By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

The purpose of this multipart investigation will be two-fold, where one we analyze what led to the 1941-1945 pacific war starting with the discussions following the Treaty of Versailles in context of which Erez Manela in his epic book 1 pointed to 1919 as the "Wilsonian Moment" whereby the purpose of this is too to understand potentially could lead to a futures second pacific war if China follows up on its threats to attack Taiwan with as a purpose to take control of what China terms the South China Sea.

The term South China Sea itself did not exist before the 20th century and was first established as a regional concept in Japan or as the preface to Yoshaburo Takekoshi's 1910 bestseller Nangokukki [Outline of the History of the South Seas], Tokyo: Niyousha, 1910, indicated that "in the last twenty years the name `South Seas' has come into general use" which suggests that this term may have been re-imported to China from Japan.

For many Chinese in the early twentieth century, the nation-state system was full of contradictions and incongruities. On the one hand, it was a “measurement of civilization” in a hierarchy in time denoting human progress from barbarism to civilization and from primitive production to industrial manufacturing. As a measurement of civilization, the nation-state system invited everyone, Africans, Asians, Europeans, to join the global march to achieve “liberty, fraternity, and equality.” On the other hand, especially after World War I, the nation-state system became a symbol of a hierarchy in space in which strong nations acquired more land and resources at the expense of weak nations. The geographical size of a nation became a measurement of wealth and a symbol of power.

Driving this tension between connectivity and geo-body was the conflict between the lofty goal of safeguarding the national independence of all legitimate nations, as eloquently spelled out in Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and the harsh (if not dark) reality of the imperialism where strong nations continued to invade and occupy the land of weak nations. One may say that this conflict had existed long before World War I. But for the Chinese, especially the cultural elites, this conflict became apparent in the Versailles Settlement, where the Allied Powers decided to give the German colonies in Shandong to Japan. It was the tension between a hierarchy in time and a hierarchy in space that was pivotal to the change in how the Chinese looked at Japan. When the Chinese understood the nation-state system as a hierarchy in time for human evolution, China would join the community of nation-states by modeling itself after Japan’s “East Asian modernity.” When the Chinese understood the nation-state system as a hierarchy in space for acquiring wealth and land, they saw Japan as an aggressor and a competitor. With this understanding, we must look at Chinese nationalism more carefully. Before we blame the Chinese for narrowing their horizon and adopting a victim mentality, we should first examine the nation-state system that caused confusion and frustration due to its conflicting goals.

As we have seen in part one and part two, the Paris Peace Conference and its immediate aftermath have contributed to how East Asians re-defined “Asia” and how this new consciousness of Asian commonality, usually with Japan and China at its core, has influenced ideas of revised postwar world order. Most important were its effects on redrawing of what led to the contours of present-day China.

This whereby one shouldn't forget that Chinese linguists generally agree that the total number of languages used by China's ethnic groups is over 80, with some ethnic groups using more than one language. Among these different languages, 30 have written forms. Regarding language genealogy, they are categorized into 5 different families: the Sino-Tibetan, Altai, Austro-Asiatic, Austronesian, and Indo-European.

To this, we could also add that China was traditionally an elite-dominated society; it looked to the elite to rule and guide, a reliance that continued after The Republic of China (ROC) was founded in 1912. Sun Yat-sen, who initially headed the left-wing section of his party although he thus vowed to fight for a democratic China, in reality, was also really an elitist.

With all of this, however, Japan loomed large in China’s foreign affairs and in the construction of Chinese national identity in positive, both beneficial and constructive, and negative, both damaging and contrasting, ways from the 1890s onward. Its actions at Versailles had a catalytic effect on the May Fourth Movement and the thinking of Chinese nation-builders. However, the changes we analyze were not solely or inherently dependent upon Japan, much as May Fourth was not merely an expression of anti-Japanese sentiment. Japan’s prominence made it a focus of Chinese attention and thus a particularly useful interlocutor for understanding deterritorialized Chinese national construction, but the central concerns of jurisdiction and sovereignty had as much to do with Chinese engagement with the Western nation-states as they did with Japan.


