The May Fourth Movement in Chinese History
2019 marks the centenary of the May Fourth Movement, sometimes called the start of modern Chinese history. Over the past 100 years, rivers of ink have been spilled commemorating, interpreting, and debating the meaning of this transformational event, one which still has the power to ignite people’s passions, even today.
If we want to understand the significance of what happened 100 years ago, we must start by placing it in historical context. When people today refer to the May Fourth Movement, they don’t simply mean the events that took place on that fateful day, but rather a broader cultural and ideological current, one which saw the political awakening of China’s young, growing student population and an intellectual attack on the foundations of traditional Chinese culture. Only by expanding our field of vision can we trace the legacy of May Fourth through the last 100 years of Chinese history — and understand its true impact.
It began on the afternoon of May 4, 1919, when over 3,000 students from universities and colleges around Beijing assembled in front of Tiananmen in the central part of the city. The students’ anger was fueled by China’s humiliating treatment at the Paris Peace Conference that followed World War I, and they came brandishing posters and shouting slogans like “Protect China’s Sovereignty!” “Return Qingdao!” and “Punish the Traitors Cao Rulin, Zhang Zongxiang, and Lu Zongyu!”
Scholars have estimated that as many as 3,000 of the Chinese laborers who served on the Western front with the Allied forces in World War I died before returning home, and as many as 30,000 may have died serving on the Eastern front. Yet despite China’s crucial role, the United States, Britain, and France ignored the Chinese delegation’s protests and transferred Germany’s colonial concessions in China, including the eastern port city of Qingdao and the surrounding province of Shandong, to Japan.
When news of this arrangement made it back to China, outrage quickly spilled onto the streets. The students demanded their government refuse to sign the peace treaty and punish the officials involved for having betrayed China’s national interests.
Once assembled, the students first tried marching to Beijing’s Legation Quarter to petition its foreign embassies. After finding their route blocked by the police, they headed instead for Zhaojialou Hutong and the home of Cao Rulin, the then Minister of Transport. Cao, who was widely viewed by the public as a member of the pro-Japanese faction in Chinese politics, managed to hide from the students, and they instead turned their anger toward Zhang Zongxiang — the Chinese envoy to Japan — who was there visiting Cao. The students beat Zhang, who they called a traitor, and then set fire to Cao’s house.
At this point, the Beijing police broke up the protest and arrested 32 of those involved. Rather than backing down, however, the Beijing students called a large-scale strike, and a shock wave of protests soon rippled outward across the country. On June 3, 170 students were arrested in Beijing. When more students took to the streets the following day, mounted police charged the crowd and detained another 700.
Chinese from all walks of life were quick to express their solidarity with the detained students. An unprecedented flood of strikes by students, workers, and businessmen broke out in Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao, Nanjing, Wuhan, and other major cities. To calm the situation, the Beijing government was forced to release the protestors they had in custody and dismiss Cao Rulin, Zhang Zongxiang, and Lu Zongyu — another perceived member of the pro-Japanese faction — from their posts. But it was not until June 28, when the Chinese delegation refused to attend the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in Paris or recognize the handover of Shandong, that public furor finally abated.
In the years that followed, the May Fourth Movement quickly came to be viewed as a milestone in modern Chinese history and symbolic of a broader shift in Chinese society. But in reality, it reflected changes that were already underway. While most of the protestors’ demands were political in nature, their actions were linked with and influenced by the concurrent New Culture Movement, which began in 1915 and lasted roughly until the founding of the Nanjing government of Chiang Kai-shek in 1927.
The origins of the New Culture Movement can be traced to September 1915, when Chen Duxiu, a Chinese revolutionary socialist, educator, and philosopher — and later a co-founder of the Communist Party of China — launched the magazine Youth in Shanghai. The movement further gained steam in 1917, when Cai Yuanpei was appointed president of Peking University.
Vowing to “follow the principle of freedom of thought and incorporate the attitude of learning from diverse sources,” Cai threw open Peking University’s gates to intellectuals of all stripes, recruiting renowned and iconoclastic figures such as Chen, Li Dazhao, Lu Xun, and Hu Shih, as well as conservative thinkers like Gu Hongming, to join the school’s faculty. Chen brought his magazine, by that point renamed New Youth, with him to Beijing, where it quickly gathered steam among the staff and students.
The fundamental goals of the New Culture Movement can be summed up in one sentence: Sweep away the “old” — in particular the “old thoughts, old morality, and old culture” of Confucianism — and replace it with a “new,” or Western-inspired, culture. The New Culture Movement is also sometimes known as the “Wholesale Anti-Traditional Movement” or the “Wholesale Westernization Movement,” as advocates believed the new and the old to be irreconcilable and that establishing the new meant smashing the old.
