2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Crime and Punishment: Students’ Enforcement of

Sanctions against Merchants during the May Fourth Boycott Movement

Ta-chia Li

Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica

By taking the lead in the May Fourth Boycott Movement against Japanese Goods, the students’ primary intention was to incorporate merchants into their movement. They resorted to moralizing about boycott of Japanese goods and making formal agreements with merchants, so as to give their moralistic acts the appearance of legality, under which they might assume the role of law enforcers, as it were, with respect to checking goods and administering punishments in case these pledges were broken. In the meantime, by means of protest parades and public punishments, etc., they tried to achieve the aim of warning merchants and the populace.

However, those in power could not tolerate for long these students’ challenges to their legal duties, while their commercial interests and need to make a living meant that merchants were unable to maintain the boycott. This resulted in frequent clashes between students and merchants. The students’ actions in turn also faced both legal and economic obstacles, which they were unable to overcome.

During the May Fourth Boycott Movement, the students’ enforcement of their moralistic sanctions appears to be a harbinger of what was to occur during the Cultural Revolution. Enforcing sanctions under the pretext of nationalistic legitimization discourse ended up seeming little different from the nationalist discourse of totalitarianism.


Keywords: boycott, Japanese goods, students, merchants, punishment