20080217-may4b mclc.jpg
May 4th Protest
On May 4, 1919, there were student demonstrations against the Beijing government and Japan. The political fervor, student activism, and iconoclastic and reformist intellectual currents set in motion by the patriotic student protest developed into a national awakening known as the May Fourth Movement. The intellectual milieu in which the May Fourth Movement developed was known as the New Culture Movement and occupied the period from 1917 to 1923. The student demonstrations of May 4, 1919 were the high point of the New Culture Movement, and the terms are often used synonymously. Students returned from abroad advocating social and political theories ranging from complete Westernization of China to the socialism that one day would be adopted by China's communist rulers. [Source: The Library of Congress]

In 1919, at the Versailles peace conference after World War I, the Allied powers announced that they had no plans of returning lost territory to China as some had expected and handed over German possessions in Shandong province to the Japanese. Anti-foreigner resentment rose after the decision was announced. On May 4, 1919, about 3,000 students, scholars and dissident intellectuals from 13 colleges gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest the loss of Chinese territory in Shandong to Japan.

The protests on "Wusi,” — five-four, May 4th — sparked what came to be known as the May Fourth Movement. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom wrote in the New York Times: Soon, similar marches were held in other Chinese cities, joined by members of other groups. The upheaval reached its apogee with a general strike in June that paralyzed Shanghai, then China’s leading industrial center and the world’s sixth-busiest harbor — and also partly under foreign control. Most extant photographs of May 4, 1919, show several thousand students, men and women, in front of Tiananmen (The Gate of Heavenly Peace), a massive entryway to the Forbidden City, which had been the home of China’s imperial rulers until the 1911 Revolution toppled the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China was established. The demonstrators gathered in outrage over reports about negotiations underway in Versailles, just outside of Paris, over the terms ending World War I. Word was that the Allies planned to give former German territories in Shandong, eastern China, to Japan instead of returning them to China. [Source: Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, New York Times, May 3, 2019]

The rally in front of Tiananmen wasn’t the only significant thing that happened on May 4, 1919. Students attacked the homes of officials they considered especially vile. Officers manhandled and arrested dozens of youths; one was beaten up so badly that he later died of his injuries. China had a long tradition of viewing scholars as people who should speak out in times of misrule. That a student, a scholar in the making, died defending a patriotic cause galvanized members of other groups and social classes to support the Wusi protests. Together, they held more marches, boycotted Japanese goods and organized strikes — until June, when the Chinese government gave in to three key demands. “It instructed its representatives in France to refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles. It dismissed three officials whom protesters viewed as particularly corrupt. And it released all students who had been detained.

The May 4th Movement started out as student protests against the decision at the Paris Peace Conference to award Japan control of German concessions in China's Shandong province. It soon encompassed a broader debate about how China should modernize. Student activism gained strength in the late 1910s and the 1920s and became known as the May Fourth Movement. There was a large-scale rejection of Confucianism and a rise in social action, both of which helped furl the communist revolution. The movement spawned a host of writers famous throughout the Chinese world, including Lu Xun, who, like George Orwell, wrote biting social satire and sought to change what they viewed as a corrupt, backward and foreign-dominated China.

Early 20th Century China : John Fairbank Memorial Chinese History Virtual Library offers links to sites related to modern Chinese history (Qing, Republic, PRC) and has good pictures; Sun Yat-sen Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; May 4th Movement Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Obituary Madame Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing Empress Dowager Cixi: Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi; Wikipedia article Wikipedia Books on Cixi; The Last Emperor Puyi Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; His Widow's Account; Puyi Biography Boxer Rebellion National Archives ; Modern History Sourcebook ; San Francisco 1900 newspaper article Library of Congress ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Cox Rebellion PhotosCaldwell Kvaran ; Eyewitness Account ; Sino-Japanese ; Wikipedia article on the Sino-Japanese War Wikipedia Chinese History: Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ; Books: "The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China" by Jay Taylor, former U.S. foreign service officer; "Enter the Dragon: A Look at the Western Fever Dream of Insatiable Chinese Power" by Tom Scocca ; "Cambridge History of China" multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); "The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China" by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011); "China: Alive in the Bitter Sea" by Fox Butterfield; "China: A New History" by John K. Fairbank; "China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History" by Charles O. Hucker; "In Search of Modern China" by Jonathan D. Spence; “China in the 21st Century” by Jeffrey Wasserstrom; “Penguin History of Modern China: 1850-2009” by Jonathan Fenby; “The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China” edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom covers from 1550 to the present day. "Shark Fins and Millet" is an excellent depiction of China in the 1930s by Polish-born journalist Ilona Ralf Sues, who met up with Big-Eared Du and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