To win this battle, New Culture Movement intellectuals raised the twin banners of democracy and science, which they affectionately dubbed “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science.” Chen, one of the movement’s most influential leaders, laid out the stakes of this struggle in no uncertain terms: “We now firmly believe that only these two Mr.’s can cure all the darkness in Chinese politics, morality, academia, and ideology. In support of these two Mr.’s, we will endure any governmental oppression, the attacks, derision, and taunts of society, even unto death.”
Chen loathed the core principles of Confucian thought, including the “three cardinal guides” — rulers guide subjects, fathers guide sons, and husbands guide wives — and the “five constant virtues” of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, knowledge, and sincerity. Dismissing these as indicative of so-called slave morality and man-eating ethics, Chen argued they were incompatible with republicanism.
One reason advocates of the New Culture Movement were so dead set against this old culture was the social and political chaos that reigned in China during the early years of the post-dynastic period.
Although the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 overthrew the Qing dynasty, bringing an end to millennia of absolute monarchy and theoretically establishing a republican government, the path to modernity proved rocky. The emperor himself may have abdicated, but the imperium still loomed large in the public psyche: The powerful general Yuan Shikai tried declaring himself emperor in 1915, and another general, Zhang Xun, attempted an abortive restoration of the Manchu court in 1917. Over the next decade, nominally republican warlords carved the country up in their own quests for power.
The bitter lessons of their early, largely unsuccessful attempt to set up a republic led Chinese intellectuals to realize that they could not simply transplant Western political systems to China — they would also need to bring about a cultural and ideological awakening. As Chen put it: “In order to consolidate the republic, all the old anti-republican ideas in the national mind must first be swept away one by one.”
So it shouldn’t be surprising that when young Chinese students — many of whom had been taught by leading figures in the New Culture Movement or influenced by the ideas they’d read in New Youth — mobilized and poured into the streets to demand change, their aims were linked to those of the New Culture Movement in the public consciousness. On June 18, 1919, Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China, wrote, “The sudden upsurge of students all over the country in the last few months is due entirely to the inspiration and influences of new ways of thinking.”
In 1935, in his historical assessment of the movement on the 16th anniversary of the protests, the famous essayist and philosopher Hu Shih also linked the New Culture Movement with the May Fourth protests. “Without changes in the ways of thinking in those years, there would never have been the May Fourth Movement,” he wrote. And around the same time, Zhang Xiruo, a professor at Tsinghua University, became one of the first to formally group the ideological currents of the New Culture Movement under the umbrella of the May Fourth Movement.
Soon, the received wisdom was that the events of May 4, 1919, both grew out of the New Culture Movement and played a key role in the New Culture Movement’s continued rise. But in his later years, Hu revised his earlier assessment. Rather than identifying the student outpouring of the May Fourth Movement with the New Culture Movement, he sought to highlight the differences between them. Hu saw the New Culture Movement as a “Chinese cultural renaissance,” which was based on liberalism and humanism, in contrast to the student protests which he saw as fundamentally political and which eventually grew into something more radical.
To Hu, although the May Fourth Movement was of historic significance, it politicized what had been a fundamentally cultural movement and thereby opened the door to a flood of new, often absolutist ideologies. These intellectual currents stood in stark contrast to the New Culture Movement, because they were largely intolerant of the kinds of debate and discussion Cai Yuanpei had tried to foster at Peking University.
In the 1980s, Li Zehou, a well-known scholar of intellectual history and philosophy, echoed this increasingly common judgment of the May Fourth Movement. “National salvation prevailed over enlightenment and politics prevailed over culture,” he wrote. The constant crises of the republican period strengthened the hands of hard-liners and left little room for the idealism of Cai and his compatriots.
To its credit, the May Fourth Movement, broadly defined, shattered the binds of traditional ethics, education, idols, and authority and inspired thousands of young Chinese in their quest for new ideas. It introduced new models, standards, values, and worldviews to China. It revolutionized society, especially in the cities, as many young urbanites won greater autonomy over their choice of spouses and lifestyles, and women enrolled in schools — and took part in protests — together with their male counterparts.
To critics, however, it represented an overreaction to the flaws of China’s traditional ethics and morals. The discussion and debate movement leaders advocated would take decades to transform society — time they ultimately didn’t have, and they were never able to articulate a clear vision for what came next.
Whatever your view of the May Fourth Movement, there’s no denying its influence on contemporary China. There is hardly a single aspect of our lives today that does not bear its mark. In that sense, its legacy is secure. And while in some respects, the values and dreams espoused by the young students who marched in 1919 may have gone unfulfilled, as long as they remain relevant, the spirit of those days will live on.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: The arrested students pose for a photo after their release and return to campus in Beijing, May 7, 1919. From National Digital Library of China)