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History of the PRC – Part Four Posted by on Jan 24, 2010 in Culture, Uncategorized

At the end of our last lesson, Duan Qirui had given up his position as the Premier of China. However, pressure from his Anhui Clique soon forced President Feng to restore him. In the 1918 elections, which are thought to have been rigged, members of Duan’s clique took over 3/4 of the seats. At the time, the major players were: Duan’s Anhui Clique (皖系军阀 – Wǎn xì jūn fá), the Communications Clique (交通系 – Jiāo tōng xì), and the Research Clique (研究系 – Yán jiū xì). As Duan’s group held a majority of the power, they were in charge of replacing President Feng when his term was up (Feng repalced Li, so he simply finished Li’s five year term). They chose Xu Shichang (徐世昌) as Feng’s replacement. The vacant slot of Vice President was promised to Feng’s good buddy, Cao Kun (曹锟), however those in the Communications and Research Clique’s opposed his appointment, as it was rumored he had squandered ungodly amounts of money on a prostitute. As such, the office of VP would remain vacant. After Xu took over, Duan again resigned from his position as Premier, but still remained the most powerful man in China thanks to his political and military connections, or 关系 (guān xì).

Although the elections and government goings on are obviously crucial information for a history lesson, it is also important to note a rising movement at this turbulent time in China’s history – the New Culture Movement (新文化运动 – xīn wén huà yùn dòng). Founded in 1912 by rebellious scholars, this movement came about due to disillusionment with traditional Chinese culture, such as the study of the works of Confucius. What these people wanted was a new culture in China – one based on Western standards like democracy and science. They called for an end to the patriarchal society of China in favor of individual freedom and women’s liberation. They also introduced vernacular Chinese (白话 – bái huà) in an attempt to make literature accessible to those without much education. To quote a New Culture scholar Hu Shi, “a dead language cannot produce a living literature.”

At this time, World War I was winding down, with the Treaty of Versailles ending the battle between Germany and the Allied Powers. In China’s eyes, however, there was one major problem with the treaty – the concession of German territories in Shandong province to Japan. Historically, this is known as the Shandong Problem (山东问题 – Shān dōng wèn tí). At least, this was a problem according to college students. Back in Beijing, students from thirteen different universities involved in the New Culture Movement gathered in Tiananmen Square for what would come to be known as the May Fourth Movement (五四运动 – wǔ sì yùn dòng). Together, they drafted five resolutions:

  1. to oppose the granting of Shandong to the Japanese under former German concessions.
  2. to draw awareness of China’s precarious position to the masses in China.
  3. to recommend a large-scale gathering in Peking.
  4. to promote the creation of a Peking student union.
  5. to hold a demonstration that afternoon in protest to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles

In the eyes of these students, the government had acted as cowards, giving in without a fight. The students were so enraged that they burned down the home of the Minister of Communications and also attacked China’s Minister to Japan. A mass boycott of Japanese goods also began, lasting for a few months.

Since one of Duan’s allies had been in Paris (where he promised said territory to the Japanese) public opinion of Duan and the Anhui Clique in general plummeted. During the protests, Xu had tons of students arrested for their participation. The students in Beijing went on strike, along with many merchants and workers in Shanghai. This had a devastating effect on China’s economy and led to increasing public unrest and disapproval of the government. In an effort to appease the masses, Xu released the students and had the three men who were involved in the Paris Peace Conference dismissed. Also, China would be the only country to not sign the treaty.

Although the territory in Shandong would remain in control of Japan, the May Fourth Movement managed to alter the course of China’s history.  Mass gatherings of everyday people began. Outspoken disapproval of the government became common. The decline of traditional ethics sped up. Women emerged from the shadows of a highly patriarchal society to let their voices be heard. Hundreds of new publications began printing, and the new vernacular literature was accessible to more people than ever. Here is an article written by none other than Chairman Mao himself on the 20th anniversary of the movement.

This movement was also an intellectual turning point for China. The liberal democracy of the West once appealed to China, but after the Treaty of Versailles things began to change. To China, the United States had done little to ensure that other imperialist powers adhered to the Fourteen Points laid out by Woodrow Wilson. As a result, Chinese scholars lost interest in the Western model of politics and began studying Marxism and Leninism. This change would plant the seeds for the irreconcilable differences conflict the left and the right in China that would come to define China’s history.

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.

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