Events of May 4th 1919 in Beijing


May 4th 1919 would place Beijing as the center of a culmination of outrage and idealistic hope for the future of the Chinese Republic. Fueled by the ideas and critiques of the New Culture Movement1 and the ineffectual government of a Chinese Republic frequently torn by factional strife and civil conflict2, over three thousand Chinese students in Beijing would engage in protests on May 4th 1919 after popular outrage over the terms of the Versailles Treaty that had recently been publicized.3 The exact elements of the Versailles Treaty which provided the catalyst for the protests can be found in article 156, which awarded German possessions in Shandong province to the Empire of Japan, rather than returning it to China.4 This context was further underscored by widespread indignation towards China's allies in the Entente Powers for agreement to the terms, and crucially, a belief among many Chinese that the republican government in Beijing had been complicit in the cession of national territory.5 These factors combined to form an outrage large enough in the minds of much of the Chinese citizenry that had to be acted upon, among which the students of Beijing would find themselves the first to take this indignation to task.

On the morning of May 4th, 1919 at ten o clock, student representatives from thirteen colleges and universities converged on the Beijing College of Law and Political Science to prepare plans for an imminent demonstration later that day.6 By one thirty in the afternoon, over three thousand students had rallied at Tiananmen Square in a protest gathering, despite formal requests to disperse from republican authorities.7 After a short time in Tiananmen, the student group formed into a march which snaked through the streets of Beijing while passing out pamphlets in French, English and Chinese, before arriving at the quarter of the foreign legations.8 After being refused entry to the foreign legations and told that many foreign ministers were absent to hear their requests, the protesters, now growing in number and facing more direct police intervention, began chants of "On to the Foreign Ministry!" and "On to the house of the traitor!".9 By "the traitor" the protestors were likely referring to one Cao Rulin, a former Qing official who had served under Yuan Shikai and had negotiated with the Japanese regarding the Twenty One Demands and the Nishihara Loans, both of which were widely unpopular.10 With this in mind, the protesters made their way to Cao's home, where the protest took on a more aggressive tone as five students broke into the home and opened the front gate, letting in a large group of the now enraged protesters.11 Although Cao escaped out a back window, the protesters did find a close associate of Cao's, Zhang Zongxiang, and beat him severely while destroying furniture and eventually setting the quarters on fire.12 After less than an hour, police forces finally regained control of the situation and arrested thirty two of the remaining students after the majority had fled the area, bringing an official end to the May 4th incident, while sowing the seeds for wider protests in the future.13

1 Zarrow, Peter. China in war and revolution, 1895 - 1949. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2007. 150

2 Gray, Jack. Rebellions and revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 198

3 Ibid., 198-199

4 United States. Treaties, etc. Treaties and other international agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949. Compiled under the direction of Charles I. Bevans. [Washington, Dept. of State; for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1968-76] 114

5 Chow, Tse-Tsung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1964. 92

6 Ibid., 105

7 Ibid., 105-106

8 Zarrow China in war and revolution., 1895-1949 151

9 Chow The May Fourth Movement Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. 109-110

10 Zarrow China in war and revolution., 1895-1949 151

11 Chow The May Fourth Movement Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. 111

12 Zarrow China in war and revolution., 1895-1949 152

13 Chow The May Fourth Movement Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. 114