In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section May Fourth Movement

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Guides to Sources
  • Collection of Primary Sources
  • History
  • Conferences, Symposiums, and Essay Collections
  • Communism
  • Hu Shi
  • New/Modern Culture
  • KMT Intellectuals
  • In Cities and Countries Outside Beijing
  • Women
  • Foreign Connection

Chinese Studies May Fourth Movement
Edward Q. Wang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0077


The May Fourth Movement of 1919 was a nationalist mass movement, considered by many as one of the most important events in Chinese history. During the May Fourth era (1915–1925), Chinese intellectuals waged the New Culture Movement, questioning the relevance and validity of the Confucian tradition while searching for new ideas from abroad. Marxism and Communism—together with liberalism, anarchism, pragmatism, Bergsonism, etc.—entered China. Thanks to the direct assistance of the Communist International, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921. Several decades later, the Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Given its multifarious and multileveled significance, the May Fourth Movement sparked interest among scholars of different politico-cultural backgrounds, almost immediately from its occurrence into the early twenty-first century. As such, it has generated a large body of literature, with divergent views, positions, and opinions. From the 1920s to the mid-1930s, most scholars evaluated the May Fourth Movement positively, hailing it as a new age in Chinese history. This evaluation has still been held by PRC scholars who emphasize how the May Fourth Movement helped promote Communism in the country. For a long time, the May Fourth Movement was (and still is in some texts) considered a watershed moment among PRC educators by which they divided the course of Chinese history in modern times into two subperiods: “modern history” or jindaishi 近代史 (1840–1919) and “contemporary history” or xiandaishi 现代史 (1919–present). By comparison, non-Marxist scholars appeared slightly less enthusiastic about the historical role of the movement, although many of them still recognized its importance in reshaping the Chinese attitude toward their tradition. By downplaying the May Fourth’s connection with Communism, non-Marxist scholars focused on how the New Culture Movement helped advance Chinese modernity in that era. In more recent years, thanks to the rising interest in sociocultural history, some historians working in Western academies attempt to question—or “decenter”—the May Fourth’s epochal importance in presaging the development of modern Chinese history. In the Chinese-speaking world, scholars have made similar attempts to explore the social impacts of the May Fourth Movement. However, few have shed doubts about its historical significance. The literature on the May Fourth Movement is still expanding at a rapid pace, thanks to the number of works generated at many conferences, symposiums, and workshops held on major anniversaries of the May Fourth Movement across the Taiwan Strait.

General Overviews

A number of studies have been published in English, Chinese, and Japanese on the May Fourth Movement. In the English-speaking world, Chow 1960 remains a useful introduction. With a balanced approach, it is comprehensive, well organized, and narrated. As its title indicates, the author fully recognizes the importance of the May Fourth Movement in helping to create a new culture in modern China. Lin 1979 offers the first modification of the iconoclastic spirit supposedly enveloping the May Fourth era. The author instead argues that, although iconoclastic on first look, the New Culture characterizing the age had methodological and cultural elements from China’s past. Schwarcz 1986 discusses the dual task of the May Fourth intellectuals—cultural enlightenment and national salvation—and recognizes the accomplishments of the May Fourth intellectuals while at the same time registers their frustrations and failures. Mitter 2004 also recognizes the historical significance of the movement. Indeed, the author considers it the beginning of Chinese modernity and, from a comparative perspective, examines how this modernization project, politically, culturally, and socially, characterized the history of 20th-century Chinese history. By contrast, Chow, et al. 2008 challenges the central attention that the May Fourth Movement has received over the past century and contends that many issues discussed in the movement had emerged before and that these issues were far from prevailing in, and being characteristics of, the age. Thus, the authors argue the need to decenter the movement when studying the development of modern Chinese history. Chinese publications on the May Fourth Movement are numerous. Hua 1954 was an early attempt to emphasize and establish the May Fourth’s connection with the Communist movement. Peng 1998, which has had several earlier editions, more or less follows the same route, only with a much broader coverage. Less ideological, Ding and Ma 1999 is useful in offering many valuable historical photos and images. Zhang 2009 and Zhang 2019 present new synthesis of Chinese scholarship on the May Fourth Movement. It fails, however, to incorporate studies on the subject by overseas scholars. Led by Hazama Naoki of Kyoto University, Japanese scholars launched the “Studies of the May Fourth Movement,” resulting in a series of publications from the 1970s to the 1990s. Some works (Kataoka 1982 cited under In Cities and Countries Outside Beijing, and others) deal directly with the movement, whereas others (Mori 1982, cited under History) cover related subjects in the May Fourth era.

