 biggest factors responsible for bringing ancient civilization into modern civilization. He seems to base his writings historical knowledge and research. He concludes that all people were part of ancient civilization (requiring only religion, law and literature) but it was thanks to the Europeans, lead by the French, that the world has modern civilization. These 3 factors are (1) human rights, through The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789); (2) evolutionism, because Darwin’s theory of evolution was a successor of Lamarck (a Frenchman) and his theory in Zoological Philosophy; (3) socialism, a theory born during the French Revolution. And in light of WWI, whether the French or the Germans win, Chen reminds the readers that the French still made “great contributions to humankind”.

The author is does not come forth with new information, he simply took existing facts to reshape them into supporting his argument. In my opinion, at the time of the publication, this text must have had a large impact on the Chinese intellects and young people (as it was catered for them to read). The 1910s were politically unstable years for China and the people did not have a strong leader, therefore it was easier for Chen to sway the public into thinking more openly about civilization and about their political views. The text reflects the beginnings of his leftist tendencies by putting accent on socialism. He appears to want to remind the readers that France is the country that has bringing the world towards a brighter (socialist) future, and that one must not look down on them if they lose the war. 

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