This essay questions how we can interrogate the emergence of politics, specifically student politics, without reducing it to the manifestation of an established social category (in this case “students”). By examining the case of Beijing University during the May Fourth movement (the first instance of student activism in modern China), I show how, before 1919, “students” and “university” did not come into being as stable and circumscribed positions to be occupied but were instead both produced because of and through the practices and the struggles of those years.
A series of contingencies but also of precise intellectual choices had made the physical boundaries of the university porous and the ritual identity of its community open to contention. In the May Fourth years, the students explored and expanded the fragmentation of the communitarian bond by stating and living a radical refusal not only of disciplinary rules but also of basic rites of courtesy and belonging. In this sense, the analysis of everyday life of students at Beijing University shows not only that sociological categories or communitarian identities are no guarantee of politics, but also that politics among students can exist only by challenging the bond signified by the very category of students.
This analysis also provides an insight into how we should reconceptualize our understanding of politics beyond what are usually recognized as political moments (demonstrations, parades, elections). In the case of May Fourth Beida, politics can best be seen as deployed in daily life, fragmented in the gestures and movements of individuals and their interaction and production of organizations. It was precisely by challenging the distinctions between the cultural and the political, the intellectual and the quotidian, that student activists struggled over what a “student” and a “university” could be.