While much of the west celebrated Star Wars Day (playing on the pun “May the Fourth be with you”) yesterday, China silently observed its National Youth Day. This holiday, a nod to the May Fourth Movement of 1919, commemorates a different kind of force: the creation of “New China.” This movement had its roots in massive student-led protests against the Versailles Treaty, but it is better known today for sparking China’s rejection of feudal tradition and embrace of modernity. In the years following those protests, science replaced Confucius, reason displaced harmony, and empire became nation.

To understand how significant this was, one has to step back and recall China’s traditional worldview. For thousands of years, China had always seen itself as an exceptional Confucian civilization. Its society was underpinned by the Confucian concept of li, an abstract idea that some westerners crudely translate today as “natural law.” This concept teaches that all human interactions are part of a preordained cosmic order, the harmony of which requires everyone to know his place: teacher and student, master and servant, emperor and subject, big and small, strong and weak. Translated into socio-political structure, this concept provides the premise for paternalism and feudalism. Externally, it also perpetuated the so-called Middle Kingdom complex: the belief that there existed a metaphysically preordained hierarchy of civilizations, with a peerless China occupying its summit.

This Middle Kingdom syndrome was rooted in the enduring primacy of Chinese civilization and the intuitive self-confidence that it spawned. This mentality, however, made China inward-looking. Believing that the mainland was already the fount of knowledge, wisdom, and culture, the Chinese saw no reason to venture outward. This explains why China never conquered its periphery. Informed by the li, the Chinese exhibited what I like to call “splendid indifference.” To them, the center had no need to engage the periphery. If the periphery wanted to learn from the center, the li dictated that the center treat them with benevolence. Yet in that context the student would have to acknowledge the master’s supremacy first, which is why the Chinese had always insisted on the need for others to kowtow.

This inward-looking disposition made China grossly unaware of outside developments, particularly the European technological boom that defined much of the modern era. Just as the western world started to achieve global domination, Chinese civilization regressed. By the time the western colonial powers reached Chinese shores in the 1700s, the country was ill prepared to deal with the existential threat they posed. As a result, the west subjugated China. Imperial powers divided the country among themselves. Their nationals lorded it over the Chinese, treating them as second-class citizens in their own country.

This humiliation led to the Xinhai Revolution that replaced the Qing Dynasty with the Chinese Republic. The Chinese expected this new regime to protect Chinese interests. But when the Versailles conference affirmed Japan’s spheres of influence within China, it became clear that the new Chinese Republic was just as weak as the imperial regime it replaced.

The terms of the Versailles Treaty were the issue that sparked the massive student-led protests on May 4, 1919. The movement that these protests spawned, however, transcended specific issues. Realizing that the problem was not the political structure but the prevailing elitism that characterized China’s paternalistic and feudal culture, the Chinese rejected traditional values. The New Culture Movement was thus born, and it led to China’s profound embrace of the Enlightenment.

Westernization of China

In the aftermath of the European dark age, leading western intellectuals began to actively seek the rediscovery of ancient philosophy in a movement known to historians today as Renaissance humanism. This movement spawned the Age of Enlightenment, which rejected the authority of traditional gatekeepers like the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church.

As a philosophical movement, the Enlightenment was basically a rejection of the metaphysical. It posits that human experience, not some divine design, is the only source of meaning; that human senses are the only source of evidence; and that human reason is the only source of wisdom. Translated politically, the Enlightenment posited that sovereignty resides in the people and that authority exists to serve their needs.

Following the arrival of the west, the Chinese became gradually exposed to the allure of the Enlightenment’s humanist principles. Sun Yat Sen, who led the Xinhai Revolution, rejected the Confucian theory that governments earn and lose their mandate from heaven. Echoing western political thought, Sun argued that the legitimacy of government emanates from a social contract, not some mystical mandate. He proposed that this contract should be underpinned by the “three principles of the people”: self-determination, liberty, and social justice.

