Introduction to China's May Fourth Movement

China Marks Youth Day
VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

The demonstrations of the May Fourth Movement (五四運動, Wǔsì Yùndòng) marked a turning point in China’s intellectual development which can still be felt today.

While the May Fourth Incident occurred on May 4, 1919, the May Fourth Movement began in 1917 when China declared war against Germany. During World War I, China supported the Allies on the condition that control over Shandong Province, the birthplace of Confucius, would be returned to China if the Allies triumphed.

In 1914, Japan had seized control of Shandong from Germany and in 1915 Japan had issued 21 Demands (二十一個條項, Èr shí yīgè tiáo xiàng) to China, backed by the threat of war. The 21 Demands included recognition of Japan’s seizure of German spheres of influence in China and other economic and extraterritorial concessions. To appease Japan, the corrupt Anfu government in Beijing signed a humiliating treaty with Japan by which China acceded to Japan’s demands.

Though China was on the winning side of World War I, China’s representatives were told to sign away rights to German-controlled Shandong Province to Japan at the Treaty of Versailles, an unprecedented and embarrassing diplomatic defeat. The dispute over Article 156 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles became known as the Shandong Problem (山東問題, Shāndōng Wèntí).

The event was embarrassing because it was revealed at Versailles that secret treaties had been previously signed by the great European powers and Japan to entice Japan to enter World War I. Moreover, it was brought to light that China had also agreed to this arrangement. Wellington Kuo (顧維鈞), China’s ambassador to Paris, refused to sign the treaty.

The transfer of German rights in Shandong to Japan at the Versailles Peace Conference created anger among the Chinese public. The Chinese viewed the transfer as a betrayal by the Western powers and also as a symbol of Japanese aggression and of the weakness of the corrupt warlord government of Yuan Shi-kai (袁世凱). Infuriated by China’s humiliation at Versailles, college students in Beijing held a demonstration on May 4, 1919.

What was the May Fourth Movement?

At 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 4, 1919, approximately 3,000 students from 13 Beijing universities assembled at the Gate of Heavenly Peace at Tiananmen Square to protest against the Versailles Peace Conference. The demonstrators distributed fliers declaring that the Chinese would not accept the concession of Chinese territory to Japan.

The group marched to the legation quarter, the location of foreign embassies in Beijing, The student protestors presented letters to foreign ministers. In the afternoon, the group confronted three Chinese cabinet officials who had been responsible for the secret treaties that encouraged Japan to enter the war. The Chinese minister to Japan was beaten and a pro-Japanese cabinet minister’s house was set on fire. The police attacked the protestors and arrested 32 students.

News of the students’ demonstration and arrest spread throughout China. The press demanded the students’ release and similar demonstrations sprung up in Fuzhou. Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Wuhan. Shop closings in June 1919 exacerbated the situation and led to a boycott of Japanese goods and clashes with Japanese residents. Recently-formed labor unions also staged strikes.

The protests, shop closings, and strikes continued until the Chinese government agreed to release the students and fire the three cabinet officials. The demonstrations led to a full resignation by the cabinet and the Chinese delegation at Versailles refused to sign the peace treaty.

The issue of who would control Shandong Province was settled at the Washington Conference in 1922 when Japan withdrew its claim to Shandong Province.

The May Fourth Movement in Modern Chinese History

While student protests are more common today, the May Fourth Movement was led by intellectuals who introduced new cultural ideas including science, democracy, patriotism, and anti-imperialism to the masses.

In 1919, communication was not as advanced as today, so efforts to mobilize the masses focused on pamphlets, magazine articles, and literature written by intellectuals. Many of these intellectuals had studied in Japan and returned to China. The writings encouraged a social revolution and challenged traditional Confucian values of familial bonds and deference to authority. The writers also encouraged self-expression and sexual freedom.

The period of 1917-1921 is also referred to as the New Culture Movement (新文化運動, Xīn Wénhuà Yùndòng). What started as a cultural movement after the failure of the Chinese Republic turned political after the Paris Peace Conference, which gave German rights over Shandong to Japan.

The May Fourth Movement marked an intellectual turning point in China. Collectively, the goal of scholars and students was to rid the Chinese culture of those elements which they believed had led to China’s stagnation and weakness and to create new values for a new, modern China.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Mack, Lauren. "Introduction to China's May Fourth Movement." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Mack, Lauren. (2021, July 29). Introduction to China's May Fourth Movement. Retrieved from Mack, Lauren. "Introduction to China's May Fourth Movement." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).