  • Chow, Kai-wing, Tze-ki Hon, Hung-yok Ip, and Don C. Price, eds. Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm: In Search of Chinese Modernity. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2008.

    An anthology derived from the papers delivered at two symposiums, this book makes a passionate as well as a polemical call for scholars to look beyond the May Fourth Movement in studying modern Chinese history. Refuting the long-held belief that the movement amounted to an epochal event, the book urges readers to reconsider its supposed importance in shaping the course of history.

  • Chow, Tse-tsung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674283404

    Although published many decades ago, this overview of the May Fourth Movement remains a useful study in English. It defines the movement both as a political event and as an “intellectual revolution” and organizes its content accordingly in two parts. Its thesis remains influential, although later scholars have critiqued the author’s high opinion of the New Culture supposedly created in the era.

  • Ding Shouhe 丁守和, and Ma Yong 马勇, eds. Wusi tushi 五四图史. Shenyang, China: Liaohai chubanshe, 1999.

    English title: The May Fourth: An Illustrated History. In nine chapters, this book contains historical photos and images in the May Fourth era, accompanied with captions and textual explanations.

  • Hua Gang 华岗. Wusi yundongshi 五四运动史. Shanghai: Huadong renmin chubanshe, 1954.

    One of the earliest attempts by the Chinese Communists to interpret the May Fourth Movement from their ideology. Although only 168 pages long in its revised edition, it was a seminal text in that it argued that the May Fourth Movement was led by Li Dazhao and other Communist leaders, rather than by Hu Shi and other bourgeois intellectuals.

  • Lin, Yü-sheng. Crisis of Chinese Consciousness: Radical Antitraditionalism in the May Fourth Era. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

    An important book in modifying the accepted thesis about the May Fourth Movement as a new era of Chinese cultural development. By studying Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi, and Lu Xun, three unquestionable leaders in the movement, Lin argues that their harsh criticism of Chinese tradition, and Confucianism in particular, was paradoxically a reflection of the traditional way of Chinese thinking.

  • Mitter, Rana. A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    From a global perspective, this book amounts to a recent and meaningful attempt to mark the May Fourth Movement as the beginning of a new era in Chinese history. Through his engaging narrative, the author analyzes how the movement became a historic endeavor by the modern Chinese to reshape, with successes and failures, the development of their country’s history throughout the twentieth century.

  • Peng Ming 彭明. Wusi yundongshi 五四运动史. Rev. ed. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1998.

    English title: A History of the May Fourth Movement. Peng is well regarded as an authority on the May Fourth Movement in the PRC. With twenty chapters, the book is a comprehensive study of the movement and the entire May Fourth era. It describes, in a triumphant overtone, its development in two phases, first focusing on the movement’s connection with the rise of Communism, utopian socialism, anarchism, and women’s liberation and then its repercussions and developments in other cities.

  • Schwarcz, Vera. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520341203

    A study of the May Fourth intellectuals, both the teachers and the students, with a focus on their roles in China’s modernization. The author thinks that, as a nationalist movement, the May Fourth Movement introduced modernity into China; hence, it was an Enlightenment in Chinese history. However, the movement was also incomplete in that the task of national salvation, in the wake of Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, overwhelmed the need for cultural renewal.

  • Zhang Dewang 张德旺. Xinbian wusi yundongshi 新编五四运动史. Harbin, China: Heilongjiang renmin chubanshe, 2009.

    A synthesis of new Chinese scholarship (only PRC) on the subject, with an introduction that discusses the historiography of the May Fourth Movement. The book is comprehensive in coverage, dealing not only with how the movement started in Beijing but also how it spread to other cities. It also discusses the historiography of the May Fourth Movement in its introduction. It discusses various schools of thoughts in the era, not only Marxism but also Western thoughts and the anti-New Culture school in publications, such as the Critical Review.

  • Zhang Dewang 张德旺. Daolu yu xuanze道路与选择. Chengdu, China: Tiandi chubanshe, 2019.

    This is a revised version of Zhang 2009. It has a similar coverage of the content, making it a comprehensive read of the May Fourth Movement. In his revision, the author incorporated some new studies in this version while at the same time streamlined the part on its history.

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