Literature Essay Paper on How the May Fourth Movement Changed China

How the May Fourth Movement Changed China

            China has undergone a series of political and social transformations arising from the past activities. The country has a history of having shifted from a system of conservative culture to nationalism in its quest for maturity in democracy and respect for the social values. Like any other nations in the world, China has had its own share of revolutions spearheaded by self-proclaimed reformers, including students and other social leaders. Although seen as a means of disturbing the existing tranquil, public demonstrations and social movements can be the missing battery to political, social, and economic revolutions the  country may need to move from its mediocre system of political, social, and economic maturity. Sometimes the existing system requires a trigger into the desired directions, and thus, social movements are one such avenue. In China, the May Fourth movement has etched in its history as one of the platforms through which China experienced some transformations in its political, social and economic system. This paper explores how May Fourth Movement changed China. The exploration considers May fourth as both a movement and an era that birthed some values, which led change.

The May Fourth Movement

            The May Fourth movement derives its name from the date on which a massive protest occurred in China. The protest happened on 4th of May 1919. Although the movement derives its name from the protest that occurred in 1919, it began at around 1916. According toEdward (2001), the failure of China to setup a republican government was the main starting point of the May Fourth revolution. In 1911, a revolt took place in China seeking to establish a republican government. However, this revolution failed, but those behind the movement did not cease their efforts in challenging the government to implement political reforms. These movements gained some popularity in 1916, and it became a new culture in China. When the opportunity came on May 4, 1919, the movement came out strongly and continued until 1920s.

            Chinese intellectuals who felt some frustrations on the position taken by Chinese culture birthed the May Fourth Movement. The promulgators of the movement articulated their contempt towards the Chinese culture for taking subordinate position on international issues. The movement maintained that the Chinese cultural values had shielded China from equaling the might of Japan, and the Wets in terms of military and industrial development. The movement thus became a new culture in China. This culture scorned at the traditional cultures but instead propagated the values of capitalism (Edward, 2001).

            On 4th May 1919, after the announcement of the Versailles treaty, the movement sparked protests throughout the country. Terms in the Versailles Treaty, which marked the end of the World War I, indicated that the Germany’s rights in China were given to Japan instead of restoring them to the Chinese. The May Fourth Movement thus saw that the Chinese government had taken a soft spot in the matter and they initiated nationwide protests that demanded the formation of a new culture in China. The new culture was supposed to restore China to its old glory, witnessed during the golden age. Those involved in the movement reasoned that China was supposed to develop a new culture that focused on democracy and equality (Spence, 1999). Such culture would do away with the traditional Confucian approach that focused on obedience and hierarchical relationships. The May Fourth Movement further saw democracy and science the slogan for change.

How the May Fourth Movement Changed China

            The May fourth movement remains a remarkable event on the Chinese calendar because of its significance in reforming China. Its importance can be attributed to a number of factors discussed in this section. 

Partial Success during the Versailles Treaty

The May Fourth movement sparked unprecedented revolutions that shielded the government from signing the Versailles Treaty. To understand the issues, a chronological flow of the events is necessary.

In 1917, China entered WWI leaning on the Allied Triple Entente on stipulation that all spheres of influence in German be returned to China. This included Shandong. In that year, about 140,000 Chinese laborers had been sent to France (Spence, 1999). In April 1919, the Versailles Treaty gave German the right in the of Shandong province to Japan. Those who represented the Chinese government put several requests forth. These were requests such as; the abolition of all privileges enjoyed by foreign powers in China, extraterritoriality being one of them. Second request was to cancel the “Twenty-One Demands” with the Japanese. Lastly, a request to return the rights and territories of Shandong to china was made, because Japan had captured Shandong region from Germany at some point during the WWI. These requests were hardly met as the western allied dominated the Versailles meeting, paying little attention to Chinese Demands (Lanza, 2013). 

Student representatives arose on May 4, 1919 and convened in Beijing. These were representatives from thirteen different universities and they met and drafted five resolutions. In their first resolution, the student representative intended to oppose the conceding of Shandong to the Japanese who had been done by former German dispensations. Second resolution was to make China aware of its unstable position to Chinese masses. Third, the representatives resolved to propose an extensive gathering in Beijing. The fourth resolution was to endorse the creation of a student union in Beijing. Lastly, the students resolved to demonstrate that afternoon, protesting to the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles (Lanza, 2013).

Flowing from the above, more than 3000 students from the University of Peking and other universities convened in front of Tiananmen on the May 4 afternoon. They yelled slogans, such as “fight back for the dominion externally removes the national conspirators at home,”  “do not sign the Versailles Treaty,” and “do away with the Twenty-One Demands.” In anger, the students voiced their demands at the allied betrayal of China, condemned the spineless inability of the government in the protection of Chinese interests, and demanded a boycott of all products from Japan. Demonstrators wanted three Chinese officials to resign and they accused them of collaborating with the Japanese. They burned a resident of one of the Chinese officials and beat his servants, this led to their arrest, and they were also beaten severely and jailed (Lanza, 2013).

