Richard Melson

September 2006

China May 4 1919

China 1919: May 4 Movement

The May Fourth Movement (pinyin: wu s yn dng) was an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement in early modern China. Taking place on May 4, 1919, it marked the upsurge of Chinese nationalism, and a re-evaluation of Chinese cultural institutions, such as Confucianism. The movement grew out of dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles settlement and the effect of the New Cultural Movement.


Following the Xinhai Revolution, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, marking the end of 5,000 years of imperial rule and theoretically ushering in a new era during which political power rested with the people. However, the reality was that China was a fragmented nation dominated by warlords, who were more concerned with their own political powers and the survival of their own private armies, and by foreigners, who had commercial and semi-colonial interests in China. The Chinese Beiyang government was preoccupied with suppressing internal dissent and did little to counter the influence exerted by imperialist foreign powers. The Beiyang government made various concessions to foreigners in order to gain monetary and military support against their rivals. This, together with the tangled warfare among warlords which was still continuing led to great suffering among the population. Furthermore, the development of the New Cultural Movement promoted the questioning and re-appraisal of millennia-old Chinese values. In addition, defeats against foreign powers and the presence of spheres of influence only further inflamed the sense of nationalism among the Chinese people, particularly in students.

These factors were the background which would eventually fuel the May Fourth Movement.

Outbreak and course of the May Fourth Movement

The Beijing government entered World War I on the side of the Allied Triple Entente in 1917, on the condition that all German spheres of influence, such as Shandong, would be returned to China. However, Japan also entered the war as an Allied power and proceeded to attack German interests in China and annexed German spheres of influence when the war ended. In early 1919, the victorious nations of World War I convened a peace conference in Paris. The representatives of the Chinese government put forth the following requests:

The Western Allies dominated the meeting and paid little heed to the Chinese representatives' demands. Britain and France were primarily interested in punishing Germany. Although the United States promoted Woodrow Wilson's utopian Fourteen Points and the ideals of self-determination at the conference, Wilson often abandoned these ideals in the face of stubborn resistance from David Lloyd George or Georges Clemenceau. Although American advocacy of self-determination the League of Nations was attractive to Chinese intellectuals, the failure of the United States to follow through was seen as a betrayal. The failure in diplomacy of China at the Paris Peace Conference became the incident that touched off the outbreak of the May Fourth Movement.

On the morning of May 4th, 1919 student representatives from thirteen different local universities met in Peking and drafted five resolutions. The first was in opposition to former German concessions in Shandong being transferred to the Japanese. The second was to draw awareness of China's precarious position to the masses in China. The third resolution recommended a large-scale gathering of the masses in Peking. The fourth promoted the creation of a Peking student union and the fifth proposal was to hold a demonstration that afternoon in protest to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. (Spence 1999, pg299)

On the afternoon of May 4th over 3000 students of Peking University and other schools gathered together in front of Tiananmen and held a demonstration. They voiced their anger at the Allied betrayal of China and the government's inability to secure Chinese interests in the conference. They shouted out such slogans as "Struggle for the sovereignty externally, get rid of the national traitors at home", "Do away with the 'Twenty-One Demands'", "Don't sign the Versailles Treaty". They demanded punishment to figures as Cao Rulin, Zhang Zongxiang, and Lu Zongyu, who held important posts as diplomats. The enraged students even burnt down Cao Rulin's house. The Beiyang government suppressed the demonstration and arrested many students.

The next day, students in Beijing as a whole went on strike, and students in other parts of the country responded one after another.

From early June, in order to support the students' struggle, workers and businessmen in Shanghai also went on strike. So did workers in other places one after another. The center of the movement moved from Beijing to Shanghai. In addition to students and intellectuals, the lower class was also very angry at the current state of affairs, such as mistreatment of workers and perpetual poverty of small peasants. Under intense public outcry, the Beiyang government had to release the arrested students and dismiss Cao Rulin, Zhang Zongxiang and Lu Zongyu from their posts. Also, the Chinese representatives in Paris refused to sign on the peace treaty: the May Fourth Movement won the initial victory. However, this move was more symbolic than anything else. It indicated that this would be an unequal treaty to which the Chinese people would not submit.

