Essays

May Fourth for the World13 min read

China’s May 4th 1919 protests envisaged as a national and international movement – Shakhar Rahav


On May 4, 1919, approximately 3000 students from over a dozen institutions took to the streets of Beijing to protest news that the Paris peace conference was rejecting Chinese demands to force Japan to cede control over territories it held in Shandong Province. The term “May Fourth” or “May Fourth Movement” has become an icon in Chinese history, and has come to denote that demonstration and those that followed, including a general strike that paralyzed Shanghai that June. The term is also routinely used in a broader chronological sense: to invoke the entire period of cultural and political unrest that lasted from 1915 until 1923. In both cases Beijing and Shanghai are usually the focus of attention. My argument here, though, is that just as May Fourth’s significance lies beyond the events of one or two months, it also involves more than just one or two places. A broader geographical, as well as temporal, perspective is needed.

In his seminal 1940 essay ‘On New Democracy,’ Mao Zedong proclaimed, “since the May Fourth Movement things have been different.” Indeed, throughout the century since the 1919 demonstrations, historians and many Chinese have treated May Fourth and the New Culture Movement associated with it as a watershed in the history of modern China. For Mao the movement’s primary significance lay in paving the road to communism, but the significance of May Fourth has always been contested. Historians and politicians have assigned it a variety of meanings, from cultural renaissance to patriotic awakening, from the advent of Marxism to the celebration of liberalism. Yet history never stands still, and each generation writes about May Fourth in ways that reflect the concerns of the era. The current moment provides many reasons to reassess May Fourth and ask new questions that reflect our concerns. What, for example, does May Fourth mean given what we now know about the evolution of communism in China – the alternate paths of Taiwan and Hong-Kong, the embracing of market mechanisms in Deng Xiaoping’s time, and the “New Era” of Xi Jinping? What does language and cultural reform mean in the current era of globalization, and the digital revolution? In our increasingly connected world, might we think of May Fourth as not just a local and national but also an international movement?

Just as it May Fourth’s significance lies beyond the events of one or two months, it also involves more than just one or two places”

Of course, Beijing and Shanghai did matter a lot, due to the concentration of leading higher education institutions, most notably Peking University in the capital, the major New Culture Movement journals being published in Shanghai, and the general strike there. But if we wish to view May Fourth within the context from which it emerged, we need to take into account developments elsewhere – inside China and outside it as well – as for example Marilyn Levine‘s discussion of May Fourth intellectuals in Europe, and Wen-hsin Yeh and R. Keith Schoppa‘s work on the movement in Hangzhou and the lower Yangzi have shown. Significant social movements stirred at roughly the same time in Wuhan, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Chengdu and Nanchang, as well as in Japan, Germany, France, Korea, India, Egypt, Palestine and, of course, Russia.

Inside China

Chinese who hear that I focus on May Fourth in Wuhan often respond with a smile and comment that the movement took place in Beijing. Chinese historians and researchers know better. Their books and articles detail the movement’s development across China, and yet the popular perception persists. Moreover, while many of them have written wonderfully thorough studies of different locales, their research still often concludes with a narrative of the inevitable rise of the Chinese Communist Party.

To be sure, Beijing and Shanghai were vital centers of the movement. But they were not isolated in empty space, and May Fourth did not inevitably lead to two Beijing-based intellectuals, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, founding a Communist Party in Shanghai. The two metropoles maintained constant dialogues with other cities, towns and villages. The existing political order and the power of tradition were questioned in urban centers all across China both before and after summer 1919. Urban centers such as Wuhan and Changsha served as regional hubs while also serving as communication centers, with Beijing and Shanghai. Institutions of learning such as Hunan First Normal School in Changsha and Hangzhou First Normal School, attracted students from villages and towns in their immediate regions, but also from further afield, even from other provinces. These institutions were points of connection for hinterland cities, as well as with Beijing and Shanghai. Personal correspondence, journals and people circulated among these institutions.

