The Warning Voice of Social Darwinism
The dawn of the 20th century saw many new, western ideas become popular in China, most notably Social Darwinism, which argued that Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest also governed social evolution, not just biological evolution. This growth in popularity was thanks to the translation efforts of Yan Fu, who translated the works of British sociologist Herbert Spencer into Chinese. The Chinese saw in Social Darwinism an explanation for their supposed inferiority on the world stage, and also saw solutions and ways they could improve themselves and their country. A prevailing thought was that the western countries were dominating them because “might is the only right” and that western civilizations would survive because they were superior, unless China could adapt and incorporate western ideas. One of the people influenced by these ideas was a young Mao Zedong. Mao believed at first that if China was weak, it must be because the Chinese were weak and advocated for physical education. Mao also denounced the arranged marriage system in China and advocated for individual will. Mao believed that the Chinese should fight against injustice and backwardness in their society and that they should “die fighting”.
When the Bolshevik Revolution took place in Russia in 1917, it did not attract much attention from China at first. However, Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu created enthusiasm for Marxism through the journal New Youth. Li Dazhao thought that Russia had “surplus energy for development” because of its comparative slowness in the evolution of civilization, and thought that China could also make such a leap in development if they followed in Russia’s footsteps. The Soviet Union won further attention in China by renouncing the tsarist land claims in Manchuria. Li Dazhao’s group of student Marxists at Peking University grew. Many people did not think China fit the Marxist model, as it lacked a large urban proletariat. Russia, however, did really fit the Marxist model either, and Li Dazhao argued that China itself was a proletarian nation because it was at the mercy of foreign imperialist forces which exploited China, similar to how the capitalists exploited the workers. As severe drought caused crop failures and created thousands of refugees, Marxism began to seem more and more appealing to the Chinese people.
The Facets of May Fourth
The “May Fourth Movement” is named after events that took place in Beijing on May 4th, 1919. Students from Peking University gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Other groups of students sought to awaken the nation as a whole to China’s plight. The May the Fourth protests were supposed to have political implications beyond the Versailles Treaty. There were violent clashes with police and one fatality. Students attacked and marched against politicians who supported Japan. The movement was radical and lead by students, who protested China’s international position and wanted reform. The students got other groups of people, such as merchants, businessman, and industrial workers. Many workers in the cities began to stop working and strike in support of the students. The movement was a reaction to broader questions that Chinese were beginning to ask themselves about what it meant to be Chinese, what China’s position in the world was, and what the future of their country would look like. There were several important members of the movement, who were mostly associated with Peking University, where the movement originated.. Cai Yuanpei, the president of Peking University, defended the right of his students and faculty to speak their mind against the government. He resigned in protest when his students were arrested. After being reappointed in late 1919, he continued to be a staunch defender of human rights and freedom of intellectual inquiry. Chen DuXiu argued that Confucianism advocated things that were contrary to modern life, and felt it was incompatible with a modern state. He thought that Confucianism did not allow for the independence of individuals, which was necessary for a modern state, describing democracy and science as opponents of Confucianism. After being arrested during the May the Fourth protests, he became interested in Marxism and swift social change, later becoming one of the founding members of the CCP. Hu Shi believed in Western methodology and rejected Buddhist fatalism. He thought problems needed practical solutions, attacking intellectuals like Chen Duxiu for talking to much of “isms”. Lu Xun wrote a story about Ah Q, where he lamented that the revolution of 1911 had not changed enough. Lu Xun wanted to expose the moral cowardice and cultural backwardness of the Chinese. He was very pessimistic about future social change. Spence says that while these men had mostly sought to change China with their words up to this point, the May the Fourth movement made a younger generation realize that it was time to “struggle against the forces of darkness with our bare fists.”
The Comintern and the Birth of the CCP
In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the crushing of socialist workers movements in Germany, Turkey, and Hungary, Lenin wanted to help encourage socialist revolutions in other countries. He advocated helping all countries struggling against imperialism, which included China fighting against the Japanese. The Soviet Union first dispatched representatives to China in 1920. With the help of Chen Duxiu, they had the Communist Manifesto fully translated into Chinese. Communist groups formed in Hunan, Hubei, Beijing, and by Chinese nationals in Japan and France. The first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was held in Shanghai in July 1921, with Chen Duxiu elected secretary general. Chinese communists were trained in Russian, and several were sent to the Soviet Union for training as revolutionary organizers. Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and others went to Franceto study French labor organization and socialist doctrine. Xiang Jingyu was an important female leader in the early Communist movement, encouraging Chinese women to to study science. The CCP was still very small in number in the early 1920’s. They wondered whether they could ally with Sun Yat Sen’s Guomindang. The Soviets viewed the Guomindang as the first stage of the revolution, and they needed the Communists to push it further into the second stage, which was a proletarian revolution. In this way, the May Fourth student movement had channeled itself into the formation of the CCP.