By Pat Welsh, contributor


The natural course for me to take this series would be to discuss the May 4 incident and what would later be called the May Fourth Period.  As I examined this incident and the surrounding events, I cannot help but conclude that this incident was itself a result of events that preceded it.  

From 1911 to about 1925, China was floundering in a confusing and chaotic morass.  While pro-Qing and pro-monarchists were gradually losing their support among the population, the liberal and the left-wing movements were themselves not a completely cohesive force.  The emergence of regional warlords who governed locally from 1916 to 1925 had no loyalties other than to those who might support their positions.  In May 1915, Japan presented the infamous 21 demands, which, if accepted, would have placed China under a virtual Japanese protectorate status and extinguish China’s independence.  Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) accepted some of these demands.  After Yuan had himself proclaimed emperor on December 12, 1915, the remote southern province of Yunnan rose in revolt two weeks later.  Other garrisons then joined in the revolt and by March 1916, it became obvious that any further attempts to continue Yuan’s monarchy would produce a widespread civil war.


By 1916, the objectives of the 1911 revolution had clearly not been achieved.  In the north, Yuan had attempted to establish his own dynasty and strip Parliament and the premiership of much of its powers.  Yuan, and later, the LiYuanhong (黎元洪) and Duan Qirui (段祺瑞) governments were supported by foreign loans and the Beiyang Military.  Otherwise, China remained weak and subject to foreign pressures, especially from Japan.  There had been no real remedy for peasant discontent.  Industry was still minimal and much of that was subject to foreign controls. 

In the south, the republicans under Sun Yat-sen had repudiated their recognition of the Beijing government to rule.  Several southern Chinese provinces declared themselves independent of the Beijing government.  Yet the republican government in Guangzhou itself was equally dependent on the local fickle favors of the local military generals.  Nonetheless the south, always anti-Manchu and heavily influenced by foreign contacts, rose up and joined the republican cause.  Yuan’s military attempted unsuccessfully to overcome the republicans in the south, but facing Western support for the republicans, Yuan relented.   Then Yuan died in Beijing on June 6, 1916.  Three individuals were considered to succeed him as president of the republic.  The weakest and least popular of the three, Li Yuanhong, was chosen by an agreement among the three..  The second individual was a former secretary of state, Xu Shichang (徐世昌).  The real political and military power at that time was held by the third, Premier Duan Qirui who, assisted by the Beiyang Military, seemed to be able to dominate President Li.  Duan, with the assistance of the Beiyang Military, held the real power in the north while an independent south headed by the Kuomintang and other parliamentarians semi governed in the south.

Meanwhile, the best of the scholar class retreated from government into academic life.  Government and administration seemed to be made up of ignorant soldiers, politicians and self-seeking careerists.  There was also a flight of wealthier individuals to the cities that destroyed the balanced economy of the countryside where banditry and military opportunists often held sway over local administration.

Into this fray comes a reform-minded Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培) in 1917.  As a literary revolution favoring the vernacular spoken Chinese over the flowery, and often difficult-to-read literary Chinese, Cai was appointed chancellor of the National University of Beijing (國立北京大學) by President Li Yuanhong.  Cai had been a liberal and moral leader of the new intelligentsia and a great educator.  Under Cai’s stimulus and protection, the old conservative Confucian tradition of the university changed.  Before Cai’s arrival, the university was regarded merely as a stepping stone to promotion within the government.  Moreover the morals of both professors and students were notoriously low and nicknames for the university included “the Brothel Brigade,” “the Gambling Den” and “the Fountainhead of Ribaldry and Bawdiness.”

Under Cai’s leadership, professors with very divergent points of view were brought into the institution.  A variety of study and advisory groups among the faculty were established.  Cai held that the student’s role was to study.  Cai would allow students over 20 years of age to join and take part in political activities as individuals, but not as representatives of the university.  Work-Study Programs similar to those in France were encouraged.  Many formal barriers between students and professors were removed.  Over time the moral standards of the students seemed to improve.

Not allowing partisanship or politics to influence his selection of faculty members, Cai encouraged the coexistence of divergent opinions.  His educational goals were: 1) a moral education based on mutual assistance, 2) education for a “world view” to promote a cosmic concept, 3) universal military training to avoid the militarists’ monopoly of military power, 4) utilitarian education to improve the people’s livelihood and 5) an aesthetic education to lead students to a world of reality by means of aesthetic appreciation.  He especially wanted his students to receive an education that would free them from the restraints posed by the various isms of that day.

