On September 15, 1915, the intellectual Chen Duxiu wrote a paean to the young people of China: “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.”
For Chen, young Chinese were “fresh, vigorous cells inside the human body,” primed to drive out the “rotten, corrupted cells” of the old guard. He wanted the youth to rebel against a sclerotic culture—the Confucian customs, feudal order, and corrupt politics—which he saw as holding China back from modernity ever since the Qing dynasty had been overthrown in the Xinhai revolution of 1911.
At the time, the fledgling Republic of China was in disarray, riddled with warlords and run by a general, Yuan Shikai, who had just named himself emperor. For China to progress, thought Chen, she must cast off the relics of past structures, and build something entirely new. If the youth’s “blade is sharp enough to cut iron and hemp, and they don’t follow other’s lead or hesitate in thought,” he wrote, then “maybe society will arrive at a peaceful day.”
The essay was the opening salvo of New Youth magazine (originally just Youth for its first year), which served as a foundational stone of the progressive New Culture Movement. Both nationalists and idealists, the movement’s intellectuals embraced the twin idols of “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy”, as opposed to “Mr. Confucius.” They said there was much to be learned from the West, and were savage in their critique of old values. One New Youth contributor, Lu Xun, likened traditional Chinese culture to cannibalism in a short story.
This was the spirit energizing the students who protested on May 4, 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 the First World War, which conceded colonial Chinese territories to Japan. “Don’t sign the Versailles Treaty!” they shouted, demanding a less corrupt government and a boycott of Japanese goods, which they burned in the streets. They also burned to ashes the house of a Chinese official accused of collaborating with the Japanese, beating him so badly that his skin, as one doctor noted, “looked like fish-scales.”
At the time of the protests, Chen Duxiu was dean of the School of Arts and Letters at Peking University, then a squat red-brick building at the northeast corner of the Forbidden City. Like other intellectuals in the New Culture Movement, he supported the protests, but fell short of condoning their violence. Together with the college librarian, Li Dazhao, he looked to Marxism for ideas on how to involve the laboring classes in China’s revolution. In July 1921, Chen and Li co-founded the Chinese Communist Party, then a much-needed breath of fresh air in China’s stagnant politics. One early Party member was Li’s assistant in the library: a twenty-five-year-old student with a mole on his lower lip and a penchant for poetry, who wrote for New Youth magazine on the importance of physical fitness and against women’s oppression under Confucianism. His name was Mao Zedong.
If the New Culture Movement was the bookish older brother of the May Fourth Movement, then the Chinese Communist Party was their successor. “May Fourth Spirit” is the origin story of the Party, and when the Communists came to power in 1949, the May Fourth anniversary was instituted as a national holiday, Youth Day, that is still celebrated today. Mao praised the May Fourth students as the “vanguard” of the Communist revolution, and he again celebrated their spirit at the 1959 launch of the Great Leap Forward policies that caused devastating famine.
In 1966, when Mao felt the Chinese revolution needed to be reignited, he called on the same youth spirit to provide the fuel. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, school students in Beijing and later nationwide were encouraged to do what teenagers do best: rebel. Mao exhorted them to “destroy the four olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas. The Red Guards tore down shrines, ransacked museums and homes, burned books, and even effaced some slogans of the New Culture era, such as its openness to Western ideology. They wore red armbands, and carried the Little Red Book of Mao Zedong’s quotations. “You young people,” read one quote, “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.”
After Mao’s death in 1976, China’s new leader Deng Xiaoping ushered in a more permissive era, marked by economic liberalization. By 1979 he had reopened the universities and sanctioned limited criticism of the Mao years. A strip of brick wall, to the West of the leaders’ complex of Zhongnanhai in central Beijing, was dubbed Democracy Wall. Posters plastered on its beige frontage called for more individual liberty and rights, and some referenced notions of political freedoms that harked back to May 4. One poster penned by former Red Guard Wei Jingsheng demanded the “fifth modernization” of democracy (on top of Deng’s economic modernizations), declaring “we do not want to serve as mere tools of dictators.” That year Wei was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for dissident activity. There was, it seemed, nothing new under the red sun.
Still, the times would change all over again. The 1980s in China was a decade of opening up to the world, likened by some of its participants to coming out of the dark only to be dazzled by the brightness. Only a segment of the generation that came of age in these years was politically galvanized. Most were happier watching foreign movies, or experimenting with long hair and jazz music. “To an average student,” one PKU graduate of those times told me, “what interested us was not politics but life itself.” But along with exposure to fresh culture and ideas, there was a sense that a new politics could also emerge. In 1986 student demonstrators again channeled May Fourth Spirit and called for faster political reform.
