By Pat Welsh, contributor

In my previous offering I discussed major events after the death of Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) in 1916 and Cai Yuanpei’s (蔡元培) changes in the make-up of the student and faculty and their activities at the Beijing National University.  I hope the reader will get a feel for the situation in Beijing leading up to the May Fourth Movement in 1919. 

China’s failure at the Paris Peace Conference to prevent Japan from gaining Germany’s place in Shandong Province was the event that sparked the May 4 Incident.  The news of this failure, coupled with memories of Japan’s 21 Demands made in 1915, motivated student organizations to hold a meeting on May 1 and 3 wherein they resolved to hold mass demonstrations against the Beijing government on May 7, the fourth anniversary of Japan’s ultimatum in her 21 Demands.

 The students had heard that China’s position at the Paris Conference had been compromised by a “gladly agree” exchange of communication with Japan prepared by the Chinese delegation.  Also, the Beijing government’s foreign minister to Japan, Zhang Zongchang (張宗昌) had returned to China and was named Beijing’s new foreign minister and chief delegate to the Paris Conference.  Then there was the news about Beijing’s secret loans (Nishihara loans -西原借款) negotiated with the Japanese government for constructing a railroad in Shandong Province supported by 1) a mortgage of property and income and 2) the stationing of Japanese troops along the railroad.  The students were convinced that individuals high in the government were not working towards China’s best interests.

On May 3, the Beijing Chamber of Commerce telegraphed other similar organizations to support China’s claims in Paris.  The Citizens’ Diplomatic Association sent delegates to President Xu Shichang (徐世昌) requesting that he order the Chinese delegation in Paris not to sign the peace treaty if the Shandong problem was not solved.  President Xu also received a telegram from a group of Chinese students in Japan claiming that a rupture of relations with Japan was preferable to living in a shameful submission.

At 7 p.m. that evening, an informal meeting of more than 1,000 students was held at the assembly hall of the Law School of Beijing’s National University.  A number of resolutions were passed, one of which was that of holding a mass meeting of all students on the following day instead of May 7.  The meeting itself had been an orderly one.  It was conducted mostly by students of the New Tide Society and the Citizens Magazine Society.  The vast majority of attendees opposed any violent activities.  The students were there to arrange for protests against Beijing’s foreign policy toward Japan and the failure of the Chinese delegates at the Paris Peace Conference to prevent Japan’s intrusion in Shandong Province. 

At 10 in the morning of May 4 student representatives met at the Peking College of Law and Political Science to prepare for the demonstration to follow and to undertake five activities designed to arouse the nation as a whole.  By 1:30 p.m., more than 3000 students from 13 colleges and universities in Beijing had gathered at the Tian-an Gate at the square of Heavenly Peace to participate in the demonstration.  The Beijing government had made efforts to prevent this mass meeting, but the students held firm. Despite the Beijing government’s efforts, at 2 p.m. the students marched from the Tian-an Gate southward through the Zhonghua Gate.  Five-colored national flags were carried, leaflets were distributed to the onlookers, and a variety of anti-government and anti-Japanese slogans were shouted as they marched.

While the march was quite orderly at the beginning, the temperament of the students became less disciplined as time wore on.  After passing through the Zhonghua Gate, the marchers turned eastward and arrived at the western entrance of the Legation Quarter where they were denied entrance by the Legation Quarter Police.  After telephone conversations with legation officials, four of the students were permitted to enter the American, British, French and Italian Legations to see ministers, none of whom were available to the students.  The four students could only leave letters behind.

 Meanwhile, Chinese police and soldiers surrounded the entrance to the quarter and violently tried to force the other students back.  By this time the students were joined by other Chinese inflamed by seeing the students’ efforts frustrated by the government.  Cries of “On to the Foreign Ministry!” and “On to the house of the traitor!” arose.  Around 4:30 p.m. the students arrived at the house of Cao Rulin (曹汝霖), the vice-minister of foreign affairs and a senior Chinese delegate at the Paris Peace Conference.  Until this time, the march was fairly orderly, but the violent actions of some of the police produced counter-violent activities from the frustrated marchers.  Five students climbed up a wall, broke open a window and were able to open the front door allowing other students to storm into the house.

Cao had fled.  Expecting to find three pro-Japanese officials holding a secret conference in the home, the students found no one other than Cao’s sick father, a son and a young concubine, who were allowed to leave unharmed.  At about 5 p.m. the students found Zhang Zongxiang (章宗祥) with two others, including a Japanese journalist.  Zhang was beaten severely, but survived.  His home, however, was destroyed.

Outside Cao’s home at about 5:30 p.m., a fight ensued injuring both police and students.  One of the students later died.  Fifteen minutes later most of the demonstrators had dispersed.  Thirty-two of the students remaining behind were arrested.  Marshall Law was proclaimed for the area surrounding the Legation Quarter.

