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The May Fourth Movement Essay

The 1911 Revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat Sen is one of the most significant events in the history of China. It marked an end to the world’s most remarkable span of imperial history, dating back 2133 years when Shi Huangdi first unified China (Gascoigne, 2003: 204). However, the change from autocratic monarchy to republic did not bring about the sort of fundamental political, social or cultural changes that one would normally expect from a revolution that smashed a 2000 year old feudal monarchy. Many scholars argue that the 1911 Revolution was not in fact a revolution at all. This statement is very much debatable, but conventional wisdoms asserts that the 1911 Revolution did not fulfil its potential.

Given these circumstances how true is the deeply held view that the political, cultural and social impacts of the May Fourth Movement were far more important than the 1911 Revolution? Mao Zedong was certainly amongst those who championed the role of the May Fourth Movement in the development of China, he wrote in January 1940: “Its outstanding historical significance is to be seen in a feature which was absent from the Revolution of 1911, namely its thorough and uncompromising opposition to imperialism as well as to feudalism” (Mao Ze Dong, 1940: x, quoted in Mackerras, 2006: 28-29).

In order to answer this question I will examine the significance of the 1911 Revolution and explain that these merely planted the seeds for a series of events of much greater historical significance, namely the May Fourth Movement, whose political, social and cultural influences had far greater immediate and long-term consequences.

However before examining the significance of the 1911 Revolution it is important to understand the political climate on which it was founded, by examining the collapse of the Qing dynasty. (Spence, 1996: 48-53) provides an account of the previous few years before the 1911 Revolution where many revolutionary groups within China became allied with the republican movement of Sun Yat-Sen. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen called for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a democratic republic. The anti-Qing movement developed with increasing momentum and brought about a succession of uprisings in Sichuan (over the government’s railway policy), followed by a rebellion of the soldiers of Wu Chang in Hupei, leading to revolutionaries seizing important centres all over the country in October 1911. In rapid succession province after province declared themselves independent of the Manchu Court, and on February of 1912 it was announced from the palace that the child emperor Puyi was abdicating. The development of a Constitutional Republic in China had begun.

(Sheng, 1983 and Yu, 1962) argue that despite these developments the new republican government never really got off the ground and that the 1911 Revolution was a failure. It is certainly easy to accept this point of view given the immediate consequences of the Revolution; namely the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, which as the central authority, no longer exercised control over all provinces. The revolution had broken down the existing political and social structures, but had failed to replace them with any of its own. The experiment in replacing these structures with a democratic republic was short-lived and the Chinese people would soon once again be under the domination of imperialism and feudalism; the reason for this, Yuan Shikai.

Yuan Shikai was called in by the Manchu court as the only man strong enough to put down the revolution of 1911. In true Machiavellian style, he used his position to seize power for himself. By installing Yuan Shikai as President of a Chinese Republic, not only did China fail to prosper, but it floundered more deeply in a quagmire of national crisis and tragedy.

The rise of Yuan Shikai to the presidency of China led to the reorganization of the Tongmenghui (Revolutionary Alliance) into the Guomindang (National People’s Party) by Song Jiaoren, who led the Guomindang to a “handsome victory” in the general elections in 1912 (Mackerras, 1998: 27). However, Yuan had no intention of being president in name only and showed he had never become a constitutionalist by ordering the assassination of Song Jiaoren (Ebrey, 1996: 272) and soon became a military dictator.

Yuan Shikai, like the Qing government was ruining the country and bringing disaster to the people. China remained a semi-colonial and semi-feudal
country with imperialism and feudalism still oppressing its people (Wu, 1962: 122). Over the next few years Yuan prepared to establish himself as the new emperor and in late 1915 Yuan announced that he would become emperor on 1 January, 1916. This action aroused enormous protest, which ended only when Yuan died unexpectedly in June 1916.

One of the reasons for the structure of government remaining largely unchanged was that the Chinese bourgeoisie were very weak and they did not dare arouse the peasants to take part in the revolution. The result was that under the pressure of the imperialist and feudal forces the bourgeoisie could do nothing but retreat and compromise and although China had turned from an autocratic monarchy into a republic, the revolution did not bring about much change in the composition of the Chinese ruling classes.

Neither the revolutionaries nor the constitutionalists gained political power (Hu, 1983: 29). It is true that the emperor and his officials were gone, but the conservative gentry-landlords had not been overthrown, and were still ruling in the countryside. As a result the 1911 Revolution had brought about very little change in the internal dynamics of Chinese society and consequently, while the city was modernised, the village remained as backward and conservative as ever.

(Spence, 1996: 64) argues that despite the limited changes in the structure of the government the 1911 revolution played an important role in shaping the culture of modern day China and the development of events that would lead to the May Fourth Movement. The importance of Confucianism in Chinese society was drastically reduced as the emperorship political structure had been an inseparable part of Confucianism, the abolition of the monarchy in 1911 declared Confucianism a useless political belief. It is in this context that the 1911 Revolution is of particular historical significance as it laid the foundations for far greater cultural change which were seen during the May Fourth Revolution in 1919, where even Confucianism as a way of life and a body of social thought was under attack, largely due to the to the 1911 political revolution made way for the May Fourth intellectual revolution.