The important Chinese factions beyond 1919

As we have seen, in standard historical accounts, “May Fourth” (五四运Wusi Yundong) means both the “May Fourth Movement” (student protests in 1919) and the “May Fourth New Culture Movement” (language reforms and cultural renaissance from 1915 to 1923).2 This doubling of the meanings of “May Fourth” is by no means accidental. It is to highlight two different meanings of the 1919 moment in China. It was, in the short run, a political movement driven by anticolonial nationalism3 and, in the long run, a cultural awakening when China’s role in the world was drastically changed from the center of “all under heaven” (Tianxia 天下) into a single nation-state (guojia 國家) among many.4

Founded in 1911, the Republic of China (ROC) was the first Republic in Asia. However, this event did not end the increasingly severe crisis in politics and culture in China since the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895; on the contrary, it intensified the anxiety of Chinese people regarding the polity, morality, ultimate faith, and so on. The situation was true as Kang Youwei summarized, “The old machine has been dismantled and cannot be reassembled, the only way left is to stop working; the old house has been destroyed and cannot be rebuilt, we can do nothing but sleep in the open . . . today’s peril and turmoil are one hundred times more than the late Qing Dynasty.”5 In general, the focus of all thoughts in the early years of the ROC was how to reestablish the authority of politics and morality and how to prevent the social order from falling apart after the collapse of twenty centuries of imperial regimes. This chaos in politics and thought only began to clarify itself after the May Fourth Movement (MFM), when all the major political parties that influenced twentieth-century China emerged and all the major schools of thought that constructed the intellectual world of the twentieth-century Chinese intelligentsia fully formed. An important sign of this transformation was the rapid rise of the leading figures of the MFM and “New Culture,”6 as their activities at the center of the cultural stage displaced those of the intellectual elites of the Wuxu period. Wuxu was the year 1898, when “the Hundred Days of Reform” took place.

Between June and September 1898 the Guangxu Emperor issued more than 180 reformist edicts, making sweeping changes in areas including government, the bureaucracy, education, and the military. The dimensions and the pace of these reforms angered and threatened conservative ministers, bureaucrats and military officers. Some of them lobbied for action from Dowager Empress Cixi. On September 21st, Cixi acted. Backed by conservative military leaders, she forced the emperor to abdicate all state power in her favour. The emperor was held under house arrest and most of his reforms were either abolished and wound back...


The Left and Right New Culture Movement

In accordance with the demarcation in Feng Youlan’s History of Modern Chinese Philosophy, the New Culture Movement (NCM) could be divided into Left and Right factions. At first, the two parties cooperated with each other in a journal, New Youth, but their conflicts came out into the open after 1919. The NCM Left believed that “the major cause of the poverty and backwardness in China was the invasion of imperialism,” and accepted “Marxism as the guiding ideology in politics and academics,” whereas “the school who neither believed the former nor accepted the latter belonged to the NCM Right.”7 The representatives of the Left were Chen Duxiu (1879–1942) and Li Dazhao (1889–1927), while Hu Shi (1891–1962) and Liang Shuming (1893–1988) represented the Right. This demarcation was simple and effective but too ambiguous. As a matter of fact, although both leftists Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao studied in Japan and both were founders of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Chen was more thoroughly trained in classical Chinese learning, while Li acquired more systematic proficiency in Marxist theory. There was, of course, a non-reconcilable conflict between the Left and the Right, such as the dispute over “Problems and Doctrines” led, respectively, by Li Dazhao and Hu Shi. The Rightist Hu Shi, who represented the liberalist trend that endorsed Westernization, and the Rightist Liang Shuming, who represented the New Confucian trend that defended Eastern culture, were completely incompatible and opposed each other in the famous polemics on Eastern and Western cultures in the 1920s. The multiple discrepancies between the NCM Left and Right reflected a complex spectrum inherent in twentieth-century Chinese thought and culture. However, no matter how big the gap was, both parties showed very similar attitudes on the critique of Kang Youwei, the intellectual leader of the Wuxu period, especially on the Confucianism Movement he oriented.

