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why it might matter -

spring edition 2019 -


Spring Edition

Table of Contents 03 - Storm on the Horizon

06 - A Nation Divided 11 - The Birth of a National Consciousness 16 - Another Miscalculation 19 - A Complicated Legacy 24 - Afterword

05 - Unrest at the Heavenly Gates 08 - Culture to the People

12 - The United Front 18 - Aftermath 22 - Bibliography 26 - Promotion of Library Services



Storm on the Horizon On the eve of May 4th, 1919, millions of Chinese people slumbered, unaware that the dawn of the day would change their country forever. Just several months ago, what people at the time had termed the Great War, the most lethal war to date, had been brought to an end. It had indeed been a Great War, one that had unleashed unparalleled havoc which would leave Europe torn for years, but for all its deadly devastation, it had hardly concerned the average Chinese person. And yet, the decisions made by men congregating in Paris to enforce their vision of peace, inflicted a long, irreversible and comprehensive series of changes that would

utterly transform Chinese society. To those who study Western history, the Treaty of Versailles and everything it entails is infamous, maligned for inflicting national humiliation upon the Germans. To this day, the men of the Paris Peace Conference are criticised for what we per ceive as their incompetence in brokering peace. Despite American President Woodrow Wilson’s promise of self-determination for all, in practice, self-determination did not apply when it came to the Central Powers. The unilateral division of the Central Powers’ territories, based on arbitrary ethno-nationalist boundaries,

The Paris Peace Conference 3

Spring Edition sowed resentment that would fester and curdle into nationalist, racist, genocidal ideology that erupted the Second World War.

As the centennial anniversary of May Fourth approaches, the History Society would like to use this momentous occasion to draw attention to this important, controversial moment of Chinese history. The complexity of May Fourth has garnered much controversy over the years, attracting the interest of scholars. Moreover, the impact of May Fourth resonates today. A protest that started in Beijing one hundred years ago grew into an icon, a symbol, a mass of ideas that permeated all sectors of Chinese society and induced an irreversible transformation.

However, the influence of the Treaty of Versailles extended far beyond Europe. According to the Treaty, it seemed that the principle of self-determination did not apply to the Chinese either. In the division of oversea German possessions, the port of Qingdao in Shandong was given to Japan, violating Chinese sovereignty.



Unrest at the Heavenly Gates

The eruption of student-led protests in Tiananmen Square on that fateful day was a massive shock to the Chinese authorities, who had effectively distanced themselves from the demands and grievances of the masses. For years, a new generation of intellectuals watched with increasing fury, as petty politicians vied for power internally instead of tending to China’s problems. A particularly persistent source of ire was Japanese ambition, which the government proved unable to curb.

Perhaps, if at the time of the signing of the Treaty, China was still ruled by Qing Dynasty, there would be minor outbreaks of rebellion here and there; but those would eventually be quashed, and the Chinese would resume their way of life, hierarchical, obedient, deferent to venerated ancient customs. But this was post-Qing China. The sleeping lion was ambling its way into modernity, roused by whisperings of republic, democracy, the rights of man, the emancipation of women, socialism, communism, universal education. And so, this swirling vortex of ideas, some of them half-formed, others 5

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A Nation Divided

contradictory of one another, erupted in the form of the May Fourth Movement. May Fourth, a political movement that started off as anti-imperialist protests, would evolve into an all-encompassing thought wave that consumed Chinese society and continues to loom over China today.

The years preceding the May Fourth protests were terra incognita in Chinese history. The overthrowing of the Qing Dynasty had closed the curtains on the millennia-old imperial age, leaving uncertainty and a painfully palpable power vacuum in its wake. Now that the central administrative system had been uprooted, opportunistic warlords were given free rein to claim provinces as their own, and the newly established Republican government was unable to consolidate power.

Contemporary Chinese scholarship hails the Chinese Communist Party as the intellectual successor of the May Fourth ideal, while some in the West attempt to understand May Fourth by drawing comparisons between May Fourth and famous intellectual revolutions of the West, such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But in attempting to define or categorise May Fourth, one risks neglecting the complex, unique context of May Fourth, as well as the New Culture Movement it arose from.

