APRIL DAN FENG studies the May Fourth Movement and the enduring concept of renzhi.

“Petition is a common political behavior in any country. Normally, it should not cause death, but we all know that China is an exception… Social changes always include bloodshed, but bloodshed does not necessarily bring social changes…”  –Lu Xun, 1912

On the morning of May 8, 1919, four days after the May Fourth Movement, Cai Yuanpei, then president of the renowned Peking University, announced his resignation and left for his beloved students and colleague one perplexing sentence from Fengsu Tongyi, a book written 1,800 years ago: “It is the people who are cheering for my horse that ultimately kill it.” For years, scholars have been trying to understand what Cai, a great scholar well-versed in both the traditional Chinese culture and modern Western philosophies, really wanted to say.  

The May Fourth Movement took place in 1919 in Beijing. It was an anti-imperialist movement that grew out of student demonstrations. Students from Peking University and other institutions of higher education gathered at Tiananmen Square and demanded that the government refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which entailed that Shandong Province, the birthplace of Confucius, be governed by Japan. The Movement marked the first time in Chinese history that students, as an independent political power, participated in public petition regarding state issues. The protest remained peaceful until the angry demonstrators marched into the residence of Cao Rulin, one of the three officials accused of collaborating with the Japanese, destroyed all of Cao’s furniture, burned down the entire house and beat Cao’s friend Zhang Zongxiang almost to death.


With a desire to understand more fully one of the most crucial moments in Chinese history, I began a project on the May Fourth Movement. After conducting field research and reading historical documents in Beijing, Shanghai, Shaoxing and Hunan, I discovered a historical pattern underlying Chinese public movements and mass petitions: when a social group develops fear of being perceived as vulnerable or powerless, an insecurity perpetuated from thousands of years of renzhi (rule by the people, as opposed to rule of law, fazhi), violence or the threat of violence is identified as the only choice to claim power and make demands.


My experience in Hunan Province  gave me a taste of Chinese people’s fear of being perceived as powerless. In Changsha, the capital of Hunan, I listened to the story of a taxi driver, Xiao Liu, which seemed to confirm and shed a new light on my supposition.

7Taxi in the ancient city of Shaoxing, Hunan.

Last year, Xiao Liu got stopped by a policeman for speeding. He refused to accept the ticket, and the policeman beat him out of anger. “All of sudden, I felt the serious threat of being looked down upon. I had to fight back. I had to show him that I was not someone that could be bullied!” Xiao Liu called up all his taxi-driving friends, planning revenge to reassert their power.

The next day, four hundred taxi drivers drove their cars to the Hunan provincial government building and encircled it. For four hours, nobody could get in or out. The city of Changsha became dysfunctional. “Nobody can look down upon us,” Xiao Liu said. “If you do, we will make you suffer.”

“But you should not be speeding…” I remarked in a low voice. “Oh come on! You are too young and too naive. The society is ruled by people! Only those who have hard power can survive. We are afraid to lose our power. We cannot lose our power.” According to Xiao Liu, there are six thousand taxi drivers in the city and all of them belong to one of four gang-like groups. “With the strength of the large groups on our back,” he said, his voice shaking from a combination of pride, excitement and agitation, “nobody dares to bully us, not even the government!”

I detected a sense of a fear of being perceived as powerless in Xiao Liu’s narrative and heard echoes of the May Fourth Movement in his story. Though I could empathize with Xiao Liu about his fear, I was perplexed by his proposed solutions to ease this fear–a series of behaviors damaging the city business of Changsha. Xiao Liu’s last comment, “if you [look down upon us], we will make you suffer,” even frightened me a little bit. To him, fear and violence seemed to be so naturally connected with one another. There must be some special social mechanism in China that twists fear to violence like this.


violence 1.jpgThe birthplace of May Fourth Movement: the meeting room of students in the Red Building in Peking University, preserved as the night before the Movement. 

Inside the Museum of Peking University in Beijing, I encountered many informative yet disturbing accounts told by the student leaders of the movement and began to see an aggregation of a shared political condition, one that is unique to Chinese culture: renzhi (rule by the people).

Under renzhi, the fear of being perceived as powerless can easily turn someone to violence, and the May Fourth Movement was an example. When the students first learned that the incompetent Beiyang government, in an effort to maintain its internal rule over China, would sign the Treaty of Versailles and sacrifice yet another territory of China’s to a foreign state, they immediately organized to protest. At first, they agreed that the protest would be non-violent.

However, the attempts at peaceful persuasion failed, and most students’ pleas were ignored. Even after hours of student sit-in protest and patriotic speeches on Tiananmen Square, no official explanation was made. Qing dynasty officials simply refused to meet the students. Not satisfied with the results, students turned south and headed to the foreign concessions area, where they were stopped by soldiers and were denied entrance to Dong Jiao Min Xiang, a region where many foreign embassies were located. They finally realized that they were perceived as powerless by both the Chinese and foreign governments, that knowledge, patriotism and reason did not have bargaining power. Their only method of catching attention and regaining power was resorting to violence.

“We hated the government for being incompetent and the officials selling our country. We did not know where to express this anger, so we could only burn down cars and buildings on random streets.”

The students took a turn from Dong Jiao Min Xiang and started heading to the residence of the three officials accused of collaborating with the Japanese. According to Luo Jialun, the leader of the Movement, all actions from that point on became irrational and unorganized. They beat one of the three officials, Zhang Zongxiang, violently with iron bars. One of the students carried a bloody red silk blanket, tore it apart and waved a piece in the air, shouting victoriously. Liang Shiqiu, one of the student protestors, remembered the event after several years:  “…people had an anger, but did not know where and whom to express [it to]. We hated the government for being incompetent and the officials selling our country. We did not know where to express this anger, so we could only burn down cars and buildings on random streets.” In a society ruled by the people, there is no objective social law to lean on when people require their rights or demand changes. Therefore, the fear of being perceived as powerless becomes wild.


After the May Fourth Movement, afraid of the students, the government released those arrested without punishing them for their violent behaviors. According to Luo Jialun, there were many students who even refused to leave prison because the longer they stayed in prison, the more bargaining power they would appear to have. At one point, the government officials even prepared cars and fireworks to motivate them to leave the prison, but the students still refused to do so. In the end, high-ranking officials kneeled down, called the students fathers and begged them to leave, informing that they were already famous outside the prison walls. “They [were] afraid of us,” Luo Jialun said, “because now we have power.” It seems that the students were the ones that finally obtained power. However, violence, at the same time, became the publically-recognized and accepted way to ease fear and acquire bargaining power.

Since the May Fourth Movement, the tradition of renzhi in China has not changed. Young students sacrificed their lives for patriotism. Soldiers shed blood obeying orders and protecting the regime. Even during peaceful times, people are willing to resort to violence to ease their fear of being perceived as powerless. Xiao Liu’s words still ring in my head, “Remember this, it sucks to be nobody in China. In a society with renzhi, you need connections. You need social status. People like us taxi drivers have none of those. We are afraid of being bullied or being seen as powerless. We have no choice but to fight back, violently enough to make them realize that we also have power. Or maybe…” he looked at me from the rear view mirror, “you can change it when you grow up.”
April Dan Feng is a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Contact her at