Japan and the Treaty of Versailles: the Trigger for the the May 4th Movement

Student demonstrations on June 4th and 5th, 1919

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “Early in World War I, Japan seized the German leasehold in Shandong prov. and presented China with Twenty-one Demands, designed to make all of China a virtual Japanese protectorate. China was forced to accept a modified version of the Demands, although the treaties were never ratified by the Chinese legislature. China entered World War I on the Allied side in 1917, but at the Versailles peace conference was unable to prevent Japan from being awarded the Shandong territory. Reaction to this provision in the Versailles treaty led to Nationalist flare-ups and the May Fourth Movement of 1919. At the Washington Conference (1921–22), Japan finally agreed to withdraw its troops from Shandong and restore full sovereignty to China. The Nine-Power Treaty, signed at the Conference, guaranteed China's territorial integrity and the Open Door Policy. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “At the end of the first world war Japan had a hold over China amounting almost to military control of the country. China did not sign the Treaty of Versailles, because she considered that she had been duped by Japan, since Japan had driven the Germans out of China but had not returned the liberated territory to the Chinese. In 1921 peace was concluded with Germany, the German privileges being abolished. The same applied to Austria. Russia, immediately after the setting up of the Soviet government, had renounced all her rights under the Capitulations. This was the first step in the gradual rescinding of the Capitulations; the last of them went only in 1943, as a consequence of the difficult situation of the Europeans and Americans in the Pacific produced by the Second World War. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“At the end of the first world war the foreign powers revised their attitude towards China. The idea of territorial partitioning of the country was replaced by an attempt at financial exploitation; military friction between the Western powers and Japan was in this way to be minimized. Financial control was to be exercised by an international banking consortium (1920). It was necessary for political reasons that this committee should be joined by Japan. After her Twenty-one Demands, however, Japan was hated throughout China. During the world war she had given loans to the various governments and rebels, and in this way had secured one privilege after another. Consequently China declined the banking consortium. She tried to secure capital from her own resources; but in the existing political situation and the acute economic depression internal loans had no success.

“In an agreement between the United States and Japan in 1917, the United States, in consequence of the war, had to give their assent to special rights for Japan in China. After the war the international conference at Washington (November 1921-February 1922) tried to set narrower limits to Japan's influence over China, and also to re-determine the relative strength in the Pacific of the four great powers (America, Britain, France, Japan). After the failure of the banking plan this was the last means of preventing military conflicts between the powers in the Far East. This brought some relief to China, as Japan had to yield for the time to the pressure of the western powers.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom wrote in the New York Times: “Japan may have been on the winning side, the protesters argued, but China also had joined the Allies. And what about the call for a new era of national “self-determination” by the American President Woodrow Wilson in 1918? What seemed to be in the offing in Versailles looked like yet another instance of grasping foreign powers bullying China — in keeping with, say, the First Opium War, which had ended in 1842 with the British gaining Hong Kong as a colony. [Source: Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, New York Times, May 3, 2019]

“However angry the students were at the foreign negotiators half a world away, though, they were even more upset with their own leaders— military men they thought of as autocratic and corrupt who had failed to protect the Chinese homeland. Already in 1915, students had protested against Yuan Shikai, the most powerful warlord of the day, both for allowing Japan to extend its reach into northeastern Manchuria and for appointing himself emperor of a new dynasty. It was also in 1915 that the young intellectual Chen Duxiu founded Xin Qingnian (New Youth), a progressive periodical that over the next few years would publish numerous essays criticizing imperialism, warlord rule and conservative cultural patterns.

“Chen and another New Youth regular, Li Dazhao, inspired the Wusi protesters, and so while the banners held aloft on May 4, 1919, focused on the Shandong issue, they also expressed a broader complaint. China’s diplomatic weakness was only the symptom of a full-body disease, the argument went: If the 1911 Revolution had done away with the antiquated system of imperial rule, China hardly was a modern country yet. To become one, it would need to make a thorough break from hierarchical and conservative Confucian traditions. Instead of insisting that the young defer to the old, and women to men, Chen, in particular, argued that modern Chinese should embrace “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.”

Significance of the May 4th Movement

Student demonstrations on June 4th and 5th, 1919

The "May 4th Movement" followed 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.

