Karl Marx, Cai Yuanpei, and the Legacies of May Fourth

While the centennial of the 1919 May Fourth Movement is still a year away, 2018 has no shortage of anniversaries related to this epochal moment in China’s modern history and to the intellectual and political movements to which it gave birth.

Karl Marx is getting celebrity treatment ahead of his 200th birthday this Saturday with a series of academic conferences including a speech by Marxist-in-Chief Xi Jinping lauding the German philosopher’s contributions to China’s socialist revolution. State media has even introduced a new chat show “Marx was Right,” to introduce Marxist theory to young people raised in an era of conspicuous consumption.

The former library of Peking University in downtown Beijing. Today it is a museum to the May Fourth era.

At the May Fourth Memorial Hall in downtown Beijing, a temporary exhibit mixes details from Karl Marx’s life and work with memorabilia from China’s revolutionary past including a document expelling a youthful hooligan named Deng Xiaoping from France.

Across the parking lot, inside a red brick building built in 1918 to house the Peking University library, is a reproduction of the office of Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), university chancellor and a towering intellectual figure in the New Culture Era which culminated in the demonstrations on May 4, 1919. This past January marked the 150th anniversary of Cai Yuanpei’s birth.