Shanghai May Fourth Movement

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Shanghai May Fourth Movement

China 1919


A massive general strike paralyzed the city of Shanghai in June 1919. A reaction to the May Fourth Movement that had started a month earlier in Beijing, the labor strife in Shanghai marked the beginning of the modern Chinese labor movement. The May Fourth Movement, which began as a protest against the terms of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I, first attracted students in support of the Beijing events. As the students in Shanghai began to organize and protest, they reached out to other sectors of the city. In particular, they sought ties with Shanghai's merchants and workers. What started as a student strike soon developed into a massive general strike in the city. The May Fourth Movement and subsequent events marked the commencement of an unsettled period for residents of Shanghai and other Chinese cities. The country's urban inhabitants became increasingly aware of global events. The working class united, despite traditional divisions, to fight inflation, warlord rule, and national humiliation.


  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1915: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduce a terrifying new weapon: poison gas.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States on 6 April declares war on Germany.
  • 1919: Formation of the Third International (Comintern), whereby the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles signed by the Allies and Germany but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1919: Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibits the production, sale, distribution, purchase, and consumption of alcohol throughout the United States.
  • 1919: In India, Mahatma Gandhi launches his campaign of nonviolent resistance to British rule.
  • 1919: In Italy, a former socialist of the left named Benito Mussolini introduces the world to a new socialism of the right, embodied in an organization known as the "Union for Struggle," or Fasci di Combattimento. Composed primarily of young war veterans discontented with Italy's paltry share of the spoils from the recent world war (if not with their country's lackluster military performance in the conflict), the fascists are known for their black shirts and their penchant for violence.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.

Event and Its Context

The May Fourth Movement Begins

The May Fourth Movement of 1919 began in Beijing as a protest against the governments of both China and Japan. Students in that city took to the streets to voice their disapproval of the terms of the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I. In particular, the Chinese students were upset because the treaty would hand over China's Shandong province to Japan. Before the war, Germany had concessions in Shandong that it had acquired in the nineteenth century. During the war, Japan had joined the Allies and then seized the German holdings. To make matters worse, the Japanese government issued the Twenty-One Demands to China in 1915. Although the Chinese warlord government rejected some of the demands, it allowed Japan to keep Shandong. In 1917 the European powers agreed to Japan's claim in exchange for taking naval action against the Germans. Furthermore, China declared war in Germany in hopes of reacquiring Shandong and even sent thousands of Chinese workers to Europe. Then in 1918 China made a secret agreement that allowed Japan to keep the conceded territory.

When the agreement became public knowledge, the protesters blamed the government for such national humiliation. Still upset about the loss to Japan in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-1895, many Chinese thought that losing Shandong to Japan was further proof of their country's malaise. Many were hopeful that in light of Woodrow Wilson's call for self-determination after the war, decades of foreign domination in China would come to an end. Students from 13 schools in Beijing met, made a number of resolutions protesting the agreement, and called for a demonstration. Some 3,000 demonstrators gathered in Tianamen Square. Later the protest became violent, as the students attacked a government official and set the home of another on fire. In response, the government arrested numerous students. The demonstrations in Beijing sparked a nationalist sentiment throughout China, and the protest movement quickly spread to other parts of the country.

The Movement Spreads to Shanghai

News of the events in Beijing reached Shanghai within a day of their occurrence. Many in China's largest city, particularly students, expressed their solidarity with the Beijing protesters and demanded the release of the arrested students and the dismissal of certain government officials. On 7 May thousands of Shanghai residents attended a citizen's meeting. The next day, students resolved to form a union with representatives from all of the major schools in the city. They formally founded the Student Union of the Middle Schools and Institutes of Higher Learning on 11 May, with more than 12,000 students from 61 schools. In addition, they organized the Shanghai Student Volunteer Corps for the Defense of Shandong.

On 19 May the student union leaders resolved that they should strike and also send representatives to other cities to persuade students to join the strike. They originally scheduled the strike for 22 May. They postponed the strike date, however, due to mediation by teachers and the Association of Education. When the Shanghai students learned that the government in Beijing was not going to meet the demands of students there, they went on strike on 26 May. More than 20,000 students from more than 70 schools participated in the strike.

More than in other Chinese cities, the students in Shanghai were concerned about relations with the merchants and the working class. On 27 May the students decided to dispatch representatives to meet with Shanghai's merchant societies and to establish a labor department. Soon, Shanghai became the center of the movement and students from other cities gathered there. On 31 May a memorial meeting attracted 100,000 people.

At a 1 June meeting, merchants promised support for the protest movement. On 2 June authorities began to make arrests in Shanghai. Starting on 5 June 1919, the city was paralyzed by protest activities. In the early morning, students took to the streets. Then, shopkeepers closed their doors to business, first in the Chinese section of the city and later in the French Concession and the International Settlement. By the afternoon, with the exception of some foreign firms, stores throughout Shanghai were all closed. Others soon joined in, including street vendors and even workers in the city's red-light district. The police attempted unsuccessfully to force merchants to reopen their shops. In general, the strike was peaceful, although there were some confrontations with the police and some 100 students were arrested on the first day.

