How WWI and the Spoils of War Led to the May 4th Movement in China

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

After Yuan Shikai’s death in 1916, China began to slip into chaos and confusion. With no effective central government in place, the bulk of the republican movement exiled abroad, and with a dozen or more newly independent provinces ruled by warlords each going their own way, the May 4th movement was on the horizon.

The Great Wall of China at sunset.
Li Yuanhong, a veteran member of Yuan’s military clique, attempted to restore some semblance of political order. (Image: zhu difeng/Shutterstock)

The Efforts for a United Nation

At this critical juncture, Yuan Shikai’s vice-president, a general named Li Yuanhong, attempted to restore some semblance of political order by reviving the 1912 provisional republican constitution.

His first move was to have himself installed as president; then he would reconvene the elected parliament that Yuan Shikai had unilaterally dissolved four years earlier. But incessant quarreling among provincial governors and military commanders forced Li Yuanhong to abandon his plan.

Without effective central political leadership able to issue enforceable commands, centrifugal forces spun out of control. The various provinces went their own way, each declaring its own sovereign authority.

Although Li Yuanhong and others tried valiantly to maintain the façade of republican governance, the lack of effective central authority fatally undermined their efforts. By default, political power now gravitated into the hands of provincial military commanders, the so-called Dujun. China’s warlord era had begun.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The War between the Dujun

Bronze statue of a lion in front of an ancient building.
Political power gravitated into the hands of provincial military commanders, the so-called Dujun, and China’s warlord era had begun. (Image: GuoZhongHua/Shutterstock)

Although a nominal central government continued to exist in Beijing under Li Yuanhong, it was powerless to enforce its mandates. Rival cliques of politicians and militarists fought among themselves for the right to make diplomatic and budgetary decisions in the name of the enfeebled republic. 

A number of warlords got rich by exploiting their own people. Once they had amassed sufficient wealth, many voluntarily relinquished their warlord positions, retiring to the safety of foreign concessions in treaty-port cities.

The decade during which the warlords fought for control of China, from 1916–1926, was one of the bloodiest and most destructive in modern Chinese history. Not only were an estimated two million Chinese killed in the senseless internecine wars of this period, but vast numbers of peasants, seeking to escape the continual fighting, were uprooted from their lands, becoming a semi-permanent army of impoverished refugees.

Learn more about the republican experiment, 1927–1937.

Greedy Foreign Powers

Japanese delegates to the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919.
At the Versailles Peace Conference (April 1919), Chinese representatives discovered that all territories/assets they had seized from the Germans had been promised to Japan. (Image: Bain News Service/Public domain)

Meanwhile, as World War I raged on in Europe, the allied powers, France, Britain, the United States, and now Japan, were eager to enlist China, at least nominally, in the struggle against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. A key reason for wanting China to enter the war was to facilitate the repatriation of German concessions and property holdings in China.

Responding to allied blandishments, China declared war on Germany in August 1917. Almost immediately thereafter, Chinese warlords seized all German- and Austrian-controlled properties/assets. 

At the Versailles Peace Conference (April 1919), Chinese representatives were startled to discover all territories/assets they had so recently seized from the Germans had been secretly promised to Japan as compensation for Japan’s entry into the war.

Learn more about the great leap forward, 1958–1960.

Backlash from the Chinese Public

Within China, reaction to the hypocritical actions of the victorious allied powers was swift and intense. On May 4, 1919, more than 3,000 students in Beijing gathered at Tiananmen, the famous Gate of Heavenly Peace.

The students angrily denounced the perfidious Westerners, as well as the scheming Japanese. They also vented their rage at the impotence of the Chinese negotiators in Versailles. Shouting radical anti-foreign slogans, the demonstrators marched to the residence of China’s pro-Japanese vice-minister of foreign affairs, where they proceeded to burn his house to the ground.

The next day, students throughout Beijing declared a strike. Resonant outcries of angry protest occurred in other Chinese cities as well; and in June, factory workers in Shanghai went on strike against all foreign-owned firms. 

To quell the mounting disorder, the military clique that ruled in Beijing promised to release all imprisoned students and to fire the pro-Japanese vice-foreign minister. In a final act of defiance, China’s representatives at the Versailles Conference were instructed not to sign the final peace agreement.

Learn more about socialist transformation, 1953–1957.

Legacy of the May 4th Movement

The May 4th movement, as this month-long series of protest demonstrations and strikes was called, was a watershed in modern Chinese history, for it marked the birth of modern Chinese nationalism.

In the immediate aftermath of the May 4th movement, China’s deeply alienated intellectuals began to search for meaningful new solutions to the nagging problems of foreign predation, warlordism, political instability, economic backwardness, and the general bankruptcy of Confucian civilization.

Under the shadow of May 4th, young Chinese students and scholars began to study a variety of foreign philosophies. Also active in the May 4th period were a small number of Marxist study groups inspired by the November 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. These study groups began reading the translated works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

It was while participating in one of these early Marxist study groups that a young middle-school graduate from Hunan Province received his introduction to the theory of dialectical materialism. Though he was a crude country bumpkin who spoke in a crude southern dialect and dressed rather shabbily, Mao Zedong was destined to make an indelible mark on modern Chinese history.

Common Questions about How WWI and the Spoils of War Led to the May 4th Movement in China

Q: What were Li Yuanhong’s first attempts at restoring political order after Yuan Shikai died?

Li Yuanhong attempted to restore political order by reviving the 1912 provisional republican constitution. He made himself president, and after that, he would reconvene the elected parliament that Yuan Shikai had dissolved four years earlier. But incessant quarreling among provincial governors and military commanders forced Li Yuanhong to abandon his plan.

Q: How did some of the warlords get wealthy?

A number of warlords in China got rich by exploiting their own people. Once they had amassed sufficient wealth, many voluntarily relinquished their warlord positions, retiring to the safety of foreign concessions in treaty-port cities.

Q: What took place after the May 4th movement?

The May 4th movement marked the birth of modern Chinese nationalism. In the immediate aftermath, the intellectuals of China started searching for solutions to the country’s economic, political, and social problems, and study groups began reading the translated works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

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