100 years ago the Paris peace conference in the aftermath of World War I came to a close; the Western allies, victorious over Imperial Germany, forced eye-watering terms of reconciliation upon Berlin in what became known as the Treaty of Versailles. One element of that particular document was to deprive the Germans of their overseas colonial empire, which was stretched from the Far East to China. The Kaiser’s realm included a swathe of the Shandong peninsula, including what is now known as Qingdao. The peace agreement would bring an end to the German lease of this era, but not on terms favorable to the locals. Rather than restoring it to its rightful owner, Versailles would instead see it handed over to the Empire of Japan, an emergent industrial and military power within the region.

Upon hearing the news, on May 4th, 1919, swathes of angry and patriotic university students began a series of protests up and down the country. They accused their leaders of a national betrayal and a failure to stand up for China’s interests in the world. Piling in their thousands in front of the Tiananmen Gate, they would move to besiege the Japanese ambassador to the Republic of China’s residence. The event would prove to be a pivotal point in China’s history. Being coined as the “May Fourth” movement, the turbulent occurrences of that day would unleash powerful ideological and political currents which would ultimately set the stage for contemporary China for both good and evil, producing a generation of leaders who would come to govern that country.

May Fourth Movement represented the accumulation of a long-term upheaval and disintegration of China’s traditional ideological, political and social structure. At the turn of the previous century, China was governed by the Qing dynasty which advocated a Conservative social order based upon the philosophical traditions of Confucianism. Comprehending itself as the “Middle Kingdom”, Beijing sat at the center of all things, the seat of virtue and righteousness. It advocated an unequal tributary regional order where it saw itself as superior to other states which were confined to paying lip service to the emperor or “son of heaven” to which it was deemed.

This system, however, would come crumbling down. The expansion of the European colonial empires and the aftermath of the Opium War would forcefully integrate the traditional Chinese system into a new order of nation states. Similarly, China had entered a global capitalist trading order which drastically changed the way people live. New influences poured into the country, redeveloping and redefining people’s political lexicons. Ideas such as democracy, liberalism, nationalism, socialism all entered everyday reflections like never before. As the Manchu Dynasty failed to adapt to the changes that were at hand, its legitimacy became fragile.

Thus in 1912, the Qing Dynasty collapsed and brought an end to nearly 3000 years of Imperial rule. China became a republic, sought to envision its way in the world. Yet the early years of the Republic of China were hardly the democratic dream some might have envisioned. The country struggled with disunity, disorder and constant upheaval. Yuan Shikai sought to rebuild the empire, whilst local warlords competed over provincial territories, rendering the country in a state of chaos with limited sovereignty. There was neither comprehension nor consensus on what China ought to be or how it ought to function, sticking in the minds of the young people who grew up in the instability.

This generation, including future leaders such as Mao Zedong, understood their world through the lens of what they saw as a failure of China to adequately modernize itself. Their country had been humiliated by foreign powers precisely because they perceived the longstanding influence of traditional modes of governance and philosophies as a state of backwardness. For them, China could only become a modern and developed nation-state if it was properly prepared to embrace the same ideologies which made the Western nations strong and advanced. Thus, in the aftermath of the Qing’s collapse and ideological upheaval, the generation of the 1890s would be marked as a generation of radicals seeking to redefine a new China. May 4th would prove to be their tipping point, the events of Paris had released an angry surge of new thinking which shaped and consolidated the two main strands of the country’s politics at that time, nationalism and communism. Only two years later the Communist Party of China would be established in Shanghai.

Decades later, the legacy of May 4th, 1919 would live on. Mao Zedong’s personality was clearly shaped by the events of that fateful day. On obtaining power, he would pursue a relentless assault on the ideas and structures which he deemed to have subjected China to foreign humiliation. Such was a key theme lingering in the background of his infamous “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, wherein he radicalized millions of university students to smash the “four olds” of China in the bid to oust his factional rivals. It would furthermore consolidate in China’s statecraft a sense of suspicion and unease to the West.

Thus, in every sense, the legacy of May 4th led its adherents to believe that to build a new China had its roots in destroying the old one. It was a radical move and push for modernity, a product of the country’s evolution from a “celestial empire” into a nation-state. The visions of the young people for a future would in many ways lay the foundations for a modern country. Yet, as were the circumstances of its very origins, it was a movement rooted in the pursuit of chaos. Thus whilst we see modern China today in its image, we can neither ignore the path of tragedy and destruction of which that day also pre-empted.

Image: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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