Protesters march against the Treaty of Versailles in Beijing, May 1919 (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

“When the May Fourth Movement took place in 1919, I was only sixteen years old, a student at the Tianjin Women’s Normal College”, wrote Deng Yingchao (邓颖超/ 鄧穎超; pinyin: Dèng Yǐngchāo) years after the events took place. “On May 4, 1919 students in Beijing held a demonstration asking the government to refuse to sign the Versailles Peace Treaty and to punish the traitors at home. In their indignation, they burned the house at Zhaojialou and beat up Lu Zhongxiang, then Chinese envoy to Japan. The following day, when the news reached Tianjin, it aroused the indignation of students there who staged their own demonstration on May 7th. They began by organizing such patriotic societies … We had no political theory to guide us at that time, only our strong patriotic enthusiasm. In addition to the Beijing students’ requests, we demanded, ‘Abrogate the Twenty-One Demands!’ ‘Boycott Japanese Goods!’ and ‘Buy Chinese-made goods!’ Furthermore, we emphatically refused to become slaves to foreign powers!” (quoted in: Patricia Buckley Ebrey: Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, p. 360).

The protests of May 1919 marked the beginning of Deng Yingchao’s involvement in politics. Later she joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and married Communist leader Zhou Enlai. Like Deng Yingchao, thousands of students throughout China, moved by patriotic fervour and the desire to change their country, took part in the demonstrations. The social and political movement that ensued marked the beginning of mass politics in post-revolutionary China.

In the present article, we shall briefly examine the origins and development of the May Fourth Movement, as well as its consequences for China’s political life.


The Treaty of Versailles and China’s Humiliation

At the beginning of the 20th century, China was a country in turmoil. In 1911 the Qing Dynasty, which had ruled the Middle Kingdom for over 260 years, was overthrown and the Republic of China was established. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the anti-Manchu revolutionaries, believed that the abolition of the absolute monarchy would bring about an era of national unity, democratic governance and economic development (what he called the ‘Three Principles of the People‘).

However, soon after the Republic had been founded, General Yuan Shikai (袁世凱; pinyin: Yuán Shìkǎi; 1859-1916), an influential and powerful military figure, staged a coup d’etat, dissolving parliament and outlawing Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang, the largest political party in the country. After Yuan Shikai’s death in 1916, local warlords filled the power vacuum, creating de facto self-ruling fiefdoms.

Apart from facing internal problems, China was still a semi-colony of foreign powers, with Japan playing an increasingly active and aggressive role. When World War I broke out, China took part in the conflict on the side of the Allies, hoping that a victory would help the young Chinese Republic join the club of the big powers. Furthermore, Chinese politicians thought that their contribution in the Allies’ war efforts would extract concessions from colonial powers. China’s immediate objective was to regain the territories under German control (see Orville Schell / John Delury: Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century, 2013, p. 110).

In 1918 US President Woodrow Wilson gave his famous Fourteen Points speech, declaring:

What we demand in this war … is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression. All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us.

Wilson’s ideals appeared to many Chinese as the beginning of a new world order, in which strong nations would no longer bully and conquer weaker ones. When news of the Allied victory reached China, crowds gathered in front the Presidential Palace in Beijing on November 17 to celebrate. People tore down the Von Ketteler Memorial, a Chinese-style memorial arch built to commemorate Clemens von Ketteler, who was assassinated during the Boxer Rebellion. After the uprising had been quelled by foreign powers, Germany demanded the erection of the memorial as a condition for peace negotiations. To this day, Beijing views the von Ketteler Memorial as a symbol of national humiliation (see: Robert T. Pollard: China’s Foreign Relations: 1917-1931, 1933, p. 50; Xu Guoqi: China and the Great War: China’s Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization, 2011, p. 244).

Von Ketteler Memorial Arch, Beijing, before it was torn down in 1919 (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Members of the Chinese intelligentsia looked up to President Wilson for leadership. “Wilson is the best qualified statesman to assume the role of champion of human rights generally and of the rights of China in particular,” wrote journalist Hollington Tong (Xu, p. 245). Chen Duxiu (陈独秀/ 陳獨秀; pinyin: Chén Dúxiù; Wade-Giles: Ch’en Tu-hsiu, 1879-1942), one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote that Wilson was “the number one good man in the world” (ibid.).

