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April 30, 2009 in the China Beat


Copyright April 30, 2009 Rana Mitter. Used by permission.


The May Fourth Movement – so famous in China it doesn’t need a year, although 1919 – the year it happened – has become legendary too. On that date, some three thousand students marched through Beijing demonstrating against Japanese imperialism and started a political movement that would become identified with Chinese demands for “science” and “democracy” through the next century. From the Cultural Revolution to Tian’anmen Square, May Fourth echoes through China’s modern history. The Chinese Communist Party still claims the movement as its point of origin. On May 4, 2009, the movement will be ninety years old. In some ways, its significance to China is like that of the Sixties in the West – a celebration of youth and possibility combined with often extremist and hardcore politics.

But what was this event, why did it matter, and how can you find out more about it?

Here are five ways into this fascinating topic – famous in China, little-known in the West.

1. Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Viking Penguin 1981): still the classic account of the May Fourth generation and their revolution. Sweeping account that goes from the late Qing all the way to the end of the Cultural Revolution, with May Fourth intellectuals at its heart.