How a Forgotten Park Birthed a Revolution
Any discussion of modern China starts with the May Fourth movement, the 1919 upswell that overthrew traditional Chinese society and values and remade Chinese culture, literature, ethics, and ideology.
Although commonly associated with Peking University and intellectual publications like New Youth, May Fourth was a mass political event, one based as much in physical participation as theoretical debate. Indeed, the movement owed much of its popular success to the emergence of new public spaces, from the coffeehouses of Shanghai to Beijing’s skating rinks.
Parks, in particular, were central to May Fourth organizing efforts. China had a long tradition of maintaining private and semi-public “gardens,” or yuan, but the introduction of Western urban planning precepts in the late 19th century and the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912 saw many of these gardens transformed for the first time into truly public parks. From there, they quickly became hotbeds of discussion and practice of the new ideas then sweeping the nation.
A classic example is Taoran Pavilion Park in southern Beijing. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, Taoran Pavilion was the capital’s most celebrated spot for yaji, or “elegant gatherings” of distinguished scholars. Under the Qing, the center of Beijing was reserved for the Manchu, leaving the city’s Han residents to congregate on the outskirts. Han scholars, seeking to revive their traditional culture, began meeting in suburban pavilions like Taoran, where they recreated aspects of literati life.
Taoran Pavilion’s reputation peaked during the reign of the Qing emperor Daoguang (r. 1820-1850), when it became a symbol of Han Chinese culture then being suppressed by the ruling Manchu. Its gatherings became increasingly political in nature, as the scholars who met there rejected the apolitical, hermit-like ideal of traditional literati life in favor of political engagement.
Over the centuries, scholars dedicated hundreds of poems to Taoran Pavilion, but the early Republican reformers who inherited their legacy were attracted, not by the Pavilion’s fame, but by its decline. After the Qing collapsed in 1912, Han Chinese abandoned their homes outside the city and moved back into the inner capital. Within a few short years, Taoran Pavilion was haunted by a smattering of elderly former scholar-officials who reminisced about the good old days of literary gatherings and the imperial system.
The Taoran Pavilion’s lack of visitors in the 1910s and ’20s ironically made it a perfect meeting place for the revolutionaries planning to overthrow what remained of the old order. When Mao Zedong led members of the New Citizenry Study Society from his home province of Hunan to Beijing in January 1920, they met Beijing-based activists at Taoran Pavilion to discuss deposing Hunan warlord Zhang Jingyao.
On August 16, 1920, Li Dazhao — who the following year would help found the Communist Party of China — and Zhou Enlai also led a meeting at Taoran Pavilion, one that helped forge the disparate societies that had sprung from the May Fourth movement into a more cohesive whole. And while the Communist Party was founded in Shanghai, after Li returned to Beijing in late July 1921, he chose Taoran Pavilion as the Party’s secret base in Beijing.
Taoran Pavilion was hardly the only park to double as a center of revolutionary activity in early Republican China (1912-1949). Zhongyang Park, in central Beijing, played host to the Young China Association, the most important political society of the early May Fourth period. The geography of parks arguably determined the geography of revolution. Beijing and Shanghai’s numerous public spaces offered a rich base for student club activities and organizing. By contrast, students in the Republican capital of Nanjing struggled to find spaces big enough to accommodate their activities. When the famous educator John Dewey visited the city in 1920, the local YCA chapter nearly had to cancel a planned talk for lack of a suitable venue.
Because of its connection to Communist history, one of Mao Zedong’s first moves after taking power in 1949 was to order Taoran Pavilion’s restoration. It was a symbolic gesture, but also an acknowledgement of the idiosyncratic blend of old and new that birthed China’s revolution.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A view of Taoran Pavilion in Beijing, July 5, 2022. VCG)