The May Fourth Movement
China History

Research Report
Web Resources

Lu Xun

Lu Xun (1881-1936)
The May Fourth Movement occurred roughly from 1917 until 1921. The name of the movement was from the demonstrations which occurred on May 4th, 1919 in Tiananmen Square. Students from the University of Beijing were angry about the exclusion of Chinese interests during the Paris Peace Conference after the end of World War I. It was a nationalist movement that was marked by its desire to modernize the nation, through art, literature, philosophy, and most importantly in world history, politics. After years of domination by the West and Japan, young intellectuals in China began the New Cultural Movement to revive the nation.

Historical Background

    On May 4th, 1919, around 3,000 students from the University of Beijing (Peking) went to Tiananmen Square to protest the further interference of foreign imperialist powers in the affairs of the Chinese government. The Chinese had joined World War I on the side of the Allies in hopes of regaining their provinces lost over the years to imperialist Western powers, yet the interests of the Chinese were completely ignored at the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war. One area in question, the province of Shandong, had been under German control for some time. The Chinese believed they would be able to regain it after being on the Allies side; however, it was given to the Japanese instead. Also during this time Japan had issued the Twenty-One Demands to China, which was a humiliating experience for the once powerful nation. This caused a strong anti-Japanese movement in China, which eventually turned into an anti-imperialist movement.
    The demonstrations were a culmination of the frustrations of the young Chinese who were becoming strong nationalists. The protests were fought by the Chinese warlord government and 32 protestors were arrested. From June 2-4, 1919, there were mass arrests of 1,150 students in Beijing. the movement spread to other schools in cities like Shanghai, and the student cause was supported by workers' and merchants' protests. The movement was too strong, however, and the arrested were released, and by June 28th the government refused to sign the Versailles Treaty. The entire period from 1917 until the early 1920s is generally referred to as the May Fourth Movement, and it symbolized more than the student protest. It marked a cultural change in China. Besides the student protests there were workers' and merchants' protests, an intellectual movement, and a boycott of Japan. Politically, the nationalist movement evolved further into a Marxist shift in  ideology among some Chinese. Also, language and art were greatly affected by the changing cultural mood. China was searching for a political as well as cultural balance, and the intellectuals of the day were trying to find the answer.

Research Report

 A main figure of the changing times was Chen Duxiu (Ch'en Tu-hsiu,1879-1942). Chen was the dean of the University of Beijing at the time of the movement, and was also a staunch Marxist. He was not always that way, however; he originally was in favor of science and democracy in China, but eventually decided that Marxism would be the fastest way to bring China back as a strong and modern nation. He became so involved in his Marxist beliefs that when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in July of 1921, he was nominated and elected as its first Secretary General. His hopes for modern China put the traditional Confucian ideas to the wayside and on the defensive. In 1915 Chen founded the literary journal New Youth, a catalyst of the movement, as a forum for these new ideas that were coming out of the university faculty and students.

   The New Youth was more than just another literary journal, it was a core element of the new movement among the educated in China. It called for the revitalization of Chinese society, which had been under Western and Japanese domination for many years. Its authors denounced the old ways of Confucianism and tradition, instead calling for China to follow new Western ideas and update itself to reemerge as a strong nation which could hold its own with the rest of the world. Writers such as Lu Xun (Chou Shu-jen, 1881-1936), China's most acclaimed 20th century author, got their first opportunities to be published by New Youth. The journal called for the use of the vernacular in everyday writing rather than the traditional Chinese writing that most people could not read. No one person championed this cause more than American educated Hu Shih (1891-1962). Hu was an editor at the Chinese Students' Monthly, and was a former student of John Dewey. Through his and others' efforts, by 1920 elementary school were beginning to use the vernacular in teaching, and by the end of the decade it was in everyday use just as Hu Shih had hoped for. New Youth, its ideals, and its contributors brought about an intellectual change among all Chinese people, not just the students it had been originally aimed at. Its articles helped in bringing about the May 4th protests, and also helped trigger the new way of thinking in China which came to be known as the May Fourth Movement.

