The May Fourth Movement was a political and cultural
movement born out of the May Fourth Incident, which had profound impacts upon
Chinese politics and society. Both were heavily linked to each other, with
their impacts changing over time. The impacts were so vast that in this essay I
will assess the impacts the May Fourth Movement over two different time
periods, immediately and longer term. Immediately refers to the movement
roughly in its’ first year, and the long-term impacts explore how they grew as
time went on. However, I will assess the how the impacts may have been limited
by the wider context of China at the time, and how impactful the Movement was
in practice, not just in theory. The impact on politics and society were
heavily linked, with some historians disagreeing in how impactful the Movement
was and which areas of society and politics it impacted. One thing that is
unquestionable, however, is the huge effect it had on Chinese politics and
society.

The May Fourth Movement certainly had a profound immediate
impact upon Chinese society, namely being the politicization of society and the
change in status of women. Furthermore, it did so in a way different to some
historians believe. Some historians believe that the May Fourth Movement had an
immediate impact in the creation of societal ideas, creating a ‘Thought
Revolution’ and ‘Renaissance’, however these ideas were created in the wider
New Culture Movement, which began in 19151.
Ideas such as anti-Confucianism, science and nationalism were the topic of
scholarly articles by New Youth, Yan-Fu and Huang Yan-Yung before May 1919, the
May Fourth Movement simply helped in spreading and adding to these ideas. 23
This spread of ideas led to the politicization of the masses. This can be via
the number of strikers in 1919 compared to 1918. The number of strikers
increased by 1320% and there was nearly triple the amount of strikes, with
slogans such as “Democracy and science”.45
The impact of the politicization of the masses was that it led to mass pressure
and protests, which led to many of the immediate impacts of the movement as it
was mass pressure that caused change. This links to the impact the May Fourth
Movement immediately had on women, which was their empowerment. As discussed
previously, feminist ideas can be found before the May Fourth Movement, but the
use of the press in the May Fourth Movement made them readily available. This
can be seen in an interview conducted by Zhang Weng, where a rural woman
explains how she learnt what women’s rights were via magazines at the time,
examples of such magazines including Funu zazhi.6
The fact that the woman was from a rural background proves that women in all of
society were being empowered, and the fact she went on to become one of China’s
first female lawyers highlights another impact. The rise in social standing of
women enabled women to get jobs they previously wouldn’t have been able to.
However, there was no change in the legal status of women for some years after.
This shows the limitation of the impact- the government were hindering women by
failing to reform. To conclude, the spread of ideas led to the politicization
of the masses, which in turn led to popular pressure and the rise of women in
society, and the short term political impacts which I will discuss next.

The May Fourth Movement had a huge impact on the politics of
China internationally and internally. The nationalistic tone of the protests meant
protestors called for the dismissal of those who accepted Japan’s 21 Demands,
and called for a rejection of the Versailles Treaty. Three diplomats who were
seen as pro-Japanese were dismissed on the 10th June, and the Treaty
of Versailles was rejected on 28th June, against the government’s
wishes78.
Internationally, the impact of this was that the diplomats had shown strength
by rejecting the Treaty and forced the Allied Powers to rediscuss the problem
of Shandong and grant it back to China at the Washington Conference in the
1920s, where there was a ‘more cooperative outlook in international society’910.
This improved China’s standing internationally. Internally, this showed how
much power the Chinese people had via this mass movement, with some saying it
marked a change of leadership from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat11.
This idea spread to politics and was especially attractive to Mao Zedong and
Sun Yat Sen. Sun Yat Sen’s ‘Three Principles of the People’ became
extraordinarily popular, with both the GMD and CCP following this ideology12.
Another idea that became important in some areas of politics was feminism. The
increasingly influential press released in 1919 a story named Miss Zhao’s
suicide. Mao wrote a critique of this, explaining how it was society that had
killed Miss Zhao due to the pressures of men in society13.
This was Mao’s first writing regarding women, and it is of no coincidence that
it was only after the May Fourth Movement that he began to debate the ‘woman’s
question’. He and many other early communists, products of the May Fourth Movement,
awoke to the fact that Marxism and Feminism were compatible in many ways, and
females could be a base for support.14
One limitation however is that there was, at least immediately, no legislative political
change regarding women’s rights meaning Mao can be described in ahead of his
time with his views about women. One of the slogans used by demonstrators on
May Fourth was to ‘combat foreign powers externally, purge national traitors
internally’, and this is exactly one of the immediate impacts it had.15
It also immediately brought the problem of women to the forefront of political
thought for some political figures, but the impact of feminism in politics came
a lot later than the immediate impact of the protests.

