Why Was There No “May Fourth Movement” in India?

“Concentrate on Charkha and Swadeshi,” bazaar art, 1930’s

 Image Source.

The ever interesting Omar Ali, who blogs and tweets about Islam, genetics, and all things Desi, forwarded an interesting essay to me the other day. It is a long piece by Brooklyn philosopher Samir Chopra on a growing movement in Indian academia led by Rajiv Malhotra, S.N. Balagangadhara and their associates to:

“reconceptualization of Indian studies”: to stop using Western intellectual frameworks—like “social science” and its associated paradigms—for studying Indian phenomena, which demand instead, for their understanding and analysis, indigenous categories and concepts. [1]

This sounds a bit like something you would hear coming out of an American anthropology department tossing about upon the dark waves of critical-theory. But in the Indian context these sentiments are connected to a thoroughly conservative political program. Chopra begins his account with Penguin India’s decision to destroy all of its copies of Wendy Doniger‘s controversial history, The Hindus. As Chopra tells it, Malhotra and Balagagadbhara were at the intellectual forefront of the movement to get the book banned and destroyed. This is the pointy end of their project; both usually immerse themselves in more ethereal debates over the words and terms used by philosophers, historians, and ethnographers. One might say their role is to provide Hindutva power politics with a respectable intellectual scaffolding. Along with their rejection of Western academic methods comes a disdain for those other holdovers of British colonialism: India’s commitment to free speech, secular law, and pluralism.

As I read this essay my thoughts leaped immediately to China and the reaction of its conservatives to Western culture. China and India are the two countries who can claim a civilization as old as the West’s. A comparison between the intellectual trends in both countries is thus quite natural. For the last thirty years Chinese commentators have made noises about Western “spiritual pollution” engulfing the country. For the most part it has been just that–noise. The CPC has impeded access to those elements of Western culture it fears will threaten the regime, but there is no movement to reject Western categories entirely.

Thinking the contrast a neat one, I sent the essay to Kaiser Kuo, who co-hosts the consistently excellent Sinica Podcast. He responded with a question:

Has there not been a similar backlash among Chinese? If so, why has it failed to gain voice and be taken seriously at all? My own take is that no, there hasn’t really been. Why not? As with Balangangadhara and Malhotra, when in those rare instances I’ve heard versions of this put forward at all among Chinese intellectuals, the impulse is almost always purely emotional and defensive, and the sorts of people who take up that argument aren’t equipped to win it. One might of course argue that in any serious debate the deck’s stacked against people who reject the rules of “serious debate” to begin with. While reading this I thought about Rabindranath Tagore and his “Eastern Spiritual Civilization” idea, which he tried to sell in China in the early 20s—where he met with a very hostile reaction from the May Fourth intellectuals

I’m also going to go out on a limb and suggest that there was just a whole lot less clash of opposing metaphysics, no huge epistemological chasm, when Enlightenment Europe met Chinese philosophy (or even in earlier encounters, as between late 16th/early 17th century Jesuits and Chinese scholar-literati). Voltaire’s enthusiasm for Confucianism or Ricci’s earlier tolerance of it wasn’t of course shared by every European encountering Chinese thought, but it did help set a tone, and on both sides I think there was a recognition that concepts like “qi” aside there wasn’t anything entirely unbridgeable, and there was some correspondence at least of categories, some consonance in the terms of discussion. Not so with Indian (specifically Hindu) philosophy, which was of course much more rooted in religion and would naturally be more implacably opposed to secularism. [2]

Kuo’s question is worth thinking about. 

At one level it is simple as this: there are hundreds of millions of people who believe in and practice “Hinduism.” It is an vital part of their existence. Its rituals mark milestones in their life; its texts help guide their decisions and judgments; its traditions speak to their soul. China’s millions are not so so attached to their tradition. Ancestor worship is gone but in a few remote places; Neoconfucian and Buddhist metaphysics no longer mean anything to anyone; in today’s China students do not memorize the Four Books and the Five Classics. China spent decades expunging these things from social life. For all of the talk of a “Confucian revival,” modern Chinese attachment to China’s heritage either comes as a reasoned intellectual commitment among learned academics, or as the rather banal pride of the nationalist masses. In the 21st century Chinese philosophy and folk religion speaks to the head and to the heart, but not to the soul.

But this really doesn’t answer the question—it just pushes it back in time a bit. Present conditions explain the difference, but how did these conditions come about? Why is hatred for one’s own traditions such a powerful current in modern Chinese culture, but barely an ebb in India?

We can look at intrinsic differences between Western, Indian, and Chinese philosophical and religious systems, and there is something to that. The Indian conservatives are correct when they say Westerners imposed their conceptions of religion on a civilization that never thought of spiritual matters that way. “Hinduism” is a word invented by the British. There was no corresponding word in any Indian language before the British arrived. This critique gets less ground in China. Confucian literati thought of Buddhism and Daoist sects in a manner not altogether different than European skeptics viewed Christian ones. The categories Westerners use to describe East Asia’s cultural  heritage
“Daoism,” “Zen,” “Buddhism,” and so forthare Chinese terms. Confucianism is sometimes called a religion, but most who talk about it academically treat it as a philosophy. In both Europe and China organized religion was always conceptualized as different from the social order as a whole—probably because in both regions these faiths did not emerge from time immemorial, but were brought to them within historical memory through the efforts of foreign priests, conquerors, and evangelists.

