The May 4th Movement in China

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The May 4th Movement in China

The first Cultural Revolution of China’s 20th century began with the May Fourth Movement on May 4th, 1919. The May Fourth Movement in China was an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement. Although it physically began on May 4, 1919, it actually lasted from about 1917 until 1923. It marked the rapid rise of Chinese Nationalism as well as a re-evaluation of Confucianism. The movement was sparked by the dissatisfaction with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles settlement regarding China. The treaty endorsed the Japanese takeover of the German concessions in the Shandong peninsula. The movement was an attempt to redefine the culture, political, and intellectual state of China. The movement sparked a nation wide concern about the future of China, as well as the need for change in order to avoid colonization by foreign powers. The end result was a major change in society that helped fuel the birth of the Communist Party of China.


The overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 marked the end of thousands of years of imperial rule in China. China had been devastated and humiliated by foreign invasion, as well as being forced to give in to the demands of these foreign powers. The British had imported large quantities of opium into China, thus causing mass drug addiction among the Chinese population. Foreign concessions had been given in major sea ports, and foreign residents in these concession areas were not subject to Chinese laws. Corruption was rampant. The end of the Qing Dynasty theoretically brought a new era in which political power rested with the Chinese people. However, in reality, China was a fragmented nation dominated by warlords. The Beiyang government did very little to deal with the influence exerted by imperialist foreign countries. This government made more concessions available to foreigners, which, in conjunction with the warlords, created great suffering amongst the Chinese people. Sun Yat-Sen had given control of the government to Yuan Shi Kai, who proceeded to try and install himself as the Emperor of China, thus threatening the idea of democracy that had been the essence of the overthrow of Pu Yi, the last Qing Emperor.

Cause and outbreak

China had not participated actively in World War 1, but had sent approximately 140,000 laborers to France in 1917 to aid the Allied Triple Entente. These workers helped to man the factories that produced the goods needed for the war effort, as well as providing supplies and burying the dead at the front lines. The Chinese Government, based on the aid that China had provided to the allies, requested the return of concessions in the Shandong peninsula, concessions that had been taken from Germany by the Japanese during the Great War. The Chinese Government also requested the abolition of all privileges in China by foreign powers; and the cancellation of the 21 demands from Japan. Japan, on the other hand, had actively fought on the side of the allies during the war. At the treaty of Versailles at the end of World War 1, Western Allies paid little heed to the demands of the Chinese representatives. The Versailles treaty met the demands of the Japanese and endorsed the Japanese demand to takeover the concessions in the Shandong peninsula. Another factor was the ideas of national self-determination advocated by President Wilson of the USA. These ideas stimulated great enthusiasm for liberal ideas and nationalism amongst the Chinese intellectuals. Revolutions that had occurred in countries such as Russia, Finland, Germany and Austria during the great war aided in getting many Chinese thinking that China too needed a revolution to save itself from foreign exploitation.

Reaction in China

On the morning of May 4th, 1919, student representatives met in Peking and agreed to five resolutions, as follows:

1. Opposition to the granting of Shandong to the Japanese as per the Versailles...
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