5. A New Ideology Comes to China

On May 4, 1919, about three-thousand students from Beijing universities and colleges assembled at the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), the entrance to the former emperor's palace. They had been organizing since May 1 when China woke up to the news that the Paris peace conference had awarded the Shandong concessions to Japan.1

Purpose of the demonstration was "National Humiliation Day" to protest the actions of President Wilson and other Western leaders in Paris. Although the police had warned the students not to march, they proceeded to the foreign-legation quarter.

Guards refused them admittance and Chinese troops began harassing them. Violence erupted. Students burned the house of one of premier Duan Qirui's cronies. They found Zhang Zongxiang, the Duan minister who had "gladly" agreed to the Japanese concessions in Shandong the previous September and they beat him senseless.

Beijing police arrested thirty-two students, one of whom died of injuries. The imprisonments sent fellow students into a frenzy and galvanized much of the nation. Waves of protest spread to over two-hundred cities. Merchants boycotted Japanese goods. Dockhands refused to unload Japanese goods. Workers struck at factories. Even Shanghai gangsters joined forces. What had begun as a student demonstration had been turned almost overnight into a nationwide movement of protest.

The students, led by activists at Beijing University (known by its nickname, Peita), began organizing a major campaign to demand that the government refuse to sign the Versailles peace treaty ratifying the Shandong betrayal and to dismiss pro-Japanese officials.

The Duan government prohibited parades and speeches but nearly everyone ignored the order. On June 3, a much larger student demonstration took place in Beijing and this time the police arrested eleven-hundred students. This only fanned the flames. The next day the students assembled again and demanded the dismissal of Zhang and other Duan officials. Duan now began to fear a civil war and gave in, released the imprisoned students, dismissed the offending officials and accepted the resignation of his entire cabinet.

Meanwhile, the Chinese delegation at Paris was vainly awaiting instructions from Beijing. Duan's government had virtually disintegrated and no one could tell the delegation to sign or refuse. It, therefore, simply stayed away on June 28, the day the Versailles treaty was formalized. China, as a consequence of emphatic public opinion, rejected the treaty and the Shandong agreement.

Ironically, the United States also rejected the treaty, because the Senate, aware of deep reservations about it and fears of losing some American sovereignty to the League of Nations, finally voted it down.2 The Shandong issue played a significant role, because Americans were upset about it and increasingly fearful of Japan's intentions. The chief opponent of the measure, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, included the Shandong agreement in the Republican objections to the treaty. President Woodrow Wilson, architect of the league and its most ardent advocate, was unable to lead his nation into the world body. He unsuccessfully tried to sell the league by an arduous speaking tour over much of the country by railroad during the hot summer of 1919 and tragically suffered a disabling paralytic stroke a few days after he returned.3

* * * * * * * * * *

The May Fourth demonstration set off a movement that marked a great intellectual watershed in Chinese history. It quickly came to be called by typical Chinese shorthand Wu Si (or five-four, for the fifth month and the fourth day) and it affirmed, as nothing had ever done before, the maturity of Chinese nationalism and the determination of the Chinese intelligentsia to complete the transformation of China into a modern nation.

For at least twenty-five years, the Chinese literati had been wrestling with the dilemma of how China's ancient civilization could adapt to the challenges of modern Western civilization, including its aggressive imitator, Japan. One essential was to combat Western imperialism and its impairment of Chinese sovereignty. However, the West was both an enemy and a friend. Chinese intellectuals greatly admired Western skills and philosophical concepts about government, society and human rights. Chinese intellectuals attempted to fit nearly all parts of Western thinking at one time or another into a Sino-Western synthesis that could produce progress and preserve what was "best" or "essential" about China. The intellectuals found such mixing difficult, because they did not know how to fold a modern industrial state into the peasant-gentry society of China oriented principally around kinship and mutual obligations to those above and below. To modernize China's traditional society was likely to change it in unimagined ways. However, out of the mixture of ideas emerged an enduring notion, as Benjamin I. Schwartz expresses it, "of a vast cosmic-social process" that was leading mankind to unimagined achievement, even utopia.4

