The Treaty of Versailles was about to be signed in June 1919, officially ending World War 1. In East Asia, Germany would surrender and withdraw from Shandong and return it to Japan. It pays to note that initially, the Allies had wanted Germany to return Shandong to China. It was only after 13 demands from Japan (reduced from 21 made in 1915) that both the Yuan Shikai government and the Allies reluctantly agreed that Shandong should go to Japan.
This sparked a massive protest at Tiananmen Square on 4 May 1919. Following these protests, the Chinese ambassador to France, Wellington Koo, stated that China could no more relinquish Shandong, which was the birthplace of Confucius, the greatest Chinese philosopher, than could Christians concede Jerusalem. Koo’s only supporter was US president Woodrow Wilson. It was the persistence of the US that finally got Shandong returned to China – something which is seldom acknowledged in China today.
The majority of the protesters at the May Fourth Movement who accused the Tong Meng Hui government of selling out China, were unknown students. However, one man stood out from the crowd. He was a famous writer, a pioneer in modern Chinese literature. He was the then 40-year-old Zhou Shu Ren, alias Lu Xun 鲁迅.
Lu Xun was a master of the short story. He wrote many satirical pieces mocking the stupidity, inflexibility and cruelty of those who were totally reliant on their ancestors for guidance and wisdom without any regard for changing challenges and circumstances. Apart from the return of Shandong, Lu Xun also called for the modernisation of China, espousing that backward, outdated traditions ought to be abolished.
Curiously, many years ago when I was still in university, I came across a book about Lu Xun which described him as a communist. There are a few clues which might lead to this flawed conclusion. First of all, Lu Xun demonstrated against a pre-communist government. But those in charge then were Yuan Shi Kai and the Tong Meng Hui which had purportedly sold out China. The KMT was not formed until October 1919 and many of its members came from the May Fourth Movement. Next, perhaps the most important reason, Lu Xun’s biggest and most prominent fan was none other than Chairman Mao Zedong.
Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to take revenge against those who disgraced him for the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the aftermath of the Great Famine. Based on Lu Xun’s calls for reformation, he mobilised Red Guards to demolish the Four Olds: Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Customs 破四旧：旧思想、旧文化、旧风俗、旧习惯. The results were devastating and any reasoning person could see that Lu Xun would never have approved of any of the atrocities during this period of mayhem which lasted nearly a decade.
Interestingly, when Mao was asked what would have happened to Lu Xun if he had lived to see the communist era, Mao replied matter-of-factly that he would either have to stop writing or go to jail.