May Fourth Movement: Top Five Readings

By Rana Mitter

The May Fourth Movement – so famous in China it doesn’t need a year, although 1919 – the year it happened – has become legendary too. On that date, some three thousand students marched through Beijing demonstrating against Japanese imperialism and started a political movement that would become identified with Chinese demands for “science” and “democracy” through the next century. From the Cultural Revolution to Tian’anmen Square, May Fourth echoes through China’s modern history. The Chinese Communist Party still claims the movement as its point of origin. On May 4, 2009, the movement will be ninety years old. In some ways, its significance to China is like that of the Sixties in the West – a celebration of youth and possibility combined with often extremist and hardcore politics.

But what was this event, why did it matter, and how can you find out more about it?

Here are five ways into this fascinating topic – famous in China, little-known in the West.

1. Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Viking Penguin 1981): still the classic account of the May Fourth generation and their revolution. Sweeping account that goes from the late Qing all the way to the end of the Cultural Revolution, with May Fourth intellectuals at its heart.
2. Lu Xun, Diary of a Madman. Iconic short story by China’s major modern writer, written on the eve of the seminal events of May Fourth, 1919. Searing indictment of traditional Confucian society. Translations into English by Gladys Yang and William Lyell.

3. Vera Schwarcz, The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (1986). This is a fine academic account of the movement and its consequences – not for the beginner, but very subtle.

4. Chen Duxiu, “Call to Youth.” Chen’s call to China’s youth to “save the nation” in 1919 symbolizes the May Fourth Movement’s attempt to overcome Confucian attempts to venerate age and instead celebrate youth.

5. “Acting Out Democracy: Political Theater in Modern China,” Joseph W. Esherick and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, in Journal of Asian Studies (November 1990) – classic article on how the 1989 student protesters in China “acted out” their political protests with references to the past.

Rana Mitter is Professor of History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University and the author of works such as A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World and Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.

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