The following day students from the entire Beijing went on strike and in major cities across China, workers, other students joined protests. The demonstrators made a skillful appealing to the newspapers and representatives were sent to carry the message across the country. Businesspersons and workers in Shanghai also joined the strike in early June. This was because the movement center had gradually moved from Beijing to Shanghai. University chancellors made plans to have student prisoners released, and Cai Yuapei of Peking University resigned in protest. Citizen societies, newspapers, chambers of commerce, and magazines offered to support the students. Merchants threatened that if the government of China remained adamant they would withhold paying taxes (Lanza, 2013).

A mass strike of workers and merchants in Shanghai almost devastated the entire economy of China. This mounted much pressure that saw the release of all arrested students by the Beiyang government and also Cao Rulin, Lu Zongyu, and Zhang Zongxiang was dismissed. The representatives of China’s government in Perish refuted to sign the treaty and the May Fourth movement attained an initial victory, which was mainly symbolic. At this time, Japan retained control of the Islands in the Pacific and the Shandong Peninsula. The partial success of the movement depicted that China was able to hold social classes throughout the country to collaborate successfully, given proper leadership and motivation (Lanza, 2013).

The May Fourth movement birthed new idea and Values

            The May Fourth Movement was based on reformists’ ideas and values. At the time of the movement, reformists’ ideas were rare in China. China had embraced the concept of Confucianism, which focused on the reformations of the inner person and provided some key virtues to be followed. However, Confucianism provided limited reforms in educations and the economy. Although Confucianism was later interpreted to allow for social and political reforms, the philosophy proved futile in various situations, such as during Yuan Shikai. Confucianism was interpreted as a form of slavery, whereby people were focused on paying allegiance to gods and men in high positions instead of focusing on trivial issues. China was entering into the modern period that called for cooperation on international scene and respect for democracy. This means it could not continue to hold on to the traditions, which were interpreted as irrelevant in the new age. The May Fourth movement thus came up with debates. The public debates became the forum for discussing change in China. The role of traditions in the new China, whereby the relationships between the past and present was juxtaposed (Lanza, 2013).

            The cultural movement thus articulated values based on new concepts that saw the old traditions as derailing development. The movement based its ideas on new thinking in terms of development. It conglomerated the views of various scholars who faulted Confucianism for its promotion of submissiveness, paternalism, and unquestioning respect. These scholars embraced values, such as democracy, individual liberties, and self-determinations (Lanza, 2013). The movement saw the Western social and political concepts as essential in a rapidly changing world. This means forms of government, such as republicanisms, was seen as an ideal for China.

The Introduction of Baihua (The Modern Chinese Vernacular)

Prior to the May Fourth movement, Chinese writings were done in classical or standard writing. The classical writing was largely used during the imperialist time and it impressed classical language. Classical writing was used in all formal writing and was different to the spoken language. However, during the May Fourth Movement, focus was shifted on revolutionizing the Chinese literature. During the movement, intellectuals and scholars, such as Chen Duxiu, Hu Shih, and Qian Xuantong advocated for the promotion of Chinese Vernacular. They claimed that the Chinese vernacular was the best form of learning because it was easy to communicate to everyone in writing. Classical literatures had only been confined to scholars and thus it was not popular among the Mandarin speaking Chinese. The Chinese vernacular, thereafter, gained wide recognition in literal works (Happanen, 2011).

Lu Xun, who was among the facilitators of the May Fourth Movement, became the first scholar to publish a book in Chinese Vernacular. His book on the accurate Story of Ah Q, gained a wide audience in China because it was written in Chinese vernacular. As the May Fourth movement gained more influence, the Chinese classical literature lost its importance. Most people saw classical literature as a hindrance to the progress in education, national, social, and literal progress. Since classical literature could not accommodate everyone, it was seen as a force behind the tendency to create overdependence on scholars for information. However, the vernacular literature was accommodating and it grew into the mainstream literature. Lu Xun and other nonfiction and fictional writers advanced their works in the Chinese vernacular (Happanen, 2011).

As the culture of the May Fourth advanced, so did the Chinese vernacular. Some grammatical mechanics was added into vernacular Chinese to make it professional. According to Edward (2001), punctuation marks used in Western writing were added into the Vernacular Chinese. The traditional Chinese writings did not have punctuation marks. At the same time, the May Fourth movement proponents allowed for the addition of the Indian numerals, as well as Arabic numerals. The governments that successively took over following the May Fourth movement adopted the Chinese vernacular as the official language in schools (Happanen, 2011).

The adoption of the Chinese vernacular also led to further reforms in the education system. It was now possible for children to express themselves through writing if they were taught well, and thus the government introduced the primary and the secondary system of education. The entire curriculum was written in the Chinese vernacular. Since most scholars were willing to promote Mandarin, a lot of books and scholarly works were written in Mandarin within a very short period after the movement started (Happanen, 2011).