Kang Youwei was the leader of the above referred to Wuxu Reform. His works, such as On the Forged Classics in Xin Dynasty, On Confucius as a Reformer, and The Book of Great Harmony, announced radical reform schemes that wholly accepted modern Western political forms and culture, which incurred violent resistance from Confucian Conservativism. Kang fled into exile abroad, traveling in more than thirty countries in Europe and North America, where he gained a deeper understanding of Western politics and culture. When the ROC was founded in 1911, he strongly argued that its administrative defects resulted from the lack of a power center possessing symbolic force and democratic principles and advocated for a “Republican Monarchy,” like the British Constitutional Monarchy under which the King had no legislative and administrative authority. He instructed his disciple Chen Huanzhang (1880–1933) to establish the Confucian Association and masterminded two movements for Confucianism as a national religion in 1913 and 1916. He proposed the transformation of the polity from absolute monarchy to republicanism and the coexistence of reform in secular politics and preservation in spiritual faith, stating, “morality and politics are like the two wheels of a wagon running together.”8

Regardless of their factional allegiances, Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, Hu Shi, and Liang Shuming all attacked Kang Youwei fiercely during the NCM. Both the NCM Left and Right attempted to portray Kang as a diehard conservative. Even more significantly, when the four people criticized one another, they all attacked their ideological foes for purported similarities to Kang Youwei’s ideas. That is to say, Kang became a symbol for the disputes within the NCM. These accusations both targeted Kang and exemplified their mutual disputes. Thus they provide a window into China’s 1919 moment. 


From Kang Youwei's Wuxu to the May Fourth Movement

Instructive here is the continued changes in the spheres of Chinese politics and thought from Wuxu to the MFM, and how those important schools of thought connected to the modern transformation of the Confucian tradition. Moreover, no matter whether explicit or implicit, the four people’s attacks on Kang Youwei and against each other took place from 1916 to 1925. That is to say, before or after 1919, both their own political claims and the contents of these disputes changed significantly. Discussing these disputes chronologically, analyzing the causes, backgrounds, and influences of these conflicts, reveals how the European 1919 moment impacted China and transformed into China’s 1919 moment, by which we then could conclude that 1919 was indeed an epochal shift at the center stage of modern China’s intellectual and social history.

Somewhere between the last days of the Qing and the early days of the Nationalist government, Chinese nationalists had moved Chinese overseas from a matter of concern and wellspring of resources to something more essential to the nation-state, and I argue that the key years were the post–World War I May Fourth Era. This extended moment in time lay within a much longer temporal arc, in which the Chinese gradually transformed their worldviews and ideas about jurisdiction and sovereignty. It was during the First World War that Chinese governments and elites became fixated on gaining equal status within the international system and that exporting almost 150,000 laborers to the trenches of France was one way in which China sought to enhance its global position and gained international recognition.9 Whereby the first two decades of the twentieth century was a peak for attempts by nationalist Chinese to create a deterritorialized nation through appeals to Chinese overseas.10 In this context we can also see the 1910s as the era in which diasporic nationalism, that is, Chinese nationalism among Chinese overseas, reached full flower, partly as the result of earlier outreach from the same transnationalism and the predicament of sovereignty.11


