May 4th, 1919: the Birthday of Modern China

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on any of the topics or subjects discussed below.

By Jacob Laufgraben

A 1976 painting by Liang Yulong celebrating the May Fourth Movement. It depicts a crowd of people holding signs written with Chinese characters.
A 1976 painting by Liang Yulong celebrating the May Fourth Movement.[1]

For more than 2,000 years, China was ruled by emperors.[2] These men who commanded the country possessed absolute authority and governed by divine right.[3] During this time, cycles of political struggle and war facilitated the rise and fall of dynasty after dynasty.[4] Of course, no empire lasts forever, and in the autumn of 1911, the last Chinese dynasty (the Great Qing) was toppled by a coalition of revolutionaries.[5]

Unfortunately, demise of imperial China did not bring an end to the decades of foreign exploitation and internal tyranny as many rebels had hoped. Instead, the new Republic of China fractured under the weight of its own impotence and poor leadership.[6] When the First World War broke out, China sided with Britain, France, and the rest of the Entente in hopes of regaining territory that they had previously lost to Germany.[7] What ended up happening was a complete upheaval of these ambitions.

A map of Germany’s Kiautschou Bay territory on the Shandong peninsula, China.
A map of Germany’s Kiautschou Bay territory on the Shandong peninsula, China.[8]

Japan, who also sided with the Entente, occupied German holdings in China and was permitted by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) to keep them after the war.[9] Enraged, students took to the streets of Beijing, demanding an end to imperialism and the antiquated traditions they saw as facilitating it.[10] The May Fourth Movement would soon expand throughout China and its population, becoming one of the most consequential events in modern Chinese history.

The movement gets its name from the first day of student demonstration. On the morning of May 4th, 1919, representatives from thirteen Beijing area colleges and universities met to discuss their grievances and passed five resolutions on the matters at hand:[11]

  1. A statement protesting the Versailles Conference’s decision to cede Germany’s Chinese holdings to Japan
  2. A call to awaken the masses of the country to the dire state of China’s plight
  3. A proposal for holding a mass meeting for the people of Beijing
  4. A proposal for the creation of a Beijing student union
  5. A call for a demonstration that afternoon in opposition to the unfavorable terms of the Treaty of Versailles

As planned, some 3,000 students assembled in Tiananmen Square that afternoon. They shouted slogans such as “Boycott Japanese goods,” “China belongs to the Chinese,” and “Protect our country’s soil.”[12] The mob did eventually turn to violence, burning down a prominent pro-Japanese politician’s home and assaulting him.[13] However, the movement as a whole employed almost entirely nonviolent strategies of resistance and disobedience.[14]

Word spread of the events in Beijing, and student associations across the country soon coordinated marches in solidarity with the Beijing students. For weeks, organizers gave public addresses in the streets, merchants closed shop, and factory workers went on strike.[15] The whole movement caused such a headache for the government that they refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles.[16] Of course, there was nothing they could do to stop the Japanese from taking possession of Germany’s Chinese holdings. But even this minor victory ensured that nationalism would be a definitive part of Chinese politics up to the present day.

Of course, it is also essential to understand the movement’s cultural foundation, which was ultimately a rejection of, or at least a strong suspicion towards, classical Chinese traditions. At this point in history, the teachings of Confucius had been a state ideology in China for nearly two millennia. Chinese radicals, like the ones who organized the May Fourth Movement, opposed Confucianism’s antiquated customs in favor of Western ideas like science and democracy.

Chen Dixiu, a leading figure of the 1911 revolution and the May Fourth Movement, as well as a dean at Beijing University and a founder of the Chinese Communist Party, said in 1917 that “in order to advocate [for] Mr. Democracy, we are obliged to oppose Confucianism, the codes of rituals, chastity of women, traditional ethics, and old-fashioned politics; in order to advocate [for] Mr. Science, we have to oppose traditional arts and traditional religion.”[17]

A photo of Chen Duxiu.
A photo of Chen Duxiu.[18]

