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Turning Point In History: May Fourth Movement

Info: 3070 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 13th Apr 2017 in History

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How the May Fourth Movement Reshaped Modern China. Chaos marked the beginning of modern China. In early 20th century, China was engulfed with "intense combat between the old and the modern currents of thought" (Chen). Yet, it was this era that saw a significant political transition in China marked by the May Fourth Movement. Both "patriotic political movement" (Hsu 511) and "new cultural movement" (Hsu 511), demonstration on 4 May 1919 transformed the Chinese society for its people, the nationalists and the communists.

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The term May Fourth Movement refers both to the student rising on 4 May 1919 and the trend in China during 1915-1922 or 1927 that facilitated multiple demonstrations calling for a change; this time period is also referred to as May Fourth-era or the New Culture Revolution. In this essay, May Fourth Movement is used to include the series of demonstrations between May and June of 1919. New Culture Movement, on the other hand, is used to refer to the time period, loosely from the publication of New Youth magazine (1915) up to the end of Northern Expedition (1927).

Prelude to Change

Prior to the May Fourth Movement, demonstrations and attempts of revolution constantly existed, in order to establish a united, modern China. However, most had been unsuccessful. One major example is the Xinhai Revolution. Sun Yatsen and the Chinese nationalists brought down the Qing dynasty and established a new, democratic China (Lynch 20). Yet, the democratic rule of the nationalists, based on Sun's Three Principles of the People, was frustrated as Yuan Shikai rose to power during China's first national elections. Although Yuan had his own "ambitions plans to revitalize China" (Spence 271), he did not have enough political, economic and military resources to do so. Thus, he borrowed huge amount of international loans and maintained close relationship with the warlords and the Japanese; both actions were deeply resented by the Chinese people (Lynch 25). In addition, betraying the democratic values, Yuan had dissolved the Chinese Nationalist party after he rose to power, heading into a dictatorial regime.

Needless to say, pre-1919 China was filled with dissatisfaction and disappointment. The Chinese government was still ineffective in protecting its nation from foreign intervention. European countries, especially the Allied powers of the First World War, still exerted influence over the country. To make matters worse, Japan was rising as another obstacle to Chinese independence. Japan's Twenty-One demands, which "threatened to reduce China to a Japanese vassal state" (Lynch 37) was one of many Japanese attempt to intervene. Fearful of the withdrawal of the Japanese monetary support, Yuan Shikai, the leader of China in 1915, agreed to the Japanese demands. Clearly against Chinese people's will, it was naturally followed by a "violent outburst of anger among the Chinese" (Lynch 29). Such discontent led the scholars to accept revolution in intellectual fields, giving birth to the New Culture Movement.

Hu Shi, a Chinese scholar, referred to the New Culture Movement as the 'Chinese Renaissance' as it truly was an era of significant change in the thoughts of the Young Chinese. Inception of the New Culture Movement was in 1915, when the New Youth Magazine was first published by Chen Duxiu. New ideas were flooding into China before the May Fourth Movement as more and more Chinese were educated abroad (Grasso, Corrin, and Kort 71). The New Culture Movement, led by Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazao, attempted to diffuse new Western ideas into China.

With increased emphasis on science and reasoning, the traditional Chinese thoughts were revisited and dissected by the new scholars. Although philosophies of participants slightly differed, the leaders of the New Culture Movement all agreed that Chinese tradition needs reform. Hu Shi turned to pragmatism while Li Dazao turned to left ideas such as communism. Li, in 1918, "saluted the Russian Revolution" (Spence 306), believing that the Russian communism provided a new possibility for China. Confucianism was opposed along with many of its male dominant traditions, such as foot binding. Anarchists also gained support during this period. Vernacular Chinese, known as baihua, was also promoted through literary revolution. This movement marked the incorporation of the Chinese people into the politics. Lu Xun and his short story, A Mad Man's Diary, was a symbol of the New Culture Movement as he criticized the warlords and feudal remnants of Chinese society in baihua. Through these efforts, many Chinese students were acquainted with foreign ideas that were guiding them to find a way to reshape their country; the foundation of change is now set.

The May Fourth Movement

The catalyst to the May Fourth Movement was the Paris Peace Conference (1919). The Allies convened in Paris to discuss the aftermath of the Great War and decide on adequate punishments for Germany. China, as one of the victorious countries, also participated in the conference.

The Chinese had huge hope for this conference, especially because of Wilson's Fourteen Points. Earlier in January 1918, Wilson had addressed the Congress his "program of the world's peace" (Wilson), with the fifth clause being self-determination. Most of the colonized countries interpreted this clause as the West's determination to free all the colonies into independent states. Thus, Chinese people were hugely disappointed when the news reached that Shandong was to remain under Japanese control. Outraged students thus organized a demonstration in front of the Tiananmen Square; nearly 3000 students from 13 different universities in Beijing gathered together to protest against signing the treaty (Xun 614). This was the beginning of the May Fourth Movement.

