New Life Movement

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The New Life Movement (traditional Chinese: 新生活運動; simplified Chinese: 新生活运动; pinyin: Xīn Shēnghuó Yùndòng) was a government-led civic campaign in the 1930s Republic of China to promote cultural reform and Neo-Confucian social morality and to ultimately unite China under a centralised ideology following the emergence of ideological challenges to the status quo. Chiang Kai-shek as head of the government and the Chinese Nationalist Party launched the initiative on 19 February 1934 as part of an anti-Communist campaign, and soon enlarged the campaign to target the whole nation.[1]

Chiang and his wife, Soong Mei-ling, who played a major role in the campaign, advocated a life guided by four virtues, (禮/礼, proper rite), (義/义, righteousness or justice), lián (廉, honesty and cleanness) and chǐ (恥/耻, shame; sense of right and wrong).[2] The campaign proceeded with help of the Blue Shirts Society and the CC Clique within the Nationalist Party, and Christian missionaries in China.[3]

Historical context[edit]

The New Life Movement was founded at a time when China, already weakened by Western imperialism, faced the threats of rising Japanese militarism, domestic factionalism and communism. The launch of the New Life Movement was set in the context of Chiangs' growing concern with corruption, and moral decadence that they blamed on foreign influences. Historian Colin Mackerras writes that “Corruption was an abiding feature of Chiang Kai-shek’s rule" and that nepotism and bribery were rife among the bureaucracy. Chiang charged that “If we do not weed the present body of corruption, bribery, perfunctoriness, and ignorance, and establish instead a clean, effective administration, the day will soon come when the revolution will be started against us as we did the Manchus”.[4]

Chiang claimed that Chinese were "unbearably filthy", "hedonistic", "lazy", and physically and spiritually "decrepit", and thus leading lives that were "barbaric and devoid of reason."[5] Chiang's political rival, Wang Jingwei described Chinese life as a life of "smoking," "sickness," "gambling," "filth," "ghosts" (i.e., superstition), and "indolence”. Wang argued the fundamental psychological basis of such behaviour was "lackadaisicalness" (suibian zhuyi) and "self seekingness" (zili zhuyi). He contended that “lackadaisicalness” led to lives without a sense of right or wrong, and hence with no distinctions or purpose. "Self-seekingness," he argued, led to the rejection of all outside interference with this kind of behaviour as encroachment on "freedom". There was no consideration for others and their rights, only of one's own comfort, inevitably obstructing social life and group solidarity.[6]

In Chiang's mind, these concerns were compounded by the influx of foreign ideas following the New Culture Movement and May Fourth Movement which fostered Western concepts such as liberalism, pragmatism and nationalism as well as more radical ideas including Marxism respectively. The Movement attempted to counter such threats through a resurrection of traditional Chinese morality, which it held to be superior to modern Western values. As such the Movement was based upon Confucianism, mixed with Christianity, nationalism and authoritarianism that have some similarities to fascism.[3] It rejected individualism and liberalism, while also opposing socialism and communism.

Soong Mei-ling called for a program of spiritual enlightenment. She wrote inForum, an American magazine, in 1935, that "the mere accumulation of great wealth is not sufficient to enable China to resume her position as a great nation." There must be, she continued, "also revival of the spirit, since spiritual values transcend mere material riches. She played a major role both in launching the Movement and in representing its public face.[7]

Soong Meiling Stitching a Uniform For Soldiers

Chiang Kai-shek used the Confucian and Methodist notion of self-cultivation and correct living for the Movement; to this end it prescribed proper etiquette on every aspect of daily life. He considered the New Life Movement a key part of the program to carry out the "principle of the people's livelihood" in Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People. However implementing the Movement was suspended indefinitely in the approach to the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Doctrines and principal beliefs[edit]

