KOREA FOCUS
Why Did Mao, Nehru and Tagore Applaud the March First Movement?
Shin Yong-ha

Chair Professor
Ewha Academy for Advanced Studies
Ewha Womans University


The nation marked the 90th anniversary of the March First Movement. One of the most important aspects of the nationwide independence movement of 1919 is that it had a considerable impact on the world. The movement shattered Japan's ruthless colonial rule and led to the establishment of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai and to the launch of the Korean Independence Army. It greatly bolstered the Korean people’s struggle for independence and increased the world’s awareness of their strong aspiration for liberation.
 
The Entente Powers, of which Japan was a member, won World War I, which ended in November 1918. Whereas the result of the war invigorated the winners, it further discouraged the nations that had been under their colonial rule or control. Under these circumstances the March First Movement exerted a decisive influence on the May Fourth Movement, which provided a turning point for the birth of modern China.
 
At the time, China, under quasi-colonial rule of imperial powers, was about to hand over the German-leased Shandong Peninsula to Japan. Even the militaristic government in Beijing consented to the handover. Chinese intellectuals were enraged, but they did not dare to resist. Then, Koreans declared their independence from Japan and took to the streets on March 1, 1919. The unarmed campaign of the Korean people had a strong impact on Chinese intellectuals.  
 
The pro-Nationalist Minguo Ribao gave prominent coverage to the movement every day. Chen Duxiu, dean of the School of Arts at Peking University, was one of the leading intellectuals. The Weekly Review edited by Chen and the Xinchao magazine published by students of Peking University lauded the movement and urged the Chinese to emulate Koreans and stand up against foreign powers. 
 
Students at Peking University formed an association to save the nation and published the Guomin monthly. Its April 1919 edition contained special features on the Korean independence movement. They included the text of the March First Declaration of Independence and five commentaries on the Korean independence movement. In one article, the monthly reported that when a Korean farmer waving the national flag got his hand chopped off, he grabbed it with the other hand and kept shouting, “Hurrah for independence!”
 
It went on to say that the Chinese must feel ashamed for doing little over the Japanese takeover of Shandong. Leading members of the Peking University students’ association gathered at the Guomin’s editorial room, where they decided to hold a rally on May 4 at Tiananmen Square and notify all schools and universities in the city of the plan. 
 
On the day, students who assembled at Tiananmen read a declaration and launched the May Fourth Movement. The declaration, noting that Koreans rose against Japan risking their lives, appealed to all Chinese to resist Japan’s attempt to take control of Shandong. The appeal spread to major cities across China.  
 
Chinese intellectuals at the time publicly acknowledged that the May Fourth Movement began under the influence of the March First Movement. Among those who highly praised the Korean independence movement were Chen Duxiu, Fu Sinian and Mao Zedong.
 
The March First Movement also had a great impact on “Satayagraha,” or non-violent resistance, launched by India’s National Congress on April 5, 1919. Mahatma Gandhi, who was staying in South Africa, read news reports about the March First Movement and decided to return home and launch a non-violent independence campaign. The Indian independence movement embraced the non-violence principle of the Korean campaign.
 
The fact that Rabindranath Tagore wrote the poem “Lamp Bearer of the East” on the 10th anniversary of the March First Movement and Jawaharlal Nehru praised it in the book “Glimpses of World History” he wrote in prison for his daughter demonstrates that they were impressed by the Korean independence movement.
 
In the Philippines, then a U.S. colony, university students in Manila launched an independence movement in June 1919. They also mentioned the March First Movement. In the same month, students of Cairo University in Egypt initiated an independence movement against British colonial rulers, which later spread to the Arab world. This too was influenced by the March First Movement.
 
What is noteworthy is that those who were influenced by the March First Movement – individuals, political parties and organizations that led China’s May Fourth Movement, Indian National Congress’ independence movement as well as independence movements in the Philippines and the Arab world – all grew up to play vital roles in their country’s independence after World War II.
 
If the day comes when the world history is written in such a truthful way as “Glimpses of World History” authored by Nehru, then the March First Movement should be reassessed as the first beacon that lighted the hope for freedom for three-fourths of mankind.
[Chosun Ilbo, February 27, 2009]