“A Road is Made”
The May Fourth Legacy

Poster: The May Fourth Movement
Icon of the May Fourth Movement
A Road is Made: Paving Over a Field of Grass
 “… 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.” (Lu Xun, “My Old Home”; SMC, 294)
Icon of the May Fourth Movement
Darwin vs. Social Darwinism
The evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species was first published in England in 1859, explained how the adaptive processes of natural selection determined which species managed to thrive and which were doomed to extinction. ... The British sociologist Herbert Spencer made his own creative adaptation of these theories. In The Study of Sociology, published in 1873, Spencer applied Darwinian theories to the development of human societies, arguing that the “survival of the fittest,” governed social as well as biological evolution. ...
"Survival of the Fittest" cartoon (birds exercising)
Spencer’s theories were then reanalyzed and contested by the scientist Thomas Huxley, and encapsulated in 1893 in his book Evolution and Ethics; Yan Fu, a product of China’s naval-school system during the self-strengthening period and later a student in England, read Huxley’s book at the time of the Sino-Japanese War and translated it into Chinese in 1896 — with his own added commentary and interpretations — under the title On Evolution. ... The message that came across from Yan Fu was that Spencer’s sociological writings were not merely analytical and descriptive, but prescriptive as well, offering means to transform and strengthen society. Yan Fu summarized Darwin as follows:
Peoples and living things struggle for survival. At first, species struggle with species; then as [people] gradually progress, there is a struggle between one social group and another. The weak invariably become the prey of the strong, the stupid invariably become subservient to the clever. (SMC, 279-280)
Darwin saying "Get out of my house!" to men named "Laissez Faire" and "Eugenics"
The 1911 revolution briefly raised hopes that Social Darwinist ideas of harsh social competition were now discredited. Just before the 1912 elections were won by his reorganized Guomindang, Sun Yat-sen wrote:
Before the twentieth century, the nations of Europe invented a newfangled struggle-for-existence theory, which for a time influenced everything. Every nation assumed that “the survival of the fittest” and “the weak are the meat of the strong” were the vital laws on which to establish a state. They even went so far as to say that “might is the only right, there is no reason.” This kind of theory in the early days of the evolution of European civilization had its uses. But, from the vantage point of today, it appears a barbaric form of learning.
But by 1913, Sun was writing sadly of a world dominated by struggles for survival from which no government or industrial enterprise could be exempt. Yan Fu, too, lost his enthusiasm for the theories he had so much helped to popularize in China, writing that the failures of the Chinese republic and the bloodshed of World War I in Europe showed that “three hundred years of evolutionary progress have all come down to nothing but four words: selfishness, slaughter, shamelessness, and corruption.” (SMC, 280-281)
World War I: The War to End All Wars!
Icon of the May Fourth Movement
100th Anniverary of the May Fourth Movement Interactive Comic
Both the growing discussion of Social Darwinist ideas and the rise of interest in Communist ideology were symptomatic of a cultural upheaval that was spreading throughout China. This upheaval is often called the May Fourth Movement, since in important ways it was intricately connected to the events that occurred in Peking on May 4, 1919, and to the effect that those events had on the country as a whole. The term “May Fourth movementis therefore both limited and broad, depending on whether it is applied to the demonstrations that took place on that particular day or to the complex emotional, cultural, and political developments that followed.
Students protesting in Beijing on May Fourth, 1919
Student representatives from thirteen area colleges and universities who met together in Peking on the morning of May 4, 1919, drew up five resolutions: one protested the Shandong settlement reached at the Versailles conference; a second sought to awaken “the masses all over the country” to an awareness of China’s plight; a third proposed holding a mass meeting of the people of Peking; a fourth urged the formation of a Peking student union; and a fifth called for a demonstration that afternoon in protest of the Versailles treaty terms. ...
