May Fourth, the Day That Changed China

tags: China, Chinese history, activism, World War 1

Mr. Wasserstrom is a history professor specializing in China.

 In Chinese, mentioning just two or three numbers can be enough to bring to mind a major historical event. Say “Jiuyiba” (nine-one-eight), and your listeners will know you have in mind not just any Sept. 18, but the one in 1931, when Japanese military officers in Mukden, northeastern China, faked the sabotage of a Japanese-owned railway to give Japan a pretext to invade the whole region. Or say “Wusi,” five-four, and any teenager will understand that you are talking about what happened exactly 100 years ago this Saturday.

That day in 1919, a student protest took place in Beijing that set off what came to be known as the May Fourth Movement. Soon, similar marches were held in other Chinese cities, joined by members of other groups. The upheaval reached its apogee with a general strike in June that paralyzed Shanghai, then China’s leading industrial center and the world’s sixth-busiest harbor — and also partly under foreign control.

Most extant photographs of May 4, 1919, show several thousand students, men and women, in front of Tiananmen (The Gate of Heavenly Peace), a massive entryway to the Forbidden City, which had been the home of China’s imperial rulers until the 1911 Revolution toppled the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China was established. The demonstrators gathered in outrage over reports about negotiations underway in Versailles, just outside of Paris, over the terms ending World War I. Word was that the Allies planned to give former German territories in Shandong, eastern China, to Japan instead of returning them to China.

Japan may have been on the winning side, the protesters argued, but China also had joined the Allies. And what about the call for a new era of national “self-determination” by the American President Woodrow Wilson in 1918? What seemed to be in the offing in Versailles looked like yet another instance of grasping foreign powers bullying China — in keeping with, say, the First Opium War, which had ended in 1842 with the British gaining Hong Kong as a colony.

Read entire article at NY Times

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