On January 12, 1919, the Chinese delegation arrived in Paris to attend the Peace Conference. It was headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Lu Zhengxiang (陸徵祥; pinyin: Lù Zhēngxiáng; also romanized as Lou Tseng-tsiang, 1871 – 1949), who had represented the Qing government at the Hague Convention of 1907, but who also had become infamous for negotiating the Twenty-One Demands made by Japan to China during the war (David Strand: An Unfinished Republic: Leading by Word and Deed in Modern China, 2011, pp. 190-191).

Among the fifty-two members of the Chinese delegation were Wellington Koo (顧維鈞/顾维钧; pinyin: Gù Wéijūn, 1888 – 1985), ambassador to the United States; Alfred Sao-ke Sze (施肇基; pinyin: Shī Zhàojī; Wade–Giles: Shih Chao-chi, 1877–1958), ambassador to London; Cheng-t’ing Thomas Wang (王正廷; pinyin: Wáng Zhèngtíng; Wade–Giles: Wang Cheng-t’ing, known in English as Chengting Thomas Wang or C. T. Wang, 1882 – 1961), and Wu Chaoshu (伍朝樞/伍朝枢; pinyin: Wǔ Cháoshū; Wade-Giles: Wu Ch’ao-shu, 1887 – 1934), son of statesman Wu Tinfang, were invited to represent the interests of Sun Yat-sen’s military regime in Guangdong. One of China’s most influential intellectuals of the late-Qing and early Republican era, Liang Qichao (梁啟超; pinyin Liáng Qǐchāo, 1873 – 1929), also attended the Peace Conference in an informal capacity (Pollard 1933, p. 54;   Joseph R. Levenson: Liang Ch’i-Ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China, 1953, p. 189).

The Chinese delegation included five foreign advisers: Sir John MacLeavy Brown, counsellor of the Chinese Legation in London, George E. Morrison, political adviser to the President of China, and Georges Padoux, adviser to the Law Codification Commission (Pollard 1933, p. 54).

The Chinese were convinced that the United States would protect their interests, despite having received no official assurances to that effect (ibid., p. 55). This would prove to be a fatal miscalculation.

The Chinese delegation had four main goals during the negotiations: First, regaining control over the territories that were in German possession, and especially of Shandong. Second, the abrogation of the treaties and agreements that resulted from the Twenty-One Demands. Third, the cancellation of all economic and political interests of Germany and Austria-Hungary in China. And fourth, the revision and possible abolition of the unequal treaties (ibid., p. 56).

wellington koo
Wellington Koo (source: Library of Congress)
lu zhengxiang.png
Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang (source: Library of Congress)

On January 28 Wellington Koo gave an impassioned speech that impressed foreign diplomats (Xu 2011, pp. 248-250). Apart from demanding the return of lost territory, China also presented a memorandum, stating:

As the Peace Conference seeks to base the structure of a new world upon the principles of justice, equity, and respect for the sovereignty of nations, as embodied in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and accepted by all the Allied and Associated Powers, its work would remain incomplete if it should allow the germs of future conflicts to subsist in the Far East (Pollard 1933, p. 68).

China demanded: First, the end of the powers’ policy of carving out among themselves spheres of influence in China.  Second, the withdrawal from China of all foreign troops and police. Third, the termination of foreign postal and telegraphic services. Fourth, the end of foreign consular jurisdiction. Fifth, the abolition of extraterritoriality. Sixth, the restitution of territories leased to foreign powers, as well as of foreign concessions and settlements. And seventh, the restoration of tariff autonomy (Pollard 1933, pp. 69-71).


Many Chinese were optimistic about the outcome of the Peace Conference. They believed that the era of imperialism had come to an end and that China would play a constructive role in creating a better world. For that reason, the Chinese delegation warmly supported the founding of the League of Nations as an instrument to achieve Wilson’s Fourteen Points. As Wang Zhengting remarked:

The time has come for a new world order. This new order takes the form of a covenant among the Allied and associated powers, who bind themselves to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security by the acceptance of the obligations not to resort to war, by the prescription of open, just and honorable relations between nations, by the firm establishment of the understandings of international law as the actual rule of conduct among governments by the maintenance of justice and a scrupulous respect for all treaty obligations in the dealing of organized people with one another (Xu 2011, p. 255).

Yet despite their initial optimism, the Chinese people soon realized that their dream of peace and equality among nations was an illusion. The first disappointment came when the Chinese delegation learnt that they had been allotted only two seats at the conference, instead of the five reserved to the big powers. Moreover, the Chinese were not invited to important meetings in which China’s future would be decided, while Japan took part in almost every session (ibid., p. 258). In the eyes of the Westerners, Japan was a major power, although they did not recognize full equality, as shown by the fact that Western countries rejected seven times a racial equality proposal submitted by Japan (ibid.). However, if Western politicians regarded Japan as a second-rate power, they viewed China as a third-rate country.

