“We all know that Chinese traditional culture was greatly suppressed after the May Fourth Movement. On the Chinese mainland, traditional culture was crushed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Taiwan also suppressed its culture, but with the ceaseless efforts of cultural scholars such as Qian Mu, Xu Fuguan and Mou Zongsan, the vein of our culture has been maintained and continued,” Zheng Chuangqi, deputy editor in general of Jiuzhou Press, said during the book launch of The Chinese Classics on April 18.
The May Fourth Movement, one part of the New Culture Movement, was an intellectual revolution and sociopolitical reform movement that traced its roots to May 4, 1919. The movement was directed toward Chinese national independence and rebuilding society and culture. During the New Culture Movement, young intellectuals almost wholly repudiated traditional culture and exalted Western ideas, particularly science and democracy. The New Culture Movement greatly accelerated China’s pace toward modernization, but broke the bones of traditional Chinese culture.
Initially, the industry saw the publication of The Treasure House of Chinese Classics as an unbelievably bold venture, considering its gigantic quantity, high price and popular indifference toward traditional culture at the time.
In the late 1970s when Taiwan’s economy had yet to take off, it was hard to imagine the prospect of a multi-volume series selling for 20,000 NTD (US$668) – the rough equivalent of three months’ income for a typical Taiwanese high school teacher. To promote sales, the China Times Publishing Company even launched a campaign, in which a fine bookcase was offered as a bonus for each customer who bought the series.
In Taiwan, in the aftermath of the New Culture Movement, the arm wrestling between Chinese and Western cultures continued into the late 1970s. The economy, social development, school curriculum and urban planning of Taiwan were thick with the aura of modernization. Young Taiwanese showed a great interest in Western technology, literature and art, and they rushed to Western countries to study, turning their backs on traditional culture.
It seemed odd to highlight traditional culture in the modernization-oriented economic, social and cultural environment of the time.
“We knew it was not easy, but the work must be done. We hoped that the series could enter each household and every parent could prepare it for their children as a way for young Chinese to cherish our culture. To publish this series was a significant cultural movement and cultural program back then in Taiwan,” Taiwan-born scholar and thinker Gong Pengcheng, a professor at the Chinese department Peking University, told NewsChina. Gong participated in editing the Journey to the West volume of the series.
Gong said that in the 1950s and the mid-60s, Taiwan scholars were most concerned with the political question of whether to choose centralization or democracy. From the mid-60s to the 1970s, the most-debated question among intellectuals was the direction of culture.
“This book series gave a straight answer to the problem of whether society should go back to traditional culture or embrace modernity. We need to sail toward modernization, but we need to know more about ourselves, seek our own cultural roots, know how our culture was born and grew, so we can stride toward a better modern society,” Gong said.
Gong said the series would have not been a success were it not for the ceaseless efforts of the acclaimed Taiwanese writer, editor and publisher Kao Hsin-chiang.
Kao played an active role in promoting Chinese culture in Taiwan. He was once the chief editor of Human Realm, the literary supplement of the China Times (Taiwan’s leading newspaper). Kao and his wife Ko Yuan-hsing, chief publisher at the China Times Publishing Company, were determined to create a series of books on the most essential texts in Chinese culture.
In 1966, former Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek launched the Chinese Culture Revival Movement, which saw a large number of annotated ancient classics published.
However, from Kao’s perspective, these publications were too academic to be understood by the public, which made the purpose of popularizing classics “hit the rocks,” as he wrote in the preface of the first edition of the series.
“Our decision to edit, compile and publish The Treasure House of Chinese Classics is a reflection and reaffirmation of our path of classics popularization,” Kao wrote.