This month marks the anniversary of two surges of youth activism in China. One, the May 4 Movement, began with student protests 97 years ago. The other is the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, which is sometimes said to have begun with the first Red Guards putting up wall posters in late May of 1966. May 4 and Red Guard activists were once seen as part of related movements, but now they tend to be regarded as radically dissimilar.
The former event began with a rowdy May 4, 1919, demonstration in Beijing, during which, among other things, students trashed the houses of officials they despised and one student was injured in a scuffle with police, later dying from his wounds and becoming the struggle’s main martyr. The students who took to the streets were part of a generation fascinated with new ideas and ideologies coming into the country from other parts of the world, from Bolshevism to the democratic liberalism of John Dewey, who happened to arrive in Shanghai to give lectures a few days before the first protests broke out in Beijing. Dewey was brought to Shanghai by progressive intellectuals who had studied with him at Columbia. The May 4 students were also iconoclastic; like the progressive professors and literary figures they admired, they viewed Confucian beliefs and traditions as things that were holding their country and its people back. A third important thing about them was their fierce patriotism.
The May 4 demonstrators took to the streets to denounce warlord rulers whom they viewed as dictatorial, out of step with modern intellectual currents, and far too ready to accede to a plan that the World War I victors were hatching in Paris. This plan, enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles, ceded former German possessions in Shandong Province to Japan rather than returning them to China. Among the student participants in this protest, the professors who encouraged them, and the educated youths who joined follow-up demonstrations in other cities—which drew many workers and members of other groups into the streets as well—were several people who would go on to help found the Chinese Communist Party two years later.
This fact—as well as the success the movement had in achieving some of its goals, such as forcing the ouster of several officials they despised and getting Chinese diplomats to refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles—helps explain why the CCP would decide in 1939 that the perfect date on which to celebrate “Youth Day” was May 4. It also explains why one of the friezes on a monument in the center of Tiananmen Square devoted to heroes of the Revolution shows a young participant in the May 4 Movement giving a speech, while his male and female classmates distribute pamphlets to a crowd made up of people from different walks of life. And it explains why Communist Party leaders, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, have all periodically praised the May 4 activists.