Centennial Afterthoughts: May Fourth Movement Revisited

International symposium, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, April 10, 2019

On May 4th, 1919, a group of students from Peking (Beijing) University and a few other elite universities and colleges in Beijing  organized a vigil against the unfair treatment of China in Versailles Treaty and against the corrupt warlord government that yielded China’s territory to Japan. After the vigil was suppressed by police, it triggered a series of protests across China’s cities. The ensuing demonstrations—the May Fourth Movement—marked a dramatic turn in China’s politics of that time. At the heyday of the warlord era, a student grassroots movement succeeded to galvanize the population and create a new political atmosphere in the country. The births of Communist Party of China (CPC) and of the rejuvenated Party of the Nation (Guomindang GMD or Kuomintang, KMT) are usually connected to these events.

For generations, the May 4th movement and its intellectual predecessor, the iconoclastic New Culture Movement (1915-) were considered as the watershed in China’s modern history, the harbingers of socialism, liberalism, nationalism, and other aspects of Western political and intellectual culture. This view was sanctified by no less a figure than Mao Zedong himself, and it was supported by a variety of historians across the ideological divide lines. In recent decades, however, new views proliferated, aimed at decentralizing the May Fourth movement and shifting attention away from it toward other intellectual and political currents of that age. In China itself, the erstwhile radical assault on country’s traditional values, the hallmark of the May Fourth upheaval, is no longer viewed in a positive way. Lively debates about the meaning of May Fourth movement and its legacy make it one of the most fascinating topics in studies of China’s modern history. As we approach the movement’s centennial, the debates in scholarly publications and mass media further intensify.

Our symposium gathers historians, philosophers, and scholars of language and literature from Australia, China, Europe, Israel, and North America. They will address anew history and intellectual content of the May Fourth movement and its lasting impact, in particular its role in current political and intellectual debates in China and among Chinese communities worldwide. We hope that the gathering—one of the world largest outside China—will yield a new understanding of this fascinating junction in China’s modern history, and offer new perspectives on the ongoing relevance of this movement to China’s present path.


Please find the attached file for a program.  


centennial_afterthoughts_may_fourth_movement_revisited.pdf447 KB


Wolfgang Kubin: Rethinking May Fourth through Lu Xun

Rethinking May 4th through Lu Xun

Wolfgang Kubin (Peking University)

May 4th is seen as the hey-day of reform for the Chinese society and Lu Xun is regarded as its most important spokesman. But this seems to be a myth. The problem is that the texts of that important period are mostly read in the light of later wishful thinking. Lu Xun is a critic of May 4th and not a real supporter. My paper will deal with the problem of understanding: How do we read, interpret and explain texts of times gone by? According to the standards of May 4th, to the principles of Maoist revolution or according to the norms of a text?

Amira Katz: “How Admirable is Fiction! How Frightening is Fiction!” – May Fourth Faith in the Power of [‘right’] Reading

“How Admirable is Fiction! How Frightening is Fiction!” – May 4th Faith in the Power of [‘right’] Reading and Some Past Echoes

Amira Katz (HUJI)

My talk will touch upon the ever-perplexing question of faith in literature - or more specifically, in the power of vernacular fiction - upheld by May 4th intellectuals as a vital tool for reform and the cure of China’s ills.  Although this faith [in new fiction] is usually ascribed to external influences (mainly through translated philosophical treatises and socio-political novels), I wish here to present possible traces of this particular mindset. I will base my observations on a variety of references: (a) earlier (Ming-Qing) authors’ prefaces as to how they conceive of their works and of their ‘function’ as writers (b) quotations from traditional fiction where narrator or characters attend to the subject of reading and its potential impact (c) anecdotes and stories of ‘extreme’ reading, whether exalting or fatal. These references might point at some association of May 4th reformists’ writings with older terms and concepts, hinting at a particular belief potent in China.

Cao Jian: Bibles and Anthropological Theme in Modern China

Bibles and Anthropological Theme in Modern China

Cao Jian (Sun Yat-sen University)

During the period of the New Culture Movement, the OT ideas of God and monotheism were widely discussed by people of different ideologies and closely related to the interpreters’ ideals of individual and social perfection at the time of suffering and crisis. First, preoccupation with social injustice led Chinese interpreters to search for ideas of God and monotheism which would describe the universality of suffering and oppression. Second, many Chinese Christian intellectuals believed that both the follower of Confucian dao and the follower of God aim for a morally ideal world; that dao and God provided a moral foundation for nationalism and universalism; and that although universalism is the ultimate goal as advocated by the OT prophets, nationalism is the only path one must follow to realize universalism. Third, as to national salvation, for those who took it as basically a religious problem of morality, it must start from individual reform, which surely leads to social reforms; for non-Christian converts who were equally occupied by the search for a way to perfect personality and a morally ideal world, some resorted to aesthetic education, as Wang Guowei and Cai Yuanpei did, to which monotheistic sentiment was believed to be particularly helpful, and others resorted to OT prophets, who were discussed as ideal men, as Sun Yat-sen and Lu Xun did.