The shopkeepers' action was followed by a massive strike of some 60,000 workers in the city. Because the working class in Shanghai was less organized than the merchants, the workers were slower to respond. The strike started among the workers in the Japanese-owned cotton mills. By the afternoon of 5 June, already some 20,000 workers in these Japanese mills were on strike. It is not surprising that these workers were the first to react, as they had first-hand experience with Japanese imperialism and exploitation. Soon the workers' strike spread to the shipyards, utilities, printing, tobacco, and transportation industries.

The shutdown of the country's largest city and industrial center forced the government to take action. Indeed, Lu Yunghsiang, the military governor of Shanghai, urged the Beijing government to do something about the demands of the protesters. The Chinese government issued a public apology, released arrested students, fired several government officials involved in the Paris peace talks, and refused to sign the Versailles Treaty. The strike in Shanghai ended on the afternoon of 12 June. When it was confirmed that the Beijing government had dismissed the officials, the Shanghai protesters celebrated with parades and fireworks.

Worker Organization and Participation

Worker organization and participation in the strike took a variety of forms. Among the artisans, both native-place associations and guilds played key roles. Native-place associations served the various migrant communities living in Shanghai. These associations acted as employment agencies for new arrivals and provided welfare when needed. Sometimes, these groups also sponsored cultural events or constructed a temple to a local deity. The associations might also build schools, provide savings and loan facilities, and provide for burials. In general, however, they served to give the Shanghai migrant population a sense of belonging.

In the events of 1919, the Ningbo native-place association played a particularly active role. This was in part due to its members' economic concerns, as members were worried about the competition of Japanese imports. Furthermore, the Ningbo migrants had a confrontation with the French a half century earlier, and the 1919 activities were in a way an outgrowth of their nationalist feelings.

Guilds and early unions also played a role in organizing workers in the 1919 protest movement. For example, the metal-workers' guild helped to organize skilled mechanics from the railroads, the waterworks, and various other industries. Also taking an active role were the printers from the Sincere Comrades Society at the Commercial Press. Painters and construction workers were among the other workers to organize and strike. Even the guild of the ginseng dealers donated the funds collected at its annual celebration for its patron deity.

Other groups, in addition to the skilled workers, took part in the June 1919 strike. Foremen at factories helped to organize unskilled laborers. In particular, the foremen in the foreign-owned cotton mills encouraged strikers and formed an organization to promote Chinese-made products. Gangsters from Shanghai's Green and Red gangs also contributed to the strike. Leading gangsters ordered thieves and pickpockets to join the work stoppage. They also ordered beggars not to beg during the strike, and even some prostitutes joined the strike by singing patriotic songs at night rather than soliciting customers.

Aftermath of the Strike

Once the strike was over, some workers were interested in maintaining the organization and cooperation that had been prevalent during the work stoppage. On 12 June 1919 some 2,000 workers met to plan future worker organization. As was the case in many parts of the world in the years following World War I, there was a wave of working-class organization and activity in Shanghai and other Chinese cities. In part, this activity reflected immediate economic concerns such as high inflation. In addition, Chinese workers had been exposed to European working-class ideologies and forms of protest and organization. For example, during the war, some 10,000 Chinese workers went to work in European factories to replace those who had gone off to war. While in Europe, some learned to read and write and became used to a higher standard of living. These workers were also exposed to labor organization and nationalism. When they returned to Chinese cities such as Shanghai, they were more conscious of workers' rights and the kinds of demands that could be made of management and the government. This situation led to increased unionization and a wave of strikes in Shanghai. In 1918 there had been only about 24 strikes in the city; by 1927 there were well over 200 work stoppages in China's largest city.

The May Fourth Movement and the events surrounding it had many consequences beyond the labor movement in Shanghai. Eventually, at the 1922 Washington Conference, Japan gave up its claim to Shandong province. The movement marked an important break with the past. It was an important influence on many Chinese intellectuals, many of whom became disillusioned with the West and moved toward more radical views and the Communist Party, which was formed in Shanghai in 1921, in part as an outgrowth of the events of 1919.

Key Players

Shao Li-tzu: Shao was a newspaper editor and a professor at Futan University in Shanghai. When he learned of the May Fourth events in Beijing, he attempted to organize students in Shanghai to support the Beijing students. A member of the Guomindang Party, Shao led to the start of the Shanghai protests and strikes.

Tuan His-peng: A member of the Guomindang Party, Tuan was a student from Beijing. He went to Shanghai as a representative of the Beijing student movement. In Shanghai he helped to organize students and convince other groups to join the strike. After the strike, Tuan was selected as the leader of the National Students' Union.

Yu Yung-hsiang: Yu was the military governor of Shanghai in 1919. Although he proclaimed martial law in the Chinese section of the city, he also called an emergency meeting on 7 June to bring together students, merchants, and other groups in hopes of avoiding a major conflict. Yu also urged the Beijing government to address the student demands once he saw the scope of the Shanghai strike.

See also: Chiang Kai-shek Purges Communists; Shanghai May Thirtieth Movement.



Chen, Joseph T. The May Fourth Movement in Shanghai:The Making of a Social Movement in Modern China.Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1971.

Chesneaux, Jean. The Chinese Labor Movement, 1919-1927.Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.

Harrison, James Pinckney. The Long March to Power: AHistory of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921-1972.New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

Perry, Elizabeth. Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Van de Ven, Hans. From Friend to Comrade: The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, 1920-1927. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.

—Ronald Young