May 4, 1919: Who were the heirs of the revolution?

Society & Culture

In May 1919, the Chinese capital had been in tumult for nearly a decade. On May 4, protesters gathered at Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, to voice their displeasure at the government — part of a larger movement that radically reshaped modern China.

This Week in China’s History: May 4, 1919

It is sometimes said that Tiananmen Square is the symbolic heart of China: a physical space at the center of the capital, literally surrounded by the structures of power. It has only been a square since the 1950s, when the People’s Republic expanded the space to host public gatherings (a purpose for which it is now unavailable), but its role long precedes that. The square takes its name from the ceremonial gate at its north end — Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace — that was constructed as part of the Forbidden City in the early 1400s. Separating the palace from the administrative campus to its south, the gate was the platform from which imperial edicts and pronouncements would be spread to the public.

It was a one-way role: information was always brought from the imperial court to the public. But on this week in 1919, protesters made a bold attempt to reverse that flow, using the space below Tiananmen — now a gauntlet of surveillance cameras, metal detectors, soldiers, and police — to confront the government.

In May 1919, the Chinese capital had been in tumult for nearly a decade. Revolution in 1911 had forced the Qing emperor to abdicate. Struggling to find its footing, the young Republic of China saw the outbreak of the Great War in Europe as an opportunity to be welcomed into the family of nations. In return for Chinese aid — tens of thousands of Chinese laborers sent to work in the factories and fields of Europe — the Allies would at last, the Chinese hoped, welcome China as an equal.

One of the most tangible expectations of the Chinese side was that defeated Germany would return to Chinese sovereignty its colony at Qingdao (home of the lager that would become one of China’s most recognizable exports). Buoyed by U.S. President Wilson’s rhetoric of “self-determination of peoples,” the Chinese were confident that their participation in the war effort would be rewarded. Instead, over the objections of the Chinese delegation, the Versailles Peace Treaty gave control of the colony to Japan, which had occupied Qingdao on behalf of the Allies since early in the war. News of the betrayal was published in a Beijing newspaper on May 1, and it was a body blow to Chinese reformers who had invested heavily in looking to the West as a model.

For decades, the idea that Western culture, technology, and politics represented progress that China should aspire to had become conventional wisdom among many Chinese intellectuals, and had encouraged not only the Self-Strengthening Movement of the 19th century, but also the 1911 republican revolution and the “New Culture” movement that had sought to renovate Chinese thinking in the 1910s. The veneration of the West was already shaken by the brutality and futility of the Great War, but now the treachery of European negotiators at Versailles seemed to confirm that the West, while not necessarily the enemy, was not a friend.

On the morning of May 4, thousands of angry protesters marched to condemn not only Western hypocrisy and Japanese imperialism, but their own government’s weakness to protect its people’s interests. Many of the protesters were students, including from newly founded universities like Tsinghua, and carried banners (some in English) explaining their demands: “Return Qingdao”; “Boycott Japan”; “Down with Traitors.” Some 3,000 protesters gathered in front of Tiananmen — not yet a square, remember — and confronted the symbols of power with their grievances. They then proceeded to the Legation Quarter to show their wrath to the representatives of the imperial powers. Denied access, they instead made their way to the home of China’s finance minister, where they assaulted and badly injured members of the minister’s staff (the minister himself, Cáo Rǔlín 曹汝霖, had seen the protesters coming and fled in disguise). Cao’s home was set ablaze.

The attack on Cao Rulin’s home was a minor detail in the course of an historic protest, but it shaped the course of events. In response to the violence, police were summoned, arresting more than 30 students. Despite attempts to censor news coverage, details about the arrests spread around the country quickly. The government’s attempt to arrest, and then censor, China’s youth supported the protesters’ claim that the government was appeasing foreign interests at the expense of China’s own people, and that the greatest threat to China’s survival was the weakness of its own leaders. Within days, student protests in Tianjin, Shanghai, and other cities illustrated the breadth and depth of frustration. A general strike in Shanghai followed a few weeks later. While the specific grievance of Qingdao remained, the more general rallying cry to “save the nation” became the lasting goal of the movement.

Narrowly defined, May Fourth was a small disturbance: a few thousand protesters, several dozen arrests. But the label applies both to the events of that day and to the broader movement that defined an era, characterized by Vera Schwarcz’s influential 1986 book as The Chinese Enlightenment. Jeff Wasserstrom calls May Fourth “The Day that Changed China.” Chinese leaders in the century since 1919 have regularly called on the “May Fourth spirit” to support or enact revolutionary change (sometimes with contradictory goals).

The hyperbole surrounding May Fourth and its lingering influence rests on two long-term ideological consequences that grew out of the movement, both of which would shape China’s 20th century and beyond: nationalism and communism.

It has been said that the May Fourth Movement represents the birth of modern Chinese nationalism. While this is of course an oversimplification of a complex and long-term process, the rallying of support for China’s interests against foreign designs crystallized in that May. Politically, the disappointment and betrayal of Versailles motivated a desire for self-reliance that had not been present before. Pointedly, the idea that Western models and guidance were the best route to progress and modernization foundered on the terms of the peace treaty.

Culturally, many aspects of May Fourth had been anticipated by the New Culture Movement, which had begun several years earlier. New Culture encouraged Western-inspired ideas like “Mr Science” and “Mr Democracy” as ways to modernize China. These were still promoted as admirable goals, but now they were tainted by the grimness of the Great War and the hypocrisy of its resolution. China needed to modernize, yes, but to do so would not be to mimic the West. This nationalistic approach to modernization would be central to China’s path forward.

And it was this attempt to embrace modernization while avoiding the pitfalls that had befallen Europe that inspired the other lasting legacy of May Fourth: Chinese communism. While Communism had Western origins, it self-consciously saw itself as an inevitable — and modern — response to capitalism and imperialism. For Chinese reformers, it was a way to modernize and, instead of repeating the traps that Europe had fallen into, improve upon the economic system that had industrialized Europe (before it descended into war and imperialism). When the Chinese Communist Party had its founding congress in 1921, its leaders had all drawn inspiration from, and usually participated in, May Fourth.

Today, May Fourth remains a powerful symbol; its complexity makes it versatile. In 1989, for instance, both the protesters and the government claimed to be heirs to its legacy of student activism, nationalism, and modernization. Those tensions remain, as many — across China, on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, and with competing political ambitions — claim to be heirs of the revolution.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.