According to historians, representatives of respective universities gathered at Beijing College of Law and Political Science to set up the goals of the demonstration (Abbass). The movement was multifaceted, marking resistance to Japanese, the Westerners, and warlord governments. According to Deng Yingchao, one of the student participants, their main demands were:

Abolition of the Japanese Twenty-One demands

Return of Shandong

End of Imperialism

The students gathered at the Tiananmen Square marched together to the foreign-legation quarter. When the Chinese warlord government forcefully stopped the peaceful march and arrested the students, the students began to divert their wrath towards Cao Rulin, Lu Zongyu and Zhang Zongxiang, politicians condemned as "China's internal traitors" (Lynch 40). Students broke into the homes of these politicians, set their houses on fire, and sometimes beat them (Spence 311). The warlord government did stop the aggression but could not end the movement. Students boycotted classes and spread the movement throughout China by establishing a student union. On May 7th, students from Tianjin joined the demonstration. By May 26th, the movement had spread to Wuhan, Jiangxi, Guangzhou and Shanghai (Xun 616).

Soon, the movement extended to different classes of China. Support came from various people, including the merchants, businessmen, industrialists, shop owners, and industrial workers (Spence 312). The proletariat class joined the movement on June 3rd, as factory workers and merchants in Shanghai participated in strike as well (Xun 616). Boycotts on Japanese goods were encouraged. The movement spread to 20 Chinese castles (provinces in China) in addition to nearly 150 cities, supported by the intellectual class, the proletariat class, and the petit-bourgeois in addition to the nationalists. By June 1919, the May Fourth Movement was no longer a student revolution; it had grown into a collective national effort against imperialism (Xun 617-618).

As the scale of the revolution increased, the government began to comply. On June 10th, warlords released the arrested students and expelled the three traitor politicians. Although the movement stopped the Chinese delegation from signing the Treaty of Versailles, it failed to stop the ceding of Shandong. However, the May Fourth Movement had reshaped the Chinese society for many different parties.

The May Fourth Movement: Turning Point in Modern China

Some historians have remained pessimistic about the impact the movement had on the people. Contrary to the claims that the movement was led by the proletariat class, Jonathan Fenby wrote that the movement had "little or no link to industrial workers let alone the peasants" (145). He claims that most of the movement was led by the students and intellectuals, and therefore, having little influence on the society. In addition, the Chinese proletariat was only composed of a minority of the Chinese population in the 1920s, as China still was a pre-industrial nation (Grasso, Corrin and Kort 87). Although it is true that the movement was mainly orchestrated by the student class, it did have considerable ideological impact on the people, marking a turning point in China's modern history.

For the Chinese people, the May Fourth Movement was a turning point, since it signified a change in people's minds to accept new political ideologies. The movement also redefined the Chinese culture "as a valid part of the modern world" (Spence 312). The New Culture movement cultivated scientific thinking and reasoning, exemplified by Chen Duxiu's emphasis on "a 'Mr Science' and a 'Mr Democracy'" (Fenby 143) which allowed the Chinese youth to reassess their traditions, especially the rigid regulations of Confucianism. With all these new ideologies, revolutionary class for new democracy was cultivated (Bai).

The increase in strikes organized and initiated by the workers steadily grew throughout the 1920s, as one of the results to the influence of the May Fourth Movement. Strike now was considered a regular and effective method to fight injustice. Independent workers, not necessarily affiliated with political parties, led the huge organized work stoppage in Hong Kong and Canton in 1922, marking yet another turning point. Even in creating the worker's union, it was the independent proletariats that lead the organization (Spence 332-333).

Another democratic extensions China witnessed was the rise of Chinese feminism. Students influenced by the New Culture Movement suggested banning foot binding, arranged marriages and other discriminations. At the beginning of the movement, female students were confined to work indoors only. However, in the Chinese student unions, formed during course of the movement, each committee was led by one male delegate and one female delegate with equal power on both parts (Deng). Education opportunities increased for women as in 1920, Beijing University accepted its first female student, followed by establishment of women's college by Li and Chen (Spence 311).

The May Fourth Movement was also a turning point for the nationalists, as it provided an opportunity to consolidate their power. Earlier, Sun had not approved the May Fourth Movement and stood aside from it, as he "disapproved of any movements he could not control" (Fenby 144). Yet, following the May Fourth Movement, Sun moved away from such thought and decided to first put the nation in priority. Thus, according to Grasso, Corrin and Kort, he encouraged the members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to join the Chinese Nationalist Party, Guomindang (GMD) as individuals (89). Sun's policy helped clear up the previously corrupted structure of the nationalist party and solidified Guomindang's influence. Moreover, as most of the CCP members joined the GMD, CCP became closer to a faction within GMD, once again solidifying the GMD's position and increasing nationalist influence in politics. Through this change, GMD remained one of the biggest, if not only, party of China for half a century. Moreover, historians suggest that Sun, believing that nationalistic effort to eradicate the influence of warlords comes before any political struggle, believed in a coalition between the two politically different parties, forming the First United Front in the 1920s, which contributed to crushing the warlords (Lynch 57).

