In Chinese, mentioning just two or three numbers can be enough to bring to mind a major historical event. Say “Jiuyiba” (nine-one-eight), and your listeners will know you have in mind not just any Sept. 18, but the one in 1931, when Japanese military officers in Mukden, northeastern China, faked the sabotage of a Japanese-owned railway to give Japan a pretext to invade the whole region. Or say “Wusi,” five-four, and any teenager will understand that you are talking about what happened exactly one hundred years ago this Saturday.
That day in 1919, a student protest took place in Beijing that set off what came to be known as the May Fourth Movement. Soon, similar marches were held in other Chinese cities, joined by members of other groups. The upheaval reached its apogee with a general strike in June that paralyzed Shanghai, then China’s leading industrial center and the world’s sixth-busiest harbor — and also partly under foreign control.