May the 4th Spirit Be With You15 min read

The enduring, eroded legacy of youth protest in China – Alec Ash

On September 15th 1915, the intellectual Chen Duxiu wrote a paean to the youth of China, for the opening essay of a revolutionary magazine he had founded:

“Youth are like the early spring, like the morning sun, like the blooming grass, like the sharp blade fresh off the grinding stone; youth is the most valuable time of life.”

Titled ‘Advice for Youth,’ Chen’s essay lauds young Chinese who oppose the nation’s status quo as “fresh, vigorous cells inside the human body,” where the old guard are “rotten, corrupted cells.” In this metabolism of society, fresh cells must “vigourously drive out” the rotten. If “their blade is sharp enough to cut iron and hemp, and they don’t follow other’s lead or hesitate in thought,” he exhorts, then “maybe society will arrive at a peaceful day.”

The sclerotic ancien regime that Chen wanted the young to rebel against was more a state of mind: the Confucian customs, feudal order and corrupt politics which, in Chen’s eyes, held China back from modernity. The Qing dynasty had been overthrown in the Xinhai revolution of 1911, but the fledgling Republic of China was in disarray, riddled with warlords and run by a general, Yuan Shikai, who has just named himself emperor. For China to progress, thought Chen and his fellows, she must cast off the relics of past structures, and build something entirely new.

Chen’s magazine, New Youth (originally just Youth for its first year), was a foundational stone of the New Culture Movement, a gathering of educated minds who called for a rejection of old culture and values in favour of more progressive notions. Both nationalists and idealists, these elites wanted to put the stamp of their own convictions on the new China. They held up the twin idols of “Mr Science” and “Mr Democracy” – as opposed to “Mr Confucius” – and said there was much to be learnt from the West. The writer Lu Xun joined the fray, likening traditional Chinese culture to cannibalism in his famous story ‘Diary of a Madman.’

This was the spirit energizing student protests on May 4th, 1919 – a date that has acquired near legendary status in China despite being little known abroad. That afternoon, over three thousand students – the largest cohort of them from prestigious Peking University – marched to Tiananmen square. They were incensed by the Chinese government’s weak reaction to the Versailles treaty at the end of World War I, which gave up concessions to Japan in colonial Chinese territories surrendered by Germany. “Don’t sign the Versailles Treaty!” they shouted, demanding new government and a boycott of Japanese goods, which they symbolically burnt. They burnt to ashes the house of a Chinese official accused of collaborating with the Japanese, Cao Rulin, beating him so badly that his skin, as one doctor noted, “looked like fish-scales”. 32 protesters were arrested, others took up their anti-establishment cause in protests across the country, and the May 4th Movement was born.

At the time of the protests, Chen Duxiu was dean of Peking University – then a squat red-brick building at the northeast corner of the Forbidden City, just beyond the moat that became known as Beijing’s “first ringroad.” The college librarian, Li Dazhao, was another instrumental figure in the New Culture and May 4th movements, turning to Marxism for ideas how to involve the peasantry in China’s rejuvenation. In July 1921, Chen and Li co-founded the Chinese Communist Party, then an iconoclastic group and a much-needed breath of fresh air in China’s broken politics. One early Party member was Li’s assistant in the library: a 25-year-old student with a mole on his lower lip and a penchant for poetry, who wrote an essay for New Youth magazine on the importance of physical fitness. His name was Mao Zedong.

May 4th Spirit is the origin story of the Party, and its grip over China. After the disorder of the warlord era in the 1920s and 30s, eight years of brutal war with Japan from 1937 and four more of civil war with Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists from 1945, the Communists finally won power, and on October 1st 1949 Mao Zedong stood over Tiananmen square to officiate the founding of the People’s Republic of China. “China has stood up,” he declared. Mao has directly cited the May 4th Movement, and the intellectual ferment he came of age in, as an inspiration for the Chinese revolution, calling its participants the “vanguard.” Ever since 1949, the anniversary of May 4th has been celebrated as Youth Day, qingnianjie, in China (not to be confused with Children’s Day, ertongjie, on June 1).

In the latter decade of his rule, when he felt the Chinese revolution needed to be reignited, Mao called on the same youth spirit to provide the fuel. At the launch of the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, school students in Beijing and later nationwide were given a free ticket to do what teenagers do best: rebel. Mao exhorted them to “destroy the four olds” – Customs, Culture, Habits, Ideas – and “smash the seven black elements” of reactionary social groups. The Red Guards tore down shrines, ransacked museums and homes, burnt books, and humiliated and beat intellectuals and the wealthy. They wore red armbands, and carried the Little Red Book of Mao Zedong’s quotations. “You young people,” read one such quote, from a 1957 speech Mao gave to Chinese students in Moscow, “are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning … The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.”