Despite intellectuals viewing the revolution of 1911 as a failure, it is these political, cultural and social changes that provided a base for far greater social upheaval influenced by the May Fourth Movement. An example of this is before 1911, Chinese intellectuals could blame the Manchus for all the national and social problems that China suffered. Now that the Manchus no longer ruled, the blame began to be directed at foreign imperialism. Modern Chinese nationalism, therefore, gradually changed from anti-Manchuism to anti-imperialism after 1911 (Fielding, 1999: 33).

It is this growth of this Chinese ‘national’ feeling, that advanced the important concept that only through revolution could China attain independence and democracy and promote economic development (Hu, 1983: 24). In this context the political, social and cultural developments of the May Fourth Movement can be seen as a continuation of the 1911 Revolution which may be the most important outcome from the 1911 Revolution.

Although student demonstrations on May 4, 1919 highlighted it, the May Fourth Movement actually extended from about 1915 to 1923. The new culture movement, however, was primarily concerned with the new culture that was developed from 1915 onwards and began with the publication of the New Youth magazine at Beijing University (Hsu, 1990: 511). According to Hsu, it is common practice to refer to the develop of “new culture” and events including Japan’s seizure of German held Shandong, the Japanese presentation of Twenty-one demands, China’s involvement in the First World War and the consequences of the Versailles Treaty, as one movement, namely “the May Fourth Movement”, and for the purpose of this essay I will do exactly that.

One of the most significant developments of the May Fourth Movement was ‘The New Culture Movement’ which began as a result of a new generation of young intellectuals waging their own war against traditional social leadership of the Confucian academics. Those who received modern educations felt that they had inherited the obligation to advise those in power; they moreover believed themselves uniquely qualified by their modern educations to ‘save’ China (Chow, 1960: 359). This in itself is a significant development of the May Fourth Movement as increased political consciousness among the youth sparked the first youth movement in modern Chinese history as they became increasingly politically conscious and participated in many of the anti-foreign boycotts throughout the May Fourth Movement.

In desiring to create a strong and unified China they initiated an intellectual revolution, centred on Beijing University. Central to this attack on traditionalism was the journal New Youth published by Chen Du Xiu (Fielding, 1999: 42).

In the first issue of New Youth in 1915 Chen challenged long-standing Confucian ideals and instead celebrated youth. He urged his readers not to waste their time in arguing with the older generation, hoping for them to be reborn and remodeled. They should think for themselves and not let the old contaminate them. In other articles he wrote that Confucianism had to be rejected before China could attain equality and human rights (Ebrey, 1996: 370) as well as condemning the old family system (Hsu, 1990: 252). Instead, the ideal of nuclear families was advocated and young people began to demand individual freedom from the traditional collective way of living.

The emancipation of women from their traditional social bondage was another significant consequence of the May Fourth Movement. “The Chinese woman’s achievements of a life of independent personality” says a writer on the history of Chinese women’s life “was actually initiated by New Youth, and the May Fourth Movement provided the key to the achievement” (Chow, 1960: 257). This is evident as young girls rose to attack the traditional discrimination against women and campaign towards co-education and marriage based on love.

The attack on traditional aspects of Chinese culture by New Youth was relentless and the magazine’s influence spread across China (Fielding, 1999: 40). New Youth was also the breeding ground for another important impact in the development of Chinese culture from the May Fourth Movement, namely the ‘Literary Revolution’. Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu led a campaign to abandon writing in the classical literary language that had been the mark of the educated person for so many centuries (Ebery, 1996: 272). Hu Shi condemned the traditional emphasis on style rather than on substance, he maintained that classical style of writing was dead and that a dead language could not produce a living literature.

The introduction of the ‘baihua’, which was written vernacular Chinese, caused a greater rise in the literacy rate (Chow, 1960: 259). In traditional China, only the scholar class knew classical written Chinese because the language was difficult to learn and different from spoken Chinese. The ‘baihua’, however, was colloquial and thus easy to master. This written vernacular, which had previously been frowned upon by scholars, allowed more readily for the flow of ideas and the adoption of the common language by the majority of publications allowed for the greater dissemination of knowledge to the ordinary people.

This greater dissemination of knowledge during the May Fourth Movement allowed workers and students in different places to have the knowledge and organization to protest against what they saw as their common enemies in imperialism and Japanese aggression. This combination would lead to the ‘flash point’ of the May Fourth Movement. Towards the end of the First World War, many Chinese were hopeful that, the formerly German concessions seized by Japan in Shantung would be returned to China.

At the Versailles Conference of 1919, however, it turned out that Britain, France and Italy had already secretly agreed to support Japan in retaining these concessions, with the approval of the Peking warlord government. This aroused great anger among nationalist Chinese (Mackerras, 1998: 35) and in protest, some 5,000 students from the Beijing University and other educational institutions held a large-scale demonstration in Peking on May 4, 1919. This was the May Fourth Incident.

