New Culture Movement

New Culture Movement

The New Culture Movement (simplified Chinese: 新文化运动; traditional Chinese: 新文化運動; pinyin: Xīn Wénhuà Yùndòng) of the mid 1910s and 1920s sprang from the disillusionment with traditional Chinese culture following the failure of the Chinese Republic, founded in 1912 to address China’s problems. Scholars like Chen Duxiu, Cai Yuanpei, Li Dazhao, Lu Xun, Zhou Zuoren, and Hu Shi, had classical educations but began to lead a revolt against Confucian culture. They called for the creation of a new Chinese culture based on global and western standards, especially democracy and science. Younger followers took up their call for:

  • Vernacular literature
  • An end to the patriarchal family in favor of individual freedom and women's liberation
  • An acceptance of China’s place as a nation among nations, rather than the assertion of superiority of Confucian culture
  • The re-examination of Confucian texts and ancient classics using modern textual and critical methods, known as the Doubting Antiquity School
  • Democratic and egalitarian values
  • An orientation to the future rather than the past

On May 4, 1919, students in Beijing protested the Paris Peace Conference giving German rights over Shandong to Imperial Japan, turning this cultural movement into a political one in what became known as the May Fourth Movement.[1]



Two major centers of literary and intellectual activity were Beijing – home to Peking University and Tsinghua University – and Shanghai, with its flourishing publishing sector. [2] The founders of the New Culture Movement clustered in Peking University, where they were recruited by Cai Yuanpei when he became chancellor. Chen Duxiu as dean and Li Dazhao as librarian in turn recruited leading figures such as the philosopher Hu Shi, the scholar of Buddhism Liang Shuming, the historian Gu Jiegang, and many more. Chen founded the journal New Youth in 1915, which became the most prominent of hundreds of new publications for the new middle class public.[3]

Yuan Shikai, who inherited part of the Qing dynasty military after it collapsed in 1911, attempted to establish order and unity, but failed to protect China against Japan and in his attempt to have himself declared emperor. When he died in 1916, the collapse of the traditional order seemed complete and there was an intensified search for a replacement which would go deeper than the changes of the previous generations which brought new institutions and new political forms. Daring leaders called for a new culture. [4]

A substantial literary establishment – publishing houses, journals, literary societies, and universities – provided a foundation for an active literary and intellectual scene over the course of the decades of the following decades. The New Youth journal, which was a leading forum for debating the causes of China's weakness, laid the blame on Confucian culture. Chen Duxiu called for "Mr. Confucius" to be replaced by "Mr. Science" and "Mr. Democracy." Another outcome was the promotion of written vernacular Chinese (白话). Hu Shi proclaimed that "a dead language cannot produce a living literature." In theory, the new format allowed people with little education to read texts, articles and books. He charged that literary, or Classical Chinese, which had been the written language prior to the movement, was only understood by scholars and officials (ironically, the new vernacular included many foreign words and Japanese neologisms, which made it difficult for many to read).[5] Literary societies such as the Crescent Moon Society flourished.

The literary output of this time was huge, with many writers who later became famous (such as Mao Dun, Lao She, Lu Xun and Bing Xin) publishing their first works. For example, Lu Xun's essays and short fiction created a sensation with their condemnation of Confucian culture. Diary of a Madman directly implied that China's traditional culture was cannibalistic, and The True Story of Ah Q showed the typical Chinese as weak and self-deceiving. [6]

New Culture leaders and their followers now saw China as a nation among nations, not as culturally unique. [7] A large number of Western doctrines became fashionable, particularly those that reinforced the cultural criticism and nation-building impulses of the movement. Social Darwinism, which had been influential since the late nineteenth century, was especially shaping for Lu Xun, among many others. [8] and was supplemented by almost every "ism" of the world. Anarchism, which had been influential earlier in the century, was displaced by socialism and Marxism only later. The pragmatism of John Dewey became popular, often through the work of Hu Shi and Tao Xingzhi. Dewey arrived in China in 1919, and spent the following year the lecturing. Bertrand Russell also lectured widely to warm crowds. Lu Xun was associated with the ideas of Nietzsche, which were also propagated by Li Shicen, Mao Dun, and many other intellectuals of the time.