The eventual failure of the Chinese Republic inspired the New Culture Movement to stretch Sun’s revolutionary premise even further. Beyond politics, there was a sense that a new society must be built. Seeing how the Enlightenment spawned the scientific and industrial revolutions that propelled the west into global ascendancy, Chinese intellectuals concluded that China’s only hope lay in a similar modernization. For this to happen, Confucianism must be systematically dismantled. This led to a rejection of cultural traditions that were deemed incompatible with science and reason. Mao Zedong was heavily influenced by this movement.

From this seminal movement eventually spawned Mao’s communist revolution, which led to the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Under Mao, the rejection of tradition ultimately reached dystopian heights. Citing the need to totally erase the Confucian psyche, he launched the bloody Cultural Revolution in 1966. This movement represented not only a total rejection of authority, but also a dangerous repudiation of intellectual culture, traditional manners, and social order. The result was disastrous.

Sinicization of Marx

Marxism, like liberalism and even fascism, is also an offshoot of the Enlightenment. Contemporary author Yuval Noah Harari identifies it as a strand of humanism. Indeed, Marxists consider themselves superior scientists of human affairs. Karl Marx proposed the complete dismantlement of existing economic, political, and social structures and their replacement with a classless utopia. This resonated in China given widespread rejection of existing socio-political orders at the time.

But Mao extended Marxist analysis even further. He disagreed with Vladimir Lenin’s idea that workers should lead social transformation — violent or otherwise — into a socialist state as a prelude to world communism. Mao thought that Leninism could not apply in China because the country’s political economy was largely agrarian. He argued that Marxism must be applied in accordance with the specific characteristics of Chinese conditions. He posited that the peasants should take the lead, and the way to do so was through violence, or what he calls “protracted people’s war.”

Today, the Communist Party has canonized Mao as having been seventy percent good and thirty percent bad. That thirty percent consisted of the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These policies led to massive famine and unimaginable suffering, and also relegated China to backwater status for much of the previous century. To correct these mistakes, his successor Deng Xiaoping revised Marxism and Maoism even further. To justify his policy of “reform and opening up,” Deng concocted the theory of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

But the scar of Mao’s shortcomings and the sudden liberalization that Deng oversaw proved to be a potent combination. In an echo of the May Fourth Movement, student-led protests jolted the communist leadership eleven years after Deng instituted his reforms. Just as the students of 1919 called for liberalism and the rejection of the status quo, so did the students of 1989. For the Communist Party, this was a near-death experience that necessitated a reinvention of its mandate. As a result, the Tiananmen incident hastened the party’s transformation from proletarian to patriotic.

Suddenly, the party started bringing Confucius back. Classical Chinese culture was again promoted, along with traditional Confucian values. This renewed nostalgia was coupled by an emphasis on China’s century of humiliation at the hands of the west and Japan. Subliminally, the Middle Kingdom doctrine was also brought back. For the past thirty years, Chinese children have been taught that China was displaced from its natural position of primacy due to its weakness, and that China’s ascendancy can only be restored if the country regains its strength. In other words, official historiography now emphasizes the narrative of humiliation at the hands of foreigners and the prospect of salvation through socialist rejuvenation. Rather than personal liberty, the party asserts that what the Chinese really need is national catharsis through historical justice.

In a way, these three critical junctures — Mao’s bifurcation from Leninism, Deng’s re-characterization of Maoism, and Xi Jinping’s emphasis on national rejuvenation — represent the Sinicization of Marxism, an offshoot of western political thought. This repeats a familiar cycle in the long arc of Chinese historiography.

In the past, China had been invaded by foreign elements such as the Mongol and Manchu cultures as well as Buddhist philosophy, for example. Yet in a testament to the enduring capacity of China’s cultural continuum — or what Henry Kissinger describes as the Chinese singularity — these foreign elements were absorbed and then gradually Sinicized. When the students started the New Culture Movement in 1919, they probably thought that they were burying classical Chinese culture once and for all. In retrospect, what they did was to merely enrich the Chinese singularity by giving it another foreign element to absorb.