Mark Gamsa: May Fourth Quests for ‘the Chinese X’ and Their Legacy

May Fourth Quests for ‘the Chinese X’ and Their Legacy

Mark Gamsa (Tel Aviv University)

When poet Xu Zhimo left for study in the United States in 1918, he aspired “to become the Alexander Hamilton of China”. Far from voicing an idiosyncratic ambition, Xu also expressed in writing his search for a Chinese Goethe, Shelley, Wordsworth, Dante and Shakespeare. Many other speakers, from May Fourth onwards, claimed to identify such world figures in China, bemoaned their absence, or expressed hopes for their emergence. Writer Lu Xun, for his part, became known to some as “the Chinese Nietzsche”, while also being called the Chinese Chekhov and the Chinese Gorky.

In this talk, I will both analyse such statements in terms of their rhetorical construction and suggest an interpretation of the cultural positions, from which they derived. I will conclude by sketching out how the quest for Chinese analogues of western authority figures has continued through the twentieth century and down to the present time.

Louise Edwards: From Subjects to Citizens - Commercial Art Producing Democratic Consciousness in the May Fourth

From Subjects to Citizens - Commercial Art Producing Democratic Consciousness in the May Fourth

Louise Edwards (University of New South Wales)

The May Fourth protests manifested the seismic shifts that were occurring among ordinary people living in urban China around how they saw their relationships to their rulers and their new nation-state. For many of China’s reformist elites the period leading up to May 1919 was dedicated to creating democratic citizens from imperial subjects. This paper charts the ways that China’s commercial artists, working within the myriad newspapers, magazines and advertisements that flourished during these years, helped create the new attributes required of citizens living in modern nation-states. I draw on a specific traditional genre of commercial art, One Hundred Beauties, to reveal the nature of the new democratic consciousness emerging in the Republic among ordinary people. This civic consciousness was vital to the success of the May Fourth protests in garnering broad support for political reform. The appearance in everyday visual media of new-style Beauties who contrasted with the Qing era’s Beauties of the same genre, marked a major transition that was occurring in consumers’ perceptions of the ideal modern person and the behaviours that citizens should manifest. The paper argues that commercial artists were instrumental in producing the change in consciousness among ordinary people that China’s reformist elites sought during the May Fourth. The commercial art world served as a significant force for propelling change among China’s May Fourth masses.

Noa Nahmias: After Mr. Science - Changing Knowledge Spheres from the May Fourth Movement to the New Life Movement

After Mr. Science: Changing Knowledge Spheres from the May Fourth Movement to the New Life Movement 

Noa Nahmias (York Univesity)

In 1919, Chen Duxiu’s famous article in New Youth (Xin Qingnian 新青年) argued that in order to uphold the principles embodied by “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science”, one would inevitably have to oppose the so-called old culture. Chen, like other iconoclasts of the May Fourth Movement, saw modern science as being binarily opposed to China’s old system of knowledge. In their efforts to find a path towards modernity, intellectuals, educators and politicians were growing increasingly concerned with disseminating new knowledge to the people. These efforts can be seen in the continuous calls to write in the vernacular as well as in movements to spread literacy in the countryside. In the eyes of China’s elites, the newly founded, and highly unstable, republic, required its citizens have new kinds of knowledge.

This paper examines the changes in what was considered necessary knowledge, by focusing on the dissemination of science, and the narratives it was embedded in from the May Fourth movement to the New Life Movement (Xin Shenghuo Yundong 新生活運動( of 1932. During this decade, characterized by political upheaval and continuous war, an increasing number of venues for showcasing scientific knowledge opened, including the popular press, exhibition halls, lectures and government sponsored Public Education Centers (Minzhong Jiaoyu Guan 民眾教育館(. By contrasting the content and form of science popularization, this paper reveals the different discourses in which science was embedded and how these contributed to various political agendas.