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The long-term effects of the May Fourth Movement on Chinese
politics were huge, and still impact China even today. The main impacts the
Movement had were leading to the creation of political parties and the tactics
they used. The Movement provided China with the politicians of the future via
the youth that were part of the movement. This is shown by Yun Daiying and Chen
Duxiu, both founders of the Chinese Communist Party but were also hugely
influential in the May Fourth Movement, and in fact most of the founders were.16
This shows the connection between the foundation of the CCP and the May Fourth
Movement as it provided the CCP with the base of ideas and leaders for its
founding. The scale of this impact must not be underestimated. The CCP is
arguably the most successful party ever in Chinese politics, and was formed due
to the ideas and participants of the May Fourth Movement. Party tactics also
changed because of the May Fourth Movement, especially regarding the use of the
press in spreading ideas. Significant links between the media and politics were
created at this time, and both the GMD and CCP used this to their advantage
with the GMD creating the Central Propaganda bureau as a direct result of the
Movement.17
For the CCP, propaganda ‘was present from the birth of the party and was
crucial to the party’s formation and survival’.18
In China today, propaganda and the press is still a powerful tool used by the
CCP in order to influence public opinion in favour of its policies. This shows
another long-term impact that the May Fourth Movement had with regards to the
tactics of parties in China. Another political impact was that the CCP and GMD became
the spokespeople of different areas of society. As protests and mass movement
died down, as discussed previously, political parties began to be the forces of
public opinion. Proof of this can be seen with the CCP helping to organise
strikes for seaman to win a pay rise in Hong Kong in 1922 and in Shanghai and
Guangzhou where they influenced labour movements during the 1920s.19
In Wuhan, the GMD became very popular with the radicals in the area.20
This shows that that there were new forces in Chinese politics that were seen
to represent the people and enact change, replacing the protests. This, coupled
with the nationalist challenge of the ‘traitorous’ warlords, gave China a
reason and political force to replace the warlords: The United Front.21
To conclude, the May Fourth Movement had a huge impact in the founding of political
parties, the tactics they used and the support they gained.

There were long term social impacts of the May Fourth
Movement, however similarly to the short term social impacts, they were more in
theory than practice. The impacts on women changed due to location, meaning in
some areas the status of women had risen higher than in other parts of the
country. Women in Hunan had campaigned since the 1911 Revolution for the right
to vote, and it was only as a result of the May Fourth Movement and the Hunan
Women’s Alliance that was born out of it that they gained this right to vote.22
The 1925 Civil Code, however, could be seen as a step backwards in women’s
rights, as it lowered their proprietary and inheritance rights, argued to be
the most important problem for women. Another new 1929 Civil Code attempted to
fix this. However, the law only safeguarded the salary gained through urban
labour, meaning that rural female workers rights of ownership were not
guaranteed, showing a limitation of impact.23
Furthermore, the traditional structure of the countryside made it hard for any
laws for women to be enforced. In rural areas even today, the rights between
the sexes are still not equal. This shows that women’s rights did improve,
however only in certain areas such as Hunan, with laws not going far enough to
have the same impact on rural females. These rights were a result of the May
Fourth idea of equal rights for everyone. Comparatively, the May Fourth
Movement impacted the language and literacy of society. The May Fourth Movement
created something called the ‘Plain Language Campaign’ which was linked to the
‘New Education Movement’.24
They are linked in the fact that ultimately, they both wanted the education of
the masses via a new, simpler language.25
Within a few years, a large proportion of the population spoke Mandarin. The
impact of this was that it was easier to educate the masses using a single,
simpler language, however this is difficult to prove due to a lack of
information regarding literacy.26
The impact of the New Education Movement was the 1922 School Reform Decree,
which had a small impact.27
The format of schools the decree introduced still exists today, and has been
described as having ‘a great influence in the thought and training of an entire
generation of Chinese’. 28
However, the impact was limited due to the May Thirtieth incident, where there
was a move to conservatism. This, coupled with the lack of a strong government,
hindered the Movement ending with the disbanding of the National Federation for
Education and the end of production of the New Education journal. This shows
that the Education Movement’s impact, due to external factors, was stopped
before it had as big an impact as it could have. To conclude, there were long
term social impacts of the May Fourth Movement, however external factors such
as the implementation of laws, a weak government and the May Thirtieth incident
stopped the feminist and education movements from realising their full
potential.

To conclude, the May Fourth had a huge impact on Chinese
politics and society, both in the long and short term. Politically, the May
Fourth Movement increased China’s strength internationally, purged the ‘traitors’
and introduced new political parties and schools of thought. Socially, the May
Fourth Movement led to increased female rights, the politicization of society,
and a new education and language movement. The effect on politics was larger
than the effect on society, as initially the impact on society can be said to
be more theoretical than practical, and the longer-term impact was limited by
what was happening in China in the wider context, varying dramatically in rural
regions. The formation of the CCP, their tactics and political ideas were born
out of the May Fourth Movement which has had the most lasting impact on China. The
initial impacts on society and politics were heavily linked, with the changes
in society laying the foundations of political changes. The May Fourth Movement
had an impact on nearly all areas of Chinese politics and society.

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