That future, thankfully, died with Mao in 1976. By 1978, Deng Xiaoping had bounced back to power and ushered in a more permissive new era, reopening the universities and allowing greater freedom of expression. A strip of brick wall, to the West of the leaders’ complex of Zhongnanhai in central Beijing, was dubbed Democracy Wall. “Big-character posters” (dazibao) plastered on it’s beige frontage shifted from sanctioned criticism of the Mao years to calls for more individual liberty and rights, in what came to be called the Beijing Spring. One poster placed by twenty-eight year old former Red Guard Wei Jingsheng demanded the “fifth modernisation” of democracy (on top of Deng’s economic freedoms), declaring “we do not want to serve as mere tools of dictators.” It earnt him a prison bunk for eighteen years; there was, it seemed, nothing new under the red sun.

Still, the times were changing all over again. The eighties in China was a decade of awakening to the world, likened by some of its participants to coming out of the dark only to be dazzled by the brightness. Along with exposure to fresh culture and ideas, there was a sense that a new politics could also emerge, and in both 1986 and 1987 student demonstrations channeled May 4th Spirit, calling for faster political reform. It was only a segment of the generation that was politically galvanised – the rest were happier watching foreign soap operas, or experimenting with long hair and jazz music – but student dissent had once again reconnected the thread of its anti-establishment legacy. The irony was apparent: this time, they were opposing the very Communist Party who had been born of May 4th 1919 student iconoclasm.

It was in this context that on the night of April 17th 1989, three thousand Peking University students marched again to Tiananmen square, this time to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a reformist official who had been purged after the 1986 protests. Before long the crowd demanded political liberalization, governmental transparency, a free press, greater personal freedoms – not a new government, necessarily, but a better one. Numbers swelled. Workers joined. Hunger strikes began. The Goddess of Democracy was unveiled, a ten-metre high papier-mâché figure in the style of the Statue of Liberty, holding her flame aloft to face off the portrait of Mao hanging over the Forbidden City. That May 4th, students commemorated seventy years after the original movement that had inspired them. Youth protest in China had come full circle. One month later, it bled out in the streets.


What remains today of the legacy of May 4th Spirit? The Party, certainly, still claims it for their own: a myth of socialist youth to legitimize their own existence. As such, they are keen to not let that youthful verve slip out of their grasp. Five years ago, Chinese President and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping visited the campus of Peking University on the 95th anniversary of May 4th. There, he said:

“The values of young people determine the values that underpin the future of society itself. Youth is a time when your values are undergoing change and maturation and so it is crucial to control this phase in a person’s development.”

When he returned in 2018, he added: “In their struggle, China’s youth should commit all of their youthful enthusiasm to pursue the ideals of youth, while contributing that youthful, struggling self to construct the bridge leading to the China Dream and the Revival of the Chinese Nation, adding their own efforts as bricks and mortar to the enterprise of the Fatherland.”

In 2019, at a political committee meeting, state media Xinhua reports that Xi Jinping further “stressed efforts to strengthen studies of the May Fourth Movement and its spirit, in order to motivate young people to make unremitting contributions to national rejuvenation.” Describing the original movement in 1919 as “a great patriotic and revolutionary campaign resolutely fighting against imperialism and feudalism,” the report says Xi instructed that “research on the Chinese youth movement since the May Fourth Movement should be enhanced, calling on young people to uphold the leadership of the Party.” The message is clear: May 4th is ours, not yours.

What of the youth themselves, though? Ten years ago, I was a student at Peking University, learning Mandarin after receiving my bachelor’s in England. On the 90th anniversary of the May 4th uprising, I spent my lunchtime sitting on the verge of “the triangle,” a patch of grass and concrete where the first PKU students had gathered in April 1989 before marching on the square. (The campus had changed location to Beijing’s current university district, in the far northwest, in 1952.) I arrived just in time to see two men on a ladder unfurl a banner: ‘Peking University commemorates the May Fourth movement’s 90th anniversary.’ Besides them and a couple of campus security guards dispatched to patrol the triangle, noone seemed to care.

I asked one student, who didn’t want to be named when I said this piece would include mention of June 4th, whether the spirit of May 4th was alive. She said:

“Now, because of economic development, control of speech and the failure in 1989, college students pay less attention to politics, are more individualistic, and pay more attention to their career. I think May Fourth should be celebrated more publicly, but it is treated with indifference.”

Her boyfriend, holding her hand, agreed but cautiously added: “Today society’s advantage is in harmony with individual advantage. If [students] fight for themselves maybe they will also benefit society.”