Some thinkers subscribed to the social Darwinist school, advocated by Herbert Spencer, that tried to transfer to the political context biologist Charles Darwin's evolutionary theories about the survival of the fittest in the struggle of species to exist. As interpreted by some Chinese, the Middle Kingdom's old culture had paralyzed the nation and it was not "fitted" to survive. In theory this called its replacement with an aggressive Western capitalist model like Britain or the United States where economic competition and "struggle for survival" was the norm. Others preferred Western socialist criticisms of capitalism. One critic who gained great currency was the anarchist Peter Kropotkin. He contradicted social Darwinism and said cooperation, not competition, truly represents the human species. To Kropotkin disciples, anarchy or free cooperative societies were more congenial to the Chinese tradition. Chinese especially were drawn to anarchism's emphasis on organizing society on a rural and communal basis as opposed to capitalism's urban-industrial mobilization.

By the time of the May Fourth explosion, a "new culture" movement had become the major force motivating change among China's intellectuals. It grew out of the journal New Youth, founded in 1915 by Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), a Peita humanities professor. This movement was an attack on China's entire cultural heritage, including subjection of women and tyranny of the ancient authoritarian family system. Until the conscious life of the nation had been transformed by education, they said, it was useless to seek political change. Hu Shi (1891-1962), who had studied under philosopher John Dewey at Columbia University, came back to Peita in 1917 resolved "not to talk about politics for twenty years." Hu represented the common sentiment of the group, which drew a sharp distinction between intellectuals and politicians.

It was a curious attitude, because the new-culturists had no way of achieving the "transformation" of China's conscious life except by slow persuasion, or, as Hu Shi advocated, "by inches and drops."5 By renouncing political power, they could bring change only by influencing those in authority. Yet China's political leaders were obsessed with maintaining themselves in power and few were interested in new ideas. On a broader scale, societies respond only slowly to persuasion and change rapidly only under force.

China's intelligentsia also paid little attention to mobilizing the people to bring about change. The new sophistication, knowledge of the West and exposure to exotic intellectual ideas that characterized the tiny minority of educated people tended to increase their distance from the masses. They thought of the peasants and industrial workers as being sunk in ignorance and passivity.

However, new-culture activists did achieve one major advance by persuasion. Hu Shi advocated that written Chinese alter its archaic classical style to the vernacular of everyday speech, baihua, thus making the written language a tool, not an esoteric subject understood well only by scholars. John Paton Davies, Jr., an American missionary couple's son born in China who grew up speaking Chinese, describes the use of classical Chinese as being equivalent to modern Italians being forced to write and recite the Latin of ancient Rome.6 Chen Duxiu supported Hu Shi and by 1920 the Chinese education ministry decreed use of the vernacular in all textbooks.7 This decision helped countless millions of Chinese pupils in years ahead and also led to the transformation of Chinese literature into a living medium accessible to the people.

Into this environment of intellectuals consorting with other intellectuals to bring about a promised land by the power of their arguments while ignoring politics, the Versailles treaty came to many as a mind-altering shock. The confrontation with power politics convinced some intellectuals it was senseless to focus on vague evolutionary transformation when their nation was crying out for immediate help.

The Versailles treaty also caused many Chinese to reevaluate the reform model of the West which had played the most powerful role in ideas for change. The betrayal of China showed that the leaders of the victorious Western liberal democracies were motivated by their own selfish interests. Versailles demonstrated that Wilson's solemnly affirmed principles of self-determination and "open" covenants, "openly arrived at," were easily expendable.

Versailles also coincided with two other disillusionments that roused grave doubts about the West as a solution to China's problems. The first was the experience of so-called "constitutional" government since the revolution of 1911-12. It had not worked. There were many reasons why not but one was that the people were not trained for representative government and leaders could quickly pervert it.8 Pessimists feared constitutional government was a function of Western society itself and not readily exportable without other Western institutions and traditions that supported it.

