Predicated on the People: Legitimating Politics and Parties in Early Republican China

Shakhar Rahav, University of Haifa
Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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Chinese political culture during the May Fourth period featured hundreds of small societies and associations, as well as several parliamentary factions, but by the mid-1920s politics were conducted mainly by large political parties that courted mass support. This article examines what prompted this change. Whereas many studies have focused on the conflict between the Nationalist and Communist Parties, this article explores how the very form of mass political parties emerged and argues that the turn to mass politics involved two complementary processes in the way in which politics were conceived. In one, intellectuals reflecting on politics and on the social order legitimized and promoted the involvement of the masses in politics. In the second, they pointed to politics—specifically to political institutions and most notably to political parties—as a legitimate arena for action. This was innovative because, at the time, politics and politicians were deemed irreparably corrupt. Intellectuals therefore considered various forms of social and political organization that might solve China’s problems, and turned from organizing in small societies to advocating larger organizations that would recruit and mobilize the masses. These processes laid the foundations for a new political culture characterized by mass mobilization guided by political parties.

Keywords: China, politics, intellectuals, mass politics, Nationalist Party, Communist Party, May Fourth Movement, Sun Yat-sen, Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, Mao Zedong