Eleanor Roosevelt and Soong May-ling, wife of Chiang Kai-shek. Madame Chiang was one of the most public proponents of the New Life Movement, which was designed by Chiang to improve the customs and social habits of the dispirited Chinese people. As the threat of Japanese invasion loomed in 1936, and the movement was in decline, Chiang turned over the day-to-day activities to Madame Chiang and the U.S. missionary reformer George Shepherd.

In February 1934, a time when tensions between the Nationalist and Communist parties were high—and the Japanese threat loomed—Chiang Kai-shek launched the New Life Movement. Chiang believed that outward changes in behavior would strengthen and toughen the inner spirits of the people, and hence strengthen the country. Controversy surrounds the impetus of the New Life Movement, questioning whether it stems from Confucian, Christian, or fascist thought.

On 19 February 1934 Nationalist Party (Guomindang) leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) launched the New Life Movement (Xin shenghuo yundong) during a speech in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. The New Life Movement was designed to revitalize the spirit of the people through a series of campaigns orchestrated to improve their customs and social habits. The movement attempted to utilize traditional ethics and behavior modification to achieve a revolution in living. Changes in hygiene and behavior, it was believed, would lead to China’s moral revitalization and thus the strengthening of the nation-state. In Chinese history nothing similar to the size, organization, and methods of the New Life Movement had been seen, making it one of the most intriguing events of the Republican era (1912–1949).

Historical Background

The New Life Movement was set in motion alongside the fifth Bandit Extermination Campaign in 1934 to remove the Communists from their base in Jiangxi, but its origins can be traced back to the late 1920s. In the first of three stages of the national revolution of party leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), the Nationalist Party embarked on the Northern Expedition in 1926 to unify the country militarily. As the expedition swept north defeating the warlord armies who had held a stranglehold on China since 1916, a split occurred between the Nationalists and Communists who were conducting the Northern Expedition jointly as part of their United Front strategy. As the split widened the Nationalists began a policy designed to eliminate all Communists from Chinese politics; the effort included the 12 April 1927 White Terror in which thousands of alleged Communists were executed. To survive, the remaining Communists fled to Jiangxi, where they established a rural base area. From 1930 to 1934 Chiang and the Nationalists initiated a series of so-called Bandit Extermination Campaigns to wipe out the surviving Communists. During the fifth and final extermination campaign the Nationalists drove the Communists from their base area and onto the Long March, a military retreat lasting more than a year and covering roughly 6,000 miles. To recover the former base area and reeducate those people “poisoned” with Communist ideology, Chiang set the New Life Movement in motion. Quickly dissatisfied with the limited scope of the movement, he gave a series of four more speeches in which he outlined a national movement for a new life.

Theory of the New Life

Chiang Kai-shek’s five speeches constitute the ideological basis of the New Life Movement. The lives of Chinese, he claimed, were notable for their filthiness, hedonism, laziness, and decrepitude—in sum, Chinese were living lives that were barbaric and unreasonable. To resolve these problems Chiang called for the revival of what he termed the four virtues: propriety or disciplined behavior; righteousness or proper behavior; integrity or clear discernment; and shame or earnest conscientiousness. Although the four virtues harkened back to traditional ethics, they were reinterpreted to suit modern circumstances. Along with these four cardinal virtues were the eight qualities of orderliness, cleanliness, simplicity, frugality, promptness, exactness, harmoniousness, and dignity. The four cardinal virtues and eight qualities were to be applied to the basics of life—clothing, food, residence, and behavior—and Chiang spelled out in ninety-six prescriptions for how to do it. The prescriptions for the people were so detailed that they governed the minutiae of everyday life, an example of which can be seen in the following: People should wear simple, utilitarian clothing, dress neatly, avoid nakedness, remove their hats indoors, wash their bedding, and purchase national products; people should eat only clean food, use washed utensils, consume local produce, keep regular meal hours, avoid noise when eating, sit correctly, follow proper table manners, and avoid smoking; people should keep their homes clean, use simple furniture, air out their houses, properly dispose of garbage, eliminate rats, flies, and mosquitoes, and display the national flag on holidays; people would be orderly in public, walk on the left side of the street, not spit, urinate, or sneeze in public, avoid crowding and pushing, stand at attention for the national anthem, and avoid gambling, prostitution, and the use of opium.

According to Chiang’s theory, respect for the four virtues and application of the eight qualities to food, clothing, residence, and behavior would allow the Chinese people to create a new life of public morality that would, if each person correctly followed this path, jointly revitalize the spirit of the people and the country. The revitalization of the country would produce a more rational environment in which the people’s lives would become beneficially more artistic, more productive, and more militarized. Focusing on the arts would eliminate the vulgar social habits and customs of the people; productivity would increase the people’s material well-being and create self-reliance; and militarization would discipline the people and teach them to defend themselves.

Implementation of the New Life Movement

To ensure the success of the movement the work was to be carried out as a threefold process: investigation of current conditions and difficult obstacles, detailed planning of the various steps to be taken, and the actual implementation of the plans. In all things the slogans of “From the Simple to the Complex” and “From the Self to Others” were to be followed.