Many New Culture leaders promoted feminism, even free love, as an attack on the traditional family, changing the terms in which the following generations conceived society. More specifically, the movement replaced sexuality over the traditional Chinese idea of kinship positionality. This substitution is a staple of the emerging individualistic theories that occurred during the era.[9] Among the feminist writers was Ding Ling.

Development and breakup of the movement

The May Fourth Demonstrations of 1919 initially united these leaders but soon there was a debate and falling out over the role of politics. Hu Shi, Cai Yuanpei, and other liberals urged the demonstrating students to return to the classroom, but Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, frustrated with the inadequacy of cultural change, used their roles as Peking University faculty to organize Marxist study groups and the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party. Li called for "fundamental solutions," but Hu criticized this as abstract, calling for "more study of questions, less study of isms." [10] Many of their younger followers followed Li and Chen into organized politics, including Mao Zedong.

Others of the May Fourth students heeded Hu Shi's call to return to their studies, taking them in new directions which shaped scholarship for the next generation. The historian Gu Jiegang, for instance, pioneered the application of the New History he studied at Columbia University to classical Chinese texts in the Doubting Antiquity Movement. [11] Gu also inspired his students in the study of Chinese folk traditions which had been ignored or dismissed by Confucian scholars. [12] Education was high on the New Culture agenda. Cai Yuanpei headed a New Education Society, and many university students joined the Mass Education Movement of James Yen and Tao Xingzhi which organized literacy classes.

In 1924, Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore held numerous lectures in China. Tagore argued the detrimental consequences China could encounter by integrating too much western civilization into Chinese society. In spite of Tagore's efforts, two western ideals were quickly garnering support throughout China. These two theories were democracy and science, both major components of the New Culture Movement. Democracy became a vital tool for those frustrated with the unstable condition of China, whereas science became a crucial instrument to discard the "darkness of ignorance and superstition."[13]

In short, the New Culture Movement advocated focus on a range of topics that included science, technology, individualism, and democracy.

Evaluations and changing views

Chinese Communist historians viewed the New Culture Movement as a revolutionary break with feudal thought and social practice and as the seedbed of revolutionary leaders who created the Communist Party of China and went on to found the People's Republic of China in 1949. Mao Zedong wrote that The May 4th Movement "marked a new stage in China's bourgeois-democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism," and argued that "a powerful camp made its appearance in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, a camp consisting of the working class, the student masses and the new national bourgeoisie." [14]

Historians in the west also saw the movement as marking such a break between tradition and modernity. Both Chinese and western historians now commonly argue that the changes promoted by New Culture leaders had roots going back several generations and thus were not a sharp break so much as an acceleration of earlier trends. [15] Research over the last fifty years also suggests that while radical Marxists were important, there were many other influential leaders, including anarchists, conservatives, Christians, and liberals. They do not challenge the earlier high evaluation of the thinkers and writers of the period. [16]

Other historians now further argue that the Mao Zedong’s communist revolution did not, as it claimed, fulfill the promise of New Culture but rather betrayed its spirit of independent expression and cosmopolitanism. [17] Yu Yingshi, a student of Qian Mu, recently defended Confucian thought against the New Culture condemnation. He reasoned that in fact late imperial China had not been stagnant, irrational and isolated, thereby justifying radical revolution, but rather that late Qing thinkers were already taking advantage of the creative potential of Confucius. [18]


