On February 19, 1934, Chiang Kai-shek inaugurated the New Life Movement in Nanchang, Kiangsi, with the express goal of “revolutionizing” Chinese life. The Kuomintang leadership, holding the material and spiritual “degeneration” of the people responsible for China's continued crisis, decided at this time to launch a movement for hygienic and behavioral reform to revitalize the country. The movement was to signal the start of a new phase of Chinese history, one that was to be both conserving and revolutionary in spirit. It would achieve the most fundamental goals of the Chinese revolution without sacrificing native traditions. Nevertheless, the stress on the revival of native morality was the most striking aspect of the movement with its historical context, and endowed it with an aura of conservatism that overshadowed its revolutionary claims and has dominated its image since then. This image is somewhat misleading in its implication that the New Life Movement was the expression of a traditionalist upsurge in the Kuomintang during the Nanking Decade (1928–1937). The present study attempts a close analysis of New Life ideology—used here in the sense of a world view that underlay conceptions of politics and society—to demonstrate that the conservatism and the revolutionary claims of the New Life Movement must be taken equally seriously. The movement was conservative, but conservative in a very specific sense: far from being a reaffirmation of traditional Chinese political conceptions, it was fashioned by and in response to the twentieth-century Chinese revolution. Its underlying spirit had greater affinity with modern counterrevolutionary movements than with political attitudes inherited from China's past. It was, in short, not a traditional but a modern response to a modern problem.

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