The May Fourth Movement was the biggest turning point for the Chinese communists, as it provided a soil for communist growth. The May Fourth Movement, with its huge scale, had spread communist ideas throughout the nation. New Youth magazine, published by two founders of the CCP, started embracing Marxist ideas around late 1910s, and began open discussion and analysis of the Marxist concepts. Considering the influence the magazine exerted across the Chinese youth, it contributed to the spread of communism throughout the new Chinese elite generation. It was around this time, too, that young Mao Zedong participated in the study groups run by the leaders of New Culture Movement in Beijing (Spence 306-307).

As the movement also influenced the middle class and the working class, fundamentals of Marxism and Leninism were spread throughout the city and into the country-side as well. This gave the basis of the communist support. Furthermore, as the concept of worker's strike assimilated into people's mind, the CCP could create a union and maintain close relationship with them. One of the first attempts to establish close tie with the proletariat class was the formation of the worker's club. Young CCP members had jointed with the Anyuan coal miners and the Daye steel foundry laborers and participated in strikes against labor exploitation. As similar clubs spread through numerous Chinese cities, the CCP could once again gain the necessary support from working class (Spence 333).

Moreover, the Marxist concept of exploitation well described the Chinese situation. The movement itself was partially inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. As Lenin and his Bolshevik Party successfully threw out the incapable provisional government and purged foreign influence from Russia, the Chinese people saw hope in communism. Just the way industrialists exploit the proletariat class, Chinese communists thought the imperialist countries exploited China, a country mainly consist of farmers and members of the working class (Spence 308). This concept, put forward by Li, made it easier for the Chinese people to sympathize with the communist party, winning support from the people. Furthermore, communism was even more promising as the Comintern was in favor of exterminating Western imperial influences in China and gaining independence through revolutionary means (Grasso, Corrin and Kort 89).


The May Fourth Movement failed to achieve its aims as Shandong was not returned until the Washington Naval Conference in 1921. Moreover, foreign influence in addition to warlordism continued to coexist along with the new revolutionary parties. Some may also consider the involvement of Soviet Comintern in the CCP as yet another foreign intervention (Lynch 47). Nonetheless, the May Fourth Movement was a successful attempt to regenerate thoughts of the people. Embodying the philosophy of the New Culture Movement, the movement revolutionized the way Chinese viewed their lives and politics.

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In the end, the May Fourth Movement not only marked the history of student rebellion, such as that of 1989 Student revolt against the oppressive communist government, but also opened a completely new era of modern China. People were enlightened with different ideas such as egalitarianism, communism, pragmatism and democracy. Through the influence they exerted in the course of the movement, people were recognized as the new power to rejuvenate the nation. As Jonathan Spence said, the May Fourth movement and the subsequent social enlightenment had truly "opened possibilities for life and action in China" (317).

Word Count: 2449

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Chen, Duxiu. "Our Final Awakening." New Youth Magazine 1916: n. pag. PDF file.

Chen Duxiu. N.d. Indiana University. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. (Fig. 3)

Deng, Yingchao. "My Experience with the May Fourth Movement." Chinese History through Chinese Eyes. Stanford University, 1949, PDF File.

Hu Shi. N.d. Smash All Old Things. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. (Fig. 2)

Li Dazhao. N.d. Culture China. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. (Fig. 1)

May Fourth Movement. 1919. Culture China. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. (Fig. 5)

Social Realist Painting of the May Fourth Movement. N.d. Culture China. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. (Fig. 6)

Lu, Xun. The True Story of Ah-Q, and Other Stories. Trans. Hsien-yi Yang and Gladys Yang. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1972. Selected Stories of Lu Hsun. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Student Protest in Front of the Tiananmen Square. 1919. Images of the May Fourth Movement. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. (Fig. 4)

Wilson, Woodrow. "Wilson's Fourteen Points." United States Congress. 8 Jan. 1918. Print. Speech transcript.

Secondary Sources

Abbass, Samia. "Chinese Students Protest the Treaty of Versailles (the May Fourth Incident), 1919." Global Nonviolent Action Database. Swarthmore College, 14 Nov. 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

Bai, Shouyi. An Outline History of China. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2008. Print.

Fenby, Jonathan. The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and the Rise of a Great Power 1850 - 2009. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.

Grasso, June, Jay Corrin, and Michael Kort. Modernization and Revolution in China. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1991. Questia School. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

Hsu, Immanuel C.Y. The Rise of Modern China. 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Lynch, Michael. China: From Empire to People's Republic 1900-49. London: Hodder Education, n.d. Print. access to history.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. Print.

Xun, Tie. Seongchaljeog Jisig-in Cheongnyeon Hagsaeng-eul Wihan Junggugsa Sanchaeg [Chinese History for the Intelligentsia]. Trans. Hwa-jin Lee. Seoul: Ilbit, 2011. Print.


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