Born on May Fourth:
The New Culture Movement and its Influence on Early Communist Rhetoric
"As long as there shall be stones, he seeds of fire will not die."
Lu Xun, December 1935
On May Fourth 1919 over three thousand Beijing intellectuals met in Tiananmen Square to protest the results of the Paris Peace Treaty. The protesters disagreed with the Beijing government's decision to accept the lot given China in the post-war world. Over the next month students and workers from across China marched, held strikes, and boycott Japanese and western products, eventually causing the Chinese government to capitulate to their demands and make a stand on the world stage. This was the first mass protest in 20th century Chinese history and would serve as an example and inspiration for the next century of communist politics.
By 1914, when the First World War began, the Chinese government was still extremely unstable. Only three years earlier, in 1911, Sun Yat-Sen and his Nationalist Party had toppled the Qing Dynasty and formed a new government. At the outbreak of World War One the government had dissolved into various warlord factions and was, in general, only operating in the larger cities and urban areas. By the time the war broke out various countries had taken advantage of China's weak government. In 1915, when Japan invaded Shandong, the German occupied area of China, they handed the Chinese government a list of twenty-one demands. Among these demands was the stationing of Japanese troops within China and the placement of Japanese officials in the Chinese government. These measures would have in effect made China a Japanese colony. When China joined the First World War in 1917 its main goal was to regain Shandong and have the Twenty-One Demands repealed. Yet despite China's donation of over nine hundred workers to the fronts of France, Africa, and Turkey, by the end of the war in 1918, China was given only a tertiary seat at the Versailles peace conference.
During the peace talks at Versailles, China's demands were all but ignored. When the telegraph arrived bringing the news that the Paris Peace Treaty hadn't taken into account either of China's concerns, the people were understandably bothered. The German control of Shandong had been transferred to Japan, who was, in the eyes of the West, a more stable ally than China's factionalized post-revolution government. The issue of the Twenty-One Demands was not even addressed and so still applied. This disappointing and embarrassing news infuriated the Beijing intellectuals who, on the morning on May Fourth, staged enormous protests against Japan. Several thousand students and intellectuals from across Beijing's intellectual infrastructure gathered in Tiananmen Square and marched through the city. One group of students...