From Culturalism to Nationalism: Reexamining the Role of the May Fourth Movement in the Development of Chinese Nationalism

Written by: Xuemeng Bai, University of Toronto

The May Fourth movement, one of the most politically, socially and academically diverse periods in Chinese history (1915-1919),[1]is an umbrella term for a series of nationalist movements recognized by many historians as the start of Chinese nationalism.[2]Yet what exactly makes the movement the start of Chinese nationalism remains ambiguous. To answer this question, the paper focuses on three main events of the May Fourth Movement—the protest against the Twenty-one demands in January 1915, the subsequent new culture movement from 1915 to 1919 and the May Fourth incident. Reexamining these events and the relationships between each, this paper argues that the main participating groups of the May Fourth movement, namely intellectuals, students, and workers and merchants who joined later, completed the transition from culturalism to nationalism with a heavy dependence on print media. They finished this transition by raising national awareness of China’s position in the world through common discourse on foreign affairs and the spread of national sentiments, by building a civil foundation through advocacy, criticizing lagging customs, and by directly confronting warlord government and colonialism. To fully present this argument, this paper will first explain Chinese nationalism and then provide historical context of pre-May Fourth practices before jumping into the details of the movement itself. Moreover, this paper also emphasizes the importance of print media in gluing separate nationalist events together and generating nationalist sentiments through intellectual writings, public expressions and written discourse of foreign affairs. This argument represents Irish political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson’s idea on how print media helps create the sense of national community.[3]

In the following pages, this paper contextualizes the May Fourth movement as the period from 1915 to 1919, during which China was governed by a warlord government and when the rest of the world was transitioning from the First World War and anarchy into a new world order. At this crossroad, the May Fourth movement not only domestically completed the transition to nationalism, but also contributed to the change of relations between the colonized and the colonizer, and the creation of nation-state as a norm rather than exception in international system.

When viewing Chinese nationalism, this paper adopts the “culturalism-to-nationalism” thesis. Put forward by James Harrison and later influentially elaborated by Joseph Levenson, the culturalism-to-nationalism thesis defines modern Chinese nationalism as a transition from “culturally-defined” community to a “politically-defined” community.[4]As Harrison argues, there are two significant features of culturalism: the traditional mindset recognizing China as the sole true civilization in the world, and the internalized Confucian philosophy that political leaders are only legitimate when they are “educated in and govern according to Confucian principles.”[5]The first feature of culturalism was shaken by the First Opium War in 1840, when foreign interventions challenged Qing’s imagined superiority, while the second feature, though stubborn, gradually diminished during the May Fourth period. Therefore, the turn to Chinese nationalism, and the transition from culturalism, is not a voluntary transformation but a response to foreign challenges and a reflection of “Chinese need of a China which no defeat may compromise.”[6] In this sense, Borgwardt’s framework of how an international system develops in the form of “a burst of reformist activity” after “a particularly destructive armed conflict” also applies to the development of Chinese nationalism from 1895 onwards.[7]  Consequently, this paper contextualizes the period from 1895 to 1921 as the transitional period from culturalism to nationalism, where the May Fourth movement completed this transition and changed the practice of initiating Chinese nationalist movements by advocating their ideas on a larger scale through the emergence of print media industry.

In a culturally-defined China, the idea of nationalism is by nature proactively imported by Chinese political elites in search for a way of solving national crises.[8]From 1860 to 1915, Chinese nationalists’ experiments had given birth to the early development of urbanization and industrialization during the Westernization movement, overthrew the rigid conservative government and improved the civil foundation of Chinese society during Hundred days reform. Such experiments were pre-conditions for the rise of the May Fourth movement. Among these experiments, the Hundred days reform of 1898 in particular started the transition from culturalism to nationalism. The Hundred days reform is a nationalist movement supported by Emperor Guangxu to adopt constitutional monarchy, to apply capitalism to the economy, to abolish traditional official selection tests and to modernize the military. The rise of this reform on one hand is the result of Qing’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. During this period, high-ranking officials and intellectuals increasingly felt the need to save China as the Liaodong peninsula, Taiwan and Penghu islands were ceded to Japan in the treaty of Shimonoseki.[9]On the other hand, Empress Dowager Cixi’s prohibition of the Westernization movement after the total annihilation of Beiyang Navy (the most famous project of the movement) made intellectuals realize that adherence to traditional Chinese political philosophy, namely Confucian principles and the “Mandate of Heaven,” was a barrier to China’s journey of modernization and being independent from foreign powers. In this sense, the Hundred days reform is the first deviation from the culturalist tradition of abiding to Confucian rules as the only mandate for governance. Nevertheless, because of the radical nature this reform and the weakness of Emperor Guangxu, Empress Dowager Cixi, as the representative of conservative power, prisoned Emperor Guangxu and listed all participants as wanted on September 22nd, 1898, 103 days after the reform’s initiation.[10]