The Chinese soon found out that their case was hopeless. The governments of Britain, France and Italy had made a secret agreement in 1917, accepting Japan’s claims in Shandong in exchange for military aid. Besides, they were unwilling to accept the Chinese argument that all Sino-Japanese treaties concerning Shandong, regardless of whether they were signed under duress or not, were null and void in consequence of China’s declaration of war upon Germany. As the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour wrote, the Chinese “had not lost a man or spent a shilling” in the war effort (ibid., p. 259). As a matter of fact, China’s sole war contribution consisted of around 300,000 workers who had gone to France and England to work in factories (Schell / Delury 2013, p. 110).


China’s demands were not completely ignored. According to Article 128 of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany renounced “in favour of China all benefits and privileges resulting from the provisions of the final Protocol signed at Peking on September 7, 1901 [i.e. the ‘Boxer Protocol’], and from all annexes, notes and documents supplementary thereto”, as well as “any claim to indemnities accruing thereunder subsequent to March 14, 1917”. All German properties on Chinese territory except for those of diplomatic use were to be returned to China.

However, Articles 156-158, which dealt separately with the issue of Shandong, stated: “Germany renounces, in favour of Japan, all her rights, title and privileges particularly those concerning the territory of Kiaochow, railways, mines and submarine cables­ which she acquired in virtue of the Treaty concluded by her with China on March 6 1898, and of all other arrangements relative to the Province of Shantung.”

The transfer of Shandong to the Japanese was perceived by the Chinese as a national humiliation. Lu Zhengxiang and Wang Zhengting refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles (Michael Dillon: China: A Modern History, 2010, pp. 175-176).

In a statement released to the press, the Chinese delegation declared:

The Peace Conference having denied China justice in the settlement of the Shantung question, and having today in effect prevented them from signing the treaty without sacrificing their sense of right, justice, and patriotic duty, the Chinese Delegates submit their case to the impartial judgment of the world (quoted in: Pollard 1933, p. 82).

Liang Qichao was shocked not only by the attitude of Western powers, but also by the fact that the President of the Republic of China, Xu Shichang (徐世昌; pinyin: Xú Shìchāng, 1855 – 1939), had known about their secret agreement with Japan, but had raised no objections because China was indebted to Tokyo. Liang sent an angry telegram to Beijing exposing the complicity of the Chinese government in the new national disgrace and denouncing Japan as a “robber neighbour”. Liang’s call was a major inspiration for the students of the May 4th Movement (Schell/Delury 2013, pp. 109-111).

Liang Qichao in 1901 (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Chinese intellectuals were appalled by the Western powers’ blatant violation of the principles that they had propagated in order to rally support for the war against Germany.  A wave of nationalism spread across the country with unparallelled vehemence.

Li Dazhao (李大釗/ 李大钊; pinyin: Lǐ Dàzhāo, 1888-1927), arguably China’s first Marxist, expressed the feeling of frustration and despair shared by many:

When the war ended we had dreams about the victory of humanism and peace; [we thought] that the world would not be a world of robbers or at least that there would be a little bit of humanity in the world. Who could have known that these terms were all only the false signboards of the robber governments? When we look at what has been decided at the Paris Conference, where is there the slightest shadow of humanity, justice, peace, or brightness? Where have the freedom and rights of the small and weak peoples not been sacrificed to a few big robber states? (Maurice Meisner: Li Ta-Chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism, 1967, pp. 96-97).

Beijing University played an important part in the genesis of the anti-imperialist student movement. In December 1916, Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培; pinyin: Cài Yuánpéi, 1868 – 1940), had been appointed chancellor of the university, which he reorganized according to his liberal views. He believed in “freedom of thought”, in the “policy of tolerating everything and including everything”. In 1917, he appointed Chen Duxiu as the dean of the School of Letters, and Li Dazhao as the chief librarian. Thanks to Cai, by the time the May Fourth incident occurred, Beijing University had developed into a rallying point for the Chinese progressive intelligentsia.

In particular, Li Dazhao’s library office was a meeting point for radical youths. Among his followers were Luo Jialun (罗家伦 / 羅家倫; pinyin: Luó Jiālún; 1897 – 1969), later a Guomindang official; Deng Zhongxia (鄧中夏 / 邓中夏; pinyin: Dèng Zhōngxià, 1893 – 1933), who would become a Communist organizer; and the young Mao Zedong (毛泽东 / 毛澤東; pinyin: Máo Zédōng, 1893 – 1976),  who had obtained a clerical job in the library (ibid., p. 57).