Ouyang Zhesheng : Hu Shi and Sino-Western Cultural Exchange during May 4 Movement Period

Hu Shi and Sino-Western Cultural Exchange during May 4 Movement Period

Ouyang Zhesheng (Peking University)

The May Fourth Movement ushered in a new climax in modern history for cultural exchange between China and the West. Hu Shi frequently received Western visitors to Beijing, meeting with officials from American and European embassies, and exchanging knowledge with foreign teaching staff from Peking University as well as Western sinologists. Hu Shi played a principal role in Sino-Western cultural exchange.


北京大学历史学系教授 欧阳哲生


Selena Orly: Hu Shi and Women: a Chinese Renaissance Perspective

Hu Shi and Women: a Chinese Renaissance Perspective

Selena Orly (The Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Asia Unit, HUJI)

Hu Shi is known as a champion of the May Fourth feminism. But many scholars have queried the depth of his advocacy, suggesting that Hu subjected women’s rights to other bigger ends: achieving national strength and leveling intergenerational inequalities inherent in the Confucian family structure. Such perspectives are usually derived from isolated readings of Hu’s multifarious (and multi-genre) writings on women—isolated from each other and isolated from Hu’s other oeuvre. In contrast, this current article examines Hu’s key writings on women as a holistic corpus of cohesive ideas by bringing them into a direct conversation with his Chinese Renaissance program—a massive and detailly planned springboard for a modern Chinese future. The article argues that women’s rights were an indispensable component of Hu’s vision for the nation’s modernity—not simply means to other bigger ends—and that this interconnectedness did not preclude Hu from advancing a progressive feminist agenda in its own right. Furthermore, by analyzing Hu’s key writings on women in conjunction with his Chinese Renaissance program, the article exposes that Hu did not merely critique Chinese tradition for its dated attitudes towards women, he also repackaged segments of its heritage to furnish a native cultural base that validated and boosted his promotion of the progressive gender ideology and America-inspired new Chinese womanhood—a trait of Hu’s May Fourth feminist advocacy entirely overlooked by scholarship.

Shakhar Rahav: Ideology & Utopia: Collective experiments during May Fourth

Ideology & Utopia: Collective experiments during May Fourth

Shakhar Rahav (University of Haifa)

Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party commemorated the May Fourth movement as the cradle of Chinese Communism. Although the movement certainly contributed to the adoption of Communism and the founding of the party the utopias espoused by movement participants were far from the dictates of Leninist centralism. In this I will describe several attempts to found small communes across China in 1919-1921, outline common characteristics they shared, and juxtapose them with similar experiments taking place at roughly the same time in other countries.

Kam Louie: The Modern Confucian Gentleman - Dislodging Hegemonic Masculinity in May Fourth and Its Impact in China Today

The Modern Confucian Gentleman: Dislodging Hegemonic Masculinity in May Fourth and Its Impact in China Today

Kam Louie (University of New South Wales)

By contrasting the notion of the Confucian gentleman (junzi 君子) in May Fourth and now, I will explore some ideas regarding how to be a Chinese man that emerged during the May Fourth period and how these ideas have transformed in the last 100 years. 

In gender terms, the May Fourth era is best remembered for its portrayals of women as being oppressed by the Confucian system. The near-universal agreement that women needed to be liberated clearly had an impact on how men were viewed. Although the men did often hold “the system” responsible for women’s oppression, they certainly could not escape all responsibility and emerge unscathed. Using some well-known works such as Lu Xun’s short story “Kong Yizi” (1919) as illustrations, I will show how the attacks on Confucianism at that time helped push the Confucian gentleman who was already dying from the collapse of the old imperial examinations further into the grave. 

Fast forward a hundred years. I will review some old and new perceptions and self-perceptions of Chinese men. My thesis is that despite some recent calls for the return of old gender roles and the Confucian gentleman, these calls for the revival of traditional junzi ideals are not “revivals” as such, but a flag-waving exercise to show commitment to the nationalist turn in the political sphere. In terms of masculinity, the legacy of May Fourth, in its liberationist calls for gender equality and more modern and less bookish Chinese men, still dictates the direction of current debates.

Alexandre Schiele: The Repression of the May 4th Movement and the Birth of a “New” Political Consciousness

The Repression of the May 4th Movement and the Birth of a “New” Political Consciousness

Alexandre Schiele (Universite du Quebec a Montreal)

The repression of the May 4th Movement can be seen as the watershed moment for future Chinese history because it will lead intellectuals and reformists alike to reject their past political considerations. For the past three years, The New Culture movement sought to reform culture through private and often individual initiatives in order to strengthen Republican institutions. From now on, intellectuals and reformists alike will focus on founding vanguard revolutionary parties, organized on the rigid Leninist model, designed for the violent seizing of power, territorial unification, and transformation of China. As we will show in this talk, this radical shift is apparent in the key writings and political programs of the major actors and organizations of the time. And yet, just as evident, is the ongoing tension between the weight of the imperial orthodoxy and the need for pragmatism, subsuming the tension between authoritarianism and democracy.