Chiang Kai-shek's September 1934 speech stated that the New Life Movement aimed at the "promotion of a regular life guided by the four virtues," – '' (proper rite), ' (righteousness or justice), lián (honesty and cleanness) and chǐ (shame; sense of right and wrong). These virtues, he went on,

must be applied to ordinary life in the matter of food, clothing, shelter, and action. The four virtues are the essential principles for the promotion of morality. They form the major rules for dealing with men and human affairs, for cultivating oneself and for adjustment to one’s surroundings. Whoever violates these rules is bound to fail, and a nation that neglects them will not survive.” [8]

Chiang later extended the four virtues to eight by the addition of “Promptness”, “Precision,” “Harmoniousness,” and “Dignity”. These elements were summarized in two basic forms: “cleanliness” and “discipline” and were viewed as the first step in achieving a “new life”. People were encouraged to engage in modern polite behaviour, such as not to spit, urinate or sneeze in public. They were encouraged to adopt good table manners such as not making noises when eating.[9] Nearly 100 such rules governed everyday life.[10]

Influences on the Movement[edit]

The ideological strictness of the New Life Movement had many similarities with Neo-Confucianism, which had been the dominant moral philosophy of previous centuries. The New life Movement “four virtues” were taken from Confucian school of thought. Paul Linebarger had stated that the New Life Movement’s "principles consist of a simple restatement of the cardinal Confucian personal virtues, interpreted to suit modern conditions.”[11]

The historian Lloyd Eastman saw Chiang's goal as unifying China under a singular ideology, a fascist one at that, with the resulting New Life Movement being a popularized or a “sloganized Confucianism”.[12] According to Keith Schoppa, the new set of beliefs was seen to be easy to execute, with four main virtues backed by 95 further sub-rules that regulated the everyday life of the regular Chinese citizen.[13]

The Movement was also shaped by Chiang's Christianity. According to Elmer Clark, the new doctrine was “an ambitious moral and ethical enterprise which proposed nothing less than a Chinese renaissance, a complete reformation of the habits, customs and manners of one fourth of the human race, to bring them more in line with the accepted morals of Christian civilisation”.[14] Overlapping moral guidelines exist between Confucianism and Christianity. The 95 rules placed in the New Life movement often blur the lines between the influence of the two on the Movement, such as “do not gamble” or “be polite and courteous to women and children”.

This Movement has also been accused of having a totalitarian element. Dirlik sees the movement as a "modern counterrevolution" opposed to an "anti-revolutionary conservatism" due to the fact that it instrumentalised traditional moral codes and societal constructs.[9] Other historians regard this movement as imitating Nazism and regarded this movement as being a neo-nationalistic movement used to elevate Chiang's control of everyday lives. Frederic Wakeman suggested that the New Life Movement was "Confucian fascism".[15]


Despite the grandiose goal of revitalising and revolutionising China, the New Life Movement ultimately ended in failure as both domestic and foreign reception remained paltry throughout the duration of the movement. The combination of the movement's inability to formulate a systematic ideology and the seeming banality of its concerns caused both Chinese and foreign commentators to ignore the significance of New Life ideology and intentions and instead to stress the more superficial aspects of the movement. Consequently, the movement was approached variously as a joke, or to those taking it more seriously, a shallow and antiquated regression to Chinese tradition when tradition had already proved incapable of solving China's problems.[9] Historian Suzy Kim summarizes its failure as due to a "lack of cohesion."[10]

The Movement's inability to formulate a systematic ideology and abstract code of ethics contrasted sharply with the promises of the Communists, who spoke sharply and to the point on taxation, distribution of land and the disposition of overlords.[16] From the perspective of a Chinese citizen, the policies of Marxists are far more practical and coherent, leading to the lack of significance attributed to the New Life Movement. On a Western perspective, Chiang's complex code of ethics was far too abstract and lacking in action to be useful or pragmatic, perceived as being superficial and inordinately idealistic.  