On the evening of May 4, the government ordered the Ministry of Justice to investigate the incident and punish those responsible.  More police and troops were brought into Beijing.  In preparing to prosecute and execute the 32 arrested students, the government underestimated the non-student support.  The issue appeared to the general public as a quarrel between pro- and anti-Japanese sentiments, and the majority of the Chinese sided with the anti-Japanese demonstrators.

This May Fourth Incident had made a profound impression in Chinese political and social circles.  Had there been no further developments after May 4, the significance of the May 4 Incident would have been very limited, but the students in Beijing started to organize the new intelligentsia and win the sympathy of the general public by other demonstrations elsewhere, mass meetings and publicity.  The May Fourth Incident had triggered the May Fourth Movement.

On May 5, the Ministry of Education ordered restriction of student activities.  That same day student representatives petitioned President Xu to release the 32 arrested students, promising not to return to classes until their release.  Another letter to President Xu demanded the punishment of traitors to China and Qingdao returned to China.  Their efforts did not succeed.  Instead they provoked a more determined government opposition, especially from the “Anfu Club” (安福俱樂部) of President Xu’s supporters, a political group of warlords and bureaucrats  financed and supported by Japan.

To achieve their aims the students established a Student Union of Beijing, China’s first permanent united student organization of all the middle- and high-schools on a citywide basis.  This union became the model for others including the Student Union of the Republic of China, which was to become the headquarters for student activities throughout China.

 On May 5, the chancellors of the 13 universities and colleges met at the Beijing National University.  They decided to take on the responsibility of securing the release of the arrested students.  This being achieved, they would all resign their positions.  They then went together to see President Xu, Premier Qian Nengxun (錢能訓), the education minister, Fu Zengxiang (傅增湘) and the chief of the constabulary, Wu Bingxiang (吴炳祥).  They were only able to meet with Wu who advised them that he lacked the authority to release the students. 

Despite government censorship efforts, a few students did manage to outwit the government by sending a telegram through a foreign agency to one of the foreign concessions in Tianjin.  From there the message was relayed to Shanghai and from there to other cities.  This produced a flood of protest telegrams to the Beijing government.  Most of the press joined in and urged for the arrested students to be released.  The students also received support from other political parties and the southern government in Guangzhou whose representative in Paris was Tang Shaoyi (唐紹儀).  He had made stronger demands regarding Shandong than the Northern representatives.  In any case negotiations in Paris by the Chinese side broke off on May 15.   

On May 7, after the strikes had spread to other cities, the 32 students were released pending further legal action.  The following day the student strike in Beijing ended, but the activities of students in Beijing and elsewhere continued.  The boycott of Japanese goods was planned.

Fearing assassination, Cai Yuanpei, chancellor of  Beijing National University, resigned on May 9 and fled Beijing.  He had supported the students and had attempted to keep matters orderly by trying to act as an intermediary between the students and the Beijing government.  Further government intransience motivated a general student strike in Beijing on May 19.  Police intervention however, proved to be ineffective because many of the policemen were sympathetic toward the students.  This strike then spread to other major cities.  By May 26, the demonstrations had attracted some 300,000 observers from the general public.  From May 31 on, Shanghai became the center of student activities.

By late May the students had won support of both merchants and urban workers.  Mass arrests of students from June 2-4 prompted strikes by urban workers and merchants.  The ultimate triumph was China’s refusal to sign the peace treaty with Germany on June 28.  

Looking back, the movement saw a renaissance of science and learning.  Yet after 1919 the Chinese intelligentsia and other supporting groups of the May 4 Movement became divided over issues related to politics, ideology, education, professional interests and the reality of China’s situation.  Out of this evolved a stronger sense of nationalism, a flirtation with various forms of socialism and continued experiments with liberalism.  Faith in the West as a source for a cure for China’s ills came increasingly into question.  Leading this questioning was Li Dazhao (李大釗) and Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀) who would in 1921 spearhead the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai.

One major stumbling block toward China’s unification was the rise of local warlords, a product of the decentralization of China’s military that had begun under the Qing Dynasty.  This issue will be 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.


Terms Of Use

Terms of Use All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission of the publisher. For permission requests, contact [email protected] with subject line “Permission request.”


CHINAINSIGHT (CI) is published monthly ((except July/August and November/December are combined) by China Insight, Inc., an independent, privately owned company started in 2001 and headquartered in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

CHINAINSIGHT is the only English-language American newspaper to focus exclusively on connections between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Our goal is to develop a mutual understanding of each other’s cultures and business environments and to foster U.S.-China cultural and business harmony.