In a review of the book "Touches of History: An Entry into 'May Fourth' China" by Chen Pingyuan (Brill 2011), Tze-ki Hon wrote: Despite being accepted as a pivotal event in modern China, the May Fourth movement remains ambiguous and highly contested. As Li Zehou points out, the ambiguity of May Fourth stems from its double nature — a symbol of nationalist resistance against Western (and Japanese) imperialism, on the one hand, and a cultural agenda to bring China into the modern age on the other. The tension of this double nature is clearly shown in the two different chronologies of the May Fourth: a one-day event of student protests against the Versailles Settlements that erupted in Beijing on May Fourth 1919, and a decade of literary and cultural reforms sparked by New Youth magazine (1915-1925). [Source: Tze-ki Hon, State University of New York at Geneseo, MCLC List]

Although the political and cultural aspects of the May Fourth were closely connected, their relationship — particularly their relative importance — has been the subject of continual debate. In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, scholars of modern Chinese history and culture ferociously debated the legacy of the "May Fourth" struggle between the demand for national salvation and the need for cultural rejuvenation. Many participants in that "New May Fourth" debate, as it has come to be known, affirmed the Enlightenment values of liberty and freedom, while recognizing the importance of national salvation (especially the political unification led by the Chinese Communist Party). However, they questioned whether China has paid a heavy price by allowing "national salvation to prevail over cultural enlightenment".

Then there is what May 4th means in Xi Jinping’s China. Wasserman wrote in the New York Times: “Under President Xi Jinping, the C.C.P.’s efforts to control the meaning of the Wusi protests have continued unabated. The movement holds a revered place in official chronologies, as a turning point andthe start of modern times in China. The party, playing on the kind of national pride extolled back in 1919, boasts today that China no longer appeases, but leads, on the international scene. The C.C.P. does other, less-Wusi, things, too. It has abolished limits on presidential terms and enshrined Mr. Xi’s “thought” in the Constitution. It has punished intellectuals for calling such moves retrograde. On occasion, it has even banned images of Winnie-the-Pooh online, treating them as memes that mock the president’s physique. Chinese feminists have been detained for asking for gender equality. Student activists have been arrested — for, of all things, defending communist values, including the protection of workers’ rights. Mr. Xi said in a speech celebrating the Wusi generation. It warned that “Chinese youth in the new era must obey the party and follow the party.” The warlord spirit is back in Beijing.“Official celebrations for the students of 1919 took place across China — under the auspices of leaders who stand for many policies and values that those students opposed. They don’t seem to realize that the true spirit of Wusi lives on."

In Touches of History, Chen Pingyuan offers refreshing thoughts on how to come to grips with the ambiguity of the May Fourth. Chen begins Touches of History recounts the manifold events of May Fourth 1919, showing the spontaneity and haphazardness of student leaders as the protests unfolded. Next, he contrasts these unscripted student protests with the edifying and uplifting newspaper reports in the following days that launched a "history of reminiscences."

The argument that May Fourth was the "Chinese Enlightenment," is best represented with the well-known case of New Youth, a journal whose editors, authors, and content have become synonymous with the canonical image of May Fourth as a literary and cultural movement. Conventional accounts tell us that the success of New Youth came from the editors' earnest advocacy for an independent spirit among young people, a new writing style based on the vernacular, and a critical reappraisal of the Confucian patrilineal family structure. These three concepts — new youth, new writing, and new culture — were arguably the very foundation of the "Chinese Enlightenment." Chen, however, reveals that the reasons for the popularity of New Youth were more complex than what one finds in many of the established literary-historical narratives. In addition to its cultural agenda, New Youth attracted a large readership because of its cultural capital (i.e., its connections with Peking University) and its historical roots (i.e., the vernacular movement in the late Qing).

Book: "Touches of History: An Entry into 'May Fourth' China" by Chen Pingyuan (Brill 2011); "The Gate of Heavenly Peace" by Jonathan Spence is about intellectual unrest at the end of the 19th century and the May Forth Movement.

