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The May Fourth Movement: A Cultural and Political Uprising in China

  • 06 Pages
  • Published On: 27-10-2023

May Fourth Movement: An Iconoclasm

In May 1919, a part cultural, part political uprising took place in Chine, whose immediate cause was the Chinese response to the Treaty of Versailles, popularly called the May Fourth Movement. However, while this was the immediate cause of the movement, which led student uprising motivated by a sense of patriotism, the roots of the movement are much deeper. These roots are found in the disassociation between the students and the traditions that were rooted deep in the society, which in the face of increasing impact of Western thought, were found to be at odds with the notions of liberalism, individualism and gender roles.

Writers have pointed out that the 'iconoclastic' is the single most used adjective used in defining the May Fourth Movement. This essay discusses the iconoclasm of the movement in light of the existing traditional norms, particularly those relating to gender roles in Chinese society and how these were challenged and later shaped by the May Fourth Movement. The essay argues that the May Fourth Movement was the movement of the masses that was guided by some influential writers and thinkers of the time. Much of this movement was also guided by revolutionary ideas that were aimed at unsettling centuries old norms and practices that were grounded in doctrines such as Confucianism.

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In China, the year 1919 is the watershed moment or “very moment of origin when cultural iconoclasm was joined to political activism of the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggle: the watershed affecting the flow of all subsequent revolutionary history.” Although the pivotal point in the movement is in the year 1919, the roots of the movement go back some years and the years of the First World War are essential in understanding the roots of the movement. It is also important to understand the role and influence of writers such as Chen Duxiu, and how Western thought also played a crucial role in making the May Fourth Movement as an iconoclastic movement.

The May Fourth Movement may even be considered to be an iconoclastic movement because it challenged the existing social, cultural and political norms in the Chinese society and also managed to create an ideological and political foundation for the later events in China. In many ways, the Movement was a clash between the old practices and the new ideas. These differences are usually explained as “the inevitable outcome of systemic differences between two incompatible ways of life”. The Chinese society at the time was rooted in traditions such as feudalism. Coded texts containing a body of doctrines, informed these traditions within the Chinese society. At the same time, there was a movement towards cultural liberalism in the more advanced cities such as Shanghai, while there were many provincial middle counties such as in the he Qiantang Valley. The May Fourth Movement was also in a way an uprising of the more mobile youth and students who travelled back and forth from their more provincial homes to the modern cities and were caught between the traditions of the provinces and the liberal and westernised environments in the cities. Out of such individuals, some were prominent in the Movement, such as Chen Duxiu, who had the benefit of both Japanese as well as French education and found much to deride in the established Chinese way of life that was rooted in Confucianism. In fact, Chen Duxiu was the most influential early proponent of attack on Confucianism. The literary revolution was also started in parallel with the movement against Confucianism. In this, one of the early influencing forces was Hu Shi. Like Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi also had the benefit of a Western education, as he had studied in Cornell and Colombia before coming back to China. Hu Shi’s ideas were as revolutionary as they were discarding of the established classicism in Chinese literature. On the contrary, Hu encouraged the use of grammar and avoidance of the imitation of the ancients and rather using popular forms of expression or characters in writing. He was particularly critical of writing without substance. This was particularly the form of teaching and practice that was followed in the inland middle counties that had remained traditional in their ways of life and worldview. The schools still followed the rote learning methods and the emphasis on Confucian classics. However, when these same students travelled to Hangzhou for schooling, they experienced first-hand the sharp distinctions between their provincial culture that was dominated by opium smoking, gambling and domestic violence and the culture in the cities where they noted that hygiene and order was followed. Moreover, the well-policed provincial capital provided a sharp contrast from the bandit infested provinces. Thus, the Hangzhou's First Teachers College where the students converged on the eve of the May Fourth Movement was the starting point for the most radical elements in the movement, which were these students. The May Fourth Movement that played out in Zhejiang was not a rural event, it was an urban phenomenon and it sparked similar movements in Hangzhou, Ningbo and Wenzhou. In Hangzhou, on 12 May 1919, patriotic demonstration involved more than 3,000 students which also included women.


  1. Wen-hsin Yeh, “Middle County Radicalism: The May Fourth Movement in Hangzhou”, The China Quarterly 140 (1994): 903-925.

  2. Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 108.
  3. Yeh, “Middle County Radicalism”, 903.

  4. Wing-Tsit Chan, “The New Cultural Movement” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol 2: From 1600 through the twentieth century, eds. De Bary, Richard Lufrano (Colombia University Press 2001) 353.
  5. Yeh, “Middle County Radicalism”, 905.

  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Wing-Tsit Chan, “The New Cultural Movement”, 351.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid, 357.
  11. Yeh, “Middle County Radicalism”, 907.

The influence of Westernisation or Western ideas were also to be seen in the events that led up to the Nay Fourth Movement. China was a very traditional society, where there were norms that influenced and impacted every aspect of an individual’s life. This was especially seen in the role of the individual within the family and the larger society. On the contrary, Western thought was individualistic in nature. This discrepancy was to have an effect when more Chinese scholars, thinkers and academics wrote or spoke about the social ills in the Chinese society. For instance, Kang Youwei, campaigned against the Chinese practice of foot binding in 1883. The foot binding practice was followed extensively in China at the time, where in order to keep feet of young girls small, they were bound. Kang took a very different route to reform than the one taken by Chen Duxiu. Where Chen Duxiu found much to censure in the practices originating from Confucianism, Kang saw Confucius as an iconoclast who wanted to make the society more humane.