Art, Literature, and Politics

Literature and philosophy was greatly affected by the change in thought. Philosophically, May 4th Movement thinking was greatly influenced by 17th and 18th century French liberalism. This occured because prior to and during World War I there was a work study program of sorts between the Chinese and the French. Young Chinese men would go to France to work, freeing Frenchmen to fight, and while there working the Chinese could study. Returning to China, students brought back with them the ideas of democracy, socialism, anarchism, and Marxism, among others. In literature, there was a great movement to use the forum of journals to introduce new authors and new ideas to the forefront of Chinese writing. No one exemplified this movement better than Lu Xun. He was educated in Japan, and hoped upon his return to China to help find a way through writing to make is native land modern and strong once again. His most famous work, Diary of a Madman, was first published in New Youth in 1918. It made the claim that the past was evil, with the Chinese feeding on each other, but now there was a new generation that could be saved from this self-destruction. Lu Xun founded different literary societies, including the Thread-of-Talk Society and the Leaugue of Leftist Writers. Also, there were many translations made of Western works to classical Chinese during this time, although it had actually been happening since the late Qing. Authors such as Lin Shu (Lin Ch'in-nan, 1852-1924) translated the works of Dickens, among others. Experimental forms of writing were also coming into being, with romanticism becoming more popular in writings after the removal of Confucian constraints in modern China. Communist and anarchist writings were more prevalent than before as well during the movement. For example, Ba Jin (b. 1905) was an anarchist author of the Turbulent Stream trilogy, which was written from 1931 through 1940.

    Art in China was affected in some ways by the new movement, but not to the extent in which literature was. A few artists did make some changes to the way they painted. There was a synthesizing of Chinese traditions with western art of the day which created a new style in the country. Different schools were opened in Shanghai and Canton which taught younger artists about this combination, and brought about a modern style to Chinese art. The Shanghai Art School was opened in 1920 by Liu Haisu (b. 1895). He introduced the nude model to Chinese art, as well as an introductory class on Western music. Also, in Canton, Xu Beihong (1895-1953), an artist who had lived in Paris until 1927, brought with him the French Bohemianism of the times. His art reflected this influence, but he returned to more modern Chinese styles later in his career.

    Politically, Marxist thought, which had been around prior to the movement, began to gain momentum. After the 1917 revolution occurred in Russia and Marxism was adopted as state rule, some Chinese began to see it as a viable way for their own government to regain its strength. Communist groups began to appear among universtiy students and spread to groups outside of the college campuses. For example, a young Mao Tse-tung, at the time an assistant librarian at Beijing University, organized the communist group New People's Study Society in 1918. After the fall of the Qing in 1912 and the failure of republicanism under Yuan Shikai's regime, Chinese nationalist revolutionaries were searching for a new path to follow it either in Sun Yat-sen's democratic vision or in Communism, which prevailed after World War II. Marxism had the image of being modern and advanced. People such as Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao (Li Ta-chao,1888-1927), a fellow faculty member at Beijing University, were ardent Marxist revolutionaries who hoped for a communist government not unlike the one in Russia to save China from imperialism and warlords. Li, Chen, and others founded the Chinese Communist Party in July of 1921, with the aid of Gregori Voitinsky of Russia and the Comintern (Communist International). With this new foundation, communist movement members hoped that with the United Front cooperation with the Guomindang (KMT), China would be strong once again.

Historical Significance

The founding of the CCP in 1921 marked the beginning of another era in China, which led to the Communist takeover in 1949. The May Fourth Movement marked the end of old China and ushered in the era of what we now know modern China to be. Politically, the movement brought together the Chinese under a wave of nationalism which had been missing since the end of the Sino-Japanese War. It revived a culture by making it new again. Chinese intellectuals rejected tradition and adopted Western ideas, synthesizing them into their own. It may have never gotten off of the ground if it had not been for the revolutionary thinkers of the May Fourth Movement. From the minds of people such as Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun, Hu Shih, and Li Dazhao came a new nationalistic society, where China finally could fight back against the dominating power of the West and Japan. For better or for worse, the idealism of the educated Chinese in the early 1900's brought on a new era in Chinese history. Old China became new, without emperors or warlords, but with pens and pencils, great minds and revolutionary thought.


Web Resources  -Overview of the Movement by Wang Xiaoqui, history professor at Beijing University  -Intellectual aspect of movement in relation to the PRC
and the1989 Tiananmen Square protests -Brief section on the Movement and its relation to 1920's and 1930's history in China  -Description of art evolving during the New Cultural Movement -Comparison/contrast between student protests of 1919 and 1989