Legacy of the May 4th Movement

May 4th Movement memorial

The May 4th Movement grew into a nationalist movement opposed to the authoritarian government. Its adherents adopted "Science and Democracy" as their slogan and staged patriotic and sometimes bloody protests through out the 1920s. The May Forth Movement was the first major Chinese opposition movement of the 20th century. Students carried signs marked with "Mr. Science" and "Mr. Democracy," slogans that would reappear at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Yangyang Cheng wrote in Sup China: “It’s hard to overstate the significance of the May Fourth Movement to the course of modern Chinese history. The intellectual unrest of the scholar elite, combined with the spirit of mass uprising, directly contributed to the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. The October Revolution that overthrew the Russian Tsar a few years earlier made the new theory of collectivism particularly appealing to those in China who had lost faith in the corrupt and dictatorial Nationalist government and were eager for new ideas to save their country. [Source: Yangyang Cheng, Sup China, April 24, 2019]

Jasmine Yin, the granddaughter of one of Mao Zedong’s favorite generals, wrote in Business Insider: “Chinese Communist Party co-founder Chen Duxiu called on China’s youth to “save the nation” in the May Fourth Movement. In his piece “Call to Youth,” published in New Youth, the pioneering magazine he founded, he urged Chinese young people to: “Be independent, not servile. Be progressive, not conservative. Be aggressive, not retiring. Be cosmopolitan, not isolationist.” These are worthy values for a 21st Century New, New Culture Movement. Please Chairman Xi, be true to the original mission of the Communist Party and the New Culture Movement that gave rise to it. Lu Xun, a May Fourth Movement activist and China’s most-renowned 20th-century writer, summed up our challenge best. He wrote these words 100 years ago, but they remain more relevant than ever: “Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many people pass one way, a road is made.” [Source: Jasmine Yin, Business Spectator, March 9, 2016]

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom wrote in the New York Times: “The Wusi protests would fail to achieve their central diplomatic goal: When the Treaty of Versailles went into effect in January 1920, Japan was awarded Germany’s former possessions in China. But the movement nonetheless became legendary for its other achievements — a symbol of the potency of student-led mass action. Over the decades, it has come to mean far more than that. Much like the date and phrase “Mai 68” in the French political imagination, in China, “Wusi” conjures up the idea of an entire generation, and a special one. [Source: Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, New York Times, May 3, 2019]

“New periodicals, study societies and political organizations sprang up. The journals ran critical political commentary; experimental works of literature; iconoclastic essays by Chinese intellectuals lambasting traditional values; and translations of works by Western, Japanese and Russian thinkers. The study societies promoted theories from abroad, ranging from the liberalism of John Dewey (who began a lecture tour in China just before the 1919 protests) to various forms of anarchism and socialism.

“Li was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic promoters of Bolshevism and its calls to combat imperialism and topple capitalism through revolution. In 1921, he and Chen were among the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. Another founder was a Wusi activist from Hunan and the author of articles attacking Confucian marriage practices for being unfair to women. His name was Mao Zedong. In the 1930s, when students, supported by underground operatives of the C.C.P. (which was illegal then), took to the streets to demand that Chiang Kai-shek’s ruling Nationalist Party do more to protect China from Japan, they invoked the “May Fourth spirit.” The Nationalist Party also claimed that it best exemplified that spirit. The contest to appropriate the legacy of Wusi was on.

“Come 1989, it was the leaders of the C.C.P. themselves — by then long in power — who were targeted by a fresh generation of students calling for a “New May Fourth Movement.” Once again, the most important site of protests was Tiananmen. In the 1950s, the area in front of the gate had been turned into a square filled with monuments, including one at the center honoring China’s revolutionary heroes. A frieze at the foot of that central structure depicts young men and women taking to the streets in 1919. It was in front of it that the students of 1989 set up their main base of operations.

“On May 4 of that year, as the C.C.P. commemorated the 70th anniversary of Wusi inside The Great Hall of the People, to one side of Tiananmen Square, the protesters held a competing event on the plaza. Once again, two opposing political camps were both claiming the mantle of the 1919 movement. Exactly one month later, the People’s Liberation Army rolled in, killing hundreds, probably several thousands, of demonstrators and residents.

“What are widely known in the West as the “Tiananmen Square” protests are called “Liusi Yundong,” or the “June Fourth Movement,” in Chinese — a reference to the day of the massacre in 1989, of course, but also an echo of the uprising of 1919.

