1919: The May the Fourth Movement

The origins of this movement lie in the events of the First World War.

In 1914, the German-administered peninsula of Shandong, was occupied by Japan.

During World War One in 1917, China joined the allies, declaring war on Germany, on the condition that Shandong would be returned to China if they won the War.

Despite allied victory in 1918, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which was conjoined with Japan’s 21 Demands, which included the recognition of Japanese control over previously German-administered areas of China, including the Shandong province.

The European Powers had already promised this to Japan as they wished to persuade them to join the war against the axis powers with Germany.

This enraged the Chinese public who felt betrayed by the Western powers, who had promised the return of the Shandong Peninsula to China in return for their assistance in the War. They believed Western powers were unconcerned by the feelings of China as they gave up parts of China, just like they had carved them up into spheres of influences.

Additionally, the Chinese saw the Treaty of Versailles as a symbol of Japanese aggression as they were able to use their power and position to obtain what they wished for.

Protests began on May the Fourth, 1919, carried out mainly by 3,000 college students Universities in the Beijing region, who were infuriated by the Terms of the Treaty of Versailles which left no improvement in China’s democracy and freedoms.

As they marched towards the foreign embassies, they handed out fliers about their cause, criticising the Paris Peace Conferences. As riots began, at least 32 protestors were arrested by the Police.

As the news spread, protests formed across the country, including in major cities of Shanghai, Nanking, Tianjin and Guangzhou.

By June, labour strikes were being organised across China with the aim of urging the Government to take action and pursue better terms. This resulted in a number of shops losing money and closing due to a lack of workers. Additionally, Japanese Residents were attacked, while Japanese goods were boycotted and even destroyed by some protestors.

It was not until the Washington Conference of 1922 when the situation was solved as Japan withdrew it’s territorial claim.


  • The May Fourth Movement marked the introduction of new ideas into Chinese culture and China's road to modernisation.

  • Increase in newspapers and pamphlets with the aim of 'mobilising the masses'. Articles were written by intellectuals who returned from Japan to China after years of study. These people encouraged a revolution.

  • Self-expression was widely expressed by new writers, including controversial areas, such as sexual freedoms.