Redefining the Moral and Legal Roles of the State in Everyday Life: The New Life Movement in China in the Mid-1930s

Wennan Liu, Institute of Modern History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Detail of New Life Movement logo. Source: 1934 NLM Annual Report (Nanchang: Xinshenghuo yundo, 1935).
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Chiang Kai-shek launched the New Life Movement in Nanchang in February 1934 to revive traditional morality by reforming people’s daily behavior. In response to civil leader Wang Jingwei’s challenge, Chiang agreed to deploy moral suasion to urge the Chinese people to observe the New Life directives, but he still integrated the movement into government routine and relied on government agents, especially policemen, to implement it. Contemporary politicians and commentators understood this movement as an effective way to cultivate qualified citizens and to maintain social order in the power void caused by the retreat of the traditional rule of morality and the deficiency of the rule of law, so the New Life Movement was located in a new domain of state control between morality and law. Although this new domain was similar to the Western state apparatus of disciplining the population to produce “docile bodies” in the Foucauldian sense, it was actually an integral part of China’s own modernizing process, in which the state redefined its moral and legal role in people’s everyday lives in order to build a modern nation-state.