Exploring Chinese History
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The May 4th Movement

China-wide demonstrations against the pro-Japanese Treaty of Versailles began with student demonstrations in Peking (May 4); from this movement would come many leaders of both sides in the Chinese Civil War.

Saving China: Intellectuals, Radicals, and Elites on May 4, 1919

During a student meeting at Peking University on May 3, 1919, Hsieh Shao-min “deliberately cut open his finger and wrote on the wall in blood ‘Return our Tsingtao.’” Another student threatened suicide if the mass demonstration planned for May 7 was not moved to the 4th. (p. 101-102, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China) People in the streets wept (Ibid. p. 109. “The people of Peking were deeply impressed by the demonstrators. Many spectators were so touched that they wept as they stood silently on the streets and carefully listened to the students shout their slogans.”) as they watched the demonstration pass with their anti-Japanese, reformist banners. The students seemed to articulate the profoundly anti-Japanese public sentiment – and something more. Rodney Gilbert of the North China Herald wrote that:

The advertisement given to this gathering inspired the local students to do something on their own account, and whatever one thinks of the action they eventually took they certainly deserve full credit for being the first in China to substitute action for talk. (p. 348, The North China Herald)

Educated in a heady mix of “new” Confucianism and foreign ideology, the students were taught to internalize a sense of history and elitism mingled with concepts of reform, activism and public responsibility. The conservative efforts at reform initiated by the Emperor Guangxu in the early twentieth century now a shambles, (p. 726-737, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation. Building on the Hundred Days reforms of 1898, the Qing attempted a series of reform movements that promised “new beginnings.”) China’s political and diplomatic snafus promised chaos for years to come. Education in China had long been synonymous with civil service – but now that the Qing dynasty had collapsed, and warlords and nationalists vied for uncertain supremacy, the students found themselves without a clear role. Exhaustively educated, and, for the most part, radically liberal, China’s new generation of intellectual elite found that they had a higher calling: that of “saving” China. Lu Hsun epitomized the idealism of a generation of intellectuals when he wrote: “you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.” (p. 5, Selected Short Stories of Lu Hsun)

In the West, we tend to conceive of intellectuals as isolated thinkers separate from worldly concerns. In China, intellectuals have historically played a more active role in their country’s political and social life. During 1919, China’s intellectuals had a deep interest in the events unfolding on the world stage. At Versailles, the news of which filtered into Shanghai and Peking via telegram, the Japanese were angling for Germany’s leavings in the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese governments sent delegates to argue for fair treatment, but the outlook wasn’t favorable. Secret agreements came to light between the Western powers and Japan. China had been deeply shamed. Imperialist powers added to the prevailing governmental chaos – and the Chinese were subjected to humiliating patronization from the newest imperialist power in East Asia. Japan, traditionally an object of Chinese scorn, was fast becoming a military, political, and economic menace. It was the responsibility of the intellectual – student and professor, scholar and radical – to oppose China’s enemies and to strengthen and revive the country. As Qu Qubai wrote: “We were all aware of the deep-seated maladies of the society to which we belonged but were yet ignorant of their cure. Feelings alone, however, ran so strong that restlessness could no more be contained.” (p. 171, The Gate of Heavenly Peace)

On May 4, 1919, a quietly determined column of Peking students assembled in Tiananmen Square and marched through the capital. Distributing incendiary pamphlet literature and carrying pointed slogans, the students behaved quietly, arousing little notice among the officials. When they reached the home of pro-Japanese minister Tsao Ju-lin, chaos ensued. In the confusion that followed, Tsao escaped, Japanese minister Chang was beaten, parts of the house were burnt – and all of the students were received as heroes. Bystanders cheered as the students apprehended by late-coming police marched toward imprisonment. The Chinese press was delighted with them; the British Herald made much of Tsao’s “biting the dust.” (p. 348, The North China Herald) The demonstration planned to honor China’s “National Humiliation Day” would be remembered as one of the most important events in twentieth century China. Over three thousand intellectuals mobilized and struck a blow against those they perceived as China’s enemies – the students were doing more than just talking about revolution.

The new intellectuals would not use Confucian traditionalism to build their new country. The manifesto published in late 1919 advocated moral progressivism and democratic governance, mass movements and social reconstruction, political activism, modern education systems and women’s rights. (p. 159-160, The Gate of Heavenly Peace) Ts’ai Yuan-p’ei, president of Peking University, advocated Western learning over traditional methods. Scholar/activists like Liang Qichao, Kang Youwei, and Sun Yatsen presented another model: that of the Chinese student abroad. “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science” (p. 172, The Gate of Heavenly Peace. “Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science” represented the Western values that scholars like Chen Duxiu hoped to promote over traditional Confucianism.) were the rule of the day, and Western authors such as Dickens, Gogol, Lermentov, Ibsen, and even Byron were influential. (p. 68, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China, and p. 101-102, The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Ts’ai Yuan-p’ei and Lu Xun make mention of the listed works; additionally, Spence mentions Flaubert, Dumas, and Turgenev as especially influential on the young Ding Ling (p. 257).) The new intellectuals paid close attention to the events unfolding in Korea, and to Russia, where burgeoning socialism offered another political ideology. The world was moving on; tradition was swiftly becoming associated with corruption. Only by internalizing the values of the “modern” countries of the West could China be redefined.

The May Fourth Movement could be seen, in retrospect, as an early climax in a contiguous modernization process. Sun Yatsen’s futile republic and Yuan Shihkai’s brief monarchical aspirations are too often viewed as mere prelude to the era of the Guomintang and CCP. The movement itself rather encapsulates China’s struggle to enter the global discourse of nationalism, and to emerge from the process of modernization with a sense of identity intact. The students were not a homogenous entity: rather, they represented a complete spectrum of political and cultural ideology – there were as many theories as there were individuals. The intellectuals of China felt the painful impossibilities of merging past and present all too plainly. World War I and Versailles were in this case merely catalysts that mobilized the students to form a patriotic coalition, and, to some extent, to define the new intellectual in terms of activism. May fourth represented above all an idealistic action taken to defend and promote the intellectual’s dream: a modern China.


Chow, Tse-Tung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Fairbank, John K., et al. East Asia: Tradition and Transformation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989.

Gilbert, Rodney. “Downfall of Tsao the Mighty: Minister Literally Bites the Dust.” The North China Herald, 10 May 1919: 348-349.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution 1895-1980. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.


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