Before and After the May Fourth Movement


The so-called "May 4th Movement" or "new culture" movement began in China around 1916, following the failure of the 1911 Revolution to establish a republican government, and continued through the 1920s. Its importance equals if not surpasses the more commonly known political revolutions of the century. The movement articulated the contempt for traditional Chinese culture felt by many Chinese intellectuals. These intellectuals blamed traditional culture for the dramatic and rapid fall of China into a subordinate international position, and maintained that China's cultural values prevented China from matching the industrial and military development of Japan and the West. The May 4th Movement takes its name from the massive popular protest that took place in China in May 1919, following the announcement of the terms of the Versailles Treaty that concluded WWI. According to the treaty, Germany's territorial rights in China were not returned to the Chinese, as had been expected, but were instead turned over to the Japanese. The outpouring of popular outrage coalesced in a new nationalism with repeated cries for a "new culture" that would reinstate China to its former international position. The way out of China's problems, many believed, was to adopt Western notions of equality and democracy and to abandon the Confucian approach which stressed hierarchy in relationships and obedience. Science and democracy became the code words of the day.

Chen Duxiu, "Our Final Awakening" (1916)

Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) was dean of Peking University in 1916, a leader of the "new culture" movement, and editor of New Youth magazine. In the excerpt below (from his 1916 essay "Our Final Awakening") Chen laments the weakness of China's national strength and civilization, but cautions those who think that democracy and constitutional government can be easily established in China. First, he argues, there must be a change in the thought and character of the people such that their attitudes will support constitutional government. Without a new culture, there will be no new political system. (This same argument can be heard in the China of the 1990s.)

Chen Duxiu, 1879-1942 "Our Final Awakening" (1916) [PDF]

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Chiang Kai-shek, "Essentials of the New Life Movement" (Speech, 1934)

In 1934, Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887-1975), the leader of China, heralded the "New Life Movement" which was to rally the Chinese people against the Communists and build up morale in a nation that was besieged with corruption, factionalism, and opium addiction. Rather than turning away from Confucian values as did the May 4 Movement, Chiang Kai-shek used the Confucian notion of self-cultivation and correct living for this movement. Here we see an attempt to revitalize what was seen by Chiang as the "essence" of being Chinese.

Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), 1887-1975 "Essentials of the New Life Movement" (Speech, 1934) [PDF]

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Mao Zedong, "Reform Our Study" (Speech, 1941)

Mao Zedong's writings from the 1930s, before the Communists took power, highlight the theme of "borrowing but preserving" from a different perspective. Mao (1893-1976) was an arch-critic of traditional Chinese culture, but in applying the thoughts of Marx and Lenin (which are Western) to China he still cautioned that the Chinese Communists must not forget their own history, and that Communist ideology must have Chinese characteristics.

In the speech excerpted below, Mao is scolding those in the Party who are blindly following the ideas of Marx and Lenin without adapting it to the Chinese situation, which Mao thought would be made "better" by a revolution to wipe out the old ways and establish new ones.

    ... [T]ake the study of history. Although a few Party members and sympathizers have undertaken this work, it has not been done in an organized way. Many Party members are still in a fog about Chinese history, whether of the last hundred years or of ancient times. There are many Marxist-Leninist scholars who cannot open their mouths without citing ancient Greece; but as for their own ancestors — sorry, they have been forgotten. There is no climate of serious study either of current conditions or of past history.

    Third, take the study of international revolutionary experience, the study of the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism. Many comrades seem to study Marxism-Leninism not to meet the needs of revolutionary practice, but purely for the sake of study. Consequently, though they read, they cannot digest. They can only cite odd quotations from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in a one-sided manner, but are unable to apply the stand, viewpoint and method of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin to the concrete study of China's present conditions and her history or to the concrete analysis and solution of the problems of the Chinese revolution. Such an attitude towards Marxism-Leninism does a great deal of harm, particularly among cadres of the middle and higher ranks.

    The three aspects I have just mentioned, neglect of the study of current conditions, neglect of the study of history, and neglect of the application of Marxism-Leninism, all constitute an extremely bad style of work. Its spread has harmed many of our comrades.

    There are some who are proud, instead of ashamed, of knowing nothing or very little of our own history. What is particularly significant is that very few really know the history of the Communist Party of China and the history of China in the hundred years since the Opium War. Hardly anyone has seriously taken up the study of the economic, political, military, and cultural history of the last hundred years. Ignorant of their own country, some people can only relate tales of ancient Greece and other foreign lands, and even this knowledge is quite pathetic, consisting of odds and ends from old foreign books.

    For several decades, many of the returned students from abroad have suffered from this malady. Coming home from Europe, America, or Japan, they can only parrot things foreign. They become gramophones and forget their duty to understand and create new things. This malady has also infected the Communist Party.

    From Selected Works of Mao, Beijing Foreign Languages Press, 1971.

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Discussion Questions and Suggested Activity


  1. What was meant by "Chinese essence" and "Western techniques?" Why was it important for Chinese thinkers at the end of the century to formulate their suggestions for change in this way?
  2. In each of the selections, what was essentially Chinese about the proposed changes? What ideas were adapted from abroad? How does the nature and proportion of the mix change over time?
  3. Why do you think that, in the twentieth century, China was receptive to a revolution and the foreign ideas of Marxism?


Compare the situation of China in this period with that of the Ottoman Empire, Japan, and Russia. How were their situations similar? Different? How were their reform programs similar? Different? Compare reformers such as Rammohun Roy of India, Muhammed Ali of the Ottoman Empire, or Ito Hirobumi of Japan with the Chinese thinkers in these readings.

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© Asia for Educators, Columbia University |