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New Left Review I/237, September-October 1999


Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom

Student Protests in Fin-de-Siècle China

It was springtime in China and, once again, students were taking to the streets and making headlines. Some youths held aloft official flags bearing the names of their schools, while others carried banners covered with passionate phrases written out in Chinese characters or Roman letters. Campuses throughout the country were festooned with wallposters, also in varied languages, the contents of which ranged from elegant poems to crude caricatures, some of which likened a current political leader to Hitler. The propaganda accompanying the movement had a decidedly cosmopolitan and contemporary feel, since students employed the latest technologies of communication, borrowed symbols from protest movements that had taken place recently in other parts of the world, and made allusions to current Eastern European events. Nevertheless, there were many things that the students did and said that linked them to China’s past. For example, when they called on all Chinese to help jiuguo (save the nation), they were echoing a cry of earlier generations. It had been heard, for example, in 1903 (when Tsarist Russian threatened Manchuria), 1935 (when Japanese incursions into North China triggered the December 9th Movement), and 1947 (when the Anti-Hunger, Anti-Civil War Movement broke out). When they worked the phrase ‘blood debts must be repaid in blood’ into their posters, they were doing something that their predecessors of the 1920s had often done as well when there were patriotic martyrs to be honoured. And some of the march routes they followed and songs they sang were well-known to educated youths of the pre-1949 era.

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