The final great disillusionment was World War I. Western theory of the progress and advancement of mankind, or at least that part represented by Western civilization, revealed itself as a deception. The inconceivably useless slaughter of much of an entire generation of young men and the horrible wounding of Western civilization in the trenches of Europe had made a mockery of the Western ideal of a teleological evolution of mankind toward some ultimate purpose or end. Each of the two major contending elements in Western civilization had tried to destroy the other for largely selfish reasons. To many Chinese intellectuals, a civilization that could do that had no cosmic-social purpose and offered no example for the rest of the world.

The May Fourth movement brought into prominence two radical new ideas: 1) to change China, men had to act, not merely think, and 2) China had to find a different model for change than the traditional examples from the West that had mesmerized a generation of thinkers.

Into this immense intellectual vacuum dropped Communism. Marxism, though it is a doctrine that originated in the West, repudiated much of Western economic and political doctrine. When scholars later hunted for reasons why Marxism-Leninism made such a tremendous impression on Chinese intellectuals in the 1920s, they found that practically all of the other seeming panaceas that had absorbed the Chinese had turned out to be useless or inapplicable to Chinese conditions. Many Chinese who were convinced they had to act went down the Marxist road.

One of the two founding members of the Chinese Communist party was Chen Duxiu. He was shocked by Versailles and spent five months in jail for his role in the May Fourth demonstrations. By mid-1920 Chen had lost faith in Western democracy. He resigned from Peita and organized a Marxist study society and a socialist youth corps.9 The other founding member of the Communist party, Li Dazhao (1888-1927), was a Beijing University history professor who did not accept the revolutionary implications of Communism until after the May Fourth explosion.10 In the case of the two primary movers of Communism in China, it was the Versailles treaty that changed everything.

Both Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu approached Communism with idealistic hopes that it might transform China and wipe out inequities, including those imposed by the imperialists.11

Li and Chen were unaware of the true role of the Communist party in the Leninist scheme of organization. Their first disciples were from a broad spectrum of "socialists" and anarchists of all stripes and they apparently felt their task was to bring all sorts of learned men together to advance the proletariat. They were soon to learn that Communism was something quite different from a university discussion group.12

In the Hunan capital of Changsha a brilliant young leader arose, Mao Zedong. Mao, aged 25, was an active organizer of a "united students association" in Changsha after the May Fourth demonstrations burst forth in Beijing. He also became editor of the association's weekly Xiang River Review and quickly established a reputation as a powerful radical thinker. The publication achieved wide notoriety. As proof of its influence, the Hunan governor banned the weekly after five issues.

Mao was born in a peasant village about twenty-five air miles south of Changsha.13 His father was a "middle farmer" who owned 2.5 acres of land and, through careful saving, later acquired 1.2 acres more and became a "rich farmer." Mao studied in local schools and graduated in 1918 from the First Provincial Normal School, a teacher's training college in Changsha. Though classified only as a secondary institution, it had high standards and provided an excellent education. Mao's professor of ethics, Yang Changji, introduced Mao to New Youth. In this way, Mao was in touch with China's main intellectual currents. Mao also became enamoured of Yang's daughter, Yang Kaihui.14 This may have played a part in Mao's decision to go to Beijing in the fall of 1918, because Yang had just been appointed to a professorship at Peita.

Mao got a job as a helper in the university library which Li Dazhao directed and attended a Marxist study group which Li Dazhao set up in 1919. He joined two university societies, which gave him the right to attend classes, though he was not a student. When Mao tried to ask professor Hu Shi a question after a lecture, Hu, on learning Mao was not a student, refused to talk to him.

