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History of International Workers’ Day in China

REN ZUFENG | 2021-04-29 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The 1920 International Workers’ Day issue of the monthly magazine New Youth Photo: CFP

On May 1, 1886, workers across the United States went on mass strikes and organized demonstrations, calling for an eight-hour workday and better work conditions. On July 14, 1889, the Second International designated May 1 as International Workers’ Day. International Workers’ Day was first celebrated by workers from European countries and the United States on May 1, 1890. The date when China began to celebrate International Workers’ Day has been disputed. It is generally thought that that no later than 1920 this day began to attract public attention in China. 

Thoughts of the age
In 1920, Li Dazhao (1889–1927), one of China’s first Marxists and a founder of the Communist Party of China (CPC), published an article titled “A History of the May Day Movement” in the magazine New Youth, China’s most popular reform journal published between 1915 and 1926. In this article, Li noted that the International Workers’ Day, which met a tepid response in China two or three years ago, received great media support in 1920, including the New Youth. There are three reasons why International Workers’ Day gained popularity in China around 1920. 
The first reason lies in the wide spread of socialist thoughts. At that time, Chinese intellectuals were closely following the October Revolution, which started in Russia in 1917. In the Karakhan Manifesto of 1919, the Soviet Union government annulled the unequal treaties which were imposed on China by the Russian tsarist government. This offering won public favor throughout China. Li Dazhao predicted that the future would be a world of laborers and the working class, and pointed to the Russian Revolution as the prelude to the 20th century’s global revolution. As the Soviet Union set an example for the Chinese, the ethos of socialism started to prevail in China. Hence, International Workers’ Day, a day full of socialist significance, appealed to the Chinese people. As a key figure who introduced the October Revolution to China, Li Dazhao gave a detailed account of the history of International Workers’ Day, calling for more public awareness of the importance of this celebration. Later, young Chinese people, who began to accept communist ideas, started to promote International Workers’ Day across the country by writing about it and organizing commemorations. These grass-roots approaches laid a foundation for the celebration’s further spread, launching it nation wide.
As the phrase “Sacred, the Laborers” prevailed, and working class people enjoyed a higher status in China, more value was attached to International Workers’ Day. In 1918, Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940), a renowned educator who served as president of Peking University from 1917 to 1927, gave a speech known as “Sacred, the Laborers” at a conference which celebrated the Allied and Associated Powers’ victory of  World War I and China’s contribution to it. His speech struck a chord with the populace. Famous scholar Xu Deheng (1890–1990), who was a PKU student at that time, recalled that the speech had an unprecedented influence. Countless people were excited and supported the labor-centered concept. The idea of “Sacred, the Laborers” became wildly popular, not due to Cai’s academic prestige or authority, but because this concept had a finger on the pulse of the populace. Obviously, the idea that the working classes played a big role in promoting social development was widely accepted in China at that time. Recent studies have noted that at that moment in time, Chinese people were more eager to become laborers and workers than intellectuals. 
A shared longing to fit into the world at large also helped popularize International Workers’ Day in China during the 1920s. For example, in 1921, commemorations of International Workers’ Day held by students from a technological college in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, were inspired by this longing. From the students’ perspective, International Workers’ Day had been widely celebrated in the West for a long time, and was just brought into China where it was met with limited celebrations. They thought the festive atmosphere of this day was ebbing. Therefore, these students launched a parade with lanterns in their hands to honor laborers on this day. This student parade was led by national pride and in solidarity with international workers, revealing the Chinese people’s desire to fit in the world of the time. This longing to celebrate with the world also played a part in the rise of other holidays in China, such as International Women’s Day and Children’s Day. Of course, the commemorations of International Workers’ Day contained many imaginary elements through the eyes of Chinese people, indicating that the Chinese were still in an early stage of understanding the meaning of the day.      
Early observances
Before 1924, observances of International Worker’ Day in China were mainly promoted by communists. From the autumn of 1920 to spring of 1921, early-period communist groups were formed in Shanghai, Beijing, and several other cities in China. By July 1921, the Communist Party of China was founded. All these efforts ensured the launch of International Workers’ Day in China. 
The observance of this holiday in Shanghai in 1920 was quite representative. On April 18, several major labor unions held a meeting in Shanghai to prepare for upcoming International Workers’ Day celebrations. Chen Duxiu (1879–1942), a CPC founder and a major leader in developing the cultural basis of the revolution in China, explained and interpreted the significance of the labor movement, and he was chosen to be the consultant for the International Worker’ Day ceremony. Many other local organizations, though absent from this meeting, helped with the celebration. The Shanghai Student Union made a donation to the workers’ organizations. The Shandong Road Trade Association officially announced that workers and laborers enjoyed the same status as of merchants. It also required all the shops within its sphere of influence to hang national flags on International Workers’ Day. Despite careful preparations in advance, on International Worker’s Day, the ceremony did not go smoothly. The Beiyang government, a military-junta-led government which ruled the majority of China between 1912 and 1928, sent military and police officers to harass the commemorative assembly, as it believed that those workers were being exploited by students in an attempt to overthrow the Beiyang government. The location for the celebration was changed three times in response to pressure. Finally, it was held successfully in a remote wasteland. The rally mainly comprised of speeches about the significance of “Sacred, the Laborers,” an appeal for improving workers’ living conditions, and the “eight-hour schedule:” “eight hours’ labor, eight hours’ recreation, and eight hours’ rest.” 
In 1921, a conference with thousands of attendees commemorated International Workers’ Day in Changxindian Subdistrict, Beijing. It was a result of the Beijing Communist Group’s long-term efforts in organizing labor movements. The conference consisted of five sections: the election of the chairperson of the conference; a commemorative chorus of songs about International Workers’ Day sung by students; a presentation by the chairperson about the purpose of the conference, the history of International Workers’ Day, and introductions of labor unions; guests’ speeches; all concluding with a parade. Reports said that the parade, which included all attendees, attracted a large number of onlookers who applauded and cheered. The sound of slogans, cheers, and applause almost obscured the horns of trains and cars. Reporters also praised the participants for being well-behaved and in good spirits. This commemoration directly and clearly conveyed the Marxist view of labor, including the goals of the International Workers’ Day, how workers should be treated, and the importance of labor unions.
Early communists’ efforts to promote International Workers’ Day among workers laid the foundation for the CPC to organize commemorative activities for the holiday. On International Workers’ Day in 1922, the CPC invited labor unions all over the country to attend the first national labor conference in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. This conference also received support from Kuomintang members. Under these favorable conditions, the International Workers’ Day ceremony was held solemnly and successfully. The ceremony’s opening included outdoor speeches. Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), the first provisional president of the Republic of China (1912–1949), attended the ceremony and delivered a speech. Then all the attendants went on a march preceded by a parade playing bronze drums. They carried banners reading “Sacred, the Laborers.” Most of the marchers wore typical workers’ outfits. Some marchers showed up in costumes which depicted capitalist exploitation of workers. Along the route, marchers gave out leaflets about the history of International Workers’ Day, which were printed by the Socialist Youth League. 
In short, as socialist thoughts spread widely across the country, more and more Chinese people recognized the role of workers in promoting social development. International Workers’ Day gradually lodged itself in the public mind, which began to be celebrated across the whole nation.  
Ren Zufeng is a lecturer from the School of Humanities at the Southwestern University of Finance And Economics.