The role of women in the May Fourth Movement is also worth considering. Although, China at the time was a very traditional society, which had established norms on gender roles within the family and society, there were some women who came to exercise important roles in the movement. Li Lihua, was one of the few women who participated in the May Fourth Movement. She also went on to join the students' union, Huanqiu xueshenghui [the Global Students' Union], in Shanghai as a representative of her school. She later said that there were many female students who participated with her in the May Fourth Movement. The Feminist Movement Association was formed in the aftermath of the May Fourth Movement. The involvement of women in the movement was also a cultural iconoclasm because these student organisations formed before and after the movements allowed men and women to freely interact with each other, which was not otherwise culturally appropriate in the Chinese society of the time. Another important and interesting facet of the Movement’s impact on gender relations was also seen in the fact that women increasingly demanded gender parity in the work relations. For women participants in the movement they saw themselves as not only saving the nation but also claiming equal status for women. The movement saw the woman participating in equal measure as the male students, including being beaten up by the police and getting arrested. After the May Fourth Movement “female students in Beijing, and soon throughout the country, strode out of the seclusion of their schools to join the May Fourth movement. This was the beginning of educated Chinese women's social freedom to work shoulder to shoulder with men.” It is noteworthy that even after the 1911 revolution had brought more rights for women, particularly in education, women were still subject to conservatism, which was seen in their segregation into separate schools and even the curriculum for girls’ education was different with a greater focus on domestic science or household management. There also was the requirement of conservative dressing.


  1. Ibid.
  2. Ibid, 909.
  3. Pamela Kyle Crossley, The Wobbling Pivot, China Since 1800: An Interpretive History (Chichester: Wiley, 2010) 157.
  4. Zheng Wang, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) 150.

It is also important that many of the men who were also a part of the movement spoke actively about the rights of women and in effect, women discourse became an important focal point in the movement. Kang Youwei was also a champion of women rights. He had already campaigned against the practice of foot binding. He raised many feminist issues that were to influence the Chinese women's movement. The issues highlighted by him were essential to gender equality and included education, rights to public office, to keep their own names and freedom to choose one's spouse. Kang called foot binding and piercing ears of women as equivalent to corporal punishment and called for such practices to end. These were not novel ideas and had also been espoused by Jin Tianhe, whose pamphlet Niijie zhong [The women's bell], was published in 1903, wherein he laid down eight points that were essential to woman education in order for women to be active and educated citizens if China.

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  1. Ibid, 160.
  2. Ibid, 169.
  3. Ibid, 176.
  4. Paul J Bailey, Women and Gender in Twentieth-century China (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) 51.
  5. Ibid.

The students who participated in the May Fourth Movement were greatly influenced by Western liberal thoughts, such as the philosophy of the French thinker, Auguste Comte. In this, the students were also influenced by their teachers such as Chen Duxiu, who used the Western intellectuals to expose the flaws in traditional Chinese thinking and philosophy and influential writers such as Luo Jialun, who extolled the value of scientific worldview. This is also reflected in the words of Fu Sinian, who wrote in March 1919 that "Formal logic is the foundation of the practical philosophy that we need to borrow and to adopt in China so as to clear the muddleheaded atmosphere prevailing in contemporary Chinese thought.” The May Fourth movement is also paradoxical in one sense. On the one hand, many of its influencing hands were people who were educated in the Western philosophy and on the other hand, there were many students within the movement at least in the early stages, who claimed that they were the protectors of the Chinese ‘national essence’, which was threatened by foreigners.

To conclude, it may be said that the May Fourth Movement was guided by some influential writers and thinkers of the time and guided by revolutionary ideas that were aimed at unsettling centuries old norms and practices. There were some ultra conservative groups within the movement but they did not manage to arouse the collective consciousness of the Chinese students. Ultimately, Western liberal thought, ideas of individualism and gender equality played a very important role in shaping the movement and making it into an iconoclasm.

Bibliography


  1. Ibid, 39.
  2. Ibid, 38-39.
  3. Vera Schwarcz, The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
  4. Ibid, 99.
  5. Ibid,
  6. Ibid, 103.
  7. Lu Xun, Diary of Madman and other Stories, Translated William A Llyell (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1990) 302.
  • Bailey, Paul J, Women and Gender in Twentieth-century China. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  • Chan, Wing-Tsit. “The New Cultural Movement.” Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol 2: From 1600 through the twentieth century. Edited by De Bary, Richard Lufrano. Colombia University Press, 2001.
  • Crossley, Pamela Kyle. The Wobbling Pivot, China Since 1800: An Interpretive History. Chichester: Wiley, 2010.
  • Mitter, Rana. A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Schwarcz, Vera. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  • Wang, Zheng. Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Xun, Lu. Diary of Madman and other Stories. Translated William A Llyell. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1990.
  • Yeh, Wen-hsin. “Middle County Radicalism: The May Fourth Movement in Hangzhou.” The China Quarterly 140 (1994): 903-925.

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