Mitter describes the events of the protest, in which a former minister was beaten and a house set alight. He then steps back to give a history of Confucianism, background on the May Fourth and New Culture Movements, and a brief history of late-Imperial and Republican China down to 1919.
The May Fourth Movement was essentially urban and Beijing and Shanghai were key centres; students and institutions such as Peking University were at its heart. Mitter follows a few key figures: editor of Life Weekly Zou Taofen, writers Lu Xun and Ding Ling, and entrepreneur and journalist Du Zhongyuan.
The period brought major social and economic changes: increasing numbers of factory workers and jobs for women, the spread of literacy and rise of a print culture, more freedom in social relationships, and openings for entrepreneurs. Some of this is illustrated with cases from the "Reader's Mailbox" section of Life magazine.
Turning to politics, Mitter looks at attitudes to Confucianism, approaches to the West, the rise of nationalism, the presence of Japan as threat and model, the Communist and Nationalist parties (both of which subscribed to forms of "secular Enlightenment modernity"), and the status of women. The focus is on ideas rather than on a narrative of events:
"the communist-dominated version of Chinese history obscures the rich variety of political alternatives which the May Fourth era brought forward. There were many different ideas put forward to 'save the nation'. Communism was the thread of thought which would ultimately win out, but in the early twentieth century, there were Chinese interested in anarchism, guild socialism, feminism, fascism, and liberalism, to name but a few."
In the dark years of invasion by Japan, World War, the Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward, May Fourth ideas were if not forgotten then put aside.
"overall, individualism, free-thinking, and iconoclasm, as well as an embrace of the foreign as part of what it meant to be Chinese, all typical of the New Culture thinkers, were not at a premium at a time of mass unemployment, war, famine, and revolution. Nor did the mass campaigns that shaped the early Mao era encourage these values"
The Cultural Revolution saw some startling appropriations of May Fourth ideas. Figures such as the conveniently dead Lu Xun were made into heroes, with their rejection of tradition and appeals to destruction taken out of context. There were real parallels in the emphasis on youth, violence, and iconoclasm, but the Cultural Revolution was reactionary in its attacks on pluralism and its imposition of traditional morality and gender roles.
"Perhaps most notable was the Cultural Revolution's xenophobia. This was the diametrical opposite of the May Fourth era, which often unthinkingly embraced western ideas."
The "new era" decade of the 1980s saw something akin to the New Culture Movement, with an opening up to criticism, greater social freedom, and economic opportunities. Two key cultural productions were Bo Yang's novel The Ugly Chinaman and the documentary Heshang. And the 1989 Tian'anmen movement was explicitly linked to May Fourth: students again played a key role and there was a focus on science and democracy and a turning towards the West.
Mitter argues that the Tian'anmen crackdown was not as dramatic a watershed as it might appear: some of the ensuing changes might have come anyway, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and reform did not stop. He looks at the dramatic changes in twenty-first century Beijing and Shanghai, the turn to nationalism (most notably in anti-Japanese sentiment), and the alternative offered by Taiwan. He suggests that it may not be specific May Fourth ideas that are most important for China's future, but rather an acceptance of pluralism and the ability to sustain different and competing ideas about its identity.
Bitter Revolution is written for a broad audience. It would make sense for a newcomer to read a more general history of modern China first, but Mitter includes enough background that that's not essential. And for those inspired to further reading there's a thematically organised "guide to further reading", in addition to endnotes.