For example, the Mutual Aid Society in Wuhan inspired several other small local societies, and members sometimes carried these ideas back to their towns and villages. One student at Zhonghua University in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, returned to his native Hengyang in Hunan, where he established the Custom Reform Society; another student planned to reform backward customs in his native village during the winter break. Mao Zedong, to cite a well-known example, left his native Hunan in August 1918 to go to the capital, where he worked as a library clerk at Peking University, but returned to Hunan after several months, traveled again to Beijing in early 1920 and then back to Hunan, leaving the province again only well after the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Activists from particular locales traveled across China seeking their fortune in the new era. They often gravitated toward the metropoles, but these were no black holes from which there was no returning home. Rather, activists remained in contact with their native places and among themselves by means of correspondence, mailing issues of radical journals, and with occasional visits home, bringing ideas from the periphery to the metropole and back again. Reflecting these movements of individuals, societies like The Young China Association had branches in cities all across China. Once the May Fourth movement broke out a national student union was founded to coordinate activities – which further accelerated the circulation of people and ideas.

May Fourth activism was an archipelago, with some islands – Beijing and Shanghai – serving as great hubs”

Print culture was crucial to the dissemination of the new currents of thought. Periodicals like New Youth (Xin Qingnian) made their way across the country to cities and towns, where they were sold by local vendors. Even the Beijing University Student Weekly (Beijing daxue xuesheng zhoukan) – by no means a central publication – included in its pages a list of vendors who supplied the publication in cities such as Nanjing, Tianjin, Chengdu, Wuhan, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and even Hong Kong and Tokyo.

We might then envisage May Fourth activism as an archipelago consisting of centers of various size and shapes, with some “islands” – Beijing and Shanghai – serving as great hubs that drew ideas and activists, but from which they often continued circulating throughout the archipelago. Centers of activism often corresponded to city size and centrality, but to the extent that members of the intelligentsia came from different places, even villages, their ideas reached back home.

Outside China

China’s May Fourth Movement was not unique; at roughly the same time in various places around the world different movements questioned and sought to refashion the social order. While studying Chinese history in graduate school I was also a teaching assistant for Middle Eastern history – and so I could not help drawing comparison between what seemed to me to be similarities among these different regions in the post Great-War moment. Yet I was constantly struck by the fact that this was not mentioned in instruction and was absent from any texts I read about one region or the other. Then, in 2007, historian Erez Manela published The Wilsonian Moment. In his groundbreaking work, Manela pointed to parallel, near-simultaneous events in countries such as China, Korea, India and Egypt. He critiqued the nation-centered historiographies that treated these as discrete, national events and connected them by attributing them to a single, shared root cause – the Paris peace conference that established a new world order at the end of World War I.

While Manela provided a compelling explanation for the specific events that occurred after learning of diplomatic developments in Paris, I would suggest that to understand why events in France provoked similar reactions in disparate places, we should look further to deeper cultural currents that traversed national boundaries. Chinese reformist intellectuals were concerned with the fate of their country and their culture, but they often viewed their predicament within a global context. For many Chinese, the desire for national liberation was connected with grander visions of the human condition in general – with national oppression being merely one ailment that required redress. Others were the liberation of women from men, workers from capitalists, youth from elders. These sentiments underlay much of the reactions to May Fourth and to news from Paris. As Li Dazhao proclaimed three months prior to the Treaty of Versailles:

This is an era of liberation; the current civilization is a civilization of liberation. People demand of the state liberation, locales demand of the center liberation, colonies demand of the colonizers liberation, weak peoples demand of strong peoples liberation, peasants demand of landlords liberation, workers demand of capitalists liberation, women demand of men liberation, youth demand of their elders liberation. The social and political movements arising at this time are all movements of liberation! Given these movements of liberation old organizations must be destroyed, new organizations must be constructed.

The yearning for other forms of liberation was not limited to colonized vs. colonizers nor to the events of 1919. Interest in such forms of liberation began earlier than 1919 and extended further, and it was not limited to colonies of Western powers.

In a similar vein, Li’s famous essay of November 1918, ‘The victory of Bolshevism,’ is often interpreted as a harbinger of Chinese infatuation with Russian communism. Yet if we suspend our knowledge of the importance of the later regimes of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, we will notice that the most prominent country in the essay is Germany, which Li sees as similar to Holland, Sweden, Austria, Hungary and Spain – places where a “Russian-style” or “a 20th-century-style revolution” is taking place. These essays were concerned not with the political mechanisms being established in Russia at the time but with the idea of liberation from oppression. Colonialism was one form of oppression, and it might have been the one that drove most people in colonized countries into the street, but intellectuals and activists were often just as concerned with other forms of oppression, such as class and gender.