If this sounds familiar, it may be because you’ve heard of the Cultural Revolution. This period of Chinese history lasted from 1966 to 1976. Under China’s leader, Chairman Mao Zedong, its nominal goal was to purge the remaining capitalist and traditional remnants from Chinese society.[19] So it should be unsurprising then that Mao was a librarian at Beijing University in 1919 and that he was a part of reading groups sponsored by Chen Duxiu.[20]

Ultimately, the May Fourth Movement and its cultural foundations gave rise to not just a burgeoning nationalism, but a new generation of Chinese radicals: the communists who would, in a few brief decades, come to rule the country. But May Fourth also influenced Red China’s greatest dissidents. During China’s 1989 Democracy Movement, which ended with the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre, many student demonstrators saw themselves as the successors to those of the May Fourth Movement.

On May 4th, 1989, one student leader, Wuer Kaixi, even gave a speech entitled the “New May Fourth Manifesto.” I will conclude with an excerpt from it.

I hope that my blog post conveys a sense of how history’s progress is not always progressive. Revolutions fail, the bad guys win, and we can’t always see a light at the end of the tunnel. But nobody lives forever. And the coming and passing of each generation brings renewed hope for change.

“Fellow students, fellow countrymen,

Seventy years ago today, a large group of illustrious students assembled in front of Tiananmen, and a new chapter in the history of China was opened. Today, we are once again assembled here, not only to commemorate that monumental day but more importantly, to carry forward the May Fourth spirit of science and democracy. Today, in front of the symbol of the Chinese nation, Tiananmen, we can proudly proclaim to all the people in our nation that we are worthy of the pioneers of seventy years ago.”[21]

A photo of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. It is a black and white photo of a man waving a flag.
A photo of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.[22]

[1] Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N., “May Fourth, the Day That Changed China,” The New York Times, May 3, 2019.

[2] Barbieri-Low, Anthony J., The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022, p. 1.

[3] Nuyen, A. T., “The Mandate of Heaven’: Mencius and the Divine Command Theory of Political Legitimacy,” Philosophy East and West 63, no. 2 (2013), p. 113–26.

[4] Perry, Elizabeth J., Challenging the Mandate of Heaven: Social Protest and State Power in China, Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2002, p. ix.

[5] Gao, Q., Zhang, W., Tian, F., Inception: From Hundred Days Reform to Xinhai Revolution. In: The Road to the Rule of Law in Modern China, Research Series on the Chinese Dream and China’s Development Path, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

[6] Gray, Jack, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1880s To 2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2003, p. 145.

[7] Spence, Jonathan D., The Search for Modern China, Norton, 1990, p. 271.

[8]German Leased Territory Kiautschou Bay,” Städtische Museen: German Leased Territory Kiautschou Bay.

[9] Knox, Philander C., Treaty of Versailles, Washington, Govt. print. off, 1919, Pdf.

[10] Spence, Jonathan D., The Search for Modern China, 1990, p. 311.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Harrison, Henrietta, Inventing the Nation: China, London: Bloombury Academic, 2011, p. 171.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Abbass, Samia, “Chinese Students Protest the Treaty of Versailles (The May Fourth Incident), 1919,” Global Nonviolent Action Database, November 14, 2019.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 172.

[17] Ch‘en Tu-hsiu, “Our Answer to the Charges against the Magazine,” New Youth, VI, 1, Jan. 15, 1919, p. 10-11.

[18] Song, Bin, “The Stirring Ghost of Chen Duxiu (1879-1942 C.E) Needs a Rest,” HuffPost, November 1, 2017.

[19] Hu, An’gang, Mao’s Motivation and Strategy: Mao’s Motivation and Strategy, Honolulu, HI: Enrich Professional Publishing (S) Private, Limited, 2016, p. 190.

[20] Karl, Rebecca E., Chow, Rey, Dutton, Michael, Harootunian, Harry and Morris, Rosalind C.. Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 14.

[21] Wuer Kaixi, Speech at Tiananmen Square, “The New May Fourth Manifesto,” in Han Minzhu and Sheng Hua, Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches from the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement, Princeton N.J: Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 135.

[22] Wasserstrom, Jeffrey, “May Fourth Movements,” Dissent Magazine, May 14, 2014.