A Bitter Revolution in China

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May 4th, 1919 will be a day that will be remembered in China just the way July 4th is remembered in the United States and May 5th is remembered in Mexico. On that day in China, university students in Beijing protested against the terms of the Versailles treaty that their leaders had agreed to at the end of World War I. What resulted from this unprecedented protest in China was a surge in nationalism and pride in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. What came out of this was a sense that the old, traditional Chinese culture was a failure and a new, modern one would have to be established to push China into the world stage. Thus from the May Fourth movement sparked a great deal of modernization and shunning of the old, Confucian belief system that the Chinese had held dear and true for thousands of years. From reading just this tid-bit of information, one would assume that the events following May Fourth led China into an era of prosperity and cultural enlightenment, but history tell us otherwise. As the book title suggests, this was truly a bitter revolution in that the people of China have suffered through wars, famine, and various government actions that have impeded the dreams and aspirations that those who were involved with the New Culture movement wished to see take effect in China. During these times of pain and suffering, those in power, most specifically the Nationalists and Communist parties, used the New Culture Movement as a means in which to manipulate and control the people, justify their actions, and, in a sense, bribe their way to power and influence.
The Cultural Revolution was in motion a few years before the May Fourth Movement, but it was the May Fourth Movement that gave the New Culture Movement a significant push into the front of the minds of many of the intellectuals and middle class in China. These people wanted change, change from the backwards culture that followed the teachings of a two thousand year old wise man. Many of these intellectuals felt that the traditional Chinese culture was keeping China from advancing and modernizing and the culture was also responsible for, in their minds, the foreign presence in China. Because of the foreigners, many Chinese had developed a strong sense of nationalism, which fueled their desire to modernize and enter the world stage and break free of the reigns of the Western world. However, the Chinese did like the wealth and prosperity that the Western nations had, the rights and freedoms that men and woman had, and the opportunities that people in a democratic nation possessed.
These newly sought after freedoms and goals were what the Nationalist and Communist parties in China used to recruit members and gain political power in China from the warlords who, during the early 1920’s, controlled parts of China. During this time, the rise of industry brought by the Western capitalist modernity created over 500,000 jobs in Shanghai alone, making it the most industrialized city in China. These factory workers would become prime targets for recruitment by the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1920’s. These factory workers can be easily compared to the workers of factories during the Industrial Revolution in Europe in that they worked in terrible working conditions and lived, for the most part, on or below the poverty line. The promises of the Communist party towards these poor workers were music to their ears and the gladly supported and joined the CCP.
What further aided in the aims of the political parties and unification of China during this time was the introduction of print technology and embrace and popularization of the Chinese vernacular language. With a language that most of the population can now understand and a means in which the communication of ideas, theories, and current events could be spread, people became more aware of their surrounding and what exactly was going on around them. Magazines such as Life were used to spread ideas, such as Du Zhongyuan’s idea of how private industry could also help the general good by creating jobs and stimulating the economy.
From around 1919 to 1931, China had modernized itself economically and socially in many ways. Factories had created many jobs and put many people into the workforce, but these workers were making little money and working in unsafe conditions. Women were gaining more rights and the ability to work outside the home in factories and offices like their male counterparts. However, this newfound freedom did not outline the boundaries for men who were new to having women in the workplace. As in the case of You Mei, her male coworker would make advances on her even though she was betrothed. The old culture was clashing with the new one in that she was still obligated to her arranged marriage and by constantly ignoring her coworker; she draws unwanted negative attention to herself. Indeed with every movement comes some negative effects, the leaders and most of those involved in the movement still viewed the changes better than the old, Confucian culture.
One of the ultimate goals of the New Culture movement was to rid Confucianism from Chinese society. Chen Duxiu’s journal New Youth wanted to achieve just that by emphasizing the present, the future, and anything new. Anything old or from the past was obsolete and viewed as wrong. When Lu Xun spoke of moderation, a Confucian virtue, he would often state “moderation was merely a codeword for tolerance of abuse and turning a blind eye towards corruption” (Pg109). Clearly moderation, when used correctly, was a good thing but the New Culture and New Youth movement was in such force that few looked back to think twice about it.
Nationalism was the key to achieving these goals and succeeding as a nation to enter the world stage. The scholars and thinkers in China knew that in order for China to become powerful, it must become united and the people must take pride in their nation over their hometown. With a united China, people would work together to build up the country’s economy and social structure which would make modernizing the country a much easier task. Chinese nationalist rhetoric was based on the Enlightenment ideas of science, technology, and democratic politics. Yet there was a problem with these ideas; Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong differed on their interpretations of what these ideas actually meant. This disagreement eventually led to a 20 year war with each other but both sides agreed that China needed to become modern.