Since 1860, Chinese nationalists tried importing Western technology and social systems during the Westernization movement, implemented the British model of constitutional monarchy in the Hundred days reform in 1898 and established a republic country through the Xinhai revolution. Yet until 1915, all Chinese nationalist movements, modeled from either Britain, France or Japan, followed the trajectory of achieving self-determination through Westernization and democratization. However, what Chinese intellectuals had imported are ideas and principles from western countries’ experiences rather than a systematic ideology. Such ideology, however, was necessary for achieving national independence or governing a republic. Therefore, even though the pre-May Fourth nationalist movements to some extent show nationalist intensions, they still largely represent traditional culturalism that their aim is to save Chinese people as an exclusive ethnic group, instead of China as a nation-state. 

The May Fourth movement completed the transition by showing China’s position in the world from the perspective of a nation-state, through encountering and confronting foreign states in the twenty-one demands incident and Shantung problem in the Paris conference. In addition, this realization of China’s position leads to the New Culture Movement which further liberalized the literate population and built a civil foundation for later nationalist movements. The information of Japan offering twenty-one demands, leaked from republican governmental officials, was published in newspapers on the morning of January 26th, 1915.[11]The demand is Japanese’s secret agreement to achieve control of Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Shantung, and Yangtze Valley along with administrative and economic control of the whole country. Its fifth group of demands, in particular, intended to bereave Chinese government’s actual control over domestic affairs.[12]Therefore, not only Chinese intellectuals, students and merchants as well, reacted to this news with great anger and humiliation. In less than a month, many special organizations, such as Citizens’ Patriotic Society and National Association of Comrades, were established in both northern and southern China. These organizations were widely supported by consumers as well as merchants. In a public meeting held by the National Association of Comrade on March 18th, tens of thousands of citizens participated, including merchants who are commercially tied with Japan.[13]In addition, their resolution of starting a boycott, under the slogan of “encourage the use of domestically-produced goods,”[14]continued for four months, despite President Yuan Shikai’s two orders to stop the boycott. 

For many foreign correspondents who had experienced the boycott, the lasting enthusiasm of Chinese people in boycotting Japanese goods shows the effect of the Twenty-one demands, which awakened the Chinese people’s “sense of national solidarity and of economic and commercial possibilities.”[15]There is little doubt that the twenty-one demands increased the nationalist sentiment of Chinese society, yet it is also important to realize that the boycott happened only in the cities where majority of the population did not live in. Even so, the amount of population who did participate far more exceeded the record in previous nationalist events. Moreover, as Chow interpreted, even though a relatively large segment of population had participated in the boycott, they had not yet formed a revolutionary front, for neither them nor Chinese intellectuals had a clear idea of what should be done accordingly to “save China.”[16]In other words, the twenty-one demands movement did not escape from Borgwardt’s framework of passive response as well. To sum up, the effect of Twenty-one demands, as the first incident of the May Fourth movement, indeed galvanized nationalist consciousness of more Chinese people who increasingly paid attention to China’s position in the world and also came to realize warlord government’s weak and secretive stance on foreign negotiations. But more importantly, this incident made several Chinese intellectuals, most of whom studied abroad in the US and Japan, consider whether or not the Chinese civilization should go through changes in order to achieve national independence. This reflection, later achieved by the literacy revolution and critiques towards traditional moral standards, displayed a more fundamental critique of culturalism— it not only criticized the traditional political system, similar to nationalists from the Hundred days reform, but also focused on the philosophical ground on which Chinese society had been built on, namely Confucian principles, and criticized which as the deeper reason of China’s subordinate position in the international system. 

