Perilous Life Views: Suicide, Morality and the Rise of the Individual in May Fourth China


  • Rune Svarverud University of Oslo



Individualism, imported as an intellectual current from the West, entered the Chinese discourse during late imperial times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The early Chinese interpretation and representation of individualism was closely related to ideas of China’s national survival in what was perceived as a Darwinian battle for survival between nations. During the May Fourth Movement starting in 1919, individualism for many prominent intellectuals took on new perspectives, interpreting the individual as an ultimate end of political and social life. With the introduction of Marxist thought and the rise of socialism as a political movement individualism was, however, again in China attached to collective interests related to society at large, to nation and to the world community of socialism. The aim of this article is to focus on interpretations of the individual, on the morality and the social responsibilities of the individual, in a Chinese debate on suicide around the May Fourth Movement in 1919. By focussing on the debate on the rights and wrongs of suicide, I hope to be able to show how notions of the individual and his or her relationship to family and society at this time carried connotations from the early forms of individualism in China as well as bearing witness of the growing interest in the social theories of Marxism to become so prominent in the decades to come. I intend to show that the May Fourth period contains different interpretations of the individual and individual morality and that these interpretations may be attached to different generations of intellectuals in China at this time. My interpretation of this debate will show that individualism was a very strong current among student intellectuals in China around 1919. That current was, however, short-lived as the teacher generation of intellectuals during the May Fourth, prominently concerned with collective social and political questions, dominated the period to come when Socialism gained momentum as the main intellectual current in the 1920s and ’30s.