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The May Fourth Movement: The Awakening of Chinese Nationalism

When people think of big countries, China is undoubtedly known as a populous and large nation. Since the establishment of People’s Republic of China, this modern state has become one of the powerful countries in the world. Following the communist regime, the development of China has astonished people all over the world. In the past century, China broke away from feudalism and imperialism and moved towards modernism and communism. Among all the historical actions that fueled the revolution, the May Fourth Movement was the most remarkable incident that maximized individuals’ patriotism and pushed forward the message of nationalism by non-institutional collective actions. It is crucial to draw lessons from the major causes of the formation of modern China and learn to improve from history.

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In terms of social movement, Piven and Cloward have profound insights on the emergence of political actions. They mainly argue that possibilities for protest movements are structurally limited, and political actions are not freely available to all groups at all times (Piven & Cloward, p. 3). The lower classes only revolt under exceptional structural conditions that mark the emergence of protest movements (Piven & Cloward, p. 7). Wu stated that, “Post-imperialist nationalism was a developmental nationalism which addressed the modernist challenges of nation building, economic development, and popular participation” (p. 467). It was challenging for students and youth to initiate a movement under the presence of a powerless and disorganized government. Therefore, exceptional structural opportunities are necessary for them to undertake actions. First, massive social or economic changes in society are needed (Piven & Cloward, p. 11).

On May 4, 1919, a vigorous anti-imperialist patriotic mass movement broke out in Beijing which is the ancient capital of China. The revolutionary wave swept across the country quickly, and people from different fields stood out and fought back simultaneously. During World War I, Japanese imperialists forced the Chinese government that was led by Yuan Shikai to sign an unreasonable treaty or the Twenty-One Demands for China’s territorial, political, military, and fiscal conditions under Japanese control (Jianling & Momei, p. 94). Japan then declared war on Germany and quickly occupied Shangdong province that was a colony of Germany in China in order to expand power in East Asia. In January 1919, the victors of World War I held a post-war peace conference at the Palace of Versailles in the suburbs of Paris. The Paris Peace Conference is actually an imperialist bifurcation conference whose purpose is to redistribute the colonies and divide the sphere of power. At the meeting, the abolition of the Twenty-One Demands that the Chinese representative originally proposed were unreasonably vetoed, and the Treaty of Versailles was composed (Lee, p. 33). It demanded of Germany transferring all the rights and interests in Shandong to Japan without considering the objection of China (Lee, p. 33). In other words, it allows Japan to receive territories in Shandong. Institutional patterns mold the structuring of collectivity that can induce protests (Piven & Cloward, p. 21). The diplomatic failure or social change instigated national indignation and offered exceptional structural conditions for dissent. This news then reached back to China and aroused massive protests from people of the country.

The unfair treaty caused national humiliation that further induced the development of associations in the Republic of China and built the organizational foundation for the May Fourth Movement in the country. These organizations awakened self-consciousness among the Chinese people. The example I will present here is the establishment of the South Society. Prior to the formation of the South Society, the China Education Association, the Patriotic Society, and the Autonomy Society were closely connected to each other and pushed student movements at the time (Jianling & Momei, p. 83). These organizations were created by students from different regions in China and intellectuals who have studied in foreign countries. Students were the vital force of the movement. On May 1, 1919, some students at Peking University were informed of the news that the Paris Peace Conference rejected China’s request. On the same day, the student representative held an emergency meeting in the dining room of Peking University’s Xizhai and decided to hold a temporary meeting of all students at the Peking University Auditorium on May 3, 1919. On the evening of May 3, 1919, Peking University students held a conference, and representatives from Beijing Higher Normal School (now Beijing Normal University), universities related to political science and law and higher industrial also attended. The student representatives called on everyone to rise to revitalize the country. Individuals got together and determined to revive national sentiment and guard their nation from harm. When the South Society was founded, it attempted to lead the literary world and open a generation of ethos. Members of this association accentuated the social role of literature and generally demanded the “national soul” to be liberated through literature to inspire the masses. The idea of ​​loving the country and protecting the country opposes the autocratic rule of the Qing government and serves the bourgeois democratic revolution.