The lack of popular domestic reception is exacerbated by the behaviour of the Blue Shirts, a far-right fascist group that enforced the rules of the New Life Movement. Historian Sterling Seagrave writes “by 1936, the Blue Shirts were running amok, driven by excesses of zeal and brutality, giving the New Life Movement a bad name". The Literary Digest observed that year, ‘Most likely to upset the teacups were Chiang’s own civilian, anti-foreign, bombing, stabbing, shooting ‘Blue Shirt’ terrorists, who once useful, now unmanageable, have become something of a Frankenstein monster.”[17] The association of the violent and repressive behaviour of the Blue Shirts compounded the less than enthusiastic reception of the Movement, further attributing to it a negative reputation as well.


The New Life Movement aimed to control Chinese lifestyles. Some measures and moral codes included: opposition to littering and spitting at random; opposition to opium use; opposition to conspicuous consumption; rejection of immoral entertainment in favour of artistic and athletic pursuits; courteous behaviour; saluting the flag. Chiang urged citizens to bathe with cold water, since the (supposed) Japanese habit of washing their faces with cold water was a sign of their military strength.

Chiang relied on government law enforcement to reinforce moral behaviour. Task forces were created in different regions to implement the movement, yet, in reports from some districts on the implementation, the movement was seen to be severely underfunded, understaffed and poorly understood by law enforcement officials.

The Blue Shirts were also instrumental in the implementation of the New Life movement. The neo-right wing group at first, was useful to Chiang, correcting the behaviour of those not following the four virtues and the further 95 rules placed. However, they soon turned to force to reinforce Chiang's ideals, giving bad publicity and views on the movement. The excessive violence used by the Blue Shirts encompassed the movement, leading to a reluctant public in following the new dogma in place by the KMT.

Historical evaluations[edit]

In the words of Soong Mei-ling's biographer, the New Life Movement was a "curious East-West ideological fusion of neo-Confucian precepts, thinly disguised, New Testament Christianity, YMCA-Style social activism, elements of Bushido—the samurai code—and European fascism, along with a generous dose of New England Puritanism." [18] Arif Dirlik explains the Movement as motivated by the need to counter Communist success in both ideological appeal and political organization. [19]

Historian Suzy Kim contrasts the New Life Movement with the later Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. While both movements had superficial similarities in terms of changing everyday behavior, "The New Life Movement sought to expand the power of the state and was instituted from the top down for the purposes of mobilizing people around its own agenda as a form of 'controlled popular mobilization,' whereas the Cultural Revolution was a bottom-up movement that periodically escaped control of the state[.]"[10]

Cultural references[edit]

Xinsheng Road, a major arterial road in Taipei is named after the movement.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Yip (1992), p. 287.
  2. ^ Chiang (1934).
  3. ^ a b Schoppa, R. Keith. The Revolution and Its Past (New York: Pearson Prentic Hall, 2nd ed. 2006, pp. 208–209 .
  4. ^ Mackerras, Colin. China in transformation 1900-1949. N.p.: Pearson Longman, 2018, p. 91.
  5. ^ Dirlik (1975), p. 954.
  6. ^ Dirlik (1975), p. 955.
  7. ^ Li (2006), pp. 101–102.
  8. ^ Chiang (1934), p. 1.
  9. ^ a b c Arif Dirlik. “The Ideological Foundations of the New Life Movement: A Study in Counterrevolution.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 34, no. 4, 1975, p. 946,
  10. ^ a b c Kim, Suzy (2016). Everyday life in the North Korean revolution, 1945-1950. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 30–31. ISBN 978-1-5017-0568-7. OCLC 950929415.
  11. ^ Paul M. A. Linebarger, Government in Republican China, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1938) p. 61.
  12. ^ Eastman (1974), p. 67.
  13. ^ R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and Its Past: Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History 3rd Edition, (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 208.
  14. ^ Elmer T. Clark, The Chiangs of China, (New York: Abington-Cokesbury Press, 1943), 79.
  15. ^ Wakeman, Frederic, Jr. (1997). “A Revisionist View of the Nanjing Decade: Confucian Fascism.” The China Quarterly 150: 395–432.
  16. ^ Emily Hahn, The Soong Sisters, (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co., 1941), 182.
  17. ^  Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1985), 294.
  18. ^ Li (2006), p. 102.
  19. ^ Dirlik (1975).

References and further reading[edit]