Why May 4th is significant (and it’s not because of Star Wars day)

World Today

Poster of the May Fourth Movement by Liang Yulong (梁玉龙) in July 1976. (IISH / Stefan R. Landsberger Collections)

May 4th may be “Star Wars Day” the unofficial holiday created by fans — as in: “May the fourth be with you” — but the date actually marks a far more significant event in Chinese history.

Stone relief depicting the May 4, 1919 movement at the Monument to the People's Heroes in Beijing.

Stone relief depicting the May 4, 1919 movement at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Beijing.

On this day in 1919, students gathered in Beijing to protest the terms of the peace treaty that was then being negotiated in Versailles, France, that would officially end World War I.

During negotiations, China argued that Japan should not be granted authority over China’s Shangdong peninsula (a German concession) and some islands in the Pacific that Japan had taken by force.

China had entered World War I on the side of the Allies in 1917, sending more than 140,000 workers to France, with the condition that all German spheres of influence would be returned to China, writes Cultural-China.org, a website by the Shanghai News and Press Bureau.

More about the May 4 Movement:

Instead, the Council of Four (leaders of the United States, Britain, Italy and France) decided to award Shangdong to Japan, which led the Chinese delegation to refuse to sign the treaty — the only nation at Versailles to do so.

On May 4th, 1919, more than 3,000 students gathered in front of Tiananmen and voiced their anger at the Allied betrayal of China and the Chinese government’s inability to secure Chinese interests at the negotiations,” according to Cultural-China.com.

“During these demonstrations, students also insisted on the resignation of three Chinese officials involved in these proceedings. After burning the residence of one of the three despised officials, student protesters were arrested and severely assaulted,” Cultural-China.com writes.

Their protests led to a even more support among students across the country, particularly in Shanghai, where workers and businessmen also joined their cause and went on strike. Eventually the government released the students and dismissed Chinese officials Cao Rulin, Zhang Zongxiang and Lu Zongyu.

Protestors during May 4, 1919 movement.

Protestors during May 4, 1919 movement.

Why May 4th is so important:

Prior to May 4, 1919, a younger generation of Chinese intellectuals had already begun to express frustration with the government of the newly-formed Chinese Republic after the fall of the Chinese monarchy.

The New Culture Movement in the 1910s and 1920s sought to move Chinese culture away from it’s traditional Confucian and feudal roots, and towards international standards that favored science, individual freedoms, and women’s liberation.

The May 4th protests, eventually morphed into the May 4th Movement which became increasingly nationalist, activist, and political. Leaders such as Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, and Lu Xun rose to prominence.

“A constitutional republic which does not derive from the conscious realization and voluntary action of the majority of the people is a bogus republic and bogus constitutionalism.”Chen Duxiu, “Our Final Awakening”, 1916.

Chen and Li would become founders of the Communist Party of China in 1921. The May 4th Movement also galvanized future Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, who rallied against Hunan province’s warlord Chang Ching-yao, Cultural-China.com wrote.

“The May Fourth Movement served as an intellectual turning point in China; it was a seminal event that radicalized Chinese intellectual thought,” writes Cultural-China.com.

“Western-style liberal democracy had previously had a degree of traction amongst Chinese intellectuals, but after the Versailles Treaty (which was viewed as a betrayal of China’s interests), lost much of its attractiveness.”

In 1949, China officially marked May 4th as Youth Day to remember the protests that gave birth to modern Chinese thought.