Finding a good research topic is hard. You want it to be interesting and fresh, but also must remember that this is only a masters’ thesis, so the topic should be focused. Time is also a factor, and because it is limited one must find a topic in which field research is feasible under time constraints. After I managed to narrow down my focus and scope and came up with a concrete serious of questions which can be answered, even if not exhaustively, during my time here, there was another matter I had to take into account: how do I present my research to Chinese people, more specifically, to people I want to interview for my research.
My advisor has told me since the get go that finding a certain event or place that captures a certain moment might be a good way to narrow down my focus. Choosing to concentrate on two sites of commemoration in Tianjin, which have overlapping material turned “field research” from a scary, abstract idea to series of manageable steps. So the May 4th movement became my “focus”: a moment in time I could use as a mirror or a map, tracing ideas and actions which happened than and trying to figure out how they resonate today. I was quite happy about this focus, since May 4th was not a sensitive issue anymore: it is publicly proclaimed a “patriotic movement”, its students considered revolutionary martyrs, their actions seen as justified and heroic, even those which got them in jail. Although this description also fits other, more contested student movements in China, the May 4th movement and its narrative have been appropriated into the official CCP narrative and thus is more of a safe ground, or so I thought. Also, May 4th has been researched extensively both in China and abroad. Volumes upon volumes were written on the main participants and on almost every imaginable aspect of it – there is even a book about Women in the May 4th movement (the gender issue is usually the last aspect looked at in historical research, since gender studies is a relatively new discipline). The director of the Zhou Enlai museum told me, when I asked if there are any new materials about the May 4th movement, that this topic has been researched so extensively, and that all the materials are open to public in archives, that there is nothing new to emerge or look at.
I was wrong. It was naïve of me to think that just because almost 100 years have passed (the movement started in 1919), that because it has been appropriated, the narrative surrounding it entrenched with official language, its public image closely tied to the birth of the communist party and the ongoing fight against imperialism and feudalism. But things are not that simple, and that is what I started realizing throughout this crucial first week of May. It first occurred to me that my subject might not be all that simple and innocent after trying to interview guides at one of the museums I am researching. After meeting face-to-face with the woman in charge of the guides and getting her permission to interview the guides, we agreed I would come back the next day to interview them. A few hours later, she called me to say that won’t be possible and that I should contact her again in a few days. After a couple of days I contacted her again only to get the same evasive response, a game of cat and mouse which has been going on for almost two weeks.
Trying another angle, I emailed a professor at Nankai who my professor at home introduced me to, asking if there were any commemoration activities for May 4th on campus or in Tianjin in general. I wanted to experience the spirit of May 4th, I explained, to experience how it is commemorated and thought about today. That I went out with an expat friend who has been in Tianjin for 3 years, and studying at one of Nankai’s departments as an undergrad. I asked him if he knew of any activity the school has, or if his classmates or professors mentioned the topic recently. “No”, he said, giving me a surprised look, “why would they?”. I explained that May 4th is in the mainstream, in the consensus, it’s not sensitive or taboo, but a source of pride to the party and a model to today’s youth. He said he’d ask again. Later that night he introduced me to a Chinese friend of his who is in the administration of Tianjin’s college of translation. I told him about my research topic, and asked him if there was any commemorative activity in Tianjin. “no, of course not”, he said. I continued to ask if he knew of any publications that might have interesting articles about May 4th , or if he had any other ideas as to where I can get some interesting insights on this topic. “Not on the mainland”, was his answer. “I suggest you go to Taiwan if you want to get a different perspective on this subject”. I was a bit disheartened but did not let it change my mind. We continued to have a conversation about May 4th movement. Mr Liu compared China to a toddler: “China just started to walk during the May 4th period, and it hadn’t mastered walking before it started trying to run. But China fell down, and now it is once again learning how to walk. The May 4th period was a time of intellectual openness but the openness and revolution they tried to achieve has not been realized yet, almost 100 years later”.
The next morning I got an email back from the Nankai professor I emailed. I was quite surprised by his response. The professor said this was an “inconvenient” topic, and that before the Tian’anmen protests in 1989 the May 4th anniversary would be commemorated in universities, but after 1989 there were no more activities held, “you can probably figure out why”, he added. I immediately felt like I had been blind and naïve. I was alarmed at first, thinking I might have crossed a line and might lose a professional contact. After reading the email again I calmed down, he did not seem angry or upset, his tone being patient and explanatory having to explain everything to the slow foreigner who is blinded by her own view of her subject. I felt bad because if I were aware that this topic is still sensitive, I would still ask but would have been more tactful. I suddenly felt like a clumsy, clueless western researcher baffled by the fact I couldn’t go on Facebook in China. But feeling stupid is the first step in expanding your knowledge and awareness, so I am happy for getting this lesson. It is easy to forget sometimes that China today is much more complicated than it was in more radical times. While during the anti-rightist campaign of the 50’s, for example, the censorship was much harsher, at least one knew where the line is. Today writers and academics in China face a much subtler system in which you never know where the line is. Something that can get published in February may be censored in May. The wise China researcher must keep their ear to the ground and never take for granted the perceived political implications of their study.