Lecture Thirty-Two

The New Culture Movement and May 4th

Scope: Chinese intellectuals and new urban elites completely rejected the traditional imperial system and the Confucian ideology that had been its official orthodoxy. New kinds of ideas were sought that would allow China to regain internal cohesion and develop into a modern country with the kind of power and prestige it had possessed in the past. Nationalism, a belief in science and democracy, anarchism, and other European ideas began to spread, as did the pragmatism of the American thinker John Dewey. At the same time, a profound disillusionment with the practical political actions of the Western powers began to spread. After the Versailles Peace Conference agreed to give Japan control of former German-held territories in China, thousands of students took to the streets of Beijing on May 4, 1919, fighting with the police and burning down the house of the foreign minister. This ferment of ideas and political movements set the stage for the emergence of the Chinese Communist Party.


I. With the collapse of the last dynasty, many Chinese repudiated the whole imperial tradition.

A. The Confucian political culture was seen as a dead weight on Chinese society.

1. Scholars and writers rejected the use of the classical literary language and, instead, advocated baihua, the plain vernacular language of daily speech.

2. The values of Confucian social relations and ritual were seen as rigid impediments to democratic egalitarianism.

3. Confucianism was seen as oppressing women and young people and privileging the elite over ordinary workers and farmers.

B. The New Culture Movement sought modern alternatives to the Confucian past.

1. New magazines and literary journals in plain language were published.

2. Ideas about science, democracy, and various kinds of European philosophies were discussed.

3. Western thinkers, such as John Dewey, George Bernard Shaw, and Bertrand Russell, visited China and gave public talks about their ideas.

C. Other movements were more concerned with organizing workers.

1. Chinese anarchists began to build unions even before the collapse of the Qing.

2. In the 1910s, anarchists were the largest mass political movement in China.

3. Ideas about socialism, feminism, and radical egalitarianism were propagated by the anarchists and by socialists and other Chinese students returning from study in Japan.

II. World War I provided first hope, then frustration for the Chinese.

A. During the war, Chinese industry was able to make gains.

1. As the Western powers were concerned with events in Europe, Chinese businessmen took the opportunity to expand their operations and gain market share both at home and abroad.

2. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers went to France to replace French workers who had joined the army.

3. These workers sent home both money and ideas and brought back their experiences of unions, elections, and radical politics.

B. At the end of the war, Western promises of “self-determination” proved to be hollow rhetoric.

1. The Allies had justified the war, in part, as a campaign for the “self-determination of peoples.”

2. At Versailles, however, the victors divided up the spoils of the defeated and made clear their intention to retain their own colonial empires.

3. In 1915, Japan had delivered to the Chinese government a program, known as “The 21 Demands,” aimed at facilitating Japanese domination of China, which the Chinese refused to accept. After the war, Japan, which had formally been on the Allied side, was allowed to keep the former German concessions it had occupied during the war.

4. China, which had also been an ally and had sent much real aid to France, was forced to agree to the terms of the treaty.

III. The May 4th Movement broke out as a response to the betrayal at Versailles.

A. When news of the decision in Paris reached China, students took to the streets of Beijing.

1. Several thousand rallied at Tiananmen, where the government ministries stood.

2. They marched east toward the Western legations but were blocked by police.

3. They then burned down the home of the foreign minister.

4. Several students were arrested and many more were beaten by police.

B. The movement spread beyond Beijing and was embraced by merchants and workers, as well.

1. Strikes and boycotts against Japanese businesses and goods took place in many Chinese cities.

2. Eventually, the government had to release arrested students, and the Chinese delegation at Versailles refused to sign the final version of the treaty.

C. The May 4th Movement and the New Culture Movement created a basis for the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.

1. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, news about Marxism and Leninism spread in China.

2. Chinese who had rejected the imperial past and who now felt betrayed by the Western liberal democracies began to turn to communism as a new alternative.

3. The Chinese Communist Party would come to be the most serious force seeking to transform China. We will follow its early development in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movement.

Supplemental Reading:

Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why was language reform so important to the progressive intellectuals of the early 20th century?

2. Given that both China and Japan had supported the Allies in the First World War, why did the Versailles Peace Conference agree to allow Japan to retain the former German concessions in China?

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