The outcome of the May Fourth movement is evident in China even today, and this attests to the change that the movement brought into China. Since 1920s, almost all Chinese legal and official documents, books, and newspapers have been written in the Chinese vernacular. The only deviation is the tone and the choice of vocabulary, which makes literary works formal or informal. In addition, it is not ordinary to find texts in classical Chinese apart from few writings for those who are extremely educated (Happanen, 2011). This means every Chinese is accessible to materials in the language the person understands best and this has raised the literacy level in China.

Women Liberation

The May Fourth Movement is also seen s a platform for women liberation in China. Prior to the movement, women’s voice was not heard in China. Education was highlight dominated by men and thus they held key positions in the imperial China. However, after the movement was birthed, the matter of women liberation comes into limelight. A number of discourses were held to discuss how women needed to be liberated and be given a chance in the important matters of the society. According to Spence (1999) matters, such as property rights were discussed during the May Fourth Movement. Initially, women had no legal rights to own property. However, after the movement, things started changing. Spence (1999) further claims that during the later reign of the Qing dynasty some legislation was enacted to allow women to own properties. At the same time, the May Fourth Movement advocated for equal education to both boys and girls. Since the education had been liberated because of the introduction of the Chinese vernacular in writing, it was easy for girls to access education.

In urban areas, a bevy of girls referred to as modeng to imply modern started coming upon the scene. These modern girls became the link for other girls to be liberated because modern girls formed women liberation movements. Although women liberation was not a drastic change, the May Fourth movement jerked women into reality about their rights, and the current gender balance being witnessed in China is because of the movement (Lanza, 2013). This means the movement is remembered for its important change on women liberation.

The Cultural Revolution

The May Fourth Movement is essentially a cultural revolution. The movement birthed a new culture responsible for propelling China into a new era of social, political, literal, and economic development. The movement gained its prowess by creating dissatisfaction in the followers about the tradition that was in existence. The movement derived its ideas from the Western thoughts, whereby they learn that the West was well developed in terms of democracy, economy, and social aspect because of its culture (Changli, 2010).

Since the traditions of the Chinese did not give liberty to the people, they were confined into respect for deity and cultural practices that demanded respect for those in power without question. The Chinese were thus inferior to the West because of their cultural limitations. The intellectuals were thus dissatisfied with the situation and thus they decided to look for answers through education and reforms. In this way, a new culture of thinking beyond the situation was born. A culture that saw Confucianism, the clan system, and traditional morality as the main cause of backwardness in China. In this case, this new culture was an opposite of the culture that existed. This new culture embraced democracy and science as a new way for the China (Changli, 2010). Currently, China is among the largest economies in the world. The country has the best scientific laboratories in the world, such that it is a leader in the manufacture of electronics gears in the world.

The Opposition to Confucianism

            The May Fourth Movement marked the first strong opposition to Confucianism. Confucianism was an ethical, as well as philosophical system that was developed by Confucius. Confucianism was widely accepted in China and it became like a religion to them. The philosophy of Confucianism focused on virtues of an individual and encouraged special allegiance to the gods. Confucianism demanded that governance be carried out from the heart. In this case, the king was supposed to be the embodiment of the true governance and his subjects were supposed to adhere to the king’s directions. This implies that no one was supposed to question the king and this notion was subjecting people to a form of slavery (Changli, 2010).

            The May Fourth Movement blamed Confucianism for weak governance. The system advocated for traditional morality and a clan system in the government and this did not provide the government with democratic mantle to stand against external aggression. It is this weakness that saw the Chinese diplomatic failure, which saw it losing its territory to Japan after the end of the World War I (Changli, 2010).

The Birth of Communism in China

            Communism, which is the main ideology in China, was birthed out of the frustrations created by the cultural change that arose from the May fourth movement. When the May Fourth ideologies took shape, a group of youth and intellects demonstrated democratic ideas from the West. Since the movement had given, people a platform to think, some started thinking along the lines of opposition to the US. The US was not equated to other imperial forces. However, it had the authority to assist China in various issues, such as the adoption of Fourteen Points and the Versailles treaty, but failed to do so. The failure was interpreted as betrayal to the Chinese and thus some members of the May Fourth movement started looking for help from other political ideologies. It is at this time the Marxist idea took shape and thus was adopted by some. Communism was explored as an option, and thus it came to be adopted (Changli, 2010).


The May Fourth Movement became the turning point for the Chinese as a nation. Chinese intellectuals who felt some frustrations on the position taken by Chinese culture birthed the movement. The promulgators of the movement articulated their contempt towards the Chinese culture for taking subordinate position on international issues. The movement changed China in a number of ways. First, the movement birthed a new culture responsible for propelling China into a new era of social, political, literal, and economic development. The movement is also seen s a platform for women liberation in China. This paper has also discovered that communism, which is the main ideology in China, was birthed out of the frustrations created by the cultural change that arise from the May fourth movement.


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Happanen, J. (2011). Language, Time and the May Fourth Movement. Graduate Journal Of Asia-Pacific Studies, 7(2), 99-116.

Lanza, F. (2013). Of Chronology, Failure, And Fidelity: When Did the May Fourth Movement End?. Twentieth-Century China, 38(1), 53-70.

Spence, J. (1999). The Search for Modern China . New York: W. W. Norton & Company.