So the distinction between philosophy and religion and the social role each ought to play was a bit easier for Europeans to wrap their heads around in the Chinese case. With that said…. I do not think the idea that Chinese philosophy is closer in purpose or method to Western philosophy is justified. I tend to think of the three philosophical traditions as a spectrum, Indians on one end, Chinese on another, and the classical Greek and Roman thinkers in the middle. Indian philosophers were absolutely obsessed with epistemology and metaphysics. To simplify a bit, they believed that understanding the true nature of the universe, and one’s true relationship to it, was the key to moksha, the self realization that brings an end to suffering and reincarnation. So they spent a lot of time thinking about what the universe was made up of, what the self was made up of, how one could know what the universe was made up of, how one could know anything at all, and so forth. [3] But folks like
Akṣapāda Gautama or the Vaisheshika thinkers had almost nothing to say about ethics or politics. This was the obsession of classical Chinese thinkers. Epistemology, they never discussed; logic was a lone Mohist retreat; metaphysics, the province of the Yin-Yang school and other esoteric groups who had little to say about right conduct and right governance. Conduct and governance were topics that dominated the Chinese discussion well into the medieval era. [4] Westerners, in contrast, dabbled in everything. Given their exposure to both topics, one would expect they would have an easier time understanding either of the other traditions than the Indians would have engaging with the Chinese, or vice versa.

But I don’t put much stock in all that. My hypothesis is this: it all comes down to the first generation of thinkers that had the language chops and foreign experience to fully engage with Western thought. For both India and China these were the intellectuals writing and speaking c. 1880-1920. That is about the time when translations of major Western works were making their way into each country. It was also the time when ambitious intellectuals would go abroad for their education. But the two civilizations were in very different states at this point. The Indians were a conquered people living under the colonial yoke. The Chinese were still autonomous, but desperately feared they would share colonized Asia’s fate. The questions that dominated the two national scenes were different. In China, men asked “How can we save our country?” In India, the question was “How can we free our people?”

This difference was critical. The Chinese were willing to trade culture for political power. If jettisoning Chinese tradition was what China needed to do to remain independent, than China should do it. The Indians were no longer independent. They had nothing to gain by jettisoning their traditions, but much to lose by it. The claim that the subcontinent’s many peoples and languages should be detached from the British empire as one unit depended on whether or not all of these different peoples could be described as one cultural whole. People call China a “civilization-state,” but India has a far better claim to the term. Without its shared civilization, India would not be a state.

The initial trajectories were set by 1920. The line from the May 4th Movement to a Communist party to a Cultural Revolution are clear, if seen only in retrospect. So too is the line from Swadeshi to Swaraj to Non-alignment. One seeks to clear away the traditional heritage that stands between it and international respect; the other seeks to clear away the colonial heritage that stands between it and self respect. The topics that dominate intellectual life in modern China and modern India are simply iterations on these themes. 


[1] Samir Chopra, “SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra on Reversing the Gaze, Three Quarks Daily (21 September 2015).

[2] Kaiser Kuo, facebook post (2 October 2015).

[3] A good introduction to the contours of classical Indian philosophy is Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). See especially ch. 2.

[4] On this Ashwin Parameswaran is perceptive:

Crucial question for Western Philosophy:

“What is the truth?” i.e. how to look before you leap.

Crucial question for Chinese Philosophy:

“Where is the Way?” i.e. how to leap without looking.

via A.C. Graham on page 3 of the ‘Disputers of the Tao’ who notes that

the crucial question for [Chinese philosophers] is not the Western philosopher’s ‘What is the truth?’ but ‘Where is the Way?’

Ashwin Parameswaran, “The Difference Between Western and Chinese Philosophy,” Ashwin Parameswaran (4 July 2012).

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Just read this (better late than never). An interesting argument — no doubt something in it. Seems to me one caveat would be that there probably were Westernizing currents in the Indian anti-colonial movement, i.e. those who wanted to get rid of British rule but keep what they saw as its benefits, even if they didn't put it quite like that. Anyway that's off-the-cuff — a more considered comment would need more reflection.

It occurs to me that another big/obvious difference was in the political evolution — i.e. that India ended as an imperfect/troubled democracy, at least in the parliamentary/multiparty sense, and China as a one-party state. Obviously China had a violent civil war and social revolution and India didn't. The fact that one was formally a colony for many years and the other never was is obvs. not the whole explanation, maybe not even a big part of it. Beyond that, given I'm pressed for time right now, I'll just refer to B. Moore's 'Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy' (1966) which, though old, is prob. still relevant. Been a long time since I looked at the pertinent chapters.

Ask yourself the same question, why is Islam still so dominate in Middle East nations today, while at same time Europeans are over it.

Then look at the correlation of the nations with strong/weak religious tradition today and their past 100 years of overall experience of death, civil war, social upheaval etc…

btw, expect Confucius to have a big comeback real soon.