Reflections on the May Fourth Movement on its 100th anniversary

By Benjamin Avichai Katz Sinvany

November 6, 2019

Students protest the giving of German concessions in Shandong to Japan. “May Fourth Movement” by Liang Yulong, July 1976.

NANJING, China — Many Chinese identify the May Fourth Movement, or New Culture Movement, as the origin of modern China. Beginning with student-led protests against ineffective governance in the late 1910s and 1920s, the movement grew to encompass and inform many of China’s political and social thinkers of the 20th century – including founding members of the Communist Party of China (CCP), like Mao Zedong and Chen Duxiu. Now, 100 years later, the CCP celebrate and promote the movement in state-led media outlets. How did the movement one writer describes as “an exercise of individual agency against state power, a questioning of humanist values versus technological might, and a search for universal truth inside of national identity” become a piece of the Chinese government’s nationalist propaganda?

On May 1, 1919, news reached Peking (modern-day Beijing) that the Chinese delegation at Versailles would agree to terms that turned German-held territories on the Shandong peninsula over to the Japanese. This sparked mass protests in the Chinese capital on the afternoon of May 4, that quickly spread across the country. Led by students from 13 colleges and universities in Peking, thousands of students gathered outside the Forbidden City and marched toward the nearby foreign legation quarter. Along the way students passed out pamphlets, or broadsheets, printed in easy-to-read vernacular Chinese, explaining the loss of Shandong to the Japanese and calling on all Chinese to stand together in protest.

Photograph of Student Protestors in Beijing. Wikimedia Commons

Though most protesters dispersed by nightfall that day, a wider movement swept up the imagination and energy of China’s intellectuals. The demands articulated by the student protestors fueled an impassioned literary and intellectual debate about the existential questions of Chinese identity and nationhood. 

1919 painting by Wen Yiduo of students at Qinghua University participating in protest. Wikimedia Commons

The 1919 May Fourth Movement fundamentally shaped 20th-century thought in China, calling for serious reflection and, at times, radical rejection of what it meant to be Chinese and what it would mean to be a modern nation-state among many. How could the Chinese reconcile a rich history of intellectual, scientific and moral achievement with a modern reality of a weakened Chinese state that was continually subjected to military and political humiliation at the hands of Europeans, Americans and Japanese?

The movement became a breeding ground for a cohort of intellectuals, social critics and political activists seeking to create a stronger, more resilient and less corrupt China. The vision for this China differed among the thinkers, which included anarchists, Marxists, capitalists and fascists. 

Before, during and after the May Fourth Movement, China struggled to engage with foreign ideas of modernity at the expense of or in tandem with Chinese traditional thought and values. The film, Spring in a Small Town explores this idea. In the 1948 film, a woman is torn between her Confucian filial duties as a wife to her sickly, scholarly husband and her desire to be with her Western-educated, Western suit-wearing lover. This allegory articulates the frustration of the students at Peking University and the intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement: How could China modernize while being held captive by a “weak” tradition?

Poster of Fenmu’s 1948 film Spring in a Small Town

Now, 100 years later, the May Fourth Movement seems to be used strategically to reinforce key messages the CCP wants to convey about China’s history. In 2008, May Fourth was declared a national holiday for the country’s youth. Certain aspects of the original movement – innovation and an embrace of western science – live on. The CCP celebrates the patriotic fervor of the students who marched in protest of the injustices against China at Versailles. The CCP idea of 五四精神 (May Fourth Spirit) captures this idea in its four principles: concern for the country and the people, fierce love of China, vigorous innovation, and the pursuit of scientific nationalism. Other ideals of the movement – protest, student organization and the free sharing of ideas – are deemphasized. Today, there are no marches and no protests. Instead, there are large red posters in the subways and bus stops with yellow lettering to mark the day. 

Female students participating in the May Fourth protests. Wikimedia commons

May Fourth has become a day to remember a movement that 100 years ago galvanized an intellectual community and led to the founding of the CCP. If this is the legacy of the May Fourth Movement, what does it mean, or how are we to understand it today?

The simple answer may be found in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the 100th anniversary meeting held in the People’s Hall in Beijing, where he stated that “patriotism was at the core of the May Fourth Movement.” Ironically, people today might question toward which country the students and intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement were being patriotic in 1919, 30 years before the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Xi speaks of patriotism to the PRC, but in 1919, the patria could have meant many things, from the Qing dynasty, to Sun Yatsen’s Republican government, to the broader conception of the Chinese civilization. In any case, the China we know today is a far cry from the politically fragmented China of 1919. 

Photo of the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Meeting in the People’s Hall in Beijing. Xinhua News Agency

In many ways, the CCP has achieved the May Fourth goal of rebuilding China and becoming politically and economically competitive on the world stage. China can now boast of a seat on the UN Security Council and the second largest economy in the world. Indeed, many Chinese have a lot to be proud of. If this is how China chooses to understand May Fourth from the vantage point of the 21st century, then its legacy is one of affirmation for the CCP – that in a time of hardship and ideological turmoil, the Communist Party provided sound and steadfast guidance to China and the Chinese people through the tumultuous 20th century.