The Qing government’s inability in coping with foreign ambition was the provocateur of revolutionary ire and republican insurgency. Revolutionaries had hoped that by overthrowing the corrupt dynastic system, China would be able to enter the “modern� age, as a confident and autonomous power, and achieve equal footing with the Western nations. However, this proved to be little more than a pipedream. 6


Despite the people’s assertion of power, both internal strife and foreign interference persisted. The small circle of politicians and military leaders who held the power were preoccupied with petty political machinations, uncaring of and oblivious to the simmering resentment of the wider populace. Meanwhile, imperial powers continued to pursue expansion in China. One particularly consistent source of ire was Japanese ambition.

In 1915, the Japanese presented the Chinese government with the Twenty-One Demands, a series of demands that would further compromise Chinese sovereignty to Japanese influence. Though the most severe of the Demands were repelled, they had nevertheless provoked widespread scorn and fury among the populace, sparking nationalist anti-Japanese sentiment, as well as disappointment towards the incompetence of the Chinese government.


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Culture to the People ment, in particular, weariness of long-established Chinese cultural norms. Following the abolishment of traditional imperial exams in 1905, intellectuals were given the opportunity to start anew. Those who spearheaded educational reforms included Cai Yuanpei, the president of Peking University during the May Fourth Movement; Chen Duxiu, who went on to cofound the Chinese Communist Party; and the acclaimed scholar Hu Shih.

The threat of foreign expansion, combined with the incompetence of the Chinese government in asserting Chinese autonomy, motivated the politically aware to take it upon themselves to “save the country”. In the aftermath of the Twenty-One Demands, several societies were founded, such as the New People’s Study Society in Changsha and the Young China Society in Peking.

During his term as the president of Peking University, Cai Yuanpei supported the Diligent Work-Frugal Study Movement scheme, which helped Chinese students study and work in France and Belgium. Chen Duxiu established the magazine New Youth in September 15th, 1915, which promoted scientific knowledge, democracy and vernacular Chinese. The magazine was highly influential. Hu Shih was a leading advocate of the vernacular language movement, seeking to replace classical

Political awareness, however, was not a one-off phenomenon. Although the outbreak of the May Fourth protests was politically motivated, disappointment in the Chinese government was just one part of widespread discontent with the status quo. Much of the thought precipitating the outbreak of protests involved a strong sense of disillusion8

Newsletter Chinese (wenyan) with the spoken tongue (baihua).

formers and revolutionaries was unrivalled. Chinese intellectuals admired ideas such as the fundamental rights of man, and were inspired by the appeal to logic and rationality. Two concepts in particular were considered to be of utmost importance – Mr Democracy and Mr Science. An article published in the first issue of the New Youth magazine proclaimed that the French invented the three most significant modern doctrines: the theory of the rights of man, the theory of evolution, and modern socialism.

Many of the ideas brought forward by the New Culture Movement were derived from the reforms and political movements of foreign countries, particularly Japan and France. Following the Meiji Reforms that had catapulted Japan into the ranks of the world powers, Japan became admired as an example of successful modernisation and Westernisation, a role model to emulate. Thousands of Chinese students left home to study in Japan, in the hopes of gleaning Japanese knowledge to take home. One of such students was Lu Xun, a pioneer of modern Chinese literature, who had studied medicine at the Sendai Medical Academy. He returned to China with rejuvenated vigour, determined to take up literature in the hopes of “saving the soul of the Chinese people�. As for the influence of the Western powers, the role of the French Revolution in inspiring young Chinese re9

Spring Edition Ironically, in practice, many of the New Cultural ideals were reminiscent of French Romanticism, rather than the French Enlightenment. Romanticism was a movement that adamantly rejected the “pure logic, rationalism and perfectibility� that the Enlightenment enshrined. Moreover, newer ideas, such as socialism and anarchism, were introduced into the political consciousness of China.

al politics of the West, as well as exchange of knowledge and ideas between workers and students, gave rise to a newly politically conscious Chinese working class. The expansion of the public sphere and the exposition of new ideology would have long-lasting implications on the political situation of China.

Intellectuals were not the only ones who drew inspiration from these appealing foreign ideas. In 1916, the French and British governments recruited Chinese labourers to work for the Allied war effort. By the end of the war, 140,000 Chinese workers were employed by the French, British and American governments. During their time abroad, many of these workers were exposed to Western ideas, such as socialism and anarchism. Furthermore, the workers often shared barracks with Chinese students and teachers, who served as interpreters. The exposure of workers to the liber10


The Birth of a National Consciousness On May 4th, 1919, over three thousand students from the thirteen colleges and universities in Peking rallied in Tiananmen Square. It was an immediate reaction to Japanese imperialism, and an expression of disappointment and rage at the Western powers whose values had been so revered. Student representatives left letters at the foreign embassies, denounced the Chinese government, and called for the boycott of Japanese products. During the demonstration, the students chanted slogans, such as “Down with the traitors” and “Save the country”. The people of Peking were deeply moved by the demonstrations, with civilians and primary school students joining the protesters. Some of the protesters turned violent, setting fire to the residence of an official alleged to be pro-Japanese.

