May Fourth at 105 — Protest, Resistance, Repression

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium


May Fourth 2024 marks the 105th anniversary of a student protests in Beijing that have had a profound impact both on the political and cultural life of modern China.

Long ago, ‘The Spirit of May Fourth’ 五四精神 — one that supposedly reflects the idealism as well as the avowed quest for rationality and democracy of the student demonstrators of 1919 — was interpreted and reinterpreted by the Communist Party to serve its shifting purposes. For decades the Party has made a mockery of an idealistic movement that played a crucial role in its founding in 1921 and it continues to benefit from a cynical successful manipulation of student enthusiasm and patriotic outrage. Since 1949, the Party has embodied a dissembling version of the cultural conservatism and political obscurantism against which the students demonstrated on 4 May 1919.


In 2020, we commemorated the centenary of the protests, 4 May 2019, with a pair of essays:

In 2024, we mark the anniversary of May Fourth, China’s Youth Festival 青年節, with three interconnected works:

This first part of our commemoration — May Fourth at 105 — features the work of Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, a historian who, among other things, is noted for his scholarship and media engagement regarding student protests, both past and present.

Jeff and I got to know each other when working on The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary film about the 1989 Protest Movement in China. Jeff was an academic adviser on the project and an enthusiastic interlocutor who was always ready to engage with the issues that Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon and I confronted in the drawn-out process of making that film. Over the decades, Jeff has been a constant friend who has been unstinting in his support, generous with his guidance and unfailingly insightful in his work. I am grateful that he responded with such enthusiasm to my hope that he might put together a short reading list on the history and culture of protest for China Heritage as part of our commemoration of the 105th anniversary of May Fourth. Jeff introduces that list with a note that draws on an essay he published in The New York Times on the eve of the 2019 centenary of 4 May under the title May Fourth, the Day That Changed China.


The year 2024 has seen a continuation of global protests sparked by the 7 October Massacre. On 4 May 2024, widespread student unrest in the United States readily brings to mind 4 May 1970. On that day an ugly shadow was cast over what was otherwise a happy occasion for me and my family in Sydney, Australia — my sixteenth birthday. In America, four students were shot dead and nine others injured by members of the Ohio National Guard called in to quell protesters at Kent State. That act of brutality further inflamed ongoing anti-Vietnam War protests in Australia. A few days later, on 8 May, an estimated 200,000 people across the country protested against the war as part of the ongoing Moratorium Movement.

The anti-establishment ethos of those years — anti-war protests, sexual freedom, cultural effloresce, support for racial equality, nascent environmentalism, the Red Guards and pro-Maoist ideas, and so on — had a profound impact and, commingled with my lifelong interest in humanistic traditions, Western and Eastern (in particular those of India, Tibet, China and Japan) which both added to and conflicted with that ethos, encouraged in me the bifurcated spirit of my teens and twenties. It continues to infiltrate in a myriad of ways the work of China Heritage as I teeter on the cusp of my seventh decade.


We start this commemoration of May Fourth with a musical prelude. Ohio is a a protest song composed by Neil Young in reaction to the Kent State shootings of 4 May 1970, and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
1 May 2024


Related Material:


Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio

Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been gone long ago
What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

May Fourth at 105

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom


On this May 4, 105 years will have passed since an event that stands out as a major milestone in modern China history took place. The clash between protesters and police on Wusi 五四, or May Fourth, has given its name to what was clearly the most important student-led mass movement in Chinese history (at least one not involving the kind of worship of a charismatic leader associated with Red Guard actions), until the Tiananmen upheaval of 1989 gave it a run for its money as claimant to that title. And it is no accident that one of the major documents crafted by the Tiananmen protesters of thirty-five years ago presented their struggle as a ‘New May Fourth Movement’.

The actions of that long ago Wusi were triggered by terms of the Treaty of Versailles that transferred control of formerly German-run territories in Shandong province to Japan rather than returning them to China. But as I wrote for a New York Times article on the event’s centenary five years ago, no matter how “angry the students were at the foreign negotiators half a world away…. they were even more upset with their own leaders — military men they thought of as autocratic and corrupt who had failed to protect the Chinese homeland.” I also pointed out that, while “banners held aloft on May 4, 1919, focused on the Shandong issue,” members of that generation also had a broader complaint. This was that the 1911 Revolution had done away with the antiquated system of imperial rule but China hardly was a modern country yet. To become one, it would need to make a thorough break from hierarchical and conservative Confucian traditions.

On the day in question, students did not just raise banners and shout slogans, they also trashed the house of an official they viewed as particularly vile. The police arrested students, and beat some as well, with one dying from his injuries. After that, as so often happens, and not just in China by any means, a movement that began with one set of specific issues became in part a fight for the right to protest against police actions seen as unjustified. As I wrote in 2019:

China had a long tradition of viewing scholars as people who should speak out in times of misrule. That a student, a scholar in the making, died defending a patriotic cause galvanized members of other groups and social classes to support the Wusi protests. Together, they held more marches, boycotted Japanese goods and organized strikes — until June, when the Chinese government gave in to three key demands.