This radical civilization mission, initiated by liberal intellectuals such as Hu Shi, is later labelled by historians as the “New Culture Movement.” Putting which back to the context of the May Fourth period, this paper argues that the new culture movement, from 1915 to 1919, not only built a civil foundation that is important for later nationalist movements, but also had an impact on the outbreak of the May Fourth Protest. The New Culture Movement is initiated by students who studied abroad when the twenty-one demands incident happened. Some of them include Chen Duxiu, who returned from Japan in 1915 and established the New Youth magazines, Cai Yuanpei, who returned from France in 1916 and started to transform the Peking University, and Hu Shi, who graduated from Cornell University and joined the movement. Since their return, they began to “assume the leadership of the vast reform” based on ideas absorbed from the west.[17]As a result, the new culture movement inevitably carried the Westernization mission. On one hand, it positively introduce the idea of democracy, science as well as western lifestyles and criticize the internalized Confucian principles; on the other hand, it has also created an optimism of transplanting western political and social systems to China and an illusion of President Wilson’s “self-determination.” Most of the transforming process relied on the publication of intellectual writings and manifestos on two magazines—New Youthand New Tide. When Cai Yuanpei published he first issue of New Tideon September 15, 1915, he hoped this magazine would awaken Chinese people, especially Chinese Youth and can pose some changes to old society and civilization. In his opening article, entitled “Call to Youth,” he asked Chinese youth to be “independent instead of servile, progressive instead of conservative, aggressive instead of retiring, cosmopolitan instead of isolationist, utilitarian instead of formalistic, scientific instead of imaginative.”[18]These principles and rhetoric rightly summarize the agenda as well as effects of the new culture movement. Influenced by propagandas of “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science” and criticism of traditional customs as “cannibalism” through vernacular language, some of young Chinese students “felt the need of organized activity”[19]to fight against warlord government and for national independence. Their fight for a legitimate political representation as an important part of national independence represents the transform to a “politically-defined” community where Chinese people not only want to be governed by Chinese, but also governed under legitimate and rightful political ideologies. 

Another character of the new culture movement is intellectual and students’ optimism in adopting a western political system and Woodrow Wilson’s “self-determination.” This illusion on one hand is the result of the movement, but on other hand is also an intentional propaganda of American Committee on Public Information (CPI).[20]In 1918, when a Shanghai daily published the full text of Wilson’s fourteen points, its content spurred great enthusiasm and optimism not only among intellectuals but also among literate population. As a matter of fact, one of the editorial comments, in response to Shanghai Daily’s coverage, believed that “[t]he United States is already the most powerful nation in the world, and therefore ‘Wilson could not be promoting these ideas for ulterior motives.’”[21]Moreover, when Carl Crow, lead of Chinese branch of CPI  suggested readers could send messages to Crow for anything they would like to say to President Wilson, more than five thousand letters came in, expressing “an air of confidence in the future, a faith in the idea that President Wilson’s words would prevail and that China, as well as all other oppressed nations, would be liberated.”[22]Even before the Paris Conference, this illusion among Chinese literate population already alerted Paul S. Reinch, the American minister to Beijing. He wrote a long telegram to White House, warning that “the consequence of China’s disillusionment at the peace conference on her moral and political development would be disastrous, and we, instead of looking across the Pacific toward a Chinese nation sympathetic to our ideals, would be confronted with a vast materialistic military organization under a ruthless control.”[23] 

