In the cultural transition from traditional to modern China, the decade of the 1890's, along with the early 1900's, stands as an important watershed the significance of which, so far, has not received sufficient appreciation and adequate assessment by historians. Its importance, indeed, can hardly be overestimated. Intellectually, the period saw the conclusion of the ching-shih tradition in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the search for ideological reorientation in the twentieth century. Socially, these years witnessed the differentiation of a hitherto unitary class of gentry into two important status groups which dominated the social scene of twentieth-century China, namely intelligentsia and landlord-gentry. Yet why has such an important watershed so far not received enough attention?

Perhaps one reason is that in the past there has been a general tendency among historians to focus attention to the dramatic May Fourth Movement of 1919 as the great divide in the cultural transformation of modern China. This tendency resulted in a widespread impression that during the May Fourth period there was a cataclysmic release of new cultural forces which made a clean sweep of the past and thereby made the post-May Fourth period an entirely different intellectual world from what had been before. Such a view would almost inevitably, as it did, have the consequence of diverting attention away from many important intellectual changes which antedated the May Fourth period and whose significance cannot be appreciated by an isolated focus oh that period. There is no intention here to deny the significance of the May Fourth Movement in the cultural development of modern China. All that is suggested is that the May Fourth Movement needs to be reassessed from a broader historical perspective, a perspective which can only be attained by a detailed investigation of the intellectual changes which took place in the late Ch'ing, in particular, in the decade from mid-1890's to mid-1900's.

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