Another notable member of Beijing University was scholar Hu Shi (胡適; pinyin: Hú Shì, 1891 – 1962), who had earned a Doctorate of Philosophy under John Dewy and returned to China in 1917 (Lyon Sharman: Sun Yat-Sen His Life and Its Meaning: A Critical Biography, 1968, p. 223).

In a series of lectures given in 1933 in the United States, Hu shared his memories of the May Fourth Movement:

The Peace Conference in Paris had just decided to sacrifice China’s claims and give to Japan the freedom to dispose of the former German possessions in the province of Shantung. When the news reached China, the students in Peking, under the leadership of the students of the Peking University, held a mass meeting of protest and, in their demonstration parade, broke into the house of a pro-Japanese minister, set fire to the house, and beat the Chinese minister to Tokyo almost to death.

The government arrested a number of the students, but public sentiment ran so high that the whole nation seemed on the side of the university students and against the notoriously pro-Japanese Government. The merchants in Shanghai and other cities closed their shops as a protest against the peace negotiations and against the government. The Chinese Delegation at the Paris Conference was warned by public bodies not to sign the treaty; and they obeyed.

The government was forced by this strong demonstration of national sentiment to release the students and to dismiss from office three well-known pro-Japanese ministers. The struggle began on May 4, and lasted till the final surrender of the government in the first part of June. It has been called the ‘May Fourth Movement’ (Hu Shih: The Chinese Renaissance, 1934, pp. 55-56). 

During the violent clashes, a student was injured and subsequently died in hospital. Protests spread across China, students organized unions, in which for the first time women became politically active. Thousands of workers struck in solidarity with the students; in Shanghai alone, it is estimated that around 60,000 workers joined the strikes (Jonathan D. Spence: The Search for Modern China, 1999, p. 300).

Jiang Menglin (蒋梦麟 / 蔣夢麟; pinyin: Jiǎng Mènglín, also romanized as Chiang Monlin, 1886-1964), who at that time worked as an editor for the Commercial Press in Shanghai, described the events in his autobiography Tides from the West:

The whole city was excited by the news. In the afternoon public organizations such as educational associations, chambers of commerce, and provincial and local guilds sent telegrams to the Peking government demanding the dismissal of the three [pro-Japanese] high officials and the release of the students arrested or detained. Through the following day all Shanghai waited anxiously for a reply from the government but there was none. Then the students of the city went on strike, making the same demands as the public organizations, and went forth lecturing on the streets.

Next morning schoolboys and girls went by hundreds from door to door on Nanking Road, the main street of Shanghai, begging the shopkeepers to go on strike. Some in sympathy and others out of fear closed their doors. Many followed suit in imitation of their neighbors. In about an hour’s time all the Nanking Road shops were closed as tight as clams. Police interfered but to no avail.

The shop strike spread like fire. By noon all Shanghai was shut. Thousands of people wandered about the streets and traffic was almost blocked. Settlement police became powerless (Monlin Chiang: Tides from the West: A Chinese Autobiography, 1947, p. 121). 

Despite the repression of the protests by the authorities, the students ultimately triumphed. Even the mighty warlords could not ignore public opinion. Jiang recounts:

The pressure continued for more than a week and the Peking government finally gave in. The three pro-Japanese officials resigned and all the students were set free. With country-wide sympathy behind them, students everywhere were intoxicated by their success. Thereafter there was no peace for institutions of learning, or for the government. The students of Peking, having won their victory, continued to agitate against corruption in the government and the old traditions which, they thought, enslaved the minds of young people. They had won over the government because they had national sentiment behind them (ibid., p. 122).

The May Fourth incident was just the beginning of a new social and intellectual movement of national renewal. Emboldened by their victory, the intelligentsia’s opposition to the corrupt warlord regimes intensified. Chen Duxiu’s tone now became darker and more belligerent. “There are two sources of world civilization: one is the research institute and the other is the prison,” he wrote. “The youth of our country must be determined: once out of the research institute, to enter the prison; once out of the prison, to enter the research institute. This is the highest and most noble life. Only the civilization that comes out of these two places is true civilization, a civilization that has life and value.”