Paul’s opinion shows the fundamental difference between Chinese intellectual’s understanding and American official’s understanding of the United States’ role in Shantung problem, or generally the China problem. For the United States, China is an important part of its geopolitical strategy in Asia, and a significant bargaining chip for its game of power politics with Japan. Therefore, the process of dealing with Shantung problem in the Paris conference represents a classic case of power politics—the United States’ initial agreement to support China is based on American interest to maintain its “open door” policy in China and to secure its pacific frontiers and the Philippines from Japan; and its later withdrawal of support is due to European powers’ pressure and Japanese threat of walking out of the deal.[24]Yet, Chinese intellectuals saw the situation in a very different way—they believe it’s United States’ responsibility to keep its promise and to help China achieve “self-determination.” Because of which, this idealism or illusion, stirred great “dejection and indignation”[25]within Chinese society when it confronted with the reality of power politics in the Paris conference. When the news of Shantung being transferred to Japan under the twenty-on demands was sent back to China through telegram by Liang Qichao at the end of April, 1919, student organizations in Beijing, such as the New Tide society, the Citizens Magazine Society and the Common Voice Society made a plan of participation and telegraphed a declaration to the press and public organizations of the whole country, calling for “[Chinese] people awak[ing] to this situation.”[26]This advocacy was soon responded by students and later workers and merchants. From May 4 to May 18, these students in Beijing rallied for support and national awareness who are later joined by students from universities in Shanghai and Changsha. From May 18 to June 4, alliances with merchants, industrialists and workers are forms to initiate strikes and boycotts against Japanese goods.[27]Not only the duration of these protests is long, it also covered more than 30 cities in China, whose popularity and participation is rare in Chinese history. In addition, the May Fourth protests were not just about Japan, it also stimulated skeptical attitude, even resentment towards great powers and the warlord government. Some Chinese students, heard the news, felt betrayed by the great powers, calling them “selfish, militaristic”, are “great liars” and they could “no longer depend on great leaders or great nations.”[28]More radical ones even burnt down the house of Cao Rulin, a high-ranking governmental officials who was believed by these students as a traitor.[29]Under this circumstance, some Chinese intellectuals realized the limitation of relying on great powers and started to research for new models that can help China achieve national independence. 

Additionally, this period also witnessed the important role of print media in gluing group-level sentiments together into national sentiment for the dependence of China as a nation-state. Protests broke out as a result of common discourse of twenty-one demands and Shantung problem. The May Fourth incident achieved greater scale of audience as a result of students in Beijing publishing their manifesto and protest in national newspapers; the new cultural movement had larger social influence because of its employment of magazines and newspapers. In 1919, there were over three hundred daily newspapers in China. Even though only 10% of the Chinese are fully literate at the time, this group represented the most influential segment of public opinion.[30]            

To sum up, the May Fourth movement completed the transition from culturalism to nationalism in three ways: Firstly, it raised national awareness of China’s subordinate position in the world and the reality of power politics through the Twenty-one demands incident and diplomatic failure on Shantung problem. Secondly, through new culture movement, it built civil foundation of Chinese society through translating foreign literatures, introducing western ideas and ideologies. Thirdly, through directly confronting warlord governments and power politics in the form of protests, the Chinese people began to see China as a nation-state whose independence needed to be fought for in order to achieve equal treatment in the international system. In a broader sense, along with the May Fourth movement in China, the post-First World War period also witnessed similar nationalist movements in South Korea, Turkey, and Egypt, which represent the emergence of a new world order composing of independent nation-states. This transition fundamentally changes how traditional imperial powers address the relation with these newly independent states or nationalist sentiments within the states. 


[1]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 1.

[2]James Townsend, “Chinese Nationalism,” in Chinese Nationalism, ed. Jonathan Unger (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), 6.

[3]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Community(London: Verso), 38.

[4]James Townsend, “Chinese Nationalism,” in Chinese Nationalism, ed. Jonathan Unger (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), 4.

[5]James Townsend, “Chinese Nationalism,” in Chinese Nationalism, ed. Jonathan Unger (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), 4. 

[6]Levenson, 99

[7]Borgwardt Elizabeth, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press), 149.

[8]Suisheng Zhao,A Nation-State by Construction(Stanford: Stanford University Press), 14.

[9]John K. Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China( Harvard University Press), 224.

[10]John K. Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China(Harvard University Press), 229.

[11]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 20.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 23.

[14]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 24.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 25.

[17]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 41.

[18]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 46.

[19]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 73.

[20]Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism(Cary: Oxford University Press, 2007), 100.

[21]Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism(Cary: Oxford University Press, 2007), 139.

[22][22]Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism(Cary: Oxford University Press, 2007), 143.

[23]Paul S. Reinsch, An American Diplomatic in China (Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922), 361-62.

[24]Arthur Walworth, Wilson and his peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. (New York: Norton,1984) 359.

[25]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 92.

[26]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 99.

[27]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 117.

[28]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 93.

[29]Tse-Tung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 119.

[30]Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism(Cary: Oxford University Press, 2007), 106.


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Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of 

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Walworth, Arthur. Wilson and his peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. New York: Norton,1984

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