May Fourth Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The decision made at the Paris Peace Conference to give China’s Shandong province to Japan enraged college students in Beijing and led to demands for international justice and domestic reforms.

Summary of Event

The revolution of 1911 overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. Without significant military power, Sun Yixian, father of the republic and founder of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), soon resigned as president of the Republic of China. The weak governments that followed were dominated by warlords. There were no democratic reforms, civil wars prevailed, and China’s international position deteriorated. May Fourth Movement China;May Fourth Movement [kw]May Fourth Movement (May 4, 1919) May Fourth Movement China;May Fourth Movement [g]China;May 4, 1919: May Fourth Movement[04740] [g]East Asia;May 4, 1919: May Fourth Movement[04740] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 4, 1919: May Fourth Movement[04740] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;May 4, 1919: May Fourth Movement[04740] [c]Social issues and reform;May 4, 1919: May Fourth Movement[04740] Chen Duxiu Fu Sinian Hu Shih Cai Yuanpei Sun Yixian Li Dazhao Luo Jialun

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Japan captured the Shandong province of China from German forces; Germany had established a sphere of influence and enjoyed political and economic rights extracted from a weak China in 1898. In 1915, Japan imposed the Twenty-One Demands Twenty-One Demands[Twenty One Demands] on China; these demands gave Japan extensive concessions in China and the right to permanently assume Germany’s privileges in Shandong. China’s warlord governments agreed to this and other Japanese demands in return for loans and Japanese support. Japan also secured secret agreements with Great Britain, France, and Italy and tacit approval from the United States that it should continue to control Shandong after Germany’s defeat. In 1917, China declared war against Germany.

Chinese light industries boomed during World War I as a result of the decline of Western imports. This led to the development of a new entrepreneurial and managerial class in the industrial cities and the rise of a factory working class. New schools proliferated, and in 1915, the Ministry of Education listed 120,000 government schools of all sorts. In addition, there were private schools, many of which were run by Western missionaries. As a result, new social classes imbued with modern ideas emerged. Most Chinese were excited about U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points Fourteen Points and his advocacy of national self-determination for oppressed peoples, which the Chinese thought would benefit them. Thousands of Chinese in many cities demonstrated joyfully at the end of World War I, anticipating a new dawning of justice for China.

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Paris Peace Conference (1919) China attempted to win back Shandong and sought an end to the unequal treaties that made it a quasi-colony of Japan and powerful Western nations. However, President Wilson agreed with British and French leaders to transfer Germany’s rights in Shandong to powerful Japan rather than return the province to weak China, in violation of national self-determination and Chinese human rights.

Chinese intellectuals who were dissatisfied with their inept government and China’s low international status sought ways to reform and renew their national life, and many young men who had studied in Europe and the United States admired the democratic institutions and prosperous societies of the West. Upon his return from studying in France, one of these young men, Chen Duxiu, had founded a magazine called New Youth New Youth (magazine) that championed political and social reforms. He was joined by Hu Shih, a professor who had begun his advocacy of language reforms and the use of the vernacular instead of the classical written form while a graduate student in the United States and who contributed articles to New Youth.

In 1916, Cai Yuanpei, who had participated in the 1911 revolution as a member of Sun Yixian’s Kuomintang, became chancellor of National Beijing University. He implemented academic freedom and other reforms at the university so that the best faculty and brightest students flocked there. Encouraged by Cai, in 1918 Fu Sinian, Luo Jialun, and other students at National Beijing University formed their own magazine called New Tide. New Tide (magazine) This magazine was committed to a critical spirit, scientific thinking, and a reformed style of writing, and it gave focus to student aspirations and won instant national recognition. New Youth and New Tide magazines became the standard-bearers of China’s New Culture movement New Culture movement (also known as the Chinese intellectual revolution).

When news of the Allied decision to award Shandong to Japan reached China, students at the National Beijing University organized a citywide student demonstration in protest. Five thousand student demonstrators from thirteen universities and colleges in Beijing assembled at the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) on May 4. They demanded that China not sign the Treaty of Versailles Versailles, Treaty of (1919) and that pro-Japanese officials who had signed secret treaties with Japan be punished. The rousing May Fourth Manifesto called on Chinese to be ready to die for their nation but never to agree to give up their territory. A student delegation presented petitions of protest to the United States and British diplomatic missions. When the demonstrators passed the house of a pro-Japanese official, they broke into the home and set it afire. Police arrived and arrested ten students.

News of the arrests led to a strike of all students in Beijing. The strike quickly spread throughout major cities in China, where students also demonstrated to show solidarity with their fellows in Beijing. Many industrial workers went on strike, and merchants in key cities closed shops and boycotted Japanese-made goods in sympathy. Almost all newspapers supported the students and the patriotic movement they had unleashed, and Sun Yixian also called for strong support for the students. All demanded that China refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and the government vacillated and authorized the Chinese delegation in Paris to use its discretion over signing the treaty. Chinese students in Western Europe then surrounded the hotel where the Chinese delegates stayed and physically prevented them from proceeding to Versailles when the signing ceremony took place.

In late May and June, student leaders assembled in Shanghai, formed an all-China student union, and met in conference. Sun Yixian and other Kuomintang leaders met many students to persuade them that Sun’s ideology of nationalism, democracy, and livelihood was crucial to China’s national salvation. The warlord government in Beijing attempted to suppress the movement by imprisoning more than one thousand students in Beijing. As there was no jail space, part of the National Beijing University’s campus was turned into a prison. A renewed wave of strikes and boycotts forced the government to capitulate. As the students marched triumphantly out of jail, the government apologized, the pro-Japanese officials were dismissed, and the cabinet resigned. These events came to be called the May Fourth movement.


The May Fourth movement had far-reaching implications and results, and it is recognized as China’s first mass, student-led patriotic movement. Students became a new force in politics as nationalism became China’s primary political issue. Anti-imperialism also acquired new emotional meaning. It inspired later generations of students to lead in demanding social reforms, democratization, and economic betterment as well as policies that would win equality and respect for China in world affairs.

In the United States, the blatant unfairness of awarding Shandong to Japan contributed to the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles. When Republican president Warren G. Harding called the Washington Conference in 1921-1922, he and the British delegation successfully pressured Japan to return Shandong to Chinese jurisdiction. Washington Disarmament Conference

The May Fourth movement also had an important impact on China’s political development. Sun Yixian immediately realized the students’ potential to revitalize his hitherto politically ineffective Kuomintang. He recruited many promising students to his cause, and with Soviet help, he eventually restructured the Kuomintang to become a disciplined political party. Some intellectuals were profoundly disillusioned with the West as a result of China’s treatment in Paris. They were particularly disappointed in Woodrow Wilson, whom they had hailed as the herald of a new, just world. As a result, some turned to Russia and to Marxism-Leninism, with its universalist explanation of history, its tight party organization, and its techniques of seizing power. Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao formed a Marxist study club in Beijing in 1919; others were formed in several other cities. In 1921, Chen, Li, Mao Zedong (whom Li had hired as library assistant), and others formed the Chinese Communist Party. Communist Party;China

Socially, the May Fourth movement led to intensified attacks on Confucianism and on traditional social and familial values and attitudes, such as the subordination of the young to the old and the subordination of women to men. Young people demanded and increasingly received the right to choose their careers and spouses; young women demanded emancipation and equality of rights and opportunities with men. Chancellor Cai readily agreed to accept women students, admitting the first coeducational class after competitive examinations in 1920. Other universities and colleges quickly followed. After it gained power in 1928, the Kuomintang government adopted legislation and enacted laws that gave women equality for the first time in Chinese history.

The attack on Confucianism also stimulated a critical evaluation of China’s past and inspired new scholarship in history, philosophy, archaeology, and other fields. It also opened minds to inquire about world cultural and philosophical trends. Enthusiastic audiences listened to lectures by noted scholars such as John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and Rabindranath Tagore when they visited China in the early 1920’s. The May Fourth movement also gave impetus to the adoption of the vernacular by the popular press; vernacular became the medium of instruction in schools in 1920. The importance of this change cannot be overemphasized, because it greatly facilitated the spread of popular education and modern ideas and ideals. May Fourth Movement China;May Fourth Movement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergère, Marie-Claire. Sun Yat-sen. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. Comprehensive, balanced biography places Sun Yixian in the context of his times. Includes photographs, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chiang, Monlin. Tides from the West: A Chinese Autobiography. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1947. Chiang was a scholar trained in the United States and a professor at Beijing University during the May Fourth movement. Here he tells of his early experiences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chou, Min-chih. Hu Shih and Intellectual Choice in Modern China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. This well-researched book tells about the forces that molded Hu Shih’s early life. It also explores his views on politics and literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chou, Tse-tsung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. This comprehensive book traces the background, development, and outcomes of the May Fourth movement. It includes a detailed chronology of events, notes, and appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duiker, William J. Ts’ai Yuan-p’ei: Educator of Modern China. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977. Details the important roles Cai played in fostering modern higher education and research in China and in promoting academic freedom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grieder, Jerome B. Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970. An account of the traditional and new influences, and the political and social forces, that shaped the ideas of Hu and his colleagues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Wunsz. China at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Jamaica, N.Y.: St. John’s University Press, 1961. China’s failure to achieve its relatively practical goals at the Paris Peace Conference precipitated the May Fourth movement. This book details China’s position in World War I, its postwar goals, and its treatment by the Allied Powers at Paris.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwarcz, Vera. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. 1986. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. An interesting reevaluation of the May Fourth Movement and its impact, with emphasis on the students. A valuable work despite some factual errors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Benjamin, ed. Reflections on the May Fourth Movement: A Symposium. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Many experts contributed their views and interpretations of an event that many consider to be the watershed of modern Chinese history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan. The Search for Modern China. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Detailed, accessible, and generally balanced presentation of twentieth century China. Maps, illustrations, notes, glossary, bibliography, and index.

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Categories: History