In 1912, the new revolutionary government aimed to restore the full sovereignty of China by abolishing the Empire, enacting a Republican constitution and convening a Parliament. However, the value of obedience of inferior to superior remained strong, and elected representatives often simply rubberstamped the will of the President. A mere four years later, President Yuan Shikai, although unable to resist Japan’s imperialist Twenty-One Demands, aggressively moved to abolish the New Constitutional Order, restore the empire and impose his own dynasty. However, the imperial-dynastic system was viscerally rejected, and regional governors and commanders rebelled. China rapidly disintegrated into civil war while the parliament continued to rubberstamp the will of any warlord who occupied Beijing.

And yet, the soundness of the Republican principles and institutions, which still nominally existed, were not questioned. Intellectuals such as Lu Xun, Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu saw in the remnants of the imperial orthodoxy, called Confucian, the cause of present woes because they enforced caste, class and gender inequality, promoted collectivity over the individual, discouraged economic enterprise, etc. And all these condensed into language and literature, deemed ossified, which they sought to supplant with a new vernacular language and national literature. Yet, they faced two fundamental issues: what constituted the proper values, and how should they be disseminated among the population, especially when these very Confucian values remained their main reference point. While everyone held fast to the 1905 democratic republican program of the Sun Yat-Sen Tongmenghui, La Jeunesse became one the main vehicle for the debates.

The turn of the year 1919 was a watershed moment for future course of the century. First, the Great War, the first industrial World War of the modern era, came to an end, spelling the doom of most European monarchies. Second, after a full year in power, the Bolshevik government in Russia, demonstrated not only its governing abilities but also the success prospects of a revolutionary system in the context of civil war and foreign intervention. Li Dazhao made for the occasion a passionate defense of Bolshevism, in which he saw the peaceful and democratic embodiment of the New Culture Movement. Third, at the Peace conferences, the victors sought to redraw the world map according to the principle of national self-determination in order to ensure a lasting peace. However, many were also the imperial powers occupying China and they were about to further redraw the map of China in violation of the very principle of self-determination they proclaimed to abide by. Its immediate effect in China was to push the New Culture Movement to its culmination, the May 4th Movement.

Its repression and the failure of the Beijing government to counteract the resolution of the Peace Conference led to the conviction that the existing republican institutions could not be peacefully enforced, that existing republican principles and institutions could not prevent their own subversion and degeneration, and thus had to be violently replaced with a new regime. From Nationalists to Communists sympathizers, it became evident that cultural and social change could not happen spontaneously, making liberal democracy a hindrance to the unification and renewal of China: thus they had to unite themselves and develop the organizations, hone the skills and acquire the resources necessary to lead and impose the necessary changes unto the whole country against any enemy, actual or future. And, whether they liked it or not, the very remnants of the imperial orthodoxy they had so violently denounced now permeated their ideologies and organizations and informed their actions. As the 1924 authoritarian program of the new Nationalist Party acted the break with the Tongmenghui, La Jeunesse all but became the organ of the Communist Party.

Vera Schwarcz: May 4th Movement Turns 100--救国 压倒 启蒙? Nationalism & Enlightenment: How We Become Part of the History We Study

May 4th Movement Turns 100--救国 压倒 启蒙? Nationalism & Enlightenment: How We Become Part of the History We Study

Vera Schwarcz (Wesleyan University)

In February 1979, when I arrived to Peking University in the first group of American exchange scholars, I had no intention of becoming part of Chinese history. But I did. Not only because of the publicity associated with this inaugural group, but also because my research on the May 4th Movement of 1919 took on historic dimensions in the decades that followed. Taking part in public commemorations of this movement for science and democracy in 1989, 1999 and 2009 required me to constantly re-evaluate my own views of the significance of an event that has an obsessive quality in the Chinese historical imagination. My collaboration with Li Zehou (one of China’s foremost philosophers) has served to accentuate controversies surrounding the meaning of “enlightenment” in modern China. The question that lingers on today remains: Does China need more or less qimeng?

My own work in recent years has been moving toward the periphery of the so-called enlightenment movement, where more enduring questions about the spiritual resources needed for genuine intellectual emancipation continue to thrive. Nonetheless, this 100th Anniversary of the May 4th movement of 1919 enables—indeed forces—all of us to become Co-Memorators. We need to create and also join a global conversation about why freedom of thought matters in China, and beyond.