When the terms of the Treaty of Versailles reached China, they sparked widespread outrage. Various student societies gathered on May 3rd to discuss the action they would take to protest the terms. After their meeting, they outlined four actions they would take: 1) To unite with people from all sectors of society to protest. 2) To telegram the Chinese delegates in Paris and urge them not to sign the Treaty. 3) To call for people from various provinces to protest on May 7th. 4) To unite to protest in Tiananmen Square on May 4th. 11

Spring Edition Facing pressure from the Japanese government, the Chinese authorities attempted to quell the students. Over a thousand protesters were arrested, but the students remained undeterred. The more conservative factions of government demanded the closing of Peking University, the dismissal of the university’s chancellor, and the arrest of students. The Ministry of Justice was ordered to investigate the incident, while the Ministry of Education was ordered to restrict student activity.

The United Front Such a hard-line approach proved to be a miscalculation on the government’s part. The authorities had underestimated the number of people who supported the students. The anti-Japanese stance of the protesters was not a new phenomenon; older intellectuals had long endorsed this stance, and the harsh treatment the students underwent at the hands of the authorities served to stir up sympathy among their predecessors. Similarly, the students and university staff themselves were consumed with indignation, resolving to take it upon themselves to defend their peers. The proclamation of martial law escalated the situation. Far from serving as a deterrent, the government’s attempts at containing the situation catalysed the spreading of protests.


Newsletter Following the initial outbreak of protests in Peking, students from all over the country rallied in support of the Movement. The Student Union of Peking was established to unite students from various higher educational institutes in Peking. This was a significant moment in Chinese history. For the first time, students from different institutes were officially united.

Female students were finally represented alongside their male counterparts, which elucidated the establishment of coeducation, as well as the women’s suffrage movement. The Student Union of Peking would inspire the creation of Student Unions all across China, as well as the establishment of the Student Union of the Republic of China one month later.

It was also a significant step forward for gender equality, for the emancipation of women in a country that had long treated them as second-class.

What proved to be even more disastrous for the government was their inability to prevent the spread of news. Although cable communications were


Spring Edition immediately censored, the students were one step ahead, sending telegrams through a foreign agency to Tianjin to spread the news. The press expressed their utmost sympathies towards the students’ cause.

submitting letters of appeal to foreign legations in Japan, such as the American and Swiss legations. Southeast Asia was another region teeming with Chinese diaspora. In mid-May, the Chinese communities acted to support the Movement by boycotting Japanese goods. Local Chinese media, such as the Huaxian Xinbao in Thailand, published articles to promote the embargo of Japanese goods. Chinese merchants in the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, had also published advertisements promoting the boycott of Japanese goods. The Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce of British Malaya publicly boycotted Japanese goods and refused to cooperate with the Japanese. In August, trade between Chinese and Japanese merchants ceased completely. In Singapore, there was an outbreak of anti-Japanese violence on June 19th.

Significantly, the most influential newspapers all expressed their support for the students, which reflected public opinion at large. Other political parties took the opportunity to denounce the Peking government, notably Sun Yatsen and his colleagues in Canton. Even some of the warlords and monarchists voiced their support for the students, such as the Qing reformer Kang Youwei, and the warlord Wu Peifu, who controlled a significant portion of northern China. Overseas Chinese also took action to support the Movement. Some students studying aboard suspended their studies to return to China and participate in the protests. Around 1000 Chinese students and citizens living in Japan demonstrated in support of the May Fourth Movement, 14

Newsletter Back in China, the protests spread throughout May and June, with students going on strike and people boycotting Japanese goods. In the face of such fierce opposition, the government tried to take a more moderate stance.

Officials were sent to negotiate with students, and also ask the teachers to persuade students to return to class. Initially, these moderating measures managed to dispel some of the tension, with the students slightly relaxing their anti-Japanese stance to avoid further provoking the Japanese authorities.