We can see that the New Culture movement wanted to establish a sense of nationalism, modernization, democracy, equal rights, and an elimination of anything from the old Confucian traditional Chinese culture. So why do we need to know all of this to understand the progressions of China’s history from the rise of the Nationalist regime to the triumphs and tragedies of the People’s Republic of China? Basically, both parties used the ideas of the New Culture movement to their advantage to gain power and justify their actions. Although both parties agreed with what the New Culture movement was about, they distorted its goals and spread the distortion to the people so that they could control China and govern it the way the wished and modernize China in their image.
The Nationalist party was formed during the early 1910’s by Sun Yatsen. In 1912, it ran in the elections for parliament and won a lot of seats, becoming the largest single group in parliament but the president, Yuan Shikai, declared the Nationalist party illegal, forcing Sun Yatsen into exile. Upon his return in 1919, the New Culture movement was in full force and Sun Yatsen was determined to form China into a nation-state modeled after the Western thoughts and blamed the imperialist powers and the Manchu’s for China’s current state. Sun Yatsen received a much needed ally when the Russian government agreed to help the Nationalists gain control because “China was too backward for a communist revolution to take place immediately” (Pg 143) and saw the Nationalists as a perfect means to commence a revolution to prepare China for future communist control.
The death of Sun Yatsen turned out to be a turning point for the Nationalist regime as Chiang Kai-shek gained control of the party. Finally on May 30th 1925, the Nationalists saw their chance to strike and they did. A protest gone deadly resulted in outrage from the Chinese community and the Nationalist and Communist forces proceeded to conquer the Chinese east coast while the Nationalist secretly negotiated with the Russians to restrict the CCP’s power in the party. Once the Nationalists took Shanghai on 1927 and began to receive national recognition of the Nationalist government, Chiang Kai-shek decided he no longer needed the communists and ordered a massacre of them. The CCP tried to organize with the Comintern and rebel Nationalists, but Kai-Shek’s forces were too powerful and the CCP found itself on the run and defeated for the time being. The Nationalist government established its capital in Nanking in 1928 and stuck with his primary goal of establishing a unified nation-state. However, even though he believed in the Western mindset, he did not wish to establish a democratic government because he felt that the general population did not understand what democracy meant. In short, he did not trust all of his accomplishments in the hands of the people because they may vote him out of power. Therefore, he distorted democracy by stating that he would remain the ruler but instill democratic values.
However, one of the greatest failures of the Nationalist government was their lack of effort to help the people or instill a form of socialism as Sun Yatsen had when he was trying to gain power. Chiang Kai-shek gave little concern to those in rural China by ignoring their needs, converting their temples and shrines into offices as part of the secular reforms, and corrupt tax collecting only created more problems for both sides of the situation. The cities saw most of the modernizing reforms but the Nationalist government for the most part hampered the New Culture movement because of the government’s dictatorial rule. In a sense, the Nationalists dug their own grave because where they neglected the people; the CCP became sympathetic to their needs and in the near future, would have an overwhelming amount of civilian support.
The knockout blow for the New Culture movement and hopes for modernization came with the Japanese offensive in China in 1937. The chaos and turmoil that resulted from the sack of China made practical living and survival a priority and pushed intellectual thought and modernization to the side. The Japanese offensive started when the Japanese faked a train bombing in China as an excuse to occupy Manchuria. While the Nationalist government focused on the Japanese threat and other problems, the CCP began building itself back up, focusing on a revolution of the rural population rather than the intellectual city-dwellers. This occurred until 1935 when Chiang Kai-shek began to initiate another purge of the communists, but the CCP, under Mao Zedong’s leadership, marched north to evade the slaughter. Chiang Kai-shek tried to focus his attention on the CCP and tried to make peace with Japan by appeasement. However this failed when Japan violated the treaties and invaded North China and Chiang Kai-shek was forced to a cease-fire with the Communists to fend off the Japanese.
The Japanese proved to be a force to deal with. The Nationalist army was constantly forced to retreat, losing Shanghai and Nanking to the Japanese which resulted in the deaths of countless Chinese soldiers and civilians. After losing the capital city, Chiang was forced to withdraw to Chongqing and took away even more rights from the people, using war as his justification. This coupled with his plan to promote Confucian values to secularly modernize China was met by much disgust especially by the New Culture supporters. The Nationalist government had switched its position on the May movement by declaring it backwards and destructive. “The time for romantic, self-indulgent free-thinking, they implied, was over” (Pg 175).