"Our Attitude Toward Modern Western Civilization" by Hu Shi

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Hu Shi (1891-1962) was one of the leading May Fourth intellectuals. A student of agriculture at Cornell University, and then of philosophy under John Dewey at Columbia University, Hu led the way in the movement to write Chinese in the vernacular, as opposed to the elegant, but (to the average Chinese) incomprehensible classical style. Hu also played a leading role in the cultural debates of the time. The document below is one of Hu’s contributions to the debate on Western civilization. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Hu Shi

In “Our Attitude toward Modern Western Civilization” Hu Shi wrote: “At present the most unfounded and more harmful distortion is to ridicule Western civilization as materialistic and worship Eastern civilization as spiritual. … The modern civilization of the West, built on the foundation of the search for human happiness, not only has definitely increased material enjoyment to no small degree, but can also satisfy the spiritual needs of mankind. In philosophy it has applied highly refined methods to the search for truth and to investigation into the vast secrets of nature. In religion and ethics, it has overthrown the religion of superstitions and established a rational belief, has destroyed divine power and established a humanistic religion, has discarded the unknowable Heaven or paradise and directed its efforts to building a paradise among men and Heaven on earth. It has cast aside the arbitrarily asserted transcendence of the individual soul, has utilized to the highest degree the power of man’s new imagination and new intellect to promote a new religion and new ethics that are fully socialized, and has endeavored to work for the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. [Source: “Our Attitude Toward Modern Western Civilization" by Hu Shi, 1891-1962, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 386-387; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“The most outstanding characteristic of Eastern civilization is to know contentment whereas that of Western civilization is not to know contentment. Contented Easterners are satisfied with their simple life and therefore do not seek to increase their material enjoyment. They are satisfied with ignorance and “not understanding and not knowing”1 and therefore have devoted no attention to the discovery of truth and the invention of techniques and machinery. They are satisfied with their present lot and environment and therefore do not want to conquer nature but merely [to] be at home with nature and at peace with their lot. They do not want to change systems, but rather to mind their own business. They do not want a revolution, but rather to remain obedient subjects.

“The civilization under which people are restricted and controlled by a material environment from which they cannot escape, and under which they cannot utilize human thought and intellectual power to change environment and improve conditions, is the civilization of a lazy and nonprogressive people. It is truly a materialistic civilization. Such civilization can only obstruct but cannot satisfy the spiritual demands of mankind.”

"Chinese Civilization vis-a-vis Eastern and Western Philosophies" by Liang Shuming

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Liang Shuming (1893-1988) was a scholar, philosopher, professor, and author living in Beijing. He was an active participant in the debates on culture during the May Fourth period. In the following passage, he discusses Western, Indian, and Chinese cultures. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

In “Chinese Civilization vis-a-vis Eastern and Western Philosophies” wrote: “Liang Shuming There are three ways in human life: (1) to go forward; (2) to modify and to achieve harmony, synthesis, and the mean in the self; and (3) to go backward. … The fundamental spirit of Chinese culture is the harmony and moderation of ideas and desires, whereas that of Indian civilization is to go backward in ideas and desires [and that of the West is to go forward]. [Source: “Chinese Civilization vis-a-vis Eastern and Western Philosophies” by Liang Shuming from “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Generally speaking, Westerners have been too strong and too vigorous in their minds and intellect. Because of this they have suffered spiritually. This is an undeniable fact since the nineteenth century. Let us compare Western culture with Chinese culture. First, there is the conquest of nature on the material side of Western culture — this China has none of. Second, there is the scientific method on the intellectual side of Western culture — this also China has none of. And third, there is democracy on the social side of Western culture — this, too, China has none of. This shows negatively that the way of Chinese culture is not that of the West but is the second way [mentioned above — namely, achieving the mean]. … As to Indian culture … religion alone has flourished, subordinating to it philosophy, literature, science, and art. The three aspects of life [material, intellectual, and social] have become an abnormal spiritual development, and spiritual life itself has been an almost purely religious development. This is really most extraordinary. Indian culture has traveled its own way, different from that of the West. Needless to say, it is not the same as that of Chinese culture.

“In this respect Chinese culture is different from that of India, because of the weakness of religion, as we have already said. For this reason, there is not much to be said about Chinese religions. The most important thing in Chinese culture is its metaphysics, which is applicable everywhere. … Chinese metaphysics is different from that of the West and India. It is different in its problems. … The problems discussed in the ancient West and ancient India have in fact not existed in China. While the problems of the West and India are not really identical, still they are the same insofar as the search for the reality of the universe is concerned. Where they are the same is exactly where they are decidedly different from China. Have you heard of Chinese philosophers debating monism, dualism, or pluralism, or idealism and materialism? The Chinese do not discuss such static problems of tranquil reality. The metaphysics handed down from the greatest antiquity in China, which constituted the fundamental concept of all learning — great and small, high and low — is that completely devoted to the discussion of change that is entirely nontranquil in reality.