To Lenin and other Bolsheviks in Moscow, the time seemed ripe to establish a formal Communist organization in China. Moscow was anxious to expand Communism both to advance the cause and to make friends. Moscow already had affirmed twice (1918 and 1919) its readiness to renounce the old imperial Russian privileges in China. A more sober Soviet government altered its position in 1920 and proposed to negotiate abolition of the treaties.15 Russia was looking after its own security in seeking to accommodate China. At no time did Soviet leaders lose sight of their primary concern: the national interests of Russia. Whenever idealism came into conflict with the safety or advancement of Russia, idealism lost.

Concern for security, therefore, was mixed with desire to stimulate revolution in the decision of the Third (Communist) International (Comintern) to dispatch its agent Gregory Voitinsky to Beijing in April, 1920. There he met with Li Dazhao.16 Li directed Voitinsky to Chen Duxiu in Shanghai.17 Voitinsky disabused Chen of any idea that a Communist party could be a loose gathering of learned men.

In Russia, a new kind of political party had arisen.18 Lenin had concluded that the masses had neither the experience nor theory necessary to change society themselves and that revolution had to be created by an elite Communist party as a "conscious vanguard" which would operate an authoritarian regime thereafter. As Thomas Sowell points out, it was not the masses but the professional revolutionary who was central to Lenin. He dismissed democracy as "a useless and harmful toy" and centralized dictatorial power in the hands of the vanguard.19 This band of disciplined, professional revolutionaries functioned like an army general staff and Lenin held firmly to the military or command nature of the party. Another essential element was "democratic centralism," which required local and regional committees to obey the policy decisions of the center. When Voitinsky arrived in China, this was the model he was expected to follow. But in the spring of 1921 Lenin added a powerful new element: once the party made a decision, all members were required to support it, outlawing all opposition. Before he died in 1924 Lenin recognized this rule could be used to eliminate opponents and create a one-man dictatorship. But by then the policy was firm.

In early 1921 Chen got an offer from the Guangdong warlord to organize education there and left for Guangzhou, where he established a small Communist organization. In Beijing, Li Dazhao formed a similar group and, hearing the news, Mao Zedong in Changsha also created one. Other Communist groups arose in Wuhan and Jinan and in France Zhou Enlai, Cai Hesen and Li Lisan organized a Communist group among Chinese worker-students.20

On July 1, 1921, thirteen members of the various groups in China, including Mao Zedong but neither Li Dazhao nor Chen Duxiu, began the first "congress" at a girl's school in the French concession of Shanghai. Attending were Voitinsky and Henricus Sneevliet, a Dutchman recently sent out by the Comintern and who went by the name of Maring in China. Because a suspicious character appeared (a spy for the French Surété), the delegates fled to Shaoxing in Zhejiang and concluded their business in a boat on a lake. At these sessions the thirteen delegates inaugurated the Chinese Communist party. They selected a central committee with Chen as secretary and honored Chen and Li as cofounders. The members defined the party's task in orthodox Marxist terms to "overthrow the capitalistic classes" using the "revolutionary army of the proletariat" in order to abolish classes.

The French Surété spy was also an informer for the Green Gang, a gangster syndicate that monopolized the Shanghai opium trade and controlled other legal and illegal operations.21 A Communist movement was as disturbing to it as to other capitalists. The Green Gang's boss was Du Yuesheng ("Big-eared" Du) and he had formed an alliance with Soong Ai-ling. Soong, now known as Madame Kung, was a daughter of Charlie Soong (who died in 1918) and sister of Soong Ching-ling, the young wife of Sun Yat-sen. The Green Gang and Madame Kung made investments and takeovers. This alliance was to have important consequences.

Although the first Communist congress identified the industrial proletariat as the leading force for change, the two cofounders differed about which classes should be the vanguard. Chen Duxiu adopted the standard European Marxist emphasis on workers, though they represented less than 1 per cent of the population. Li Dazhao stressed the peasantry because it constituted the great majority.22 Because Chen was the first chairman, the worker received the most attention as the party sought to develop strength.

In the first congress, the delegates did not spell out the hierarchical party structure specified by Lenin, either democratic centralism or the obligation of unanimity once a decision was made. Maring and Voitinsky decided discipline could come later.

