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The Chinese Enlightenment at 100

How the Communist Party Seized the Legacy of May Fourth

Soldiers in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, May 1998 Andrew Wong / Reuters

One hundred years ago, on the evening of May 3, 1919, a group of Chinese students met inside an empty lecture hall in Beijing. World War I had ended in an armistice the previous fall, and the victorious powers were gathered at Versailles to negotiate a peace treaty. China, which had contributed to the Allied war effort, believed that it had earned if not an equal seat at the table, then at least the right for its voice to be heard. But during their negotiations, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States secretly agreed to cede disputed Chinese territory to Japan, which had also supported the Allies. As the American diplomat Edward T. Williams wrote, “China was betrayed in the house of her friends.”

News of the decision reached China on the morning of May 2. From rickshaw men to state ministers, Chinese citizens lapsed into despair. The nation’s youth, in particular, felt the blow like the loss of a limb. Born into the final act of imperial China, they grappled with the disparity between their lot and that of a more developed world and burned with a sense of what was at stake—an ordeal as grave as the survival of China itself. They were the inheritors of a fallen empire. Their country’s humiliation was their anguish.

Inside the Beijing classroom, passions ran high. Students from across the country had flooded Europe with telegrams, beseeching the Chinese delegation at Versailles to salvage the country’s pride and walk away. One young man, flashing a knife, cried out that the pain was too much to bear and that he would rather take his own life than tolerate China’s weakness. A protest had been previously planned for the following week, but such was the clamor in the room, the intensity of the students’ convictions, that they knew they could not wait. They would march the next day—May 4.

“TO SAVE CHINA”

The march marked the birth of the storied May Fourth Movement, a national

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