The May 4th Movement
The May 4th Movement refers narrowly to the outburst of political demonstrations that occurred on May 4th, 1919, in response to the humiliating provisions of the Treaty of Versailles (among them that Shandong should be transferred to Japanese control). Taken more broadly, the term covers the movement for political, cultural and social change that was set in motion by these demonstrations but grew out of trends within Chinese society and thought.
The demonstrations themselves were originally student-led, but set in motion a wave of sympathy demonstrations and strikes that spread beyond the student milieu to encompass everyone from workers to industrialists in cities across the country.
The broader cultural movement built on this sense of outrage over Chinas
weak international position, using it to bring to the fore questions about
Chinas identity, national values, and culture. These questions had
been circulating in Chinese culture for forty years, but gained urgency
and breadth of social support in the face of the Republican governments (1911-1949)
inability to respond to this latest onslaught from abroad.
The movements many contributors focused on a variety of areas, but all agreed on the importance of revitalizing and unifying China so that it could combat warlordism, exploitation in the land-owning system, and foreign imperialism. Most also combined respect for Western progress and technology with a hope that the substance of Chinese culture could be retained. Some groups worked on writing reform (a switch comparable to moving from Latin to the vernacular in Catholic liturgy), while others delved into Western technology, and radicals attacked the traditional Confucian mindset and the social structures that accompanied it.
The May 4th movement failed in many of its long-term aims, hindered by a lack of socioeconomic support for its most ambitious goals, and by constant political instability that worsened into civil and eventually foreign war. The movement was bitterly criticized during the Cultural Revolution for its adulation of Western ideas, but was subsequently rehabilitated as an example of Chinese nationalism and progressiveness.