Screenshot from Bilibili’s May Fourth Movement propaganda film.
Monday this week was the 101st anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, named for student demonstrations against the Treaty of Versailles, which gave Japan commercial and territorial concessions in Shandong, that took place on May 4, 1919 in Beijing. Bilibili, an enormously popular Chinese video sharing and streaming site, entered the battle over the day’s legacy with a video titled “The Coming Wave” (后浪 hòuláng, here on Youtube — Chinese language only).
Bilibili features an innovative blend of user-uploaded content and professional productions, often centered around cartoons, manga, and video games. Last year the site debuted an animated series about Karl Marx’s youthful exploits made together with the Communist Youth League. The world (including Chinese netizens) laughed. Nonetheless, the cultural and economic power of the website is immense. A live-streamed Chinese New Year’s event conducted in partnership with ecommerce behemoth Alibaba garnered eighty million viewers. This April, Sony announced a four-hundred million dollar investment in the company, valuing Bilibili at over eight billion dollars.
Bilibili’s video “The Coming Wave”, a reference to the popular saying, “the Yangtze’s coming waves drive the previous waves forward,” originally intended as a paean to May Fourth National Youth Day, has reignited debate on the Chinese internet about the legacy of the May Fourth Movement, today’s youth culture, and memory.
The May Fourth demonstration was an important instance in a broader and longer struggle for political, ethical, scientific, artistic, religious, and educational reform in early Republican China. Women took leadership positions in the movement and expanded the fight for equal rights. The related New Culture Movement aimed to unshackle literature from the strictures of classical Chinese. At the center of the movement was an ardent desire for a fundamentally different relationship between citizen and state, with youth firmly in control.
In 1939, the Chinese Communist Party incorporated a new holiday, May Fourth National Youth Day, which aimed to celebrate the idealism and vigor of the original Movement. Today, the holiday is an anodyne celebration of youth and their role in national development.
Bilibili’s puerile vision of May Fourth
“The Coming Wave” is delivered as melodramatic speech by 51 year-old narrator Hé Bīng 何冰, accompanied by an arresting series of images. The first is a person walking on the moon. More images follow in rapid succession: sky-diving, a young man with a VR headset on, a woman studying English on a tablet, what seems to be a child’s unboxing video, jumping for the camera in front of the Eiffel tower, women wearing faux traditional clothing, bungee jumping, more sky-diving.
He Bin starts his speech with a reminder, “It’s as if all of the wealth, all of the knowledge, experience, wisdom, and art that humanity has been collecting for thousands of years has been prepared as a gift specifically for you.” He is envious of the youth.
A minute into the video, He Bin finally reaches his thesis: “You all have the right to something we have only been able to dream about, the right to choose.” He then goes on to list a narrow set of “freedoms” that this right allows today’s youth: to self-study a language, to learn a new handicraft, to enjoy a movie, to travel to a far-off place.
Two-thirds of the way into his speech, the soundtrack drops to pianissimo and He Bin faces the camera. He paraphrases a famous quote from Confucius’ Analects, “The noble person is conciliatory, but not conformist; the small person is conformist but not conciliatory.” He admonishes satire as the defense of the weak.
“Don’t forget that we can’t get onto Wikipedia, can’t get onto Google”
Many Chinese internet users were inspired by “The Coming Wave,” and shared it freely. However, sharp-eyed commentators were quick to criticize. At the heart of their criticism is an attempt to reclaim the core values of the May Fourth movement and wrest them away from the “previous waves” of older generations.
One essay, reposted by China Digital Times (in Chinese), reminded readers that not all of humanity’s gifts are available to mainland youths, “don’t forget that we can’t get onto Wikipedia, can’t get onto Google…All of the knowledge, experience, wisdom and art that we can reap has been screened, has been castrated.” The author laments that today’s nationalism serves to build barriers between people, counteracting the extensive opportunities for communication the internet offers.
A viral Wechat essay (in Chinese) also written in response to the video, titled “The previous wave takes over Bilibili and stomps on the Coming Wave: Drink this bowl of “May 4th” Grandma Meng’s soup” tears apart the “The Coming Wave” citing the video’s ahistorical viewpoint, co-option of youthful values, and diminution of culture in the name of consumerism.
The author of the essay, who writes under the pen name Old Jiang, pleads with readers: “Please note –– “The Coming Wave” does not encourage youth to enter the public arena, but rather impels them to remain in a more selfish and narrow place.” At the center of the essay’s argument is the allusion to Grandma Meng’s Soup, a legendary concoction that makes the drinker forget all previous longing, pain, or shame. The Bilibili video turns the stirring May Fourth Movement calls for freedom and technology into the comforting fare of lifestyle choice and electronics.
On Zhihu, the popular question-and-answer social media site, “How should we evaluate Bilibili’s May Fourth Youth Day propaganda short “The Coming Wave”?” (in Chinese) earned over 18,000 responses. A popular answer writes that the video is entirely unrelated to China’s youth and that attempts to analyze whether it can truly represent the younger generations are meaningless. The writer imagines the forty-fifty year old “previous wave” seeing the video and thinking, “wow, Bilibili actually has righteous energy [one of Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 catchphrases], it’s not as messed up as I’d heard it was.” But she does not see representation of today’s youth in the video, simply an idealized projection.
Bilibili might be blind to the irony of using Confucian allegory to criticize satire on May Fourth. Lǔ Xùn’s 魯迅 canonical short-story Diary of a Madman was in part a satirical criticism of Confucianism, and it was a vital part of the culture associated with the May Fourth Movement.
But youthful irreverence in China is alive and well. As the video closes, and “bullets” (Bilibili’s on-screen commentary system) roaring “surge forth, coming wave!” cross the screen, one user slips in “surge forth, national soccer team” in the trademark sarcastic humor of beleaguered Chinese soccer fans.