However, Japan still retained control of the Shandong Peninsula and the islands in the Pacific it had obtained during the Great War.

Historical significance and the New Cultural Movement

The people in the movement talked about a wide range of different topics and to a wider range of people than ever before. Introducing the Vernacular Chinese, meant that people with just a little education could read texts, articles and books. Classical Chinese, which had been the written language prior to the movement, was only known by highly educated people and mostly officials. Now people who went to school for just a couple of years could read articles, write articles themselves and participate in the movement. The literary output of this time was huge: great writers of the coming years published their first works in that time, such as Mao Dun, Lao She and Lu Xun. This variety and diversity in literature and writing was unprecedented in China.

After the demonstrations in 1919 and their suppression the discussion became more and more political. People like Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao shifted more to the Left and were among the leaders of founding the 1921 Communist Party of China.

According to the CPC:

The May Fourth Movement was a thoroughly anti-imperialist and anti-feudal revolutionary movement. Young students acted as its pioneers. The Chinese working class went up on the political stage, and functioned as the main force in the later period of the movement. Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu and other intellectuals directed and promoted the development of the movement, and played leading roles in it. On the local level, future Communist Party leader Mao Zedong rallied opposition against Hunan's warlord Chang Ching-yao.

The May Fourth Movement covered more than 20 provinces and over 100 cities of the country. It had a broader popular foundation than the Revolution of 1911. Its great contribution lay in arousing the people's consciousness and preparing for the unity of the revolutionary forces.

The May Fourth Movement promoted the spreading of Marxism in China, and prepared the ideological foundation for the establishment of the Communist Party of China. The October Revolution pointed out the direction for the Chinese revolution. The May Fourth Movement, which took place after the October Socialist Revolution, was a part of the world's Proletarian Revolution.

The May Fourth Movement marked the beginning of the New Democratic Revolution in China. It also served as an intellectual turning point in China. It was the seminal event that radicalized Chinese intellectual thought. Previously Western style liberal democracy had a degree of traction amongst Chinese intellectuals. However the Versailles Treaty was viewed as a betrayal. Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, cloaked as they were by moralism, were seen as Western-centrist and hypocritical.

Many in the Chinese intellectual community noted that the United States did nothing to convince the imperialist powers (most notably, Britain, France, and Japan) to adhere to the Fourteen Points, and furthermore the United States declined to join the League of Nations; and as a result turned away from Western liberal democracy. Marxism (Leninism) began to take hold in Chinese intellectual thought, particular among those already on the Left. It was during this time that communism was studied seriously by some Chinese intellectuals such as Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao.

Some historians have speculated that Chinese history might have taken a different course had the United States taken a stronger position on Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points and self-determination. The United States was not a major imperialist power (the Spanish-American War being the primary exception) and, having suffered little damage from World War I, was in a position to take a strong anti-imperialist stance. However, it was unlikely, given the prevailing isolationist mood in the United States at the time.

Boycott of Japanese products in this periods slightly boosted the industries of China.


ISBN 0393307808 New York: Norton, 1999.

Main events (1916–1930):

Twenty-One Demands

Yuan Shikai's Empire

National Protection War

Death of Yuan Shikai in 1916

Manchu Restoration

The Constitutional Protection War

Paris Peace Conference

May Fourth Movement (1919)

Zhili-Anhui War

Establishment of:

Beijing coup

First Zhili-Fengtian War

Second Zhili-Fengtian War

First Cooperation between KMT and CCP

May Thirtieth Movement (1925)

Ship Zhongshan Incident

Northern Expedition April 12 Incident

Nanchang Uprising

Autumn Harvest Uprising

Guangzhou Uprising

Huanggutun Incident

Chinese reunification (1928)

Central Plains War (1930)

China 1919: May 4 Movement

May Fourth Movement: "Mr. Science & Mr. Democracy"

September 1, 2006