The Republic of China and the alleged Han Chinese

The beauty of the ‘Han race’ idea for the revolutionaries created a huge community of potential supporters who could be mobilized against a declared enemy: the ruling Manchu elite. If the Manzu were excluded, then so were the Mengzu (Mongols) and the non-Chinese-speaking minorities. Indigenous groups were relegated to the status of ‘browns’ or ‘blacks’ for whom Social Darwinism predicted only one fate: they could be ignored in the coming struggle. Increasingly, the revolutionaries – mainly young, male students living in exile in Japan, mixed old ideas of lineage, zu, with new racial ideas of biological race – Zhong. The fusion of Zhong and Zu was made possible by the imaginary figure of the Yellow Emperor: Huangdi became the father of the zhongzu. However, the question of who was and was not, a member of the zhongzu (种族 zhǒngzú) was not always so easy to answer. Zhang Taiyan tried to establish a social, cultural, and spiritual identity of Chinese, which could counterbalance the West's dominant influences. The Republic of China is the name he gave to a newly emerged Chinese nation after the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty.


The need to create a new Nation-State

China’s self-definition in the system of nation-states underwent tremendous changes in the 1920s and 1930s after the Versailles Settlement. China was in the process of adopting a myth of the nation-state. It is a myth because it assumes that “cultural identities (nations) coincide with political sovereign entities (states) to create a series of internally unified and essentially equal units.”12 Adopting the European argument for social evolution and open competition, many Chinese concluded that forming a nation-state was the only way to be a member of the modern world. For them, the nation-state was a “measurement of civilization” in the early twentieth century, and China had no choice but to follow the “universal principle” in order to join the “civilized community.”13

Having aspired to be a member of the civilized community by adopting the Western political and social norms, the Chinese now discovered that the nation-state system was not fair and open; rather, it was dominated by Western powers eager to protect their own interests the Chinese realized that Westernization alone would not win them recognition in international affairs. Instead, they focused on recovering national sovereignty through diplomatic negotiations and treaty revisions. Paradoxically they believed that although the nation-state system was a tool used by the Western powers to control the world, the system allowed a discussion of national sovereignty as expounded in Wilson’s Fourteen Points.14 To them, the only way to beat the system was to protect China’s territorial sovereignty. In the early 1930s, as the threat of the Japanese encroachment intensified, the Chinese increasingly fixated on territorial sovereignty. Rather than viewing the nation-state system as an advanced stage of human evolution, they saw it as the tool of the imperialists to dominate the world. This shift from joining global evolution to protecting China’s geo-body fueled an intense anti-imperialist nationalism in China, even though the Chinese were still determined to building a strong nation-state as a symbol of modernity.15  

Chinese historian/politician Liang Qichao also asserted the Manchus created ‘greater China’. Once we understand the ‘messiness’ of these twenty centuries, we can see that it takes considerable imagination, of the kind that can only be provided by nationalism, to discern within them an essential ‘Chinese’ nation that endured throughout.   

In 1910 they saw the system as a collection of hybrid networks of physical and human connectivity, facilitating labor migration, capital movement, and information sharing. In the 1920s, however, they saw the system as patches of “geo-bodies,” dividing the earth into distinct territorial units safeguarded by armed forces.     

Among Chinese intellectuals in the 1920s. Overwhelmed by foreign threats in Manchuria and the southwest, they saw their country under siege. They felt that foreign powers, particularly Japan and Britain, were ready to take over China. In their mind, they were reminded of the 1919 moment when the Allied Powers partitioned the lands of the crumbled Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires in the name of promoting national independence.16 They feared that this version of the 1919 moment would soon visit China if they did not do enough to protect their country’s territorial sovereignty. 

Compared with the writings of Miao Fenglin and Zhu Kezhen of the early 1920s, Tan Qixiang expressed an even more radical and bellicose form of anticolonial nationalism. He believed that China would soon be turned into a colony of Japan, as Korea and Manchuria had been in 1910 and 1931, respectively.17