The first step was for the workers of the movement to instruct the people in the purpose and aims of the new life. After a campaign was under way inspectors would be sent out to check the results and make necessary recommendations for further improvement. After a campaign was successful—no campaigns were ever fully successful—a new campaign could be launched. Throughout this process strict rules were to be applied: (1) Only superiors had the right to interfere in the daily life of others, and friends could only encourage each other; (2) the movement could be carried out only during leisure hours or vacation time; (3) and all movement funds were to be raised and dispensed by movement members or local government but never from the general public.

Although purportedly driven by popular participation the New Life Movement was entirely planned and carried out by the Nationalist Party through the New Life Movement Promotion Associations.

New Life Movement Promotion Associations

In the weeks after Chiang’s speeches numerous New Life Movement Promotion Associations were established around the country to guide the mass rallies at which New Life Movement id
eology was disseminated to the people. The associations consisted of provincial organizations, municipal associations that were in large cities independent of provincial oversight, railroad associations overlapping multiple provinces, county associations, and overseas associations for Chinese living abroad.

The New Life Movement Promotion Associations were staffed by at least one member of the following bodies: the provincial government, the provincial Nationalist Party organization, the Bureau of Civil Affairs, the Bureau of Education, the Bureau of Public Safety, local military authorities, and leaders of local civic groups. The director of the railroad, chief of the railroad police, and the railroad Nationalist Party organization led the railroad associations. Overseas associations consisted of members of the local Chinese consulate, the local Nationalist Party branch, local Chinese schools, merchant’s guilds, and various Chinese organizations. As this list makes clear, Nationalist Party members controlled all promotion associations.

The first actual association was founded at Nanchang on 21 February, and it immediately planned and carried out the first public meeting at the Nanchang Athletic Grounds on 11 March; activities such as street sweeping were emphasized. During March and April nine provinces and three municipalities established New Life Movement Promotion Associations. By the end of the first year fifteen provinces, three municipalities, and nine railway centers had New Life associations. The movement continued to grow through 1937, by which time there were nineteen provincial, five municipal, twelve railroad, thirteen hundred county, and ten overseas associations (two in Japan, two in Korea, two in Southeast Asia, as well as one each in Macao, Timor, Mexico City, and Lima, Peru).

New Life Movement Voluntary Service Groups

The New Life Movement Promotion Associations were largely advisory bodies, while the actual work of the movement fell to a series of more permanent institutions, including the military police, the regular police, and the Boy Scouts. To assist these organizations the promotion associations created a number of voluntary service groups such as the Jiangxi Youth Vacation Service Corps, the Merchants Members, and the Women Civil Service Corps. These voluntary service corps carried out the actual work of the movement by leading movements such as the anti-rat and anti-mosquito campaigns. On a national basis the Women’s New Life Movement Voluntary Service Corps, led by Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Song Meiling (1897–2003), was established in thirteen provinces and focused on leading women into the New Life Movement by emphasizing activities such as cooking, sewing, and child care. but also educational activities such as literacy training.

Christians in the New Life Movement

By 1936 the movement began to lose its momentum as more immediate problems such as the encroachment of Japan into Manchuria took the focus off the New Life Movement. During this decline Chiang and the more prominent members of the movement turned over the day-to-day activities to Madame Chiang and the U.S. missionary reformer George Shepherd, who was placed in direct charge of the movement in early 1936. In this second, less-promoted phase the emphasis moved from mass meetings and national campaigns to more focus on intensive training of promotion association members and more emphasis on inspecting various problems throughout the country.

Both foreign and Chinese Christians, especially Protestants, supported the New Life Movement as an attempt to modernize China’s ancient teachings—propriety, righteousness, integrity, and shame. They also felt that the stress on changing “un-Christian” habits such as public spitting or urinating would help civilize the Chinese. The Christians did object to some of the more anti-female emphasis of the movement and wanted more freedom for women, but overall they found the New Life doctrines entirely compatible with Christian teachings and thus supported them. The New Life Movement emphasis on social service and cleanliness especially commended itself to Christians. Chiang Kai-shek himself was a Christian, leading some early commentators to go so far as to claim that the entire New Life Movement was based on the fundamentals of Christianity. Despite new measures and the involvement of service-oriented Christians, however, the Japanese invasion of China on 7 July 1937 began to quiet the movement. Although it survived in government propaganda manuals throughout World War II, the New Life Movement slowly faded from the national spotlight in 1937.

Despite the poor results of the New Life Movement, it was one of the largest and most unique government-led “popular” movements in Chinese history. Its methods were unusual and its goals sometimes obscure, but it remains one of the most misunderstood and historically interesting episodes in modern Chinese history.

Further Reading

Chiang Kai-shek. (1934). Outline of the New Life Movement (Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Trans.). Nanchang, China: Association for the Promotion of the New Life Movement.

Chu, S. C. (1957). The New Life Movement, 1934–1937. In J. E. Lane (Ed.), Researches in the social sciences on China (pp. 1–17). New York: Columbia University East Asian Institute Studies.

Dirlik, A. (1975). The ideological foundations of the New Life Movement: A study in counterrevolution. Journal of Asian Studies, 34(4), 945–980.

Thomson, J. C., Jr. (1969). While China faced west. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Harris, Lane J.. (2009). New Life Movement. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1594–1597. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

New Life Movement (X?nsh?nghuó Yùndòng ?????)|X?nsh?nghuó Yùndòng ????? (New Life Movement)

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