May 4th Revolution or ‘54 Movement’ is being celebrated in China for its 100th anniversary. There is no doubt that after China had toppled the corrupt and ultra conservative Qing Dynasty (Sun Yat Sen’s revolution in 1911), the first largest student uproar in Beijing on May 4th, 1919 marked the peak of Chinese ‘mind revolution’ protesting not just the unstable and weak government but also the Chinese system, its culture, language, literature and most critically its thinking process. Thus the ‘mind revolution’ is a very appropriate term to describe it. The WW I ended in 1919, a peace conference was convened in Paris, China as a victory nation hoped to get the Western powers to remove all the unequal treaties China was forced to sign under the weak Qing Dynasty (through 1842 to 1910), the Western powers flatly refused to do that instead awarded the Chinese territories occupied by Germany (defeated in WW I) to Japan (won the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and looted the Taiwan Island, receiving war reparation equivalent to six years of Japan’s annual budget). Thousands of students from more than ten colleges and schools protested at the Embassy District in Beijing and later burned the house of Tsao Ru Ling, the official who negotiated the unequal treaty with Japan. To the West and Japan, this student uproar did not meant much other than China eventually refused to sign the Paris peace treaty, but to the Chinese, it had cumulated the awakening process started prior to the Chinese Revolution (1911) to a new peak. Some intellects believed that Chinese had to begin a mind revolution to get rid of their ‘old baggage’ and embrace new thinking through education, language, science, democracy and even religion.
Today, China is a very different country. She has developed herself into the second if not the largest economy. She has lifted hundreds of millions of people above poverty having the highest number of citizens going abroad as tourists annually. Most Western countries including Russia and Japan, China’s neighbors, are bewildered and caught by surprise: how could China accomplish this in a few decades from the poorest nation in the world suffering from foreign invasion and brutal wars to the second strongest country in the world? Many scholars and historians are wrestling with the above question. This author was puzzled as well until restudied the events happened before and after the ’54 Movement’ carefully. I am happy to report that there is really little mystery; actually one can use a simple logic to explain why China was down so low before and is up now. No, it is not, “Stupid! It’s the Economy!”, the famous quote in politics. Rather, it is, “Stupid! It’s the Education!”. Education has transformed China and the May 4th “Mind Revolution” was the agent that changed China’s education system and availability making her successful today. In the following, I will present arguments to prove this point.
First, let’s rewind the time back to Qing Dynasty. The Manchurians who invaded and conquered China had decided to inherit the Chinese systems, the language, the culture, laws and governance. However, out of insecurity, the Qing Emperors did not want a sound education system; in fact, they somewhat deliberately discouraged Chinese citizens, largely peasants, to study or get educated. It was fine until the turn of 19th century when the world has gone through an industrial revolution (1764-1840). Later, Japan changed to learn and copy everything from the West (Meiji Reform 1868-1912), but Qing, once the largest economy in the world, still naively maintained its national education system producing few scholars conditioned by an outdated government exam system, keeping 90% or more of her citizens being illiterate. Back in seventeen century, Taiwan was captured by Dutch sailors who had big canons, a Ming General, Zheng Cheng Gong who was defeated by Qing and retreated to Xiamen across from the Taiwan Strait. He took the suggestion from Taiwan’s resistance force to fight the Dutch. He eventually won the fight not by his smaller gun boats but simply by cutting off food supplies to the Dutch. He then captured the big Dutch gun boats, but he soon died and his son lost the war to Qing. So Qing had captured all the Dutch gun boats. However, Qing Dynasty was not interested in how powerful the bigger gun boats could be and why they could be fired more accurately than Qing’s little boats. This story simply explained Qing’s stupidity.
We all knew that the West (Marco Polo 14th Century) had come to China and brought back knowledge and things to Europe, but Qing never was interested in getting her people to learn calculus and Newton’s theory (Issac Newton, 1643-1727) even later when Japan was rising up as an Imperial power through Meiji Reform. Qing had ignored the Industry Revolution entirely. Then Qing Dynasty was bullied with scores of unequal treaties from UK starting 1842, 1843, the U.S. and France, 1844, Sweden and Norway, 1847, Russia, 1858, Portugal, 1887, Japan, 1895, 1931, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungarian, Belgium, Spain and Netherlands, 1901 and extended to 1945 and beyond. Qing’s national illiteracy stood above 90%. When scholars such as Kang Yong Wei (1858-1927) and Liang Qi Chao (1873-1929) pushed for government reform, education reform was minimal. The first batch of Chinese foreign students was sent to the U.S. in 1872 and the program got cancelled. The 1911 ‘54 revolution’ generated a nationwide awareness of the necessity of reform. Some went to the extreme rejecting everything from ancient China; some would blame the culture, some would blame the language and some even blame the Chinese nature (in today’s terms, the genes). However, there were some still defending the old Chinese literature and theorems pointing out that ancient China had embraced science, technology and voting system. The key reform ought to be in education, not only changing the system but also letting people open their minds.
As we know that from 1919 to 1949 China was struggling to fend off invaders and colonial powers. The ending of WWII (1945) finally gave China a chance to establish a republic nation without foreign power stationed on her soil. The current division of China into Mainland and Taiwan, although resulted from an unfortunate internal squabble, in fact do land evidence to support my claim: The successful changes in both Mainland China and Taiwan are due to their education reform and Chinese culture valuing education. From 1949 onward, Taiwan government has emphasized education setting a goal to offer six years of compulsory education then extending to nine years. The government also focused on teacher university, land reform and industrialization policies, but it is the education system that propelled Taiwan to become a dragon in Asia economically. Likewise, starting from a very poor state, Mainland China also put emphasis on education. With its one child policy to get out of poverty, the single child received all the attention from not only the parents but also the grandparents in his or her upbringing. China produced 77.6 million college graduates in 2016 compared to 67.4 million in the U.S. Science, technology, engineer and mathematics (known as STEM) graduates have a strong correlation with a nation’s economic performance; 4.7 million STEM graduates were produced in China versus 2.6 m in India and 0.568 m in the U.S. Clearly, the China Rise is no accident but because of her successful education system along with good economic policies. Bringing a country with near 90% illiteracy to her current status of building one university a week to educate her citizens explains a lot about China’s success.
All the rhetoric we see or hear in the media about China threat, unfair competition and stealing jobs and technologies from the U.S. are all nonsense. I will repeat, “Stupid, it’s Education!” We must ask the following questions, why do we spend more dollars per student per year and get less graduation rate? Why our students shy away from STEMS while the Chinese students compete fiercely to get into STEMS? Recently, I was asked by a friend, how does one get a drone pilot license in the U.S. Honestly, I don’t know, it never has occurred to me to get a drone pilot license. My friend said he saw a peasant in China operating a drone to fertilize his farm. The farmer told him, there were at least 40,000 drone pilot licenses issued in China. I suspect, they are more used for productivity than pleasure. I used to think delivering baozi (a bun filled with meat or vegetable) by drone was a joke or propaganda, now I believe I could picture pizza or scallion pancake being delivered by drone in China!
On the 100th Anniversary of “54 Revolution”, I must say that the 3000 students who protested in Beijing 100 years ago are true Chinese heroes deserving to be honored! Today’s students should know how to tell the significance and impact of the 54 movement!.