Culture and Politics in China: The May Fourth Movement, 1919

Issue 1906

30 May 2019

Three thousand students gathered in Beijing on May 4, 1919, to protest against the preliminary provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, which gave to Japan the German-held territories in Shandong Province.[1] A national boycott of Japanese products ensued, followed by a general strike in Shanghai, which was the country’s industrial capital at the time. The movement soon extended its demands.

Young intellectuals and students, who were outraged by the lack of education for women, sang the praises of “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” in opposition to the Confucian worldview and its associated ritualism. In addition, they argued that modern vernacular Chinese (Baihua) should replace literary Chinese as the language of education. The “May Fourth Movement” is inseparable from the “New Culture Movement,” to which is usually traced the founding of the Xin Qingnian (New Youth) magazine in 1915.[2]

Political and social upheavals after 1919 soon rendered the May Fourth Movement’s political dimension obsolete, yet its cultural and symbolic impact are still with us today. In 1939, again in 1979 and, in particular, in 1989, references to the Movement became explicit and insistent, albeit different aspects of its ethos and claims were highlighted on each occasion. Over the years, and especially during the last two decades, the Movement has been criticized heavily, a consequence of the harsh judgments it voiced about traditional Chinese culture. In 2019, one hundred years on, what remains of the spirit of the May Fourth Movement? And does this historical period still resonate in contemporary Chinese debate?

May Fourth: its origins and subsequent history

On October 10, 1911, soldiers stationed in the province of Hubei seized the city of Wuhan, and proclaimed the province’s autonomy. Before long, and with the support of the revolutionary movements that had been active since 1890, the revolutionaries had conquered most of the provinces. Sun Yat-sen returned from his exile abroad, and on January 1, 1912, declared the creation of a new Chinese Republic. But just a month later he passed on the presidential mandate to General Yuan Shikai. The succession of political disappointments convinced many intellectuals that the transformation of China could not be just a political transformation, but required a cultural shift.

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