Chinese students burning Japanese goods
The student protesters were ... successful in spreading their message to a wide circle of Chinese, once more reasserting the prestige of the scholarly elite that had been such a central part of Confucian-oriented education under the Qing dynasty, though now it was clothed in modern garb. The rash of student strikes and mass arrests led to a wave of national sympathy for the students’ cause. Support came from the merchants and businessmen grouped in chambers of commerce in the major cities, from individual industrialists, from shopowners, and from the industrial workers. ... Work actions took place in textile plants, print shops, metal works, public utilities, shipping concerns, paper mills, petroleum works, and tobacco factories. (SMC, 286-288)
Drawing of a May Fourth Era Female Student
Student Protesters at Tiananmen Square, 1989
Student in traditional Confucian garb
Icon of the May Fourth Movement
"New Youth" (Xin Qing Nian) Magazine, Volume 2, Number 1
Chinese Characters for "New Culture Movement" (xin wenhua yundong)
"New Youth" (Xin Qing Nian) Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1
Ba Jin's Novel "Family"Baihua: Vernacular WritingIt was as if the far-off events at Versailles and the mounting evidence of the spinelessness of corrupt local politicians coalesced in people’s minds and impelled them to search for a way to return meaning to Chinese culture. What did it mean to be Chinese? Where was the country heading? What values should one adopt to help one in the search? In this broad sense, the May Fourth movement was an attempt to redefine China’s culture as a valid part of the modern world. In the attempt, not surprisingly, reformers followed different avenues of thought and conduct. Some May Fourth thinkers concentrated on launching attacks against reactionary or irrelevant “old ways” such as Confucianism, the patriarchal family, arranged marriages, or traditional education. Some focused on reform of the Chinese writing style by using contemporary vernacular speech patterns in works of literature, thus putting an end to the inevitable elitism that accompanied the mastery of the intensely difficult classical Chinese. Some had a deep interest in traditional Western art and culture, while others looked to the avant-garde elements of that culture, such as surrealist and cubist painting, symbolist poetry, graphic design, realist drama, and new fashions in dress and interior decoration. Some sought to reinfuse Chinese traditional arts with a new spirit of nationalism by borrowing a selective range of Western painterly techniques. (SMC, 288-289)
Icon of the May Fourth Movement
Portrait of Chen Duxiu
Chen Duxiu ... founded the journal New Youth in 1915 and joined the Peking University faculty as dean in 1917 at Cai Yaunpei’s invitation. As editor of New Youth, which rapidly became the most influential intellectual journal in China, he espoused bold theoretical investigation, a spirited attack on the past, and a highly moralistic approach to politics through the cleansing of the individual character.
New Youth magazineIn leading an all-out attack on Confucian vestiges through the pages of New Youth, Chen argued that the key flaw in Confucianism was that it ran counter to the independence of the individuals that lay at the center of “modern” life. To build a new state in China, said Chen in late 1916, “the basic task is to import the foundation of Western society, that is, the new belief in equality and human rights. We must be thoroughly aware of the incompatibility between Confucianism and the new belief, the new society, and the new state.”
Individualism (with Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy) vs. Collectivism (with Confucius)
In other writings, Chen urged the abandonment of the classical Chinese language in favor of the vernacular form, and espoused two concepts that he termed Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science” as the key opponents to Confucian traditionalism. ... In 1920 he was to become one of the first members of the new Chinese Communist party. (SMC, 290-291)
Icon of the May Fourth Movement
Portrait of Hu Shi
Hu Shi ... had originally been a close friend and collaborator of Chen Duxiu. But though Hu also urged China to embrace both democracy and science, he later came to see Chen as an extremist who rejoiced in “isms” of all kinds without giving them adequate thought. ... In the summer of 1919, he wrote a celebrated attack on Chen Duxiu and other radical intellectuals, which he entitled “Study More Problems, Talk Less of ‘Isms.’” As Hu put it:
We don’t study the standard of living of the ricksha coolie but rant instead about socialism; we don’t study the ways in which women can be emancipated, or the family system set right, but instead we rave about wife-sharing and free love; we don’t examine the ways in which the Anfu Clique might be broken up, or how the question of north and south might be resolved, but instead we rave about anarchism. And, moreover, we are delighted with ourselves, we congratulate ourselves, because we are talking about fundamental “solutions.” Putting it bluntly, this is dream talk. (SMC, 291-292)
Hu Shi with John Dewey
Hu Shi with American Pragmatist John Dewey
Dewey was, for those Chinese educators who had studied under him, the great apostle of philosophic liberalism and experimental methodology, the advocate of complete freedom of thought, and the man who, above all other teachers, equated education to the practical problems of civic cooperation and useful living. (Su Zhixin)
Icon of the May Fourth Movement
Portrait of Lu Xun
Lu Xun ... unquestionably emerged as the most brilliant writer of the May Fourth movement, and his words were guaranteed an attentive audience. ... Lu Xun saw it as his task to direct the searching beam of his critical gaze onto the cultural backwardness and moral cowardice of the Chinese. He was harsh in his criticisms and often pessimistic in tone, even though his stories are full of compassion. He had come to understand his mission as a writer, he told a friend, through this image: he was a man standing outside a great iron box in which the people of China had fallen asleep. If he did nothing, they would all suffocate; if he banged and banged on the outside of the box, he would awaken the sleepers within, who might then be able to free themselves. (SMC, 293-294)
Diary of a Madman (kuangren riji): man reading the words "eat people"
Woman with bound feet
Chastity & Suicide
Qing Biography of a Chaste Woman
Chaste Woman Wu was from the village of Luxiawan. ... Her husband’s name was Li Shixin. He helped his father Li Jiugao manage a family store in Hubei. And so Woman Wu lived alone in the house with her mother-in-law.
       The mother-in-law was having an adulterous relationship with a distant clan relative named Big Gun Li. ... Big Gun Li and the mother-in-law conspired to rape her to prevent her from speaking out later about their relationship. ... At dusk, when the woman was bathing in the house, Big Gun leapt forward out of the dark. She wanted to run away but the door was already closed. She climbed out of a rear window and flung herself into the water. An old woman neighbor rescued her. Woman Wu was barely breathing but by midnight she had come to her senses. Thereupon, she again jumped into the water and died.
