Q & A: Jeffrey Wasserstrom on History, Dissent and the Power of May 4 in China

tags: China, Tiananmen Square, interview, May 4

The political tumult that erupted in China in 1989 was a struggle over rival views of the country’s future, often fought through rival views of the past, and no date mattered more than May 4, an anniversary claimed by both the student protesters and the Communist Party.

Many of the students who occupied Tiananmen Square claimed inspiration from the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a student protest movement incited by outrage over China’s poor treatment in the international settlement after the First World War. The 1919 protests came during a period of intellectual flux, called the New Culture Movement, when students and intellectuals embraced iconoclastic currents of thought from abroad, famously summed up by one of their advocates as “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy.”

But the Chinese Communist Party also claimed the May Fourth Movement as part of its patrimony – a patriotic campaign that paved the way for the spread of Marxism and the founding of the party in 1921. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied student protests in China, answers questions about why May 4 mattered in 1989:

Q.  It seems that in 1989 many students and intellectuals were animated by a deeply idealistic view of themselves and their status in society, and that view harkened back to the May Fourth Movement, if not earlier. What did the May Fourth tradition mean in the eyes of the students?

A.  The 1989 protesters identified strongly with the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a student-led patriotic popular struggle that is as celebrated in the Chinese educational system as, say, the Boston Tea Party is in the American one. Invoking that 1919 struggle conjures up two sets of intertwined associations. It calls up memories of a specific student demonstration, held on May 4, 1919, which was staged in the name of protecting the nation from autocratic rule at home and from foreign bullying. It also refers to a more general intellectual ferment of the time, when intellectuals argued that embracing “science and democracy” was the first step toward helping China become modern and regain its place in the world as a strong and respected country. In a key 1989 student manifesto, which dubbed the current struggle a “New May 4th Movement,” there are allusions to all of these aspects of the 1919 tradition, except the part about resisting bullying by foreigners. Many 1989 rallies were staged in front of a monument in Tiananmen Square that includes a frieze showing 1919’s students speaking out against injustice and calling on workers to join them in a patriotic struggle.

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