Liang Suming with Ye Duyi

“The first point of the Confucian philosophy of life arising out of this type of Chinese metaphysics is that life is right and good. Basically, this metaphysics speaks in terms of “the life of the universe.” Hence it is said that “change means reproduction and reproduction.” [Changes, Xizi 1, ch. 5; Legge, Yi King, p. 356] Confucius said many things to glorify life, like “The great characteristic of Heaven and earth is to give life,” [Ibid. 2, ch. 1; Legge, Yi King, p. 381] and “Does Heaven speak? All the four seasons pursue their course and all things are continually being produced.” … [Analects 17:19] Human life is the reality of a great current. It naturally tends toward the most suitable and the most satisfactory. It responds to things as they come.

“This is change. It spontaneously arrives at centrality, harmony, and synthesis. Hence its response is always right. This is the reason why the Confucian school said, “What Heaven has conferred is what we call human nature. To fulfill the law of human nature is what we call the Way.” [Mean ch. 1] As long as one fulfills his nature, it will be all right. This is why it is said that it can be understood and put into practice even by men and women of the simplest intelligence.

“This knowledge and ability are what Mencius called the knowledge possessed by man without deliberation and the ability possessed by him without having been acquired by learning. [Mencius] What attitude should we Chinese hold now? What should we select from the three cultures? We may say: 1) We must reject the Indian attitude absolutely and completely. 2) We must accept Western culture as a whole [including conquest of nature, science, and democracy] but make some fundamental changes. That is to say, we must change the Western attitude somewhat [from intellection to intuition]. 3) We must renew our Chinese attitude and bring it to the fore, but do so critically.”

"The True Meaning of Life" by Chen Duxia

Chen Duxia

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) was one of the leading intellectuals of the May Fourth movement. Dean of Peking University in 1916, and, in 1921, co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen also edited and published the popular New Youth magazine. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

In the “The True Meaning of Life” Chen Duxiu wrote: “What is the ultimate purpose in life? What should it be, after all? … From ancient times not a few people have offered explanations. … In my opinion, what the Buddha said is vague. Although the individual’s birth and death are illusory, can we say that humanity as a whole is not really existent? … The teachings of Christianity, especially, are fabrications out of nothing and cannot be proved. If God can create the human race, who created Him? Since God’s existence or nonexistence cannot be proved, the Christian philosophy of life cannot be completely believed in. The rectification of the heart, cultivation of the person, family harmony ordering of the state, and world peace that Confucius and Mencius talked about are but some activities and enterprises in life and cannot cover the total meaning of life. If we are totally to sacrifice ourselves to benefit others, then we exist for others and not for ourselves. [Source: “The True Meaning of Life” by Chen Duxiu, “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 366-368; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“This is definitely not the fundamental reason for man’s existence. The idea [of altruism] of Mozi is also not free from one-sidedness. The doctrines of Yang Zhu [fourth century B.C.?] and Nietzsche fully reveal the true nature of life, and yet if we follow them to their extremes, how can this complex, organized, and civilized society continue? Because we Chinese have accepted the teachings [of contentment and laissez.faire] of Laozi and Zhuangzi, we have to that extent been backward. Scientists say that there is no soul after a man’s death. … It is difficult to refute these words. But although we as individuals will inevitably die, it is not easy for the whole race or humanity to die off. The civilization created by the race or humanity will remain. It is recorded in history and will be transmitted to later generations. Is this not the consciousness or memory of our continuation after death?

From the above, the meaning of life as seen by the modern man can be readily understood. Let me state it briefly as follows: 1) With reference to human existence, the individual’s birth and death are transitory, but society really exists. 2) The civilization and happiness of society are created by individuals and should be enjoyed by individuals. 3) Society is an organization of individuals — there can be no society without individuals. … The will and the happiness of the individual should be respected. 4) Society is the collective life of individuals. If society is dissolved, there will be no memory or consciousness of the continuation of the individual after he dies. Therefore social organization and order should be respected.

“5) To carry out one’s will and to satisfy his desires (everything from food and sex to moral reputation is “desire”) are the basic reasons for the individual’s existence. These goals never change. (Here we can say that Heaven does not change and the Way does not change either.) 6) All religions, laws, moral and political systems are but necessary means to preserve social order. They are not the individual’s original purpose of enjoyment in life and can be changed in accordance with the circumstances of the time.