Before the emergence of the May Fourth Movement, the idea of ​​innovation was introduced to China and affected young people after the Sino-Japanese War. Concrete experience of daily life that shapes people’s discontent into specific grievances against specific targets (Piven & Cloward, p. 20). Individuals were dissatisfied of the incompetent and corrupt government. Piven and Cloward accentuate that protest movement is the collective defiance fueled by transformation of consciousness (p. 3-4). Furthermore, activists and intellectuals emphasized the importance of thoughts in political revolutions in the early years of the Republic of China. The publication of the “Youth” magazine (later renamed “New Youth”) founded by Chen Duxiu was one of the (Jianling & Momei, p. 95). The magazine launched a New Cultural Movement and promoted philosophy of Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy, and new literature. The development and advocacy of the vernacular movement, freedom, and resistance to traditional authority have affected students and the general public. The New Culture Movement held the banner of “democracy and science” and inspired the patriotic and national enthusiasm of the Chinese, especially the Chinese youth, from the ideological and cultural fields, and fundamentally laid the ideological foundation and intellectual source for the emergence of the May Fourth Movement (Wu, p. 468).

In the late Qing Dynasty, China’s imperial examination system was changed in 1905 by studying Western and Japanese academic systems, and this change provided a great opportunity for establishing new modern schools (Jianling & Momei, p. 87). A lot of the intellectuals devoted themselves to education. Schools like Peking University and other universities have altered its course materials and course contents. Under the leadership of President Cai Yuanpei of Peking University, they introduced an open academic style and proposed “freedom of thought and compatibility” (Jianling & Momei, p. 83-84). School administrators decided to hire teachers to teach subjects like Chinese literature, Chinese fiction history, phonology, and opera history (Jianling & Momei, p. 87). At the same time, Peking University paid attention to cultivating students’ open-minded thoughts and independent spirits. This kind of thought and spirit has become an important driving force of the May Fourth Movement.

During the national movement in 1919, the strategy of disruption was used by activists. It refers to collective defiance that withholds cooperation to cause institutional disruptions (Piven & Cloward, p. 24). When people are lack of institutional power, they rely on non-institutional politics to force out response. The strategy of disruption only works when people’s defiance matters because not everyone has disruptive potential (Piven & Cloward, p. 25). Due to their weak institutional locations, the lower classes have to overcome difficulties such as the lack of resources and the inability of self-protection (Piven & Cloward, p. 25).

There were four types of political actions or tactics taken by people to achieve their objective. People chose to participate in non-institutional politics over electoral politics. First, students started large-scale demonstrations and rallies (Lee, p. 37). On the afternoon of May 4, three thousand students from more than a dozen schools including Peking University gathered in Tiananmen Square or the Gate of Heavenly Peace which is located in the center of Beijing, and they urged the government to uphold national sovereignty against the Treaty of Versailles (Wu, p. 468). Second, demonstrations held by oppositional political elites were arranged in Central Park in May and June 1919. Elites concerned about China’s position at the Paris Peace Conference (Lee, p. 36). Third, students organized a petition to the Beiyang government in front of the New China Gate (Lee, p. 36). The petition was unsuccessful when the parade confronted the pro-Japanese officials such as Cao Yulin, Zhang Zongxiang, and Lu Zongxi who have specifically negotiated with the Beiyang government and Japan (Lee, p. 36). At that time, a large number of military police arrived and arrested 200 students at the demonstration (Lee, p. 36). Under the tit-for-tat struggle of the students, the arrested students were quickly released with the strong solidarity of the public, but they did not reach their goal of the movement. After that, thousands of people from Peking University held a general strike and public lecturing (Lee, p. 36). A lot more students went on the streets to revolt against the warlord government’s perverse actions. More than 800 students were arrested and imprisoned during the movement (Lee, p. 37). The authorities even used Peking University’s buildings as temporary prisons to detain students (Lee, p. 37). In addition, the boycott of Japanese goods by students and the masses stimulated the development of national industries, but China’s social economy still could not withdraw from the misfortune of Japanese bullying. Workers and businessmen in some places also responded positively and promoted the development of the struggle. The rapidly expanding conflict has put tremendous pressure on the reactionary authorities, and the government was forced to release the arrested students. People menaced the government to refuse to sign the treaty, and more than 7,000 telegrams were sent to Paris to protest against the signing. In the end, the Chinese representative finally did not attend the signing ceremony.

