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N: New Culture Movement

Students in Beijing rallied during the May Fourth Movement

May 4th, 1919 is the date most closely associated with the New Culture Movement, but the sentiment behind it began to emerge shortly after the 1911 revolution (see X for Xinhai Revolution). More than two millennia of imperial rule had just come to an end but the republic was riven between regional warlords and powerless to revoke the “Unequal Treaties” forced upon the previous Qing Dynasty by foreign powers. Young intellectuals began searching for solutions that could revitalise their country’s standing in the world.

Who were the cheerleaders?

One was Chen Duxiu, who founded the influential monthly magazine New Youth. Chen and the young writers who contributed to New Youth were later to become cultural and political leaders. They included a certain Mao Zedong, although it was Chen, not Mao, who would later become the first leader of the Communist Party of China.
The New Culture Movement grabbed greater prominence on May 4th 1919 after patriotic students demonstrated against decisions taken in respect to Chinese territory at the peace negotiations in Versailles. Most of the anger was provoked when Britain, France and the US gave their approval for Japan to take over the former German territorial concessions in Shandong province.

After learning what had been decided in Paris, 3,000 students took to the streets in Beijing and protested in Tiananmen Square, marking the first large-scale student demonstration since China’s education system had switched from Confucian-style teaching to a more Western-influenced curriculum. The protests swept across the rest of the country as workers went on strike as well. The primary target of the protest was Japan, with demonstrators calling for a boycott of Japanese goods. They also demanded an end to the extraterritorial rights of other foreign powers on Chinese soil. Much of the anger, of course, was vented at their own government.

The unintended consequence?

The New Culture Movement created some of the conditions for the rise to power of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The quest for a new style of government – as a means to rejuvenate the nation – took on a new urgency for intellectuals. Science and democracy were two of the focal points for the new thinking, serving as the Chinese equivalent to the French Revolution’s “liberté, égalité, fraternité”.

Other ideologies were competing to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Confucian values. And some thinkers, like Chen, were turning to Marxism as the best means to modernise China.

Chen was imprisoned for a few months for his role in provoking the May Fourth uprisings and shortly after his release he became a Marxist in Shanghai. With backing from the Comintern (the international organisation that advocated world Communism), he founded a Communist group and in July 1921 the first National Party Congress of the CPC was held with 13 attending members. They elected Chen as Party Secretary and he would serve as leader for the next seven years, before being expelled in one of the power struggles between its senior figures.

Another of the CPC’s founding members was Mao Zedong. The 28 year-old was working as a librarian at Peking University when the New Culture Movement/ May Fourth Movement came to prominence. He witnessed firsthand how student-led uprisings had challenged the status quo and he worked closely with Chen, whom Mao later described as having more influence on shaping his thinking than anyone else.
When Mao became China’s leader in 1949, he claimed that the May Fourth Movement was an essential step towards the fulfillment of his Communist revolution.

The lesson for today

One legacy of May 4, 1919 is that where China sees its territorial sovereignty under threat, there won’t be an inch of compromise from its leaders. The original concession of Chinese territory to Japan led to national unrest as the enfeebled government was decried for being unable to fend off foreign imperialism. No Chinese leader – President Xi Jinping included – wants to risk a repeat of that humiliation by seeming weak in territorial disputes.

In the decade ahead that could have major ramifications for regional stability as it means China won’t give any ground on a number of key sovereignty issues, including islands disputed with Japan (known as the Senkakus to Japanese and the Diaoyus to Chinese), a lengthy stretch of border with India, an historical claim to much of the South China Sea (via an ancient map marked with a ‘nine-dash’ line) and the future of Taiwan (which is regarded by mainland Chinese as a ‘renegade province’ of China).
All questions of Chinese sovereignty will be deemed non-negotiable. That is the lesson learned from the May Fourth Movement.


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