Today, on the 101st anniversary of the May 4th protests, the erosion of the movement’s legacy among young Chinese is even more advanced. Peking University, like other campuses across China, has been targeted for Party education drives that emphasise the Twelve Core Socialist Values (including democracy and freedom) but stifle free speech. The truth of what occurred in the early hours of June 4th 1989 is still suppressed, and while all students I talked to had heard of the incident, common misbeliefs – such that the protests that year were foreign-instigated – were repeated. Such a mass gathering today is not only unthinkable, but impossible given the state’s security apparatus. For dissenting students in the Xi era, there is more to lose from shouting, and more to gain from silence. May 4th Spirit, it seems, is extinguished.

Yet look closer, and embers remain alight among the ashes of youth protest in China. In particular, there are three fires that still simmer.

The first is nationalism. Just as the movements of 1919 were, at their core, nationalist, so too are young China in 2019 just as energized by patriotic fervor. Sometimes that is sublimated into support of the state – as seen in the popularily of jingoistic films such as Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea – but as often as not these torrents have an undercurrent of defiance, with implicit criticism of authority hidden inside the patriotism, just as it was explicit for their predecessors a century ago. Further taking up the mantle of the original Tsinghua students who burned Japanese goods, anti-Japanese street riots in 2005 and 2012 – including boycotts of Japanese chain-stores and the trashing of Japanese-model cars – is a recurrent outlet for protest, taking one of the few causes where gatherings are tolerated and using it to express more general anger.

The second is on the fringes. While the heartland of China’s youth, on the campus of Peking University and elsewhere, is under lock and key by the goverment, at the edges of greater China the torch is still upheld. The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, in the fall of 2014, and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan the summer before, showed a wellspring of dissenting views from the generation of students there who explicitly call on the traditions of May 4th and June 4th. One Hong Konger, founder of the Hong Kong New Historian society who goes by the pseudonym Wu Ming, told me “May 4th is a two-edged sword, and the CCP tries to hide the side that can cut it. We are trying to bring out that side.” When I asked about long-term hopes, he was even more explicit: “to use the lessons of May 4th to take down the CCP.”

The third, curiously, is Marxism. The latest drama to hit the historically crucial campus of Peking University, late last year, was a series of arrests and harassments targeting members of the student Marxist society. Their offence: joining labour protests in the southern city of Shenzhen, where factory workers at manufacturer called Jasic Technology has tried to form a union (which is illegal in China). Thirteen of the students were subsequently detained, their cause becoming a national crisis. And so, in the most ironic twist of all, the legacy-holders of a youth movement in 1919 that kickstarted the Chinese Communist Party, after being killed on the orders of that Party when a next generation protested against it in 1989, are now student Marxists again, arrested for calling out the nominally communist Party for their unequal social policies.

Each of these three simmering fires has the potential to flare. It is seductive, but false, to mistake the lack of platforms for dissent in China for the lack of dissent itself. And the sword of past protests is double-edged indeed for the ruling Party that holds it up. Even as Xi Jinping’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (or “make China great again,” if I ever heard a slogan) uses the semiotics of youth to recast China in a new image – just as Chen Duxiu did over a century ago – the reality of attitudes in young China still carries within it the seed of May 4th’s true legacy.


Original pioneer of the May 4th Spirit, Chen didn’t live long enough to see his own dream of national rejuvenation come true. He died in 1942, after splitting paths with the Communist Party in 1929, over internal factionalism. Yet were he alive in 1949, or 1978, let alone in 1989, I still don’t believe Chen would have recognised a fruition of the youthful revolutionary spirit that he lionized. Despite its stirring tone, his essay ‘Advice to Youth’ was at heart deeply pessimistic. (Indeed, another translation of its title, Qinggao Qingnian, might more aptly be ‘A Warning to Youth.’)

Even if this new vanguard of youth might seem like “fresh cells” in China’s metabolism, Chen writes near the end of the essay, if you “knock on their heads to see what they think and believe in, there’s not one who isn’t of the same ilk as those rotten, corrupted cells”. He even seem to give up on the value of his own call to arms: “To find a few fresh, vigourous cells,” he continues, “to ease the blocked airway of my despair, is so distant as to be unnattainable.”

What would Chen have thought of today’s generations of young Chinese, inheritors of the legacy of May 4th and June 4th? Would he have castigated them for their apparent apathy, a salariat chasing the material comforts that have blinded them to their history? Probably. Would he have asked them to sharpen the blade, and risk personal freedoms for little prospect of meaningful change? Possibly. Would he have connected the thread from his youthful iconoclasm to their muted unease? Not likely.

Chen Duxiu asks his reader: “The society of my country, will it prosper? Or is it doomed?” His opinion veers towards the latter, but he is not without hope. To “cure this disease,” he reflects, society only needs “one or two youths sensitive enough to realise their potential, and brave enough to struggle”. The disease may be different today – indeed, one wrought by the very Party that Chen co-founded in the hope of a cure – but the prescription could be just the same: new youth. ∎

This essay first appeared in Dissent in May 2019.
Header: Student protesters gathered on Tiananmen square in 1919. (Wikicommons)