This Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the monumental May Fourth Movement, which precedes the arrival of the “two centenaries”.
Officially, for the mainland, the two goals of the two 100-year anniversaries, or the two centenary goals, are: first, China will build a moderately prosperous society by 2021, the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Then second, by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the mainland will develop into a prosperous, strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and modern socialist country.
As far as the historical sequence is concerned, the May Fourth Movement took place two years before the founding of the CPC. And it wasn’t until after 28 years of armed revolution that the People’s Republic was finally born.
Some people regard the May Fourth Movement of 1919 as China’s backlash against the first wave of economic globalization.
Since the late 18th century, China and other pre-industrialized countries had fallen prey to western imperialism, and the major European powers’ intense competition for spreading their influences eventually led to the First World War.
After the end of the Great War, China demanded the full recovery of its rights in Shandong province, which remained in the hands of the German Empire up until 1918.
However, at the Paris Peace Conference, the victorious Allied Powers handed over the rights in Shandong to Japan directly, despite China’s opposition.
Shocked and outraged by the news, university students in Beijing took to the streets on May 4, 1919 by the hundreds and thousands to protest against the ruthless betrayal by the Western powers, and clashed with pro-Japanese officials of the Beiyang regime, thereby sparking the nationwide May Fourth Movement.
Apart from political resistance, also at the center of the May Fourth Movement were cultural reforms and ideological enlightenment.
During the new cultural movement spearheaded by patriotic students and prominent scholars, China saw the rise of a dynamic ideological atmosphere in society, under which a lot of new ideas were introduced to the public.
It is also during the May Fourth Movement that Marxism began to take root in Chinese soil, thanks to the success of the Russian revolution. Then in 1921, the CPC was founded in Shanghai.
Leaders and key activists of the May Fourth Movement all embraced different beliefs and sought to pursue their dreams in different ways.
For example, scholars like Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao later became founders of the CPC, whereas Hu Shi, a distinguished academic and diplomat, chose to align himself with the Kuomintang (KMT).
Also siding with the KMT was famous historian Fu Sinian, who was among the student leaders who led the Tiananmen demonstration back in 1919, and who eventually fled the mainland and retreated to Taiwan along with the defeated Chiang Kai-shek regime in 1949.
Another movement leader, Kuang Husheng, later returned to the Hunan province and helped Mao Zedong get a job at the Hunan First Normal University, and the rest is history.
Under the influence of the May Fourth Movement, China also witnessed the emergence of dozens of progressive writers during the 1920s and ’30s, whose work would have profound and far-reaching implications for the mainland cultural sector in the decades that followed.
And even though the May Fourth Movement was highly critical of the traditional Confucian ethical values, it didn’t result in a cultural fault line in modern Chinese history.
Over the years, historians have often defined the “May Fourth Spirit” as the embodiment of patriotism, progressiveness, democracy and science.
Some have even referred to the May Fourth Movement as a watershed in Chinese history that separates the ancient and modern eras of China, concluding that there wouldn’t be any modern China without the May Fourth Movement.
Today, a hundred years on, China has come a long way.
As President Xi Jinping has put it, “we are closer, more confident, and more capable than ever before in making the goal of national rejuvenation a reality”. He also stressed self-reliance amid “changes unseen in 100 years”.
May 4 has already been designated as Youth Day in the mainland. I believe every year, whenever we observe the occasion, we mustn’t forget the original intention of the pioneers of the May Fourth Movement.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 29
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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