  1. ^ Masayuki, Nishi. "March 1 and May 4, 1919 in Korea, China and Japan: Toward an international History of East Asian Independence Movements". The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Retrieved 2010-07-14. 
  2. ^ Joseph T. Chen, The May Fourth Movement in Shanghai; the Making of a Social Movement in Modern China (Leiden,: Brill, 1971)
  3. ^ Furth, Charlotte (1983). "Intellectual change: from the Reform movement to the May Fourth movement, 1895-1920". In John K. Fairbank. Republican China 1912-1949, Part 1. The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 322–405. ISBN 9780521235419. 
  4. ^ Schwartz, Benjamin (1983). "Themes in Intellectual History: May Fourth and After". In John K. Fairbank. Republican China 1912-1949, Part 1. The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 406–451. ISBN 9780521235419. 
  5. ^ Chow, May Fourth Movement¸pp. 277, 46, 59}
  6. ^ Leo Ou-fan Lee, Voices from the Iron House: A Study of Lu Xun (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp 53-77; 76-78.
  7. ^ Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), Ch 5 "China's Place Among Nations"
  8. ^ James Reeve Pusey, China and Charles Darwin (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies Distributed by Harvard University Press, 1983).
  9. ^ Lee, Haiyan. 75cde3d961c531b3262e2 "Tears that Crumbled the Great Wall: The Archaeology of Feeling in the May Fourth Movement Folklore Movement". Journal of Asian Studies. 75cde3d961c531b3262e2. Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  10. ^ Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937 (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 254.
  11. ^ Laurence A. Schneider, Ku Chieh-Kang and China's New History; Nationalism and the Quest for Alternative Traditions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).
  12. ^ Chang-tai Hung, Going to the People: Chinese Intellectuals and Folk Literature, 1918-1937 (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies Harvard University : Distributed by Harvard University Press, 1985).
  13. ^ Schoppa, R.Keith. Revolution and Its Past: Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. pp. 170. 
  14. ^ "The May Fourth Movement" (1939), Selected Works of Mao Zedong
  15. ^ Paul A. Cohen, Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), pp. 85-86.
  16. ^ Introduction, Kai-wing Chow, Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm : In Search of Chinese Modernity (Lanham: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefied, 2008) and Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution : China's Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). Many of the works listed below reflect this thinking.
  17. ^ Schwarcz, Vera. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  18. ^ "Neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment: a historian's reflections on the May Fourth movement," Ying-shi Yü, in Milena Dolezelová-Velingerová,Oldrich Král Graham Martin Sanders, eds., The Appropriation of Cultural Capital: China's May Fourth Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).


  • Guy Alitto, The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-Ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979). Biography of a conservative New Culture figure.
  • Kai-wing Chow, Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm: In Search of Chinese Modernity (Lanham: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefied, 2008). Essays on new aspects of the movement,including an Introduction which reviews recent re-thinking.
  • Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movement. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1960. Standard comprehensive survey and analysis.
  • Dirlik, Arif. Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Revisionist study showing the influence of anarchist programs.
  • Doleželová-Velingerová, Milena, Oldřich Král, and Graham Martin Sanders, eds. The Appropriation of Cultural Capital: China’s May Fourth Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001. Revisionist study.
  • Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance; Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937 (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1970). Careful study of central figure.
  • Hayford, Charles W., To the People: James Yen and Village China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Early chapters describe the role of popular education in the New Culture.
  • Leo Ou-fan Lee, Voices from the Iron House : A Study of Lu Xun (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987). Biography and literary analysis.
  • Yusheng Lin, The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness: Radical Antitraditionalism in the May Fourth Era (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979). Early critique of the New Culture Movement as "iconoclastic."
  • Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Describes the global influences on Chinese youth.
  • Maurice J. Meisner, Li Ta-Chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1967). Intellectual biography of key leader and co-founder of Chinese Communist Party.
  • Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). Traces the fate of New Culture ideals through the rest of the century.
  • Schwarcz, Vera. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Argues that May Fourth ideals were betrayed.
  • Schwartz, Benjamin. "Themes in Intellectual History: May Fourth and After." In Cambridge History of China, Vol. 12, pt. 1: Republican China, 1912–1949, 406–504. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Overview of intellectual and cultural history.
  • Spence, Jonathan D. The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980. Includes many New Culture leaders.
  • Zarrow, Peter. Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

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