There were only seventy or eighty members of a still loosely organized party assembled in tiny clusters around the country. But orthodox Communism had come to China.

Chapter 6: The U.S. Stops the March to War >>

1. The section on the May Fourth movement is drawn from Cambridge, vol. 12, chapter 7, "Intellectual Change from the Reform Movement to the May Fourth Movement, 1895-1920," by Charlotte Furth, professor of history, California State University at Long Beach, pp. 322, 325, 338, 346, 397, 400-04; chapter 8, "Themes in Intellectual History: May Fourth and After," by Benjamin I. Schwartz, professor of history and government, Harvard University, pp. 406-50; Clubb, pp. 84-88; Sheridan, pp. 120-4; Hsü, pp. 504-05; Pratt, p. 500; Revolution, pp. 182-203; Jansen, pp. 224-31, 247-58.

2. The last vote, 49 ayes and 35 nays, came on March 19, 1920, not enough for the necessary two-thirds majority.

3. Pratt, pp. 507-22, gives an excellent, succinct analysis of the great conflict between the U.S. Senate and President Wilson over the treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations.

4. Cambridge, vol. 12, p. 409.

5. Hsü, p. 507.

6. Davies, pp. 102-03.

7. Revolution, pp. 189-90.

8. Schwartz, pp. 19-20, 23; Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 424-5; Hsü, pp. 505-06.

9. Hsü, p. 516; Cambridge, vol. 12, p. 402; Schwartz, pp. 8-9, 12, 18-23; Jansen, pp. 258-65.

10. Schram, p. 42; Schwartz, pp. 16-17.

11. Hsü, pp. 507-09, Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 433-5; Meisner, p. 107; Schwartz, pp. 20, 23-25.

12. Schwartz, p. 31.

13. Mao Zedong told much of the story of his youth to Edgar Snow in 1936 when Snow visited the Communists at Yan'an in Shaanxi. This is given in Snow, pp. 129-57. The narrative on the development of the Communist party is also drawn from Schram, pp. 15-59; Schwartz, pp. 7-36; Hsü, pp. 514-18; Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 507, 514-16; Harrison, pp. 27-35. An excellent biography of Mao is Dick Wilson, The People's Emperor, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1980.

14. Mao married Yang Kaihui during the winter of 1920-21. Her father died in January, 1920. See Schram, pp. 42, 50-51, 139.

15. Hsü, p. 515.

16. Schwartz, pp. 33-35; Hsü, pp. 516-7; Cambridge, vol. 12, chapter 10, "The Chinese Communist Movement to 1927," by Jerome Ch'en, professor of history, York University, Toronto, Ontario, p. 514; Schram, pp. 53-54, 56-59; Harrison, pp. 27-35, 39-40.

17. Voitinsky brought with him another Russian agent named I.K. Mamaev, his wife and a Chinese interpreter named Yang Mingzhai. See Harrison, p. 27.

18. Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 412, 431; Harrison, pp. 39-40; Britannica, Macropaedia, vol. 11, "Marxism," p. 558.

19. Thomas Sowell, Marxism, Philosophy and Economics, New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1985, pp. 210-2.

20. Schwartz, pp. 31-36; Harrison, pp. 27-35, 39-40; Schram, pp. 52-62; Hsü, pp. 514-18; Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 515-7.

21. Seagrave, pp. 137, 150-1.

22. Hsü, pp. 517-8. Albert Feuerwerker, professor of history, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, gives statistics in Cambridge, vol. 12, chapter 2, "Economic Trends, 1912-49," p. 36, indicating that in 1933 (the only year statistical estimates are available), of a working-age population of 259 million, 1,130,000 persons worked in factories, 770,000 in mines and 40,000 in utilities, or about three-quarters of 1 per cent in traditional occupations identified with the industrial proletariat. However, 212 million persons (82 per cent) worked in agriculture or jointly in agriculture and subsidiary occupations like handicrafts, home industries, etc., and thus could be identified with the peasantry.