In its wider sense, the May Fourth Movement applies to the historical period between 1917 and 1922 when modern China initiated the radical introduction of Western ideas of science, philosophy, literature, and ethics –including Russian Bolshevikism– and, at the same time, advocated the elimination of its traditional Chinese culture. In a stricter sense, the May Fourth Movement refers to a concrete event: a student demonstration that, with the consent of Beijing University’s Bolshevik intellectuals, ended up with the occupation and burning of the residence of Cao Rulin –Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs and the man responsible for the acceptance of the “Twenty-One Demands”– and with the violent lynching of Zhang Zongxiang, then the Chinese Minister to Japan. They were all charged with treason for “selling” Shandong to the Japanese, because this was the sacred land where Confucius was born.
I would like to focus here on one interesting episode that has escaped critical attention due to the yearly government-sponsored fanaticism against Japan that reigns in China –their 24/7 version of the Orwellian “Two Minutes Hate”–: It is called the 1938 takeover of Qufu, the hometown of Confucius in Shandong province, and it involves Japanese troops taking, once more, that sacred land of one of the most hated figures of the early communists in China. Let’s start with some facts about what and why the Japanese Imperial Army did what it did in Eastern Asia.
The racial conflict between the Japanese Empire and the other Asian peoples reached its peak during the Second Sino-Japanese War, in December, 1937, when the Imperial Army began the Nanking Massacre. For six weeks, a Japanese Army filled with the nationalist ideals of the Meiji period began pillaging, torturing, raping, and killing thousands of innocent citizens –not only in China, but also in Korea, the East Indies, and even Japan. Japanese expansion, which was born when the Meiji emperor was restored and the army was enthroned as an independent institution from their civil representatives, was rooted in the idea that Japan should model itself after the world-conquering Western Empires. There was, additionally, an increasing lack of living space (seikatsu-kuukan, cf. with the German Lebensraum) and a religious nationalism that rejected foreign Asian influences –Indian Buddhism and Chinese Confucianism– and advocated a purer Japanese system of thought. When the first Jesuits arrived in Japan, they referred to the Japanese and the Chinese as “gente bianca” or “white people,” but after Kant and Schopenhauer, two important German philosophers with certain disdain for East Asian races, the West started to talk about a “Mongoloid” or “yellow” race, and this term was soon instrumentalized by the Japanese nationalists, who referred to the Chinese and other Asian peoples as “yellow races” different from the pure white Japanese race descendant from the Sun goddess Amaterasu. There are in fact numerous parallelisms between the German and the Japanese Empires, which some scholars believe “were compatible in their structure and ideology.”
For example, Meiji Japan was firmly placed under German tutelage and, as some historians have observed, it was usually understood that Japan was infected by the “German measles” of the Aryan culture myth. As a matter of fact, the Nazis called the Japanese people Ehrenarier or “Honorary Aryans” and they were placed in a middle category between the Kultur-schaffend (“creators of culture”) and the inferior Kultur-zerstörend (“destroyers of culture”), called Kultur-tragend (“culture-bearing”) and created for them alone.
But when on January 4, 1938 the Japanese Army entered Qufu, hometown of Confucius and the most sacred sanctuary in China, they did not engage in rape or pillage, as they were doing in Nanking, but they respected and protected the Temple of Confucius. It could be argue that this was something similar to the actions of the German Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in Soviet soil: they also had a common enemy called Communism that was consuming both Russia and China. To respect or protect the art and history of Russia or China was not necessarily at odds with the ideals of these empires.
But the most astonishing event was how the Japanese Army treated Kong Decheng, the 77th generation descendant of Confucius in the main line of descent. According to The Times and other Western media, the Japanese wanted to make him the new Emperor of China as early as 1937. Maybe they wanted to model China after Japan, enthroning a figure who was related by blood with an almost divine character such as Confucius. Or maybe they just wanted to establish a puppet regime –Kong Decheng was only 17 at the time. In any case, media reports that Kong refused many times and, after the takeover of Qufu, he left for Hankou, where he lived until the Japanese Army forced him to find shelter in Taiwan, where he remained until his death on October, 2008.
Of course, this does not excuse the bloody and inhumane behavior of the Japanese troops in China and everywhere else, but it clearly shows that history is not just white and black. Because 30 years later China will endure another bloody and inhumane episode –maybe even bloodier than the Japanese invasion of its territories– that will claim the lives of several million Chinese citizens and an even higher number or cultural relics, including the Temple of Confucius protected by the Japanese: It is the well-known Cultural Revolution. And given the actions of the Japanese troops in Shandong, this was also an event that many Chinese nationalists could use as an exercise of self-reflection.