       The members
of the clan reported this to the county yamen and accused Big Gun of “forcible rape resulting in death.” The county magistrate, Zhuang Youyi, was unable to unravel any matter and was nicknamed “Mixed-up Zhuang” by the local people. When the investigation took place, the mother-in-law insisted that Big Gun was not guilty of “rape resulting in death.” Eventually, the case closed with the verdict that the deceased had slipped into the water and died. This happened in the thirty-sixth year of Qianlong’s reign [1771]. (DC (1st Edition), 234-235)
Icon of the May Fourth Movement
Shanghai cigarette ad from the 1920s showing a "modern" woman
My Views on Chastity
Lu Xun, 1918

Chastity used to be a virtue for men as well as women, hence the references to ‘chaste gentlemen’ in our literature. However, the chastity which is extolled today is for women only — men have no part in it. According to contemporary moralists, a chaste woman is one who does not remarry or run off with a lover after her husband’s death, while the earlier her husband dies and the poorer her family the more chaste it is possible for her to be. In addition, there are two other types of chaste women: one kills herself when her husband or fiancÚ dies, the other manages to commit suicide when confronted by a ravisher, or meets her death while resisting. The more cruel her death, the greater glory she wins. ... Everyone knew that a woman could lose her chastity only through a man. Still they went on blaming the woman alone, while the man who destroyed a widow’s reputation by marrying her or the ruffian who forced her to die unchaste was passed over in silence. Men, after all, are more formidable than women, and to bring someone to justice is harder than to utter praise. A few men with some sense of fair play, it is true, suggested mildly that it was unnecessary for girls to follow their betrothed into the grave; but the world did not listen to them. Had they persisted, they would have been thought intolerable and treated like unchaste women; so they turned ‘tractable’ and held their peace. This is why there has been no change right up till now. (DC (1st Edition), 236-237)
Icon of the May Fourth Movement
The Communist International (Comintern) Logo
The Birth of the CCP
Hammer and Sickle (Communist Icon)Lenin: State and RevolutionIf China’s youth were going to fight the forces of darkness with their bare fists, they would need a carefully thought out plan of attack. The outlines for one such plan were slowly becoming visible through the labors of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, even though the Russian revolution had encountered difficulties enough to deter all but the most determined. ... In an attempt to encourage socialist revolutions in other countries, Lenin established the Third International of the Communist party (the Comintern) in 1919. ... During this period when postwar territorial settlements were fueling nationalist movements in Europe and Asia, the strategic choice facing Lenin and the Comintern leaders was between supporting all efforts at socialist revolution overseas, even if that meant weakening a particular anti-imperialist movement, or supporting strong nationalist leaders, even if they were bourgeois reformers. At the second Comintern congress, held in July 1920, Lenin took the position that the capitalist stage of development need not be inevitable for backward nations if they were aided by the Soviet Union. Peasant soviets would be encouraged in such cases, along with “a temporary alliance” with bourgeois democratic parties. (SMC, 295)
Mao Zedong in 1921After playing his leading role in the May Fourth demonstrations and subsequently serving a three-month jail sentence, Chen Duxiu had left Peking for Shanghai. He had settled in the French Concession and continued to edit New Youth, which had become politically leftist and been abandoned by many of its former liberal supporters like Hu Shi. ... The Comintern agents gave Chen a clearer sense of direction and the techniques to bind together a political organization from the uncoordinated mixture of socialist groups that already existed in China. ... Because [Mao Zedong] was now well known to party leaders, he was invited to be the delegate from Hunan at the first plenary meeting of the Chinese Communist party (CCP), held in Shanghai in July 1921. ... In January 1922, the leaders of the Soviet Union thought it appropriate to invite about forty Chinese delegates to participate in a meeting of the “Toilers of the Far East” convened in Moscow. ... They were addressed by Grigory Zinoviev as spokesman for the Comintern. He told them that only a united world proletariat could overcome the forces of the capitalist powers:
Remember that the process of history has placed the question thus: you either win your independence side by side with the proletariat, or you do not win it at all. Either you receive your emancipation at the hands of the proletariat, in cooperation with it, under its guidance, or you are doomed to remain the slaves of an English, American and Japanese camarilla [a secretive clique].
Comintern Agent Maring... Nevertheless, the question of allying in some way with Sun’s Guomindang surfaced more and more frequently. Back in China, [Comintern agent] Maring pushed for the alliance, and it was adopted as part of the manifesto of the CCP at their summer 1922 congress in Hangzhou. Here the CCP announced they would seek a temporary alliance with the Guomindang in order to fight “against warlords of the feudal type.” Once the democratic revolution had been successful, however, the stage of alliance would be over and the proletariat would “launch the struggle of the second phase,” which would seek to achieve “the dictatorship of the proletariat allied to the poor peasants against the bourgeoisie.” In the eyes of those making these dogmatic and provocative statements, the amorphous preoccupations and slogans of the May Fourth movement were taking on a specific shape and focus. (SMC, 296-300)
Communist and Nationalist Flags