On May 4, 1919, the Tiananmen square was covered with more than 3 million Chinese students. They protested against the 156th article of the Treaty of Versailles, according to which Japan established a protectorate over the Chinese province of Shandong. These protests gave birth to one of the most powerful China’s cultural and political movements in modern history – “The May 4th Movement”.
By that time, the requirements of cultural modernization have been widespread among the determined radicals. The younger generation actively advocated for the rejection of tradition of Confucianism. Chen Duxiu and Hu Shih, for example, believed that Confucianism humiliated both China as a state and each citizen as an individual. “New cultural movement” of the early 20th century called for the liberation of the individual, establishing the democracy and the development of new advanced scientific knowledge. In 1919, it became clear that the majority of the population of the country is willing to support these revolutionary slogans, though, a few years before, such radical ideas were popular only among small groups of intellectuals.
Bad news from Paris
During the First World War, China was on the side of anti-German coalition hoping that the Entente will help to restore China’s Shandong province, at that time occupied by Germany. Moreover, China even sent 140 thousand of their soldiers to France to participate in the fighting on the Western front. However, it did not bring any results.
In 1915, the authorities in Shandong had moved from Germany to Japan, and the Treaty of Versailles has only strengthened the presence of Japan on the native land of China. This was a severe blow to the pride of China, since Shandong, being the birthplace of Confucius, had a great symbolic significance for the country.
When this terrible news spread across China, revolutionary-minded students decided that it was time to act. At that historic morning of May 4, 1919, students of 13 different universities gathered in Beijing and adopted five resolutions. They were protesting against the occupation of Shandong by Japan and had announced the establishment of the Beijing students’ Union. Their mission was to attract the attention of the widest layers of the Chinese society to the tragic situation of China on the world stage. They called on everybody to immediately enter a protest against the humiliating conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.
From demonstrations to the revolutionary movement
Almost 3 thousand people gathered on the main square of Beijing. They shouted slogans accusing both Entente in betrayal of China and the ruling elite of China in corruption and lack of integrity. It escalated to direct riots, during which the house of one of the members of the Cabinet of Ministers was burned down. Also, one Minister had been beaten by demonstrators. As a result, the government cruelly suppressed the demonstration and many students were arrested.
However, the authorities failed to ease the tensions. The next day, the students came back to the streets of Beijing with the protests. Soon, the same situation began in other regions of the country. Demonstrations were held in all major cities. Students were saying patriotic speeches urging to boycott Japanese products. The epicenter of the event spread from Beijing to Shanghai. There, the students and intellectuals were joined by representatives of lower social strata, the most disenfranchised segments of the population. They were also outraged by this situation, the plight of workers and the poverty of the peasantry.
In search of an answer
All these events gave rise to a wave of demonstrations, which the government was unable to counter. The arrested students were released, members of the Chinese government representing China at the talks in Versailles lost their jobs. In the end, China was the only country that refused to sign humiliating for the country Peace Treaty.
Now, 97 years after those events, it is clear that the success of the “May 4th Movement” was largely symbolic, at least because the protectorate of Japan over the Chinese territory remained for five more years. It lasted until 1922 when an agreement signaling a new balance of power between the imperialist powers in the Far East was signed at the Washington Conference.
However, the “May 4th Movement” has played a prominent role in spreading the feeling of patriotism among all segments of Chinese society (Wasserstrom 51). These were the first powerful demands of modernization. The movement reflected a radical change in the political discourse. It became obvious that Confucianism has outlived its usefulness. As a result, huge masses of people began to look for more radical solutions to pressing problems and in the end it led them to the ideas of communism.
Despite the fact that the immediate cause of the “May 4th Movement” were the events of foreign policy, this democratic movement of the working class, the national bourgeoisie, urban petty bourgeoisie and intellectuals in May-June 1919 had a much deeper meaning. It broke out in response to the call of the Great October socialist revolution.
For the first time in China, the proletariat stepped on the arena of political struggle. Together with them have grown and matured Marxist intellectuals who fought for the national liberation of China, for the destruction of feudal and imperialist oppression, for the spread of Marxism-Leninism (He, 164). Subsequently, many active participants of the “May 4th movement”, including Mao Zedong, Li Dazhao, Qu Qiu-Bo, Zhou En-Lai and others led the Communist Party of China.
The “May 4th Movement” marked the transition to the bourgeois-democratic revolution of a new type, developing under the leadership of the proletariat as an integral part of world socialist revolution.
- He, Henry Yuhuai. Dictionary Of The Political Thought Of The People’s Republic Of China. Armonk, N.Y., M.E. Sharpe, 2001,.
- Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N. Student Protests In Twentieth-Century China. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 1991,.