Mao knew this was his time to strike. The CCP took the opposite stance of the Nationalists by declaring itself open to intellectuals and their ideas. The CCP and Mao had declared devotion to the ideals of the May Fourth movement, or so they thought. Upon reaching the CCP camps, the intellectuals had found out that the Communists had also silenced the free and critical thinking associated with May 4th. Both parties repudiated May 4th and the Communists “supported” it as a means to attract supporters away from the Nationalists, which broke down the cease-fire and temporary alliance they both had. Mao told the intellectuals in his camps that any writing and speeches much for the masses and not for specific individuals such as the rich, poor, etc. Also, there was to be no criticism of the Communist party at all or cynicism of it. The CCP made May Fourth a symbol of following the CCP ideals and no longer that of intellectual or critical thinking.
The end of WWII brought the end of the Japanese occupation of China, the end of China being viewed as a secondary nation, and more importantly, the end of the Nationalist regime. The CCP had gained extensive support from the rural population of China, due of Chiang’s failure to help the rural areas, and now had the manpower, weapons, and will to overthrow the nationalists. The Nationalist government was forced to flee to Taiwan where it would remain to this day. With the CCP in control of China, China now became the PRC; the People’s Republic of China. After their betrayal in 1927 and ceasefire in 1937, Mao and the communists gained control of China in 1949, after 20 years of war between the two parties.
Mao kept his promise to the rural peasants and initiated land reform, giving the poor land so that they could grow their own food and survive. As for those who had supported the May Fourth movement and the New Culture Movement, individualism was now forbidden. The only thing that was important and certain was the party. The idea of a unique Chinese state was abandoned as Beijing was transformed into a model of Russia. Upon talking control, Mao had actually accomplished two May Fourth goal; China was sovereign and free of outside influence (except Russia) and there was no more warlordism. Everything else, however; the free thinking, nationalism, individualism, romanticism, was crushed as the only importance was the state, the party. After seven years in power, he decided to allow for some criticism and instated the hundred flowers campaign, which he believed would only show moderate criticism, boy was Mao wrong. Mao received “a torrent of abuse, ranging from the specialized, such as academics who could no longer read foreign journals to keep up with their fields, to the widespread, such as the opposition of many peasants to the collectivization of farms” (Pg 190). Upon reading these reactions, he rounded all of them he could find, labeled them as “rightist”, and shipped them off to Chinese Siberia to be re-educated.
Under communist rule, the land reform was taken away and people were forced into collective farms and under the Great Leap Forward, were required to meet grain quotas to prove that the Chinese system was far better than the Laissez Faire economic system. Because of the fear and “state above self” mentality stressed by the government, people lied about their quotas and when the grain was taken, there was no food at all to eat. Around 30 million starved to death as a result, the worst famine in the history of mankind.
A direct result of the Great Leap Forward was the Cultural Revolution. Put very briefly, the Cultural Revolution was a campaign to rid the government of the liberal upper/middle class and a means to regain control of the communist party by Mao after the Great Leap Forward. What is interesting in this Revolution is the fact that it holds a few similarities to the New Culture movement. The Cultural Revolution stressed the youth; the young, fresh, clean slates of society to fix the wrongs of the government because they had not been as affected by May Fourth as their parents had been. Therefore, they could be manipulated by the state to do whatever task they needed done. Finally, the Cultural Revolution attacked the old, traditional thoughts just like May Fourth attacked the old traditions such as Confucianism.
With the multitude of information we have, we can conclude why it is necessary to understand the May Fourth, or New Culture movement to understand China’s history. The main point is that the ideals professed in 1919 were used by the Nationalists and Communists as a means to gain power, gain supporters, and justify actions. The Nationalists justified silencing individuals and intellectuals by declaring it as a wartime act while the real reason was because Chiang Kai-shek knew that his government was losing its grip on China. The Communists promised to allow free speech in their camps, which was a lie, in order to gain support for their army for when they would attack the Nationalists. The Chinese people, the youth of May 4th 1919 wished to see a better tomorrow, a sovereign China, a democratic China, a proud China. From that day to about Nixon’s visit to China in 1976, the ideals of the May Fourth movement were distorted and used as ransom by those in charge to get the people to obey their authority or to join their side. Millions of Chinese died while they tried and hoped to accomplish living under these ideals that the Western world lived under. Today, many of the ideals have been instated; China is sovereign, the economy is booming, people are proud to be Chinese, and democracy in China may just occur in China. However, the struggle that the people of China had to go through just to make it this far, was bloody, agonizing, and to quote Rana Mitter, a butter revolution.

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