It was in this spirit that in summer 1919 Mao Zedong founded a publication titled Xiang River Review (Xiang jiang pinglun), which he introduced as part of  “…the great call for ‘world revolution’ …and the movement for the ‘liberation of mankind.’” Accordingly, the first issue contained many commentaries on the politics of European countries – Germany, England, Hungary, France, Italy – but also of their colonies, such as Afghanistan and Palestine. Similarly, Wang Guangqi of the Young China Association justified the reform of “…old society, old family households, old beliefs, old organization and the entire old system,” saying that “ever since the war in Europe has stopped, the world current has toppled mountains and overturned seas and has come directly to the east. China’s youth have been deeply stimulated [by these events].” The influential president of Beijing University, Cai Yuanpei, declared, “Today the culture movement has already moved from Europe and the United States to China. Liberation! Creation! New thought tide! New life! These [ideas] appear in every type of magazine and newspaper, and no longer seem strange.”

The yearning for other forms of liberation was not limited to colonized vs. colonizers nor to the events of 1919”

Thanks to this promise of liberation, various currents of socialism seized the imagination of many across the globe. Across the world, political activists, intellectuals, artists and social reformers were concerned with building a new world, a new society, a “new man,” and in China a “new life.” This discourse was often bound up with discussion of class and labor, but much of it also had to do with awakening national sentiments, and with an infatuation with youth and with everything “new.” In Europe an interest in youth led to the founding of youth movements such as the boy scouts – a movement that was then emulated in many forms, such as China’s New Youth magazine. The Young China Association and others dreamed of a “New China.” China’s “New Village Movement” took its name from the Japanese “New Village”; these movements fantasized about a “new life” in the form of communes – new forms of living for a new age, seen as a step toward constructing a new human being, new society, and new world. In the spirit of a New Village several Work Study Mutual Aid Corps groups were attempted across the country. None of these attempts survived for long, but they aroused much interest among reformist circles. Regardless of their failure, these attempts should be viewed alongside similar attempts taking place in different locations around the world at that time – a budding anarchist movement in Japan that inspired several kinds of communes, communes in revolutionary Russia, the Zionist kibbutz movement in British-mandate Palestine, and forms of communal living across Europe and in North America. Many of these drew inspiration from the writings and image of famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

Chinese activists viewed themselves as part of the modern world – its ills on the one hand, and the possibilities it offered on the other. Whereas before the mid 19th century Chinese intellectuals might have viewed China as a center of the civilized world, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries activists like Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen ruefully viewed China as lagging behind the world, and May Fourth activists saw themselves as joining the world again, “catching up” with humanity. The destruction wrought by the Great War, the dissolution of empires, the founding of new nation-states, and the Bolshevik revolution changed perceptions of the world. The previously inconceivable suddenly seemed attainable.

A comprehensive attempt to understand May Fourth has to grapple with the similar movements in other places around the world occurring at roughly the same time, in an era when telegraphs, trains and steamships were among the things that had made it easier than ever before for people and ideas to move across great distances quickly. Although to date little published work on May Fourth has framed the movement within a transnational context (notable exceptions being the work of Paul Bailey, Rudolph Wagner, Manela and myself), two major academic conferences commemorating the centenary of May Fourth at Harvard and Columbia have been convened under the titles ‘May Fourth @100: China and the World‘ and ‘Global May Fourth.’ These, like this essay, mirror our own time, when the world is bound together ever more tightly by new technologies of communication and transportation that both connect our world and destabilize it. Much like the world of May 1919. ∎


Header: Chinese protestors march against the Treaty of Versailles, May 4 1919 (Wikicommons).

Shakhar Rahav

Shakhar Rahav is a historian of Modern China at the University of Haifa. He has published several articles on intellectuals and politics in twentieth century China and is author of The Rise of Political Intellectuals in Modern China: May Fourth Societies and the Roots of Mass-Party Politics (Oxford University Press, 2015).