This policy of freedom in education made the university a public forum for debates between conservative scholars and the new intelligentsia.  Among the staff at the university then were Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀) who would later assist in founding the Communist Party of China and Hu Shi (胡適), the scholar, diplomat and promoter of the vernacular.  These and other well-known activists and thinkers exerted a profound influence upon the students at the university.

Among the student groups that formed at that time was the New Tide Society (新潮社), which published a monthly magazine titled “The New Tide” (新潮) beginning in November 1918.  The magazine seemed to oppose  old patterns of thought and customs.  It railed against monarchy, misplaced loyalty to corrupt officials, the double standard of chastity for men and women.  It favored literary reform, language reform, the study of science, technology, democracy, liberalism, the equality of individuals in society, the independence of women and the freedom of choice in marriage. 

Inspired by the professors and the New Youth Society, the students at Beijing University and other colleges and universities in China as well, became more acquainted with the new intellectual currents and became more active in the new thought movements of the day.  One of these currents had its birth in the Russian October Revolution of 1917.  In the beginning, students of this faction could hardly be called at this time Bolsheviks or Marxists as their ideas seemed to be a vague mixture of socialism and democracy.  

In 1915, after Chen Duxiu was brought in as the chief librarian of the National Beijing University, he started and edited an influential monthly periodical in Shanghai, “The Youth Magazine” (青年雜誌), which was later renamed “The New Youth” (新青年).  This magazine became one of the most influential magazines among the students who participated in the May Fourth Movement of 1919.  The magazine mainly advocated  many new ideas, the use of the vernacular language, socialism, Marxism, and was strongly against feudalism.  It had a Letters-to-the-Editor section allowing it to become a truly free public forum where a number of important problems and ideas were seriously considered and developed.  Its circulation increased to 16,000 after 1917, to say nothing of the number of pass-along readers.

These publications inspired the formation of various societies.  one of which  was the new People’s Study Society (新民學會) founded by Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and his friends in Changsha.  This society had about 80 members who recruited and organized students to go to France under the work-study programs there.  Mao himself went to Beijing in 1918 under the recommendation of Li Dazhao (李大釗) and worked as an assistant librarian at National Beijing University until his departure to Changsha and Shanghai a year later.

While the new intellectuals were aligning themselves together, an opposition group was starting up at the university also.  This was a group of conservative professors, research workers and students whose strength was mainly in the university’s School of Law where most of the teaching posts were held by students who had returned from Japan and were more sympathetic towards the Beijing government.  However, this conservative opposition proved to be quite ineffective in an intellectual propaganda that featured an overload of archaic words that even well-trained scholars could not read.  Their magazine, the “National Heritage,” only produced four issues.  The conservatives’ opposition also failed because it worked more for Beijing government intervention than for public support.  They even tried to get the government to remove Cai Yuanpei as the university’s chancellor.  That failed because the government feared strong opposition from the students, public opinion and foreign financial support.

From 1915 to 1917 the conflict between the conservatives and the new intellectuals was one of ideas rather than one of actions.  This all changed in 1917 as the intimate relationship between the Chinese government in Beijing under Duan Qirui (段啟瑞) and the Japanese government under Premier Masatake Terauchi (寺内 正毅) became more intimate and China seemed to be caving in to Japanese territorial claims in Shandong province.  In Beijing, Hayashi Gonzuke (林権助), the Japanese minister in Beijing, proposed helping Duan cut off support of the Kuomintang government in the south.  This support involved huge Japanese loans.  With financial support and the newly formed Anfu Club (安福俱樂部), Duan consolidated his forces in Beijing’s Parliament.  This situation deteriorated further when secret military conventions were concluded with Japan and Russia.  In these agreements, Mongolia and Manchuria were wrested from China.  Then Japan secured Duan’s approval to negotiate the Sino-Japanese Military Mutual Assistant Conventions.

The stage was set for the May 4 incidents and its consequences, the subject of my next offering.



About Pat Welsh

In 2009 while teaching English at Sichuan University, Welsh was asked to give a speech where he was introduced to the audience as a “pioneer of Chinese American relations” as a result of his cooperative work in international banking during the Deng Xiaoping era. For more than 65 years, Welsh has been learning Chinese and has used this knowledge both professionally and personally to enhance his understanding of Chinese and Asian affairs.  He currently resides in Georgia and occasionally lectures on China to classes in World History and World Literature.


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