In the 1920s, Miao Fenglin and Zhu Kezhen were not shy from relating their discussions of geography to contemporary political affairs such as the Versailles Settlement and the Washington Conference. Nonetheless, they did not explicitly advocate taking up arms to protect China’s territory. In contrast, Tan Qixiang was deeply concerned by threats to the security of China. He was worried that the Chinese nation would soon be absorbed into the rapidly expanding Japanese Empire. To support his argument, he called attention to the political implication of the term “China Proper,” frequently used by Japanese scholars in the late 1920s and 1930s. He cautioned his readers that the Japanese were making plans to annex Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, which were outside of “China Proper,” the land where he believed Han Chinese lived. If indeed the Chinese had lost the battle over Manchuria, Feng warned his countrymen that they should focus their attention on the next round in a great war, the struggle over East Asia. Feng wrote;

Before the Sino-Japanese War [of 1894–1895], Japanese scholars created a field of study called the “Korean Studies.” Shortly afterward, Korea was annexed [to the Japanese Empire in 1910]. Before the Russo-Japanese War [in 1904–1905], the Japanese scholars created a field of study called the “Manchuria and Korean Studies.” Shortly afterward, the Liaodong province was fallen. Before September 18th [the Mukden Incident of 1931], Japanese scholars created a field of study called the “Manchurian and Mongolian Studies.” Shortly afterward, the four provinces [in Manchuria] were annexed. Nowadays, the Japanese are energetically promoting “East Asian Studies.” Looking at the direction of their swords, it is clear our country is in grave danger. Let’s see who will rule East Asia. Countrymen, it is time to wake up!18 

Partly a heuristic device to mobilize the readers, the last sentence in the quote (“Countrymen, it is time to wake up!”) highlighted the acute sense of Chinese vulnerability. At a time when the nation-state system was unable to resolve the contradiction between national independence and imperialism. As in a famous line by Gu Jiegang and Shi Nianhai in 1938, the purpose of clarifying China’s boundary was “not to allow enemies to take away an inch of our land.”19



It has become conventional to study Japanese modernization starting with the Meiji period. The Meiji reforms are often considered as the watershed in Japanese history, a period of transition from feudal and traditional society to a modern nation-state. In contrast, the Tokugawa era is often described as premodern, feudal, and stagnant. Unlike the conventional approach that sees this period as premodern ''tom by revolts, factionalism, and civil war," there is now a growing tendency to consider the Tokugawa regime a modern sovereign state even if it did not strictly coincide with characteristics of the Eurocentric notion of modernity.20

Following the Meiji reforms. Japan sought to expand into Asia through liberal imperialism and then sought to consolidate its empire through liberal internationalism. However, when its imperial designs were rejected by its Western foes and allies alike, Japan-centered pan-Asianist ideology grew in strength.


Continued in part four, could the Pacific war Dec 1941-2 September 1945 be avoided?


Part 1: Overview of the discussions following the 1919 or "Wilsonian moment,” a notion that extends before and after that calendar year: Part One Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 2: Issues like the Asian Monroe Doctrine, how relations between China and Japan from the 1890s onward transformed the region from the hierarchy of time to the hierarchy of space, Leninist and Wilsonian Internationalism, western and Eastern Sovereignty, and the crucial March First and May Fourth movements were covered in: Part Two Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 4: The various arrangements between the US and Japan, including The Kellogg–Briand Pact or Pact in 1928 and The Treaty for the Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armament of 1930. Including that American policy toward Japan until shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack was not the product of a rational, value-maximizing decisional process. Rather, it constituted the cumulative, aggregate outcome of several bar­gaining games which would enable them to carry out their preferred Pacific strategy was covered in: Part Four Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 5: The Manchurian crisis and its connection to the winding road to World War II are covered in: Part Five Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 6:The war itself quickly unfolded in favor of Japan’s regionalist ambitions, a subject we carried through to the post-world war situation. Whereby we also discussed when Japan saw itself in a special role as mediator between the West (“Euro-America”) and the East (“Asia”) to “harmonize” or “blend” the two civilizations and demanded that Japan lead Asia in this anti-Western enterprise there are parallels with what Asim Doğan in his extensive new book describes how the ambiguous and assertive Belt and Road Initiative is a matter of special concern in this aspect. The Tributary System, which provides concrete evidence of how Chinese dynasties handled with foreign relations, is a useful reference point in understanding its twenty-first-century developments. This is particularly true because, after the turbulence of the "Century of Humiliation" and the Maoist Era, China seems to be explicitly re-embracing its history and its pre-revolutionary identity in: Part Six Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 7: Part Seven Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 8: While initially both the nationalist Chiang Kai-shek (anti-Mao Guomindang/KMT), including Mao's Communist Party (CCP), had long supported independence for Taiwan rather than reincorporation into China, this started to change following the publication of the New Atlas of China's Construction created by cartographer Bai Meichu in 1936. A turning point for Bai and others who saw China's need to create a new Nation-State was the Versailles peace conference's outcome in 1919 mentioned in part one. Yet that from today's point of view, the fall of Taiwan to China would be seen around Asia as the end of American predominance and even as “America’s Suez,” hence demolishing the myth that Taiwan has no hope is critical. And that while the United States has managed to deter Beijing from taking destructive military action against Taiwan over the last four decades because the latter has been relatively weak, the risks of this approach inches dangerously close to outweighing its benefits. Conclusion and outlook.



