Some May 4 thoughts


One hundred years ago, on the evening of May 3, 1919, a group of Chinese students met inside an empty lecture hall in Beijing. World War I had ended in an armistice the previous fall, and the victorious powers were gathered at Versailles to negotiate a peace treaty. China, which had contributed to the Allied war effort, believed that it had earned if not an equal seat at the table, then at least the right for its voice to be heard. But during their negotiations, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States secretly agreed to cede disputed Chinese territory to Japan, which had also supported the Allies. As the American diplomat Edward T. Williams wrote, “China was betrayed in the house of her friends.”

News of the decision reached China on the morning of May 2. From rickshaw men to state ministers, Chinese citizens lapsed into despair. The nation’s youth, in particular, felt the blow like the loss of a limb. Born into the final act of imperial China, they grappled with the disparity between their lot and that of a more developed world and burned with a sense of what was at stake — an ordeal as grave as the survival of China itself. They were the inheritors of a fallen empire. Their country’s humiliation was their anguish. A protest had been previously planned for the following week, but such was the clamor in the room, the intensity of the students’ convictions, that they knew they could not wait. They would march the next day — May 4.

The march marked the birth of the storied May Fourth Movement, a national cultural and political awakening that, over the past century, has come to symbolize the birth of modern China. It was a time of profound reflection and remarkable plurality of thought, a period of radical openness and possibility christened by historians as “the Chinese Enlightenment.” In a land of symbols and ceremonies, its yearly anniversary continues to evoke a powerful cultural resonance. “The movement is not obsolete . . . not merely a historical event,” wrote the state-run newspaper China Daily in 2009, on the 90th anniversary of the protest. “The discussions and contentions over it have never ceased.” Indeed, claims to the May Fourth legacy were recorded even before the streets had been cleared. In a poem penned the very day of the protests, a student at Peking University wrote that he and his peers had marched “to purge clear the shame from Chinese hearts and minds.” He wrote, “We’d do anything to save China.”

For the fledgling nation’s educated and elite, saving China was foremost on everyone’s mind. Once conceived as the center of human civilization, the Chinese empire had entered the twentieth century limping, crippled by an unrelenting succession of crises. Barely a decade into the new century, the Qing dynasty collapsed, replaced by a flawed republic that quickly succumbed to corrupt warlords and foreign aggressors.

Out of these conditions, however, rose a generation of writers and scholars, trained in Japan and the West, who balked at the shackles of Chinese tradition and looked abroad for tools of progress. Beginning in the 1910s, hundreds of new journals and magazines printed their first issues, wrestling with the most pressing subjects of their time, their insatiable appetite for modernity reflected in titles such as New Youth, New Tide, New Life, New Epoch, New Society, New Literature and Art—new everything. The collective fervor came to be known as the New Culture Movement, a swirl of ideas and activity that spurned the past, contested the future, and elevated the individual to a prominence not seen before or since. Culture was politics, and politics was culture. The nation brimmed with new plans for structuring life and society, while systems that had dominated for millennia were left in the dust.

If the visionaries of New Culture readied the kindling, the students on May 4, 1919, lit the fire. The movement secured its place in Chinese history by consolidating diffuse ideals for the future under the unifying banner of nationalism: “How,” they asked, “might China rise again?” Some pressed for greater political freedoms. Others attacked the country’s Confucian heritage. Still others believed they were joining the fight against imperialism. For China’s vocal liberal wing, calls for “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” emerged as a rallying cry, becoming for many synonymous with the movement itself. At its heart, May Fourth succeeded because it stoked the same deep yearning in everyone—the wish to save China.

Out of the movement’s bonfire leapt one ember that would catch and ignite into its own great flame. Taking inspiration from the Russian Revolution, China’s early Marxists began as a fringe study group on the campus of Peking University, steadily disseminating the language of class struggle and revolution to a national audience. In July 1921, around a dozen Marxists gathered for a secret meeting in Shanghai. Buoyed by support from the Soviet Comintern, they formally established the Communist Party in China and presided over its first party congress. Among the delegates was a local cell leader named Mao Zedong. May Fourth had catalyzed a turn in Mao’s worldview: sensing the need for a more structured politics, he abandoned his previous anarchism and plunged into Marxist­-Leninist theory. It was, he later reflected, “a critical period of my life.”

Ever since, the Chinese Communist Party has rooted its origin story in the romance and defiance of May 4. The party’s official history books trace a direct line from its founding back to the movement, which is credited with “wakening the Chinese national consciousness” and “preparing the fundamental conditions of the founding of the CCP.” Mao hailed the movement as the party’s “chief landmark,” which produced in China “a brand-new cultural force, that is, the communist culture and ideology guided by the Chinese Communists.” According to party lore, the spirit of May 4 was finally realized in 1949, when the communists declared victory in the nation’s civil war, announcing the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

The Communist Party’s appropriation of May Fourth would exert powerful effects on its rule. The movement’s intensity had made a profound impression on Mao, who spoke of it as a “cultural revolution” as early as 1940. The first decades of the People’s Republic saw a tremendous embrace of his vast nation-building project, but his plans began to unravel in the 1950s with the disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward. As Mao’s failures mounted and his grip on power loosened, he retreated into the one program he knew best: revolution.

Cloaking himself in the rhetoric of May 4, Mao launched the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in 1966. He called for the nation’s youth to “bombard the headquarters” of society and purge it of all “reactionary” elements, ranging from top party leaders to members of the students’ own families. He incited his “Red Guards,” impassioned young devotees throughout China’s cities, to “smash the four olds”: old thinking, old customs, old habits, and old culture. Chinese youth had formed the backbone of the May Fourth Movement, but their cause, Mao believed, had since been betrayed, and it would fall upon the shoulders of a new generation to revive the revolution. As the historian Rana Mitter has noted, the Cultural Revolution displayed many of the key features of the May Fourth Movement—“obsession with youth, destruction of the past, arrogance about the superiority of one’s own chosen system of thought”

The Cultural Revolution, oh yes, that little thing. Millions of people were tortured and killed, and some charming cannibalism took place.

3 Responses to “Some May 4 thoughts”

  1. feeblemind Says:

    I believe the West has forgotten how China was once divvied up into spheres of influence with major European players plus Japan all getting a piece of the action.

    OTOH, China has not forgotten. One wonders how much the past commercial exploitation of China influences China’s foreign policy today?

  2. Bob Risko Says:

    There was a time, many, many years ago, when I thought communism was harmless. Even reading Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia, a modern classic taught in a course by Alexander Riasanovsky, his brother, didn’t change my mind. Then I read multiple works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in a Russian literature course. That changed my mind. Communism, at least Soviet communism, was and is (it still exists) evil. There’s just no way around it.

  3. feeblemind Says:

    Try again on this thread:

    African swine fever decimating the Chinese swine herd causing a major supply disruption that will impact global meat prices.

Leave a Reply