These angry students burned the house of a pro-Japanese Chinese minister. Also, they sent telegrams to students in other parts of China to set up patriotic teams for saving the country. They protested against the unjust Versailles settlement, Japan’s war-time imperialist gains in China, and the cowardly Peking warlord government.

Similar demonstrations were held in other cities, such as Tientsin, Shanghai, Nanking and Canton. The newly organized labour unions also joined the nation-wide movement. Soon, even merchants joined the movement by closing their shops in a merchant’s strike and there was a general boycott of Japanese goods (Mackerras, 1998: 35).

This would prove to be of great political importance as the May Fourth Movement brought about political awareness among all levels of the Chinese Community. Whereas politics before 1919 seemed a game exclusively monopolized by the few and for the few, more and more political leaders after 1919 developed contact with, and tried to gain support from, the politically conscious masses. By involving the now politically conscious masses, the effects of The May Fourth Movement’s involvement could be seen for many decades to come as Mao Zedong’s revolutionary programs, which put great emphasis on the peasants, originated from the May Fourth Movement.

Despite strong resentment against Japan and anti-imperialism Chinese intellectuals promoted the acceptance of modern, Western ideas which marked a huge change in the social customs of the Chinese people (Fielding, 1999: 44). New Youth particularly promoted ideas like democracy, liberalism, socialism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism. To be sure, these beliefs had been introduced into China before the May Fourth Movement, but it was the Movement that further popularized them among Chinese intellectuals.

They considered that knowledge, like democracy, was the property of all people. Hu Shi preached a gradual, bit-by-bit improvement of society through study of its problems, experimentation and solution. Under his tutelage “Mr. Science” and “Mr Democracy” became the catchwords of the age. Since both originated in the West, Hu in effect advocated a complete Westernisation. “Go West” was his message (Ebrey, 1996: 271). China acceptance of western ideals was so rapid as a result of the May Fourth Movement, that by 1920, China was now considered part of the modern world (Chow, 1960: 367).

However the greatest influence to the immediate history of China would come from the east. With the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, intellectuals also began to take an interest in Marxism-Leninism and class consciousness was promoted in China (Ebrey, 1996: 272). The emphasis on class struggle and violent overthrow of those in power was unreservedly opposed to the Confucian emphasis on harmony and respect for hierarchy. The May Fourth Movement therefore provided the intellectual climate for the creation of the Chinese Communist Party (Mackerras, 1998: 38) and given China’s current political climate it is arguable that this alone could make the May Fourth Movement far more important than the 1911 Revolution.

(Hsu, 1990: 511) argues that “The May Fourth Movement had been far more effective at destroying the past than constructing the future.” It was, however, the May Fourth Movement’s destruction of the past that would set the tone of the cultural politics through the 1920s and in the 1930s and lead to the development of the Chinese Communist Party, whose influence extends to modern day China. However, there is no doubt that the 1911 Revolution was of important political, social and cultural significance.

The removal of the 2000 year old feudal monarchical rule of China was the key incident of the 1911 Revolution and in itself is a remarkable historical event. (Hu, 1983: 6) argues that the 1911 Revolution provided the Chinese people with valuable lessons in their revolutionary struggle and considers the revolution won in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party to be a continuation and development of the 1911 revolution. This may be true, but these events would not have been possible without the May Fourth Movement. Ultimately the 1911 Revolution’s most influential consequences were to provide the breeding ground for the series of events which defined the May Fourth Movement whose political, social and cultural implications, namely; the higher status of woman, the intellectual revolution, the replacement of the classical language with the vernacular, the greater degree of freedom and the development of the Chinese Communist Party; far outweighed those of the 1911 Revolution.


Chow, Tse-tsung. (1960), The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution inModern China, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ebrey, Patricia. (1996), Cambridge Illustrated History: China, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, England.

Gascoigne, Bamber. (2003), A Brief History of the Dynasties of China, Robinson,London.

Fielding, Mark & Morcombe, Margot. (1999), The Spirit of Change – China in Revolution, McGraw Hill Book Company, Roseville, NSW.

Hsu, Immanuel C.Y. (1990), The Rise of Modern China 4th Edition, OxfordUniversity Press, New York.

Hu, Sheng & Li, Shu. (1983), The 1911 Revolution – A Retrospective after 70Years, New World Press, Beijing.

Mackerras, Colin. (2006), Study Guide: China in Transformation: 1900-1949, Digitisation and Distribution, INS, Griffith University, QueenslandMackerras, Colin. (1998), China in Transformation1900-1949, Longman, London.

Spence, Jonathon & Chin, Annping. (1996), The Chinese Century, Harper Collins, London.

Wu, Yu-Chang (1962), The Revolution of 1911: A Great Democratic Revolution ofChina, Foreign Language Press, Beijing.

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