“7) People’s happiness in life is the result of their own effort and is neither the gift of God nor a spontaneous natural product. If it were the gift of God, how is it that He was so generous with people today and so stingy with people in the past? If it is a spontaneous, natural product, why is it that the happiness of the various peoples in the world is not uniform? 8) The individual in society is comparable to the cell in the body. Its birth and death are transitory. New ones replace the old. This is as it should be and need not be feared at all. 9) To enjoy happiness, do not fear suffering. Personal suffering at the moment sometimes contributes to personal happiness in the future. For example, the blood shed in righteous wars often wipes out the bad spots of a nation or mankind. Severe epidemics often hasten the development of science.

“In a word, what is the ultimate purpose in life? What should it be, after all? I dare say: During his lifetime, an individual should devote his efforts to create happiness and to enjoy it and also to keep it in store in society so that individuals of the future may also enjoy it, one generation doing the same for the next and so on unto infinity.

"Our Final Awakening" (1916) by Chen Duxia

Chen Duxia

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “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.) [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

In “Our Final Awakening”, Chen Duxiu wrote: “We, having been living in one corner of the world for several decades, must ask ourselves what is the level of our national strength and our civilization. This is the final awakening of which I speak. To put it another way, if we open our eyes and take a hard look at the situation within our country and abroad, what place does our country and our people occupy, and what actions should we take? [Source: “Our Final Awakening” by Chen Duxiu, from “Changing China: Readings in the History of China from the Opium War to the Present,” by J. Mason Gentzler (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1977), 168; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Our task today can be said to be the intense combat between the old and the modern currents of thought. Those with shallow views all expect this to be our final awakening, without understanding how difficult it is to put [constitutional government] into practice. … There is no difference between the shameful disgrace of submissiveness of men of ancient times hoping that sage rulers and wise ministers will practice benevolent government and present day men hoping that dignitaries and influential elders will build a constitutional republic.

Why should I reject the desires of dignitaries and influential elders, who are after all a part of the people, to build a constitutional republic? Only because a constitutional republic cannot be conferred by the government, cannot be maintained by one party or one group, and certainly cannot be carried on the backs of a few dignitaries and influential elders. A constitutional republic which does not derive from the conscious realization and voluntary action of the majority of the people is a bogus republic and bogus constitutionalism. It is political window.dressing, in no way like the republican constitutionalism of the countries of Europe and America, because there has been no change in the thought or the character of the majority of the people, and the majority of the people have no personal feeling of direct material interest.

Lu Xun

Lu Xun in 1930

The essayist and short story writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) is considered by many to be China's greatest 20th century writer and the founder of modern Chinese literature. . Lu was trained as doctor and gave up his medical career he said to devote himself to curing social ills with his writing. He loved Jules Verne, and translated his stories into Chinese beginning in 1903 as part of an effort to help China develop an appreciation of Western sciences. Lu eventually gave up writing and took up politics. He allied himself with the Communists around the time of his death in 1936.

Lu Xun is regarded as the pioneer of modern leftist Chinese literature. He was born in Zhejiang province, which is considered a a breeding ground of many Chinese artists and intellectuals. Today there is a literary awards named after him: the Lu Xun Award for short stories.

Lu was "noted for his acerbic tongue and critical nature." He wrote in a simple, straight-forward style that contrasting sharply with the complex, classical language that was fashionable at the time he wrote. He resolved to diagnose Chinese society and culture through literature. Like George Orwell, wrote biting social satire and sought to change what they viewed as a corrupt, backward and foreign-dominated China. Among Lu Xun's more memorable characters is Ah Q, an allegorical, starving man on the street meant to represent the conflicts raging in China at the time.

Ideology of the Early Chinese Nationalists and Forging China Into a Nation

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “A central theme is the essays in the academic collection "A Critical Introduction to Mao" edited by Timothy Cheek, is Mao’s ‘sinification” of a European tradition of revolution. Mao belonged to a Chinese generation of activists and thinkers who developed a fierce political awareness at the end of a long century of internal decay, humiliations by Western powers and by Japan, and failed imperial reforms.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010 ]

“Whatever their ideological inclinations,” Mishra wrote, “they all believed in a version of Social Darwinism — the survival of the fittest applied to international relations. They worried about the social and political passivity of ordinary Chinese, and were electrified by the possibility that a strong, centralized nation-state would protect them from the depredations of foreign imperialists and domestic warlords.” As Sun Yat-sen, China’s first modern revolutionary, explained in a speech shortly before his death, in 1925, “If we are to resist foreign oppression in the future, we must overcome individual freedom and join together as a firm unit, just as one adds water and cement to loose gravel to produce something as solid as a rock.”