These words proved prophetic. On June 11 he was arrested for throwing from the balcony of a theatre a “Manifesto to the Citizens of Beijing” that listed demands to the warlord government. He was released after eighty-three days (Schell / Delury 2013, pp. 164 – 165).

Chinese journalist Tang Liangli (湯良禮; 汤良礼; pinyin: Tāng Liánglǐ, 1901–1970) described the May Fourth Movement as the beginning of the “renaissance” of China, as an event that “precipitated the growth of Chinese national unity” and made “what was merely a civilisation” into “a nation” (T’ang Leang-Li: China in Revolt: How a Civilization Became a Nation, 1927, p. 106).

At this critical hour in the nation’s history a national leader, however, was wanting. The masses of the people looked toward Peking, but they found there only corruption and treason. They looked toward their own enlightened young men who had studied abroad, but they found them inadequately prepared to offer a practical plan to save the country.

Leadership, however, came. The students of China began to organise themselves for political purposes. On learning of the Japanese victory at Versailles, they refused to study and to participate in the usual affairs of life until China was free…

China, awakened as a nation, was determined to have her own will, and refused to have her birthright sold for a mess of pottage. She followed the lead of her traditional leaders, the Chinese intelligentsia, who are the trustees of the past and the interpreters of the new spirit which has come to China (ibid., p. 107).

Twenty years later, Communist leader Mao Zedong, too, credited nationalism as the main force behind the May Fourth Movement:

The May 4th Movement was directed against a government of national betrayal, a government which conspired with imperialism and sold out the interests of the nation, a government which oppressed the people. [L]ong before the May 4th Movement Dr. Sun Yat-sen was already a rebel against the government of his day; he opposed and overthrew the Ching government. Was he right in doing so? In my opinion he was quite right. For the government he opposed did not resist imperialism but conspired with it, and was not a revolutionary government but one that suppressed the revolution. The May 4th Movement was a revolutionary movement precisely because it opposed a government of national betrayal.


The Aftermath of the May Fourth Movement

The May Fourth Movement was a turning point in Chinese history. It ushered in an era of radicalization and broader popular participation in political affairs. Chinese anti-imperialist indignation grew into an intellectual and political movement that shaped the country for decades to come.

The Chinese intelligentsia strove to redefine China’s identity, culture and its relationship with the rest of the world. After the failure of the 1911 revolution and the political apathy that followed it, a new desire for renewal was born out of the humiliation of Versailles. The Chinese people were confronted with the enormous task of reshaping their country, and they looked abroad for spiritual guidance.

Countless schools of thought vied with one another: traditionalists advocated Confucian values; progressives rejected the “feudal” way of life of the past; liberals promoted Western democratic principles; leftists embraced Marxism.  In the field of arts, too, there were innovations. Intellectuals like Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu and Lu Xun promoted the ‘baihua’, the vernacular language, as opposed to classical Chinese. Avant-gardism, surrealism, symbolism, cubism, traditionalism, and many other artistic movements sought to change China’s culture (Spence 1999, p. 301).

As Jiang Menglin put it:

During those days of freedom of thought in China just after the first World War, thinking about either social problems or social principles created storms in the thinking mind and waves of emotion in the feeling heart. This prepared the way for the further introduction of Western ideas from postwar Europe.

All the ‘isms’ had full play in China. While the intellectuals on the whole moved along the line of Western democracy, a section of them, inspired by the success of the Russian revolution of 1917, were attracted to the ideology of Marxism. Chen Tu-hsiu, editor of La Jeunesse, resigning from his deanship at the University of Peking, became the leader of a Chinese Communist movement.

The anti-imperialist movement against Japan also prepared the ground for general sympathy among intellectuals for the Russian Revolution. In 1923 the Third International sent Mr. Joffe to Peking to make contact with Chinese intellectuals, and one evening at a dinner given in his honor at the Chih-ying Restaurant in Peking, Dr. Tsai made a speech of welcome in which he said, “The Russian Revolution has given great inspiration to the revolutionary movement in China” (Chiang 1947, pp. 124-125).

The most important long-term consequence of the Shandong affair and the May Fourth incident was, indeed, the fact that the Chinese intelligentsia no longer believed in the political leadership of Europe and the United States. The betrayal on the part of the Allies of Wilson’s high-sounding ideals of international justice seemed to prove that the imperialists would never change. China could thus not rely on the help of liberal democracies to achieve national unity and abolish the unequal treaties. But just as the Chinese became disillusioned with the post-World War order of the Allies, a new power emerged: the Soviet Union.