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Another Miscalculation The government saw this slight relaxation as an opportunity to do away with the unrest once and for all. On June 1st, the President accused the students of jeopardising public order and security, imploring them to return to their studies. Student unions would be suppressed, and martial law was proclaimed. Over the next few days, many students were arrested by the authorities. By June 4th, there were 1150 students imprisoned by the authorities. This large number meant that the government had to create makeshift prisons with other buildings, such as schools. In defiance, over 5000 students returned to the streets on June 5th to give speeches. Some of the students strapped bedding to their backs as a show of determination. Many of the police were sympathetic towards the students, turning a blind eye to the students’ activities whenever their superiors were not looking.

In reaction to these mass arrests, female students rose to replace their male contemporaries. Over a hundred female students made speeches on June 4th; on June 5th, more than thousand female students marched to the President’s palace, protesting the criminalisation of students and the use of school buildings as prisons, demanding the release of the arrested students, and most significantly, for it was without precedent, the right to freedom of speech. The mass arrests provoked anger across the nation. Merchants and workers from other cities, most notably the major port of Shanghai, went on strike in solidarity. Due to the lack of official labour unions at the time, the dates of the workers’ strikes varied from factory to factory, over the period of June 5th to June 11th. An estimated number of 60,000 workers went on strike in forty-three factories, companies and service trades. 16


What was significant about the workers’ strikes was not the economic losses, but the political implications. This was the first time that workers had mobilised not to demand an increase in wages, but because of politics and patriotism.

People from all sectors of society, with different backgrounds and political beliefs, were united by the May Fourth spirit. For the first time in Chinese history, the majority of the general public was compelled to speak out against the government’s dealings; and those who had inspired such overwhelming reactions were university students. The May Fourth Movement cemented the role of university students as the harbingers of political change in China.


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Aftermath In the immediate aftermath, a number of pro-Japanese politicians resigned, the Chinese delegates refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and Japanese businesses suffered due to boycotts. An atmosphere of thought reform emerged, with scepticism becoming widespread, and traditional thought and institutions relentlessly criticised. To many members of the emerging generation, “new” was equivalent to good, while “old” and “traditional” were indicative of corruption, relics of a bygone age of decay. This disdain of tradition led to the replacement of classical Chinese with vernacular Mandarin, adapted to be written.

American interests in China, which would continue to be a source of contention for the Chinese, as the Chinese government once again proved incapable of defending Chinese interests from the interference of foreign powers. Moreover, the cultural and intellectual ideas put forward by the May Fourth Movement were not put into practice comprehensively. Despite the involvement of labourers and other classes of people in the protests, it had been the educated elite who had endorsed ideas such as Mr Democracy and Mr Science. Most of the Chinese population remained illiterate, and were more concerned with immediate problems such as land reform, rather than what they perceived as lofty ideals.

The root of the May Fourth Movement, the Shandong Question, was eventually solved by the Nine-Power Treaty at the Washington Naval Conference of 1922. Japanese leasehold was returned to China. The Nine-Power Treaty enforced the Open Door Policy that safeguarded

Perhaps the most significant consequence of May Fourth was the expansion of political consciousness at a national level. Just two years after the May Fourth Movement, 18


A Complicated Legacy the Chinese Communist Party was founded by student activists who had taken part in the May Fourth protests. The brand of pragmatic Communism spearheaded by Mao Zedong appealed to much of the populace, as it prioritised peasants, who consisted of the majority of the population. The Communist Party would go on to create much of modern Chinese history.

Today, May Fourth is hailed a patriotic movement that lifted China from the grime and degeneration of the previous age. Due to the fraught political sensitivity of May Fourth, much of scholarship pertaining the Movement has focused on the cultural changes it has induced, rather than exploring its political implications beyond “birthing the Communist movement�. Owing to the tint of hindsight, people less familiar with May Fourth may criticise it for uprooting traditions indiscriminately, and neglect to remember the May Fourth was the culmination of the festering frustration that a generation of people had long felt towards the incompetence of those supposed to lead them. The sentiments expressed by the protesters, sentiments that were echoed fiercely across the country, had been years in the making. But at its heart, the May Fourth spirit was a sincere expression of the Chinese people’s overwhelming 19

Spring Edition desire for their autonomy to be respected, for those who held the fate of their country in their hands to be held accountable by the people. It was an awakening of the public consciousness, the realisation that the people had a say in their future; because China was no longer an empire ruled by the whimsical Mandate of Heaven, but a Republic, where government officials answer to the people above all.

the people’s sufferance. When united behind an ideal worth upholding, students are capable of mobilising people from all sectors of society to push for change. In reflecting on the events that precipitated May Fourth, and how the spirit of “May Fourth” has slowly become co-opted, we hope to encourage a more balanced understanding of this pivotal event in Chinese history, one that continues to affect us today. To quote renowned contemporary scholar Yu Ying-Shih, May Fourth was “Neither renaissance nor enlightenment”, but rather, a watershed moment that shook China to its core, something that snowballed into an idea far beyond the control and imagination of the student representatives who held meetings to save their country from Japanese imperialism one hundred years ago.