It was in this context that on the night of April 17, 1989, history repeated itself: around three thousand Peking University students marched once more 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, government 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. Protesters took to the streets in scores of other cities across China, and the government came to view the unrest as an existential crisis.
That May 4, students commemorated seventy years after the original movement that had inspired them, even issuing a “New May Fourth Manifesto” in which they claimed “we are worthy of the pioneers of seventy years ago.” Yet this time, the students were opposing the very Communist Party who had been born of their predecessors. Youth protest in China had come full circle, reconnecting the thread of its anti-establishment legacy. One month later, on June 4, it bled out in the streets, with hundreds, or even thousands, of students and other protestors killed when the army was sent in.
What remains today of the legacy of May Fourth 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. In the run-up to the centenary this year, the state news agency Xinhua reported that Chinese President and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping “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 Fourth 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 ninetieth anniversary of the May 4 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, no one seemed to care, and nor did they on subsequent anniversaries.
I asked one PKU student, who didn’t want to be named when I said this piece would include mention of June 4, whether the spirit of May Fourth 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 hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth protests, the erosion of the movement’s legacy among politically apathetic young Chinese is even more advanced. Peking University, like other campuses across China, has been targeted for Party education drives that emphasize the Twelve Core Socialist Values (including democracy and freedom) but stifle free speech. The truth of what occurred in the early hours of June 4, 1989 is still suppressed, and while all students I talked to had heard of the massacre, common misbeliefs—for example, that the protests were foreign-instigated—were repeated. Such a mass gathering today is not only unthinkable, but impossible given the state’s security apparatus. For students in the Xi era, there is more to lose from shouting, and more to gain from silence. May Fourth 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 anti-imperialist and nationalist, today Chinese youth are likewise energized by patriotic fervor. Sometimes this is sublimated into support of the state—as seen in the popularity of jingoistic films such as Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea—but as often as not these torrents have an undercurrent of defiance. Further taking up the mantle of the original Tsinghua students who burned Japanese goods, anti-Japanese street riots—which included boycotts of Japanese chain-stores such as Uniqlo and the trashing of Japanese-model cars—have been a recurrent outlet for protest. As one of the few causes where mass gatherings are tolerated, nationalist protests are used as a proxy to express more general anger at domestic issues such as corruption and rising inequality.
The second is on the fringes. While the majority of China’s youth, on the campus of Peking University and elsewhere, is under lock and key by the government, at the edges of greater China there is more freedom to protest. The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, in the fall of 2014, and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan the spring before, showed a wellspring of dissenting views, even if it hasn’t turned out well for all of them, with nine of the Hong Kong protest leaders recently sentenced to jail time. One Umbrella Movement protestor, and founder of the Hong Kong New Historian society who goes by the pseudonym Wu Ming, told me last month: “May Fourth 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 Fourth to take down the CCP.”
The third, curiously, is Marxism. Late last year, members of the student Marxist society at Peking University were targeted with a series of arrests and harassments. Their offence: joining labor protests in the southern city of Shenzhen, where workers at a Jasic Technology manufacturing factory has tried to form an independent union (which is illegal in China). Thirteen of the students were subsequently detained, and a further six vanished earlier this week, in the run up to May Day. Suppressed for calling out China’s nominally communist rulers on their unequal social policies, these are the true successors of May Fourth Spirit today. In the most ironic twist of all, the legacy-holders of a century-old youth movement that kickstarted the Chinese Communist Party, after the previous generation of protesters in 1989 were killed on the orders of that Party, are student Marxists again.
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 aloft as a tool of historical legitimization for their rule. Even as Xi Jinping’s favored slogan, the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” 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 Fourth’s true legacy.
Original pioneer of the May Fourth Spirit, Chen didn’t live long enough to see his own dream of national rejuvenation come true. He died in 1942, and in 1929 had resigned membership of the Communist Party he had founded, over its Stalinist direction. Yet even as early as 1915, he seemed not to quite believe that the youthful revolutionary spirit he lionized would ever come to fruition. Despite its stirring tone, Chen’s essay “Call to Youth” was at heart deeply pessimistic. (Indeed, another translation of its title, Jinggao Qingnian, could 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 seems 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 young Chinese? Would he have castigated them for their apparent apathy, a salariat chasing the material comforts that have blinded them to their dissenting history? Probably. Would he have asked them to sharpen their blades, and risk personal freedoms for scant prospect of meaningful change? Possibly. Would he have connected the thread from his own 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 realize 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.
Alec Ash is a writer and editor based in China. The author of Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China (Picador, 2016), Ash is currently Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel.