The may fourth movement
The may fourth movement
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It is difficult to imagine that the China that exists now was actually a product of an event that happened nearly ninety (90) years ago. In fact, the economic and political behemoth that China is today can be attributed to an event that occurred on May 4, 1919, called the May Fourth Movement (Chow 352). This mass movement was considered as an anti-imperialist and social movement during the early days of modern China. The re-awakening of Chinese nationalism as well as the re-evaluation of many of the traditional Chinese institutions of culture were some of the effects of this movement (Chow 352). It also marked the first time in Chinese History that a mass movement was staged to protest certain international agreements. It was also this event that marked the beginnings of the Chinese communist party (Chow 352).
While many of the events that transpired during and after the May Fourth Movement are considered as radical in modern Chinese history, there was something greater that this event awakened in the Chinese race and led to the re-emergence of China as one of the most dominant forces in the world today.
This brief discourse will attempt to shed more light on the issue by first providing a concise overview of the May Fourth Movement. In attempting to show just how this event has impacted China’s course of history, there will also be a segment devoted to the events that transpired during and after this period. This will also include the effects that the May Fourth Revolution brought about. Finally, the birth and rise of the Chinese Communist Party shall also be included in this brief discussion.
In order to arrive at a better understanding of the situation, there shall first be this brief overview to provide the reader with a better perspective of the arguments and the flow of the discussion. Using this brief overview, one is able to construct a certain timeline while reading the report and can fully appreciate the events that occurred during these times.
The May Fourth Movement, while begun directly because of the protests over the Treaty of Versailles, is considered as having been the result of the failure of the 1911 revolution to establish a semblance of a Republican Form of government in China. As discussed previously, the relevance of such movement was more political and social (Chow 352). While there are economic repercussions from such movement, the main and more noticeable impact was on the traditional Chinese Culture which many intellectuals felt was too antiquated and outdated to provide China with the advantage that it needed to compete in the new century (Schwarcz 137).
The “New Culture” movements, as some call the May Fourth Movement, was centered on the philosophy that only by adopting a new culture could the old political establishments be overthrown or changed (Schwarcz 137). By 1915, intellectuals who were inspired by the teachings of Chen Duxiu began to encourage the other Chinese to clamor for reform and a strengthening of Chinese society (Schwarcz 137). According to these intellectuals, this could only be accomplished by accepting the Western advantages in science and political thinking. This would make China impervious to foreign influence and thus powerful enough to resist the imperialist tendencies of the Western World.
By May 4, 1919, the social unrest had reached its peak and thus the May Fourth Movement began (Schwarcz 139). Initially a protest over Article 156 of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, it soon spread into political and cultural spheres as brought about by the growing influence that the Chinese Intellectuals had during these times (Schwarcz 133).
May Fourth Movement:
Called the First Mass Movement in Modern Chinese history, the May Fourth Movement started in China around 1916. While it has been cited in many history books that the event actually transpired on May 4, 1919, the seeds for such movement were already sown early on. This was caused by what is referred to as the Shandong Problem that arose due to certain provisions in the Treaty of Versailles (Schwarcz 137).
The Shandong Problem is the actual cause of the unrest and eventually the May Fourth Movement. The problem that arose here is due to the dispute that arose over Article 156 of the Treaty of Versailles (Schwarcz 132). The conflict was due to the fact that the Article effectively transferred all German Concessions in Shandong, China over to the Japanese. This was despite the fact that many Chinese protested that these concessions should have been turned over to Chinese sovereignty instead of Japan. In response to this, the Chinese Emissary, Wellington Koo, announced that China would not concede Shandong to the Japanese (Schwarcz 137). This was because Shandong was the birthplace of Confucius. To cede Shandong over to the Japanese would be tantamount to the Christians surrendering Jerusalem over to another country, according to Koo (Schwarcz 142). This caused a huge uproar in China and led to the May Fourth Movement.
Thus, on May 4, 1919, over five-thousand (5,000) students from various Chinese Universities took to the streets and publicly protested the Versailles Conference which started on April 28, 1919 (Liu 109). The demonstrations and strikes that ensued were widespread all over Shanghai. This was followed by a general boycott of any and all Japanese goods that were being sold in China (Schwarcz 142).
This series of protests soon paved the way for a patriotic outburst among the students and the emerging class of intellectuals who deeply resented the foreign imperialists. The intellectuals who sparked this movement saw that the political agenda that lay behind China’s failure in the modern era (Liu 109). As such, several hundreds of new periodicals that were operated by these intellectuals soon attacked the traditional Chinese practices, citing that these were the roots of China’s failure. These same intellectuals believed that the western ideologies of equality and democracy were more at par with the current global situation (Liu 109). The events after the First World War had revealed a certain weakness in the traditional Confucian approach of hierarchy in relationships and blind obedience to these hierarchies (Liu 109). It was this sentiment which soon led to the primacy of science and ideas of democracy in China (Liu 109).
Instead of propagating the traditional Chinese ideologies and beliefs, the Intellectuals were of the opinion that there were better foreign ideas that could help lead China back to the world dominance that it enjoyed before. This soon led to the establishment of leftist and liberal parties who espoused conflicting ideas on what ideologies China should adopt (Schwarcz 141). One of these advocates was Hu Shih who subscribed to the pragmatist practices of John Dewey (Schwarcz 142). On the other hand, there were the leftists such as Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao who were followers of the teachings of Marx and who believed that the Chinese should take more political action.
These set the stage for what would be known in history as the May Fourth Movement. The rise of new ideas and a new brand of intellectualism that soon swept China by storm and sew the seeds for the eventual re-emergence of China as one of the most powerful countries in the 20th century.
Historical Antecedents of the May Fourth Movement:
As previously mentioned, the May Fourth Movement was the result of the build-up that resulted from public displeasure at imperial rule. After the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, the Qing Dynasty that had previously controlled China was removed from power. This was a significant event that marked the end of thousands of years of imperial rule in China (Chow 219). This also led to the establishment of a new era and new rule where the power that was originally vested in a single ruler was now with the people (Chow 219).
While this was the sentiment and ideology that people pinned their hopes on after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, the stark reality was that China was in fact still dominated by some form of imperialism (Chow 219). Warlords were still in power and the control that was supposedly given to the people following the collapse of imperialism in China was nothing more than an ideology that was fast fading (Chow 219). These warlords had an agenda that was quite different from the common people. They planned to further their own political interests through the use of their own private armies (Chow 219). The welfare of the public and national interest was not the priority for these warlords and soon led to great suffering among the Chinese population.
Since the Chinese Beiyang government was too preoccupied with dealing with the squabbles of these warlords, it was unable to shield itself from the external influence that the imperialist foreign powers had slowly presented (Chow 219). In fact, in order for the Chinese Beiyang government to be more effective in quelling these internal affairs, certain members made numerous concessions with these imperialist foreign powers in order to gain the advantage that they needed (Chow 219). It was these foreign concessions that led to the loss of China’s international reputation as a dominant force.
When World War I had begun, China soon found itself allied with the Triple Entente in 1917. The reason for this was that China demanded that Germany would return all their spheres of influence back to China after the war. China also sent over one hundred and forty thousand (140,000) of its laborers to France to help in the war efforts (Chow 219). Yet instead of awarding the Shandong province back to China according to the original agreement, it was instead awarded to the Japanese (Chow 241).
The demands that the Chinese Representatives made upon the Allies included the removal of any and all privileges that foreign powers had in China, the cancellation of the “Twenty-One Demands” of the Japanese and the return of the Shandong Territory. As history reveals, none of these demands were really complied with by the Allies (Chow 245). At this point, the main concerns of the Allies had to do with “punishing” Germany for its acts. While President Woodrow Wilson advocated for the establishment of the principle of self-determination, which China was in favor of, the resistance that David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau presented forced President Wilson to abandon his stand thus leading to the perceived Chinese Diplomatic Failure at the Paris Conference (Chow 262). It was this Diplomatic Failure that sparked the beginning of the May Fourth Movement.
