Commemorating the December First Movement (1945): The Tombs of Four Martyrs and the Memorial in Kunming

After the second Sino-Japan war broke out in 1937, Peking University, Tsinghua Univeristy, and Nankai University merged into a wartime university first in Hunan province. Pushed by the marching Japanese army, they moved on and arrived in Kunming, Yunnan Province in 1938 and named the university the National Southwestern Associated University 国立西南联合大学 (hereafter Lianda, 1938-1946).

The Tombs of Four Martyrs and the Memorial of the December First Movement in Kunming 昆明市“一二·一”四烈士墓及“一二·一”纪念馆 are located on the original site of Lianda, within today’s Yunnan Normal University 云南师范大学. They memorialize the December First Movement, which started with a demonstration for peace on November 25, 1945 on Lianda campus and ended with the burial ceremony of the four dead (four martyrs) on March 17, 1946. In the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) historiography this movement has been considered as a student movement against the dictatorship of the ruling Nationalist (KMT) government and the third most important student movement in modern China – after the May Fourth movement (1919) and the December Ninth movement (1935). 

Between April and December 1944, the Japanese Army launched the Operation Ichi-Go against Chinese Army (literarily, Operation Number One; in Chinese: 豫湘桂会战, literarily, Battles in Henan, Hunan, and Guangxi Provinces), aiming to carve out a land route all the way to French Indochina and seize American airbases in southern China. The image of the KMT government had grown increasingly negative in 1944 not only due to its military incompetence, but also due to its rampant corruption, economic mismanagement (inflation), and failure to handle famines. Wartime students and teachers at Lianda, whose own livelihood was directly affected, experienced anxiety, fear, and anger like the rest of Chinese society. After the WWII, despite the generational difference between (mostly) US-trained professors and students about American foreign policies, many Lianda students and some professors became sympathetic with the CCP. Founded in early 1939, Lianda’s CCP branch was active on campus after war (Israel).

In October 1945, the governor of Yunnan province Long Yun 龙云 (1884-1962), who was liberal enough to shelter Lianda teachers and students from the KMT control and suppression, was replaced by an appointee of Chiang Kai-shek through a military coup. In fear of civil war, liberal intellectuals and students from four universities and schools in Kunming held an anti-civil war gathering on November 25 on the lawn in front of the Lianda library. KMT soldiers and secret agents tried to disrupt the speeches and discussions with gunfire. Angry students held a strike the second day, demanding the legal right to gather for demonstrations. On November 30 the strikers were attacked physically by soldiers, police, and secrete agents (Israel, Wen). 

On December 1 soldiers and secret agents entered five universities and schools with stones, clubs, and even hand grenades,  killing four (one middle school teacher, two Lianda students, one middle school pupil) and hurting more than twenty.  The bodies of the four dead lay in state in the Lianda library, surrounded by notes of condolence, funeral couplets, and poems sent from all over China (Wen, Israel). Students returned to class on December 25.  On March 17, 1946, estimated twelve thousand people attended the burial service to mourn the Four Martyrs (Israel). In July 1946 Wen Yiduo 闻一多(1899-1946), Lianda professor who wrote an essay commemorating the December First Movement, was assassinated by KMT agents after giving a speech on the burial service of the assassinated Democratic League member Li Gongpu 李公朴 (1902-1946).

The Tombs of Four Martyrs were built in 1946 with donations (Xia and Yu). They share a stone screen featuring a relief that shows young people following the goddess Libertas. In front of the four tombs lies the cenotaph of Wen Yiduo and behind them that of Li Gongpu. 

Picture 1. The Tombs of Four Maryrs.

In 1982 the Exhibition Hall of the December First Movement was constructed near the tombs, which was renamed the Memorial of the December First Movement in 1985. The exhibitions in the Memorial, with historical artifacts and a large number of visuals and texts, display 1) the history of the movement; and 2) the lives of Li Gongpu and Wen Yiduo.  

Picture 2. A screenshot of the virtual tour offered by the Museum of the National Southwestern Associated University, which shows the square outside the Memorial of the December First Movement, with the bust of Mei Yiqi 梅贻琦 (1889-1962), one of the three Lianda presidents. 

Both the Tombs of Four Martyrs and the Memorial of the December First Movement were selected into the first list of the One Hundred Bases for Patriotic Education 首批百个爱国主义教育示范基地 in 1997 and the list of national-level Red Tourism classic destination 全国红色旅游经典景区 in 2005. A Memorial of the National Southwestern Associated University was built in 2004; and the original site of Lianda was selected as a national-level key cultural heritage in 2006 and became a national-level Red Tourism classic destination in 2011. Also in 2011 Yunnan Normal University founded the Museum of the National Southwestern Associated University, which is responsible for managing the Memorials and the original site of Lianda. It maintains a well-functioning official website, which offers virtual tours and online commemoration.

List of Pictures

Featured Image: A screenshot of the computer-generated image of Lianda (AI Quest: The National Southwest Associated University). In: Official website of the Museum of the National Southwestern Association University.  

Picture 1. N.N. (2019). 2-13 “Yangshi laile! Kunming zhexie difang you ming quanguo la 央视来了!昆明这些地方又名全国啦 (CCTV Comes! These Places in Kunming Have Become Known Nationwide)” In: Kunming zixun wang 昆明资讯网(Feb.13):<>

Picture 2. A Screenshot of the Square outside the Memorial in the virtual tour. In: Official Website of the Museum of the National Southwestern Association University.


Israel, John (1998): Lianda: A Chinese University in War and Revolution. E-book. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Xia Lingen 夏林根 and Yu Menghan 于梦寒 (2020). Eds. Zhongguo jingdian jingdian中国经典景点 (Classic Tourist Destinations in China). Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin.

Wen, Yiduo 闻一多 (1945?1946?). “‘Yi er. yi’ yundong shimo ji ‘一二.一’运动始末记”(Recording the December First Movement).” In:Official Website of of the Museum of the National Southwestern Association University.