On the “reactionary” baihuawen movement

That’s the gist of the title of this article criticizing Hu Shi’s advocacy of the baihuawen movement earlier last century. It says that far from reforming literature, in which it failed and was doomed to fail unbeknownst to the advocates, the movement unleashed a quiet revolution that overturned the classes in society. The elites lost their wenyan which separated them from the foolish masses and thus must allow the foolish masses, who are anybody who can read but perhaps not think, to participate and have their opinions be counted as equals.

This opening sets up this opinion later in the piece:

In a healthy, sensible society, the intellectual elite should absolutely be the society’s sole ruling class.

The arguments following this line: In developed societies with high standards of living (and of education in critical thinking, perhaps), the stability of the society is not threatened by a high degree of mass participation and freedom. The same cannot be said of developing societies with opaque politics, contradictions in living conditions, remnants of pre-modern faiths, beliefs, and ideologies, and people prone to be whipped up by ambitious ringleaders.

Let’s just say this is pretty “rightist” stuff, and would be labeled as “reactionary” ironically during quite a few political movements in history subsequent to Hu Shi. But this essay being a product of the modern era in which the thought it embodies is triumphant as a governing ideology, it is perhaps not so controversial. Much of this strain of thought is reaction drawing on the experiences of the Cultural Revolution, of course, but in reality, it is common sense. Much of the developed world is run by the intellectual elite, if we peel off the thin veil of rhetoric and procedural formalities. It is this way because it works.

Of course, what the essay doesn’t mention are also important. It is not wrong to expand the ranks of the elites and reduce the number of foolish masses who cannot think. That’s some kind of responsibility of the state, one would think; although one must wonder about the limits of such effort. It is also imperative that the elites not rule for the benefit of the elites solely, which would create an exploitative class (and is the center of complaint for “elitist” systems), but to rule for the benefit of all people. So, fine, elites rule to produce stable development, but they can’t get too comfortable and need to keep the foolish masses happy enough to not be overthrown by them. One would think that whatever means achieves this outcome is a good one. There is no reason not to be pragmatic about this point.

No comments yet. Be the first.

Leave a reply