The May 30 Movement (五卅运动) occurred in 1925 during the time of the Republic of China. By then a big chunk of urban Shanghai was colonised by the Western settlers and ruled under Shanghai Municipal Council with members from the West, including the UK, the US, France and Germany. The local Chinese were excluded from the Council board.

Such arrangement was forged between the Western Powers and the Manchu rulers who, as invaders originally from Siberia, regarded the native Chinese as their number one enemies and famously proclaimed that they’d rather see China be occupied by foreign powers than to return it to Chinese people (宁赠友邦不与家奴).

But by then the Manchu’s Qing regime had been overthrown for 10 years and the legitimacy of such arrangements was questioned, rightly, by the Chinese in Shanghai.

The May 30 Movement

Since February 1925 the conflicts between Chinese workers and Japanese management in 22 Mill factories owned and run by the Japanese, reputed for their cruel treatment of their staff, intensified. The workers earned very little but had to start their shift at 5am, and continued to work for 12 hours straight without a meal break. Physical abuse of the workers was a routine practice. But when a Japanese headman beat 12-year-old child labour badly, the anger among the Chinese workers finally erupted.

On May 15, the Japanese at No. 7 Mill shot dead protest leader Gu Zhenghong (顾正红) and injured a dozen. The assault further angered the Chinese, and the workers from 11 Japanese Mills held strikes, protesting against foreign-run industries, particularly those by the Japanese.

Student protest rally on Nanjing Road

The newly established Communist Party of China urged the locals to support the workers. In response to CCP’s call, leftist students came to the streets to raise donations for the victims and their families and to demand justice for the workers killed. However, some of the students were arrested by the Municipal police for the reason that they had created a disruption to the daily lives of the foreign residents.

On May 24, ten thousand people attended Gu Zhenghong’s funeral at Worker’s Club, which resulted in another four arrests of the students when they walked through the International Settlement zone on their way home.

Police from the British empire killed scores of Chinese workers in Shanghai

On May 30, the day the Municipal Council was going to put the arrested students on trial, the student groups organized the biggest anti-imperial protest rally the city had ever seen in history on Nanjing Road and The New World. The march was confronted and attacked by the Municipal police and over a hundred people were detained.

British police killed scores of Chinese students in Shanghai

When the news of the foreign police cracking down on Chinese protest spread, thousands of Shanghai residents surrounded the Old Gage Detention Centre (老闸门捕房), demanding the release of the arrested. The British police opened fire on the unarmed protesters, killing 13 with dozens injured. This incident shocked China and the world, later it is known as May 30 Tradigy (五卅惨案).

On June 1, Shanghai Workers Union was established and called for a general strike. 200,000 workers walked off the job, and 50,000 students walked out of classrooms. The strike lasted for more than two months and bought the entire city to a standstill.

Workers in Guangzhou took to the streets to support workers in Shanghai

The World Responded

The anti-foreign occupation movement quickly spread across China with 17 million Chinese workers, students and merchants taking part in the strike. Before long the wave of the protest reached the overseas Chinese communities and beyond in more than 100 countries and was responded to widely and swiftly. In Moscow, 500,000 Russians held a rally to show solidarity with Chinese people in Shanghai; and in Briton, the workers refused to load cargo for ships bound for China.

The May 30 Movement became a landmark event in China’s struggle for national sovereignty and workers’ rights which eventually led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China that eliminated all foreign concessions in China, including in Shanghai.

The Martres and Leaders of the May 30 Movement

Gu Zhenghong (顾正红), a 20-year old workers’ leader and Chinese Communist Party member, whose death at the hand of the Japanese led to the May 30 Movement.

Li Lisan (李立三), the commander-in-chief of the May 30 movement, was one of the founders of the CCP and the head of the Shanghai Workers Union.

Cai Hesen (蔡和森), the leader of the May 30 Movement and CCP member, was the first one to use the term “Paper Tiger”, and was later killed by the Nationalist Government.

In Memory of the May 30 Movement

After the original memorial site was destroyed by the Japanese, in 1990 a new memorial structure was erected in the heart of Shanghai. The bronze sculpture is formed by two groups of entwined metal entities, one shaped into a Chinese character 五, Five for May, and another fashioned into 卅, for thirty.

The image of the structure also implies how a victim died in the arms of his workmates, which is like a slice of condensed history heavy as bronze yet so sharp that cuts into the air, and so reflective that hurts your eye.

A cartoon published shortly after the May 30 Event in 1925, reflecting the reality of China at the time: Chinese workers were abused and enslaved by both the Western capital imperialists and their local collaborators (买办).


May 30!
Stand up, march along Nanjing Road!
Emit the light of your blood to the end of the world,
Project the profile of your strength on Huangpu’s flow,
Let your prophecy shake the universe like the sound of a bell!

— from the poem In Memory of May 30 by poet Yin Fu (殷夫 1909-1931), who was later killed by the Nationalist (KMT) Government

Images on a memorial wall commemorating May 30 Movement
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  1. Wisdom cannot be stolen because it is the Art and the Tool of a true Craftsman in his journey along the river of his everday Life and castes aside the tools and the trechery of ignorance, traced at the roots at the source of his wisdom.

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