Piven and Cloward foresee that collective defiance will generate institutional disruption that will further urge political reverberations (p. 27). They both consider that the capacity to force concession as the ultimate success of a protest movement (Piven & Cloward, p. 65). Impact only occurs when individuals are capable of disrupting institutions (Piven & Cloward, p. 24). Institutional roles determine the structural impact of defiance that people typically rebel against the unjust rules and authorities associated with their everyday activities (Piven & Cloward, p. 21). Although the movement forced out concession of the government not signing the Treaty of Versailles, it did not mean that China’s interests could be preserved. From 1921 to 1922, the Washington Conference was held. The Chinese representative proposed ten principles to resolve the issue in Shangdong province. Japan agreed to return Qingdao to the Republic of China government. However, the Jiaoji Railway was still controlled by Japan, which meant China’s rights have not been restored. In addition, this issue has stimulated the speed at which Japan annexed China and pushed other powerful countries aside. Due to the powerlessness of the government, warlords attacked each other and aggravated China’s civil strife.

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The May Fourth Movement is the first thorough and uncompromising struggle against imperialism and feudal forces in Chinese history. The masses, citizens, business people, and other middle and lower classes participated in demonstrations, petitions, strikes, violence against the government. It is also the beginning of China’s new-democratic revolution, an epoch-making event in the history of Chinese revolution and “a turning point in modern Chinese history” (Lee, p. 33). The fatuous rule of the Beiyang government, the growth of the Chinese working class, and the New Cultural movement promoted the emancipation of ideologies. The spread of Marxism to the Chinese people, diplomatic failure of the Paris Peace Conference in Europe, the signing of the “Paris Peace Treaty” detonated the May Fourth Movement. The proletariats eventually overthrew the capitalists when they realized their collective interests as Marx predicted.

It is a patriotic movement for Chinese students. Its main force is students and youth, their patriotism, the spirit of fighting for truth and justice, the unfear of violence and the spirit of dark politics deserve to be studied by the next generation. However, from the perspective of social development in the whole society, its influence is far beyond this. Apart from affecting Chinese ideology and culture, political development, social and economic trends, and education, it also played an important role in the establishment and development of the Chinese Communist Party (Lee, p. 33).

Other than students, women have gained male support and political support at the level of national independence and national reconstruction by integrating their rights into the movement. Under the feudalist society, women were constrained in patriarchal and traditional notions, and male power was very strong at that time. In order to alter this plight, legitimacy has promoted rapid development of women’s liberation movements such as gender equality and female independence. However, this kind of modernization advocated by the male enlighteners completely unified the female issue into class and national liberation. It resulted in tension in the balance between marital relationship and family role, and women gained limited freedom within the framework of power that does not challenge the patriarchal order.

Wu addressed that, “the post-imperial May Fourth nationalism aroused in a poor and backward China to seek wealth and power for the nation” (p. 469). It advocated patriotism, self-help, science, and democracy and created an emulative and tenacious image in the face of internal and external struggles. It is a “natural development” that consists of efforts done before the revolution (Jianling & Momei, p. 96). Also, it stimulated the resurgence of Chinese nationalism in the late twentieth century (Wu, p. 478).

Works Cited

  • Jianling, Jin, and Zhang Momei. “The South Society and the May Fourth Movement.” Chinese Studies in History, vol. 48, no. 1, 2014, pp. 82–97., doi:10.2753/csh0009-4633480105.
  • Lee, Nelson K. “How Is a Political Public Space Made? – The Birth of Tiananmen Square and the May Fourth Movement.” Political Geography, vol. 28, no. 1, 2009, pp. 32–43., doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2008.05.003.
  • Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward. Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Chapter 1 (Pp. 1-37); Chapter 2 (Pp. 41-92).
  • Wu, Guoguang. “From Post-Imperial to Late Communist Nationalism: Historical Change in Chinese Nationalism from May Fourth to the 1990s.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, 2008, pp. 467–482., doi:10.1080/01436590801931454.


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