May Fourth and China's legacy of revolution

On May 4, 1919, 3,000 university students started China's May Fourth movement

Published May 4, 2024 5:15AM (EDT)

Student Protesters in Tiananmen Square, 1989 (Peter Turnley/Getty Images)
Student Protesters in Tiananmen Square, 1989 (Peter Turnley/Getty Images)

On May 4, 1919, 3,000 university students in Beijing emerged from their dormitories and lecture halls, gathered in front of Tiananmen Gate and set off the most famous protest movement in Chinese history. Angered by the weakness of the Chinese government in the face of colonial encroachment by Japan and the Western great powers, students, workers, and other opponents of imperialism had taken hold of most of China’s major cities by the next day in a defiant show of patriotic resistance and mass consciousness. 

The galvanizing issue was the future of a 213 sq mi territory in the Shandong Peninsula and the surrounding sphere of influence, which Germany had seized from China in 1898. China had agreed to support the Allies in World War I on the condition that the territory be returned to its rightful owner, but a series of concessions forced on its leaders by Japan fated it to instead fall into the latter’s hands. The shotgun agreement, accepted by the western Allies, burdened China with yet another national humiliation after eighty years of coercion, extortion, and military defeat at the hands of foreign powers, and people blamed the impotent Beiyang government and the squabbling warlord cliques that ran much of the country for letting it happen.

With negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles threatening to ratify Japanese control of Shandong, students distributed copies of a “Manifesto of All Students in Peking” that exhorted the nation to “secure our secure our sovereignty in foreign affairs and to get rid of the traitors at home.”

“The Chinese people may be massacred but they will not surrender,” the manifesto declared. “Our country is about to be annihilated. Up, brethren!”

As 3,000 students marched through Beijing, spectators were recorded to have wept or cheered them on. They first attempted to petition foreign representatives in the Legation Quarter, but police blocked their way. The demonstration soon turned violent. Protesters broke into the house of a pro-Japanese official and gave him a beating, while police attacked the protesters on the streets, injuring several and causing one to later die in a hospital. Another 32 protesters were arrested.

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If the Beiyang government hoped to contain the unrest within Beijing, they had, true to form, failed miserably. Inspired with national fervor, provoked by harsh repression, and furious at political elites that many perceived as more concerned with retaining power than acting for the good for the country, a broad protest movement swept across China, demanding opposition to Japanese imperialism, a boycott of Japanese goods, and modernizing domestic reform. The crackdown also escalated, with the government characterizing the studentswho defined themselves as "citizens" first and foremostas reckless and immature youths who needed to be put back in their place. Police arrested them by the thousands, such that that they had to turn university buildings into makeshift prisons when the usual facilities became overfilled. Many students, expecting arrest, carried on their backs food and bedding to be used under detention.

While students spearheaded the uprising, the multitudes of urban workers who joined them swung the hammer-blow against the government's will to resist. The workers were already resentful of their exploitation by foreign companies and their collaborators; now was an opportunity to make common cause against a hated oppressor. On June 5, a strike by 90,000 workers from the textile, printing, metals, and other industries paralyzed Shanghai, the country’s main economic center, in full view of the European, Japanese, and American residents living in the foreign concession. More strikes soon followed in other cities as well as along strategic railway lines. Merchants, industrialists, and shopkeepers, perhaps hoping to stave off Japanese competition, also supported the protests, ceasing trade and threatening to withhold their taxes until their demands were met.

Confronted with a population united in outrage and a potential economic crisis, the government released some of the arrested students, dismissed three pro-Japanese cabinet members, and offered to negotiate terms. The demonstrations continued until, on June 28, Beijing instructed its representatives not to sign the Treaty of Versailles unless Shandong was restored to China. The other powers shrugged off Chinese objections and signed the treaty anyway, and so the territory remained in Japanese hands until the end of World War II. But the so-called May Fourth Movement represented a stunning victory for the people who had, through mass mobilization, forced their government to its knees, and also unleashed forces that far exceeded the boundaries of 1919 politics.

Many historians characterize the May Fourth Movement (MFM) as the cumulative expression of the so-called New Culture Movement (NCM), an older, intellectual campaign that sought to supplant traditional Confucian culture with Western, "modernizing" ideas like democratic politics, vernacular literature, and the scientific method. In doing so, proponents of the NCM argued, China could awaken to its full potential, free itself from foreign subjugation, and emerge from the deplorable social, economic, and political conditions of the past and present. The NCM's rejection of Confucian hierarchy, which demanded strict obedience from the subaltern to the authority, resonated strongly with the May Fourth protesters and in particular the ascendant Marxist voices within the MFM who viewed the struggles against foreign oppression by the Japanese and domestic oppression by feudal and capitalist elites as one and the same.

"We must break down the old prejudices, the old way of believing in things as they are, before we can begin to hope for social progress," wrote Chen Duxiu, the chief editor of the New Youth literary magazine and a future co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. "We must discard our old ways. We must merge the ideas of the great thinkers of history, old and new, with our own experience, build up new ideas in politics, morality, and economic life."

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If the NCM was primarily a thought-oriented movement that created intellectual ferment among China's youth, the MFM put such thoughts of national revival into action by harnessing the power of the organized mass. This in turn expanded political thought to include consciousness of the decrepit working and living conditions suffered by the Chinese proletariat, who after marching alongside the students on May 4 were increasingly seen as revolutionary partners rather than people who needed to be led. The workers, emboldened by their recent show of strength, set up organizations and unions across China as the basis for organizing more strikes. There were 25 strikes in China in 1918. By 1922, there were more than 100.

China's educated elite and the general populace, formerly detached from one another, now realized that by joining forces in a time of crisis they could effect transformative change. As ill-will from the Allies' betrayal at Versailles festered, activists turned away from Western liberal democracies and looked instead to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia as a source of inspiration for the future.

Reflecting on the events of 1919, Mao Zedong posited that the MFM marked a key step in the transition from a largely bourgeois movement to one led by the proletariat, the beginning of a revolution that would bring the Communists to power in 1949.

"Before the MFM, the struggle on China's cultural front was a struggle between the new culture of the bourgeoisie and the old culture of the feudal class," he wrote. "After the MFM, there was born in China an entirely new cultural force: the cultural thought of Communism under the leadership of the Chinese Communists. The new Western knowledge from the natural and social sciences, useful only to the bourgeois class, thus came to be replaced by the Communist world view and the Communist theory of social revolution."

The Chinese government continues to commemorate May 4, 1919, as the moment of China's awakening and an important link to the current ruling party. But as the modern CCP has chosen to focus on its role in leading China's rapid economic growth and restoration as a first-rank global power, their lip service to the events of 1919 has largely extolled nationalistic fervor rather than defiance against authority. The pro-democracy student protesters of 1989 also drew inspiration from May Fourth, using its memory to legitimize their cause. Tanks and gunfire cleared them from Tiananmen Square. More than one hundred years later, May Fourth's legacy is still fought over.

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

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China Communism Deep Dive Mass Movements May Fourth Movement Protest Revolution