1. Erez Manela,The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford Studies in International History), 2009.

2. For the double meaning of “May Fourth,” see Chow Tse-tsung’s introduction to The May Fourth Movement.

3. For the global meaning of this political “May Fourth,” see Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 99–118.

4. For the intellectual and cultural significance of China’s transition from the center of “all under heaven” to a “nation-state,” see Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968). For the political impact of this transition, see John Fitzgerald, Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

5. Kang Youwei “Zhonghua ji-uguo lun," in The Complete Works of Kang Youwei, vol. 9 (Beijing Renmin University Press, 2007), 317-18.

6. To be precise the May Fourth Movement (MFM) was not equal to the  New Culture Movement (NCM). MFM refers to a political movement triggered by the May 4, 1919 street demonstrations. Whereby the NCM included a variety of new intellectual and cultural trends like for example the anti-Confucianism and Literature Revolution movements.

7. Feng Jiasheng,“Riren duiyu wo dongbei de yanjiu jinkuang,” Yugong banyuekan 5.6 (1936): 6.

8. See for example Akira Iriye, After Imperialism: The Search for a New Order in the Far East, 1921-1931 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965). 

9. See for example Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order Revised ed. Edition, 1995.

10. On this see for example Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford Studies in International History), 2009.

11. Glenda Sluga, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); quote on p.5.

12. Frederick R. Dickinson, World War I and the Triumph of a New Japan, 1919-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Noriko Kawamura, Turbulence in the Pacific: Japanese-U.S. Relations during World War I (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000); and Xu Guoqi, China and the Great War: China’s Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 

13. Martin W. Lewis and Kären E. Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 8. 

14. For a discussion of how the standard of civilization shaped international relations during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Gerrit W. Gong, The Standard of “Civilization” in International Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. See also Han Ziqi 韓子奇 (Hon Tze-ki), “Jinru shijie de cuozhe yu ziyouErshi shiji chude Dexue zazhi,” Xin Shixue 19.2 (June 2008): 156–66. 

15. For an account of Chinese mixed feelings about the nation-state system after World War I, see Guoqi Xu, China and the Great War: China's Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization (Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare), 2005, 244–77. 

16. Prasenjit Duara, “Transnationalism and the Predicament of Sovereignty: China, 1900–1945,” American Historical Review 102.4 (October 1997): 1030–51; Duara, Sovereignty, and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 1–40.

17.  For a study of how the League of Nations decided on the territories and the peoples of the crumbled empires, see Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), 17–106.

18. Ibid.,2.

19. Gu Jiegang and Shi Nianhai, Zhongguo jiangyu yange shi (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuuan, 1938), 4.

20. Peter F. Komicki, "General Introduction," in Meiji Japan: Political, Economic and Social History, 1868-1912, ed. Peter F. Kornicki (London: Routledge, 1998), xiv.


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