There were five major resolutions that were drafted in the morning of May 4, 1919. These were created by the student representatives from thirteen (13) different Chinese Universities (Chow 352). The first resolution was in opposition of the grant of Shandong to the Japanese. The second resolution was with regard to the dangerous position that China currently held to the masses. The third resolution was to lead a large gathering in Peking. The fourth resolution was the creation of the student union in Peking. The last resolution was the protest over the Treaty of Versailles in the afternoon of the same day (Chow 352). In abeyance to these resolutions, the Students soon gathered together to begin the May Fourth Movement.
The direct effect of this movement was felt the next day in Beijing when all of the students went on a strike. This soon resulted into a domino effect as students from other parts of China also staged their own protests and strikes (Schwarcz 151). As early as June, the student’s struggle had expanded into other sectors of society and soon the workers and businessmen in Shanghai staged their own protests and strikes (Schwarcz 151). This led to the shift of the protests from Beijing to Shanghai.
As soon as more people began supporting the May Fourth Movement, the Beiyang Government was forced to accede to their demands and the arrested students were soon released. Not soon after that, Zhang Zongxiang, Cao Rulin and Lu Zongyu were asked to resign from their posts under the Beiyang Government (Schwarcz 151). The mounting pressure from the strikers also led to the refusal of Chinese Emissary Wellington Koo to sign the peace treaty in Paris (Schwarcz 151).
Perhaps the greatest effect of the May Fourth Movement was the emergence of a new cultural movement called Communism (Lin 217). Since the main argument during this time was that the Confucian tradition that was previously subscribed to had led to the diplomatic failure and embarrassment of China, many intellectuals were attempting to introduce new western ideologies and political models (Lin 217). While there were those who believed in democracy and liberalism, one of the major concepts that became adopted was that of communism.
In 1921, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao founded the Communist Party of China (Chow 352). The rationale behind this was because many felt that the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal message that the May Fourth Movement espoused was a sign to adopt a more radical and people based political government (Lin 217). The changing of Chinese ideologies and the role that the student intellectuals played in the movement was key to the birth of the Chinese Communist Party (Lin 217).
Another factor which brought about the popularity of Chinese Communism was the fact that the United States of America, while claiming that it supported self-determination, did not try to convince the other so-called imperialist powers such as Britain, France and Japan to follow the Fourteen Points (Lin 219). As mentioned previously, this was an affront to the Chinese people and as such there was no incentive to adhere to the liberal democratic principles which the United States of America supported (Lin 215). This began the proliferation of Communist ideologies among the Chinese intellectuals of this era. Thus the era of the Chinese Communist Party began.
Perhaps it is still unclear at this point just how the May Fourth Movement led to the re-emergence of China as a modern day dominant force. Yet as clearly shown in this brief discourse, the May Fourth Movement ushered in a new era for the Chinese. It opened up Chinese intellectual thought to western philosophies and ideas. While the Communist reign may have closed China to progress for much of the century, such thinking still gave way to the progressive thinking of the 20th Century which can arguably be attributed to the first instance when Chinese culture embraced non-traditional thinking such as the May Fourth Movement.
It is still unclear, however, whether or not China will relinquish the power and dominance that it presently holds. In fact, it seems that this newfound power is actually more of an effect of the adoption of Western Liberality and Democracy rather than Communism. The question that begs to be asked then is whether China could have been more successful if the May Fourth Movement had resulted in the birth of Chinese Democracy instead of Chinese Communism.
Chow, Tse-tsung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China . Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1960.
Lin, Yu-sheng. The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness : Radical Antitraditionalism in the May Fourth Era. Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
Liu, Lydia H. Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity – China 1900 -1937. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Schwarcz, Vera. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919
 This was considered as more of a symbolic gesture because Japan still did not relinquish control over the Shandong Province to the Chinese