“Others took on the arduous task of welding a defunct empire into a nation-state, most prominently Chiang Kai-shek, whose urban-based Nationalist Party first brought a semblance of political unity to postimperial China. But it was Mao who, helped by a savage Japanese invasion and Chiang Kai-shek’s ineptitude, came up with an ideologically like-minded and disciplined organization capable of enlisting the loyalty and passions of the majority of the Chinese population in the countryside.”

"More enduringly, Mao provided a battered and proud people with a compelling national narrative of decline and redemption. As he stressed shortly before the founding of the People’s Republic, “The Chinese have always been a great, courageous and industrious nation; it is only in modern times that they have fallen behind. And that was due entirely to oppression and exploitation by foreign imperialism and domestic reactionary governments.” This would change: “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. . . . We will have not only a powerful army but also a powerful air force and a powerful navy.”

On a speech about change in China, William Kirby, the historian who heads Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, said: “If China is to define in some measure the twenty-first century,” he said, “it is because of its recovery and rise in the twentieth century.” In other words, China was awakening a century ago — and it is still awakening today. As in the last century, that process is bound to be more protracted and erratic than we predict. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker website, March 19, 2011]

Intellectual Foundations of Chinese Modernity

Lu Xin in 1934

In "The Intellectual Foundations of Chinese Modernity" Edmund S. K. Fung synthesizes an enormous range of intellectual materials generated during China’s Republican period, dating primarily from the May Fourth period (1915-1923) to 1949. In a review of the book Leigh K. Jenco, Assistant Professor of Political Science, National University of Singapore, wrote on China Beat: “Fung argues that intellectuals of this era confronted the same crisis of modernity with which intellectuals, in both East and West, continue to wrestle today. These Republican conversations, he claims, provide the foundational vocabulary through which contemporary Chinese elites debate the direction of their society.” [Source: Leigh K. Jenco, China Beat, May 3 2011]

“The broad scope of Fung’s analysis belies his somewhat simplistic organization of thinkers and debates into an inadequate (and sometimes unhelpful) liberal-conservative-socialist trichotomy. He draws repeated attention to how thinkers and themes continually reappeared in diverse conversations, transcending the very labels he uses to describe them. As Fung effectively argues in Chapter 1, the Westernized radicalism of Chen Duxiu and other May Fourth thinkers betrays an unexpectedly conservative resistance to cultural pluralism and historical change, possibilities embraced by the so-called “conservative” thinkers examined in Chapters 2 and 3. In Chapter 3 Fung points out that conservative impulses in China were not opposed to modernity but in fact saw tradition as an important part of modern development.

“One of the strongest elements of the book is Fung’s discussion in Chapters 4 and 5 of the statist elements of liberalism and related ideologies in China. Rather than interpret Chinese liberals’ emphasis on the need for strong state power as an aberration or misinterpretation of “true” liberalism, Fung uses the work of political theorists such as Stephen Holmes to show that extreme individualism did not necessarily always win out over socialist economic policies and strong nationalist states within such liberal thought.”

“By the end of the book...the author himself declares the “ultimate” triumph of Marxism and Mao Zedong thought over “all other schools of thought” — implying a historical discontinuity that troubles his depiction of a continuous, “ongoing conversation” between contemporary and Republican-era intellectuals struggling with the stakes of modernity....Given the domination of Marxism in China for most of the twentieth century it remains unclear how Republican thought would necessarily be foundational for these or other conversations.”

Although the Chinese Communist Party’s own record of elitism is well-known, Marxist theory in principle nevertheless introduced into Chinese intellectual debate awareness of inequality, class conflict, and materialist social science that interrogated the agents and direction of modernity in contemporary China. Some consideration of these intellectual challenges to elite thinking in the 1930s and 1940s would have contextualized intellectual insistence on moral leadership, possibly helping to identify more clearly continuities between the Republican-era conversations about modernity and those of their later, communist counterparts. Despite this oversight, in its rich detail and extensive command of source materials Fung’s book remains an excellent contribution to scholarship on Republican-era Chinese discourse. It ranks alongside Chester C. Tan’s Chinese Political Thought in the Twentieth Century as a definitive guide to the ideas and debates of that sorely neglected but important era.

Book: "The Intellectual Foundations of Chinese Modernity" by Edmund S. K. Fung (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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