After the 1917 October Revolution, the Soviet government was diplomatically isolated and threatened by foreign invasions. Against this backdrop, Moscow was eager to find allies, and China seemed the most natural choice for this purpose. Moscow reached out to China by publicly denouncing imperialism and offering its friendship to the Chinese people. On July 26, 1919, Lev Karakhan, Deputy Foreign Commissar of the Soviet government, issued a declaration to “the Chinese people and the governments of North and South China”.

First, the Soviets announced that they would relinquish all the privileges and territorial possessions that the Tsarist regime had acquired, as well as the indemnities for the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (Henry Wei: China and Soviet Russia, 1956, p. 16). The declaration went on to urge the Chinese people to oppose the Treaty of Versailles and to struggle for their freedom as the Russians had done:

If the Chinese people, following the example of the Russian people, wish to become free and to avoid the fate reserved for them by the Allies at Versailles in their object of making China into a second Korea or another India, the Chinese people should understand that they have no other ally or brother in their struggle for liberty except the Russian peasants and workmen and their Red Army (ibid.).

The Karakhan Manifesto, as it became known, was a conscious attempt to capitalize on the May Fourth Movement (see Bruce A. Elleman: Diplomacy and Deception: The Secret History of Sino-Soviet Diplomatic Relations, 1917-1927, 1997, p. 24). The Soviet strategy succeeded. The manifesto was greeted with enthusiasm in China, and all of a sudden, Communist Russia gained the support not only of left-wing, but also of moderate Chinese intellectuals.

Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the 1911 revolution and the founder of the Guomindang, had been following the Soviet revolution with keen interest. In 1918 he sent a message to Lenin, congratulating him on his success and encouraging him to continue his struggle. While in Shanghai, Sun began to cultivate contacts with the Russians (Shao Chuan Leng / Norman D. Palmer: Sun Yat-Sen and Communism, 1960, p. 48).


Sun believed that the Russian Communists and the Guomindang had much in common. First, both were revolutionary parties that had overthrown a reactionary monarchical regime. Second, Russia and China were both backward, “feudal” countries that needed economic development. Third, they opposed the imperialist policies of Western countries and wanted to establish an alternative world order. “Because of the Russian revolution,” Sun Yat-sen remarked, “the world has found a great hope” (ibid.).

However, there were also major differences between the two parties. Sun Yat-sen had been successful in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, but he had failed to establish a revolutionary government. In China, the reactionary forces of tradition had triumphed, and the country was dominated by militarists. Sun admired the prowess and organization of the Soviets, who had managed not just to oust a regime, but had also set up a central government, defeated reactionary forces and prevailed over foreign aggression.

But there were also major ideological differences. Sun rejected the most radical doctrines of Marxism, especially class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet Sun seemed to downplay such difference, or at least not to view them as a hindrance to a strategic alliance (ibid., p. 49).

In 1921 Sun met Maring, the representative of the Communist International, in Guilin (ibid., p.50). On August 28, 1921, he sent a letter to Georgij Chicherin:

I am extraordinarily interested in your work and in particular in the organization of your Soviets, your army, and education. I would like to know all that you and others can tell me of these matters, particularly about education. Like Moscow, I would like to lay the foundation of the Chinese revolution deeply in the minds of the younger generation — the workers of tomorrow (ibid., p. 51).

Sun’s collaboration with the Soviets led to the First Guomindang-Communist United Front.

Read: The Guomindang, The Communist Party And Leninism

China-Taiwan Tensions and the Guomindang’s Existential Crisis

However, the Soviet example would soon deprive the Guomindang of its monopoly on Chinese revolutionary thought in China. Young Chinese became interested in Marxism and in the works of Lenin and Trotzkij. The May Fourth Movement resulted in the radicalization of the intelligentsia, intensified by a shift towards the left. Chen Duxiu was drawn by the message of Soviet Russia. In the early 1920s he began to study Marxism and, alongside his friend Li Dazhao, he established the first cells of the Chinese Communist Party (Schell / Delury 2013, p. 167).

“China’s governmental revolution in the next couple of years absolutely cannot effect a Western-style democracy,” declared Chen Duxiu at the First Congress of the CCP in Shanghai, held in July 1921, adding that the only way to achieve national greatness was to “undergo Russian Communist class dictatorship” (ibid.).

The May Fourth Movement paved the way for the demise of the old warlord regime, the unification of China under the Guomindang’s one party rule, and the rise of the Communists, who would, with unparallelled determination, pursue the goal of destroying the old society to build a “new” China.


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