The May 4 Movement

The May 4 Movement—Beginning of China’s Modern Evolution?

—by Jinny Batterson

This post lags May 4 by a week,  but may have some relevance even so.  What has come to be called the “May 4 Movement” was a series of demonstrations by students and workers in China, starting on May 4, 1919. It was part of a broader “new culture” movement that arose in China during and just after the First World War.  Both New Culture and the May 4 Movement played out during the ferment in China after the fall of the final dynasty of Chinese emperors, the Qing, in 1911.  The immediate trigger for the May 4 protests was news that during international negotiations in Versailles, France, to establish treaty provisions at the close of World War I, China had been denied the return of portions of Shandong Province that were occupied by Germany during the war. Chinese claims were dismissed despite China’s entry into the alliance against Germany in 1917 with the express claim of regaining German-held territory.  Instead, the territory that many Chinese thought was rightfully theirs was temporarily ceded to Japan (which had also fought opposing Germany, and was more advanced industrially than China). The Chinese students felt this was a betrayal, and demanded that China refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles. According to the Wikipedia description of the May 4 movement, the students, gathered the morning of May 4 in Beijing, also wanted:

—to draw awareness of China’s precarious position to the masses in China.

—to recommend a large-scale gathering in Beijing.

That afternoon, several thousand students assembled in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) in central Beijing, shouting slogans denouncing the terms of the treaty and demanding the resignation of three Chinese officials that they felt had sold out China during the Versailles negotiations.  Some of the students marched to the home of one of the despised officials and set it on fire.  They were later arrested and severely beaten.

The larger context for the protests and movements was a sense that China had fallen behind Western powers and Japan in its industrialization and economic growth, and that basic changes needed to be made in Chinese society and culture if China was to resume a central role in the world order.  Some Chinese intellectuals and writers talked of needing two “doctors” to help cure China’s ills: “Doctor Science” and “Doctor Democracy.”  As May turned to June, protests spread throughout the country, with workers and merchants joining in.  The Chinese government of the time eventually dismissed the three reviled negotiators. China also refused to sign the Versailles treaty, though Japan retained de facto control of portions of Shandong and some Pacific islands.

Some historical sources claim that the ferment of the May 4 Movement, its short-lived partial success, and the eventual rejection of many of its broader demands were factors leading to the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai in 1921. Others indicate that the behavior of the Western powers at the time of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 helped persuade many Chinese to reject Western-style democracy as self-serving and hypocritical.

The debate about the appropriate balance of tradition and of change has never been resolved, either in China or elsewhere. Perhaps it cannot be. Subsequent Chinese political figures as diverse as Mao Zedong and the student leaders of protests in 1989 have claimed the May 4 Movement as part of their inspiration.

This May, demonstrations have continued in some American cities to protest low wages for fast food workers, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore, and other police violence against civilians. Are we all, in a sense, inheritors of the May 4 Movement?


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