May Fourth may have happened a century ago, but much of what was at its core is strongly pertinent to society today. The values that the students of Peking had fought for a hundred years ago - democracy, freedom of speech, and self-determination are values we hold dear in this time and age. Moreover, as demonstrated all those years ago, it is the responsibility of university students to safeguard their society; to use our youth, idealism, knowledge and energy to ensure that those in power hear the voices of the people they serve, lest they forget that they hold power based on 20

Newsletter A century ago, Chinese students stood up to defend the integrity of their nation. Today, with globalisation remaking the world and identity politics becoming more infliuential than ever, perhaps it is time for us to reflect on our identities, as students and citizens of Hong Kong, and what that implies for our future.


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Bibliography Books and Articles Chen, Joseph T. The May Fourth Movement in Shanghai: the Making of a Social Movement in Modern China. Rainbow-Bridge Book Co., 1971. Chesneaux, Jean, et al. China from the 1911 Revolution to Liberation. Harvester Press, 1977. Lin, Yusheng. The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness: Radical Antitraditionalism in the May Fourth Era. UMI Books on Demand, 2000. Schwartz, Benjamin, et al. Reflections on the May Fourth Movement: a Symposium. Harvard University Press, 1973. Schwarcz, Vera. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. University of California Press, 1986. Vohra, Ranbir. China’s Path to Modernization: a Historical Review from 1800 to the Present. Prentice Hall, 2000. Zhou, Cezong. The May Fourth Movement. Stanford University Press, 1967. 劉芳彬:《海外華僑華人的愛國活動與五四運動》,(山西 社會主義學院學報,2013 年) 余英時: 《五四新論 : 既非文藝復興, 亦非啟蒙運動》, (聯經,1995 年)


Newsletter 楊念群:《「五四」九十週年崇:一個「問題史」的回溯與反 思》,(世界圖書出版公司,2009 年) Pictures Skinner, Sarah & Parry, Ross, Yawning Lion, September 2015. Henriette, Catherine, AFP, Students from Beijing University during a demonstration at Tiananmen Square, May 1989.


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Afterword At the time which I’m penning this, the world is on the brink of something new - or so we hear from every generation.

1919 are long dead, yet their actions continue to influence and inspire us. Some may argue that us humans are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but what’s the point of living with that kind of self-defeating mindset that absolves you of any responsibility or motivation whatsoever? We came to university to expand our horizons, not to construct ivory towers and wallow in them.

Perhaps self-centeredness is something us humans all have in common. Most of us like to think, from time to time, that there is something special about us, or our generation; that the times we live in are simultaneously the best of times and worst of times (as Dickens put it so succcinctly all those years ago), times that will emblazon the pages of history, rather than end up as a footnote (not to demean the importance of footnotes, by the way; footnotes are essential to ensuring our academic integrity, and they provide us with a space, however small, to digress). Those of us who study history may think we know better than that.

On a lighter note, the publication of this Newsletter marks the midpoint of the current History Society Cabinet’s Session. After our inauguration, we immediately jumped headfirst into work - first the Bazaar, then the History Festival; both of which we concluded successfully. Our research process for the History Festival was an illuminating experience, as we learned more about our Hong Kong forebears and their lives.

But there have been moments when people come together to leave a lasting impact on history. The people who rallied at Tiananmen Square in 24

Newsletter The Field Trip to the Ohel Leah Synagogue and the Khalsa Diwan Gurudwara was in particular an amazing experience, as we were given the rare opportunity to learn of the vibrant histories, culture and lives of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. We were delighted to have Professor John Carroll as our Guest of Honour.

Our Cabinet pledges to continue to work hard to serve the History community at HKU throughout the rest of 2019. In the meantime, I hope that this spring’s Newsletter finds you well, and gives some food for thought for the time being.


Spring Edition



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HISO Newsletter Spring 2019  

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement in China. The May Fourth Movement arose from the culmination of a generation's f...

HISO Newsletter Spring 2019  

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement in China. The May Fourth Movement arose from the culmination of a generation's f...