It instructed its representatives in France to refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles. It dismissed three officials whom protesters viewed as particularly corrupt. And it released all students who had been detained.

The Wusi protests would fail to achieve their central diplomatic goal: When the Treaty of Versailles went into effect in January 1920, Japan was awarded Germany’s former possessions in China. But the movement nonetheless became legendary for its other achievements — a symbol of the potency of student-led mass action.

Over the decades, it has come to mean far more than that. Much like the date and phrase ‘Mai 68’ in the French political imagination, in China, ‘Wusi’ conjures up the idea of an entire generation, and a special one.

[Note: See also May Fourth, the Day That Changed China, The New York Times, 3 May 2019.]


Reading About Protest

compiled by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom


  1. Derf Backderf, Four Dead in Ohio, 2020, a recent graphic novel
  2. The Verso Book of Dissent: revolutionary words from three millennia of rebellion and resistance, Andrew Hsiao and Audrea Lim, eds, 2020 (for the free ebook, click here)
  3. Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism, 2009
  4. Students in Revolt, Seymour Martin Lipset and Philip G. Altbach, eds, Beacon Press, 1970. Although dated this work takes a global view. It is primarily based on a special issue of Daedalus
  5. The previous work pairs well with an American Historical Review forum on 1968, published in 2018
  6. Robin D.G. Kelley, Black Study, Black Struggle, Boston Review, 1 March 2016
  7. Paul Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: the new global revolutions, Verso, 2012
  8. Vincent Bevins, If We Burn, You Burn with Us: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, PublicAffairs, 2023
  9. Sunflowers and Umbrellas: Social Movements, Expressive Practices, and Political Culture in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Thomas Gold and Sebastian Veg, eds, Berkeley: IEAS, 2020
  10. Meredith Weiss and Edward Aspinall, eds. Student Activism in Asia: Between Protest and Powerlessness, University of Minnesota Press, 2012
  11. Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Elizabeth Perry, eds, Popular Protest and Political Culture in Modern China, 2nd ed., Routledge, 1994
  12. Robert Cohen, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, Oxford University Press, 2009
  13. The New Civil Rights Movement Reader, Traci Parker and Marcia Walker-McWilliams, eds, University of Massachusetts Press, 2023
  14. Padraic Kenney, Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989, Princeton University Press, 2003
  15. Todd Gitlin, The 1960s: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, rev. ed., Bantam Books, 1993


A couplet from a poem by Gu Yanwu in the hand of Hu Shih

On this long journey best not to be disheartened by the dusk,
Even at life’s end there is hope that the river may yet run clear.

Gu Yanwu 顧炎武

[Note: ‘The river may yet run clear’ 河清 hé qīng refers both to the times when the lower reaches of the Yellow River been clear, unsullied by swirls of mud and, metaphorically, to an ideal time in history. ‘When the Yellow River runs clear’ 黃河清 is an expression of hope for political decency and social harmony.]

Hu Shih (胡適, 1891-24 February 1962) was a pre-eminent figure in the New Culture Movement (c.1917-1927), which was punctuated by the 1919 May Fourth protests and subsequent student activism.

… Upon his return to China in 1917, Hu became a professor at Peking National University (Pei-Ta); his association with it lasted until 1949, interrupted for a decade during the war and for a briefer period in the late twenties when he resided in Shanghai. Throughout much of this time, Pei-Ta was the uncontested centre of China’s new intellectual life, and Hu’s position there brought him into direct contact with many of the most brilliant personalities of those years. A philosopher by education, a devoted student of Chinese literary history, a man whose quick mind and wide-ranging interests touched upon almost every aspect of China’s intellectual heritage, he was influential in directing and training such younger scholars … Apart from his activity as a scholar, Hu also sought to shape the views of his countrymen on contemporary problems, and his opinions on a broad range of social and political issues were published in essays that he contributed to a number of influential periodicals during the twenties and the thirties. It is possible that no other writer of his generation was read more widely, and in the minds of some he remains, even now, the greatest of the many who participated in the struggle to bring to China the benefits of enlightenment.

This was in large part a struggle against the deadweight of tradition, involving, among other things, a redefinition of the individual’s place in society, his emancipation from the claims of family, clan or native place, from the authoritarian hierarchy of inherited relationships, and from the beliefs of a bygone age. Thus Hu ceaselessly exhorted the young people of China, the middle-school and university students, to assume the responsibilities that the times urged upon them, to develop their individual personalities, to think critically and independently, and to remain mindful of their obligation to tolerate the ideas of others.

from Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih: An AppreciationChina Heritage Quarterly, Issue 29 (March 2012), a reprint of an obituary that originally appeared in The China Quarterly, no.12 (October-December 1962): 92-101