May Fourth Movement / Intellectual Revolution

May Fourth Movement poster
May Fourth Movement poster

In 1919 a student-led protest movement became the catalyst for an intellectual revolution in China. On May 4th, 1919, thousands of university students in the Chinese capital city, Beijing (Peking), gathered outside Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) to protest the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that would transfer Germany's sphere of influence in Shandong (Shantung) province to Japan.

They targeted the perfidy of the great powers and burned down the residence of a leading Chinese official, accusing the corrupt warlord-dominated government of selling out China's interests.

The arrest of some students led to a brief boycott of classes. News of the incident spread to 200 other cities where students organized into unions and rallied local merchants, workers, and citizens to join a general strike and boycott of Japanese goods.


The ensuing unrest led to widespread confrontations with police and mass arrests but resulted in the resignation of pro-Japanese cabinet ministers and China's refusal to sign the peace treaty with Germany. The immediate goals of the May Fourth protests were thus achieved.

The term May Fourth Movement first appeared in an article by Luo Jialun (Lo Chia-luen), a student leader at the National Beijing University, published in a journal named The Weekly Review. In Luo's words the movement "represented the spirit of sacrifice on the part of the students,...and the spirit of self-determination on the part of the Chinese nation." As the first mass patriotic demonstration organized and led by youthful students, it was a landmark event in 20th-century Chinese history.

During the following decades the May Fourth Movement came to denote a broader phenomenon in China's response to the challenges of the modern world. The political chaos and diplomatic weakness that followed the republican revolution of 1911 and growing Japanese imperialism exhibited in its Twenty-one Demands in 1915 that aimed at making China a Japanese protectorate had created a deep sense of urgency among modern educated young Chinese.

In 1917 Cai Yuanpei (Ts'ai Yuan-p'ei), a distinguished scholar who had attained the highest Chinese degree and also studied in Germany, was appointed president of National Beijing University. Cai insisted on academic freedom and built up a strong and diverse faculty that attracted China's brightest students who became leaders of the intellectual revolution.

The faculty journal New Youth and student journal New Tide became the beacons of new thought and intellectual debate that included such subjects as Social Darwinism and Marxism, the writings of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, and the importance of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

They attacked outmoded traditions rooted in Confucianism and advocated language and other reforms in Chinese society, including the status of women. The broadened quest for reforms that lasted into the 1920s was also called the New Culture Movement, the Chinese Renaissance, or the Chinese Enlightenment.

The most visible success of this movement was the replacement of the stilted classical written style with vernacular Chinese that was led by Chen Duxiu (Ch'en Tu-hsiu), who later was a founder of the Chinese Communist Party, and Hu Shi (Hu Shih), who remained committed to Western liberalism.

The language reforms helped to spread literacy and mass education and the development of new literary genres that brought China into the mainstream of modern world literature. The intellectual revolution brought about the introduction of Western methodologies of critical reasoning to the social and natural sciences. It also advocated individual freedoms and the democratic values of the West.

A parting of ways took place among the activists after the tumultuous events of 1919 subsided. While many of the Western-oriented liberal intellectuals resumed their academic pursuits, the radicals turned toward Marxism and the model of Russia's Bolshevik Revolution.


With the encouragement of representatives of the Comintern (Third Communist International), several faculty members of National Beijing University and some students and their allies formed the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

Other patriotic youths turned to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, who responded to the changes by reorganizing his Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. The Nationalist and Communist Parties would first coalesce and then split in 1927 to become locked in a life-and-death struggle for control of China that would last throughout the 20th century.

During the 20th century efforts to implement the goals of the May Fourth Movement met countless obstacles. In China after 1949, supporters of its goals suffered grievously during numerous campaigns launched by the Communist Party.

Nevertheless, the values it expounded have survived to the present, and its memories have been selectively invoked during the commemorations of the movement to the present in both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China.

During the war of resistance against Japanese aggression (1937–45), May 4th was celebrated as National Youth Day; it is still designated as Youth Day in the People's Republic of China. On its 70th anniversary in 1989, students gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing and hoisted the twin banners "Mr. Science" and "Mr. Democracy," slogans first raised by Chen Duxiu in 1918.

Since the 1980s there has been growing interest in the study of Hu Shi, the preeminent liberal thinker of the May Fourth era; Hu had earlier been harshly criticized by the regime of the People's Republic.

Ironically, Confucius, once the target of attacks by radicals among the May Fourth intellectuals and later consigned to "the dustbin of history" by Maoist extremists during the Cultural Revolution, is once again honored as China seeks to remake its image in the 21st century.