May Fourth Movement 1919

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Early 20th Century 1901-1918

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Political and social reform, Revolution and Rebellion, The First World War

Suggested inquiry questions: Why did China not sign the Versailles Peace Treaty? Why was the May Fourth Movement a turning point in the history of modern China?

Potential activities: Explore the documents. Create a mindmap, table, or other kind of visualisation of the different people/parties involved and what their arguments were. Why do you think there was no agreement?

Download: Lesson pack

Why did the Paris Peace Conference lead to a mass protest movement in China?

In 1897, Germany colonised a part of China called Qingdao (also spelt Tsingtao) in the Shandong region.

At the start of the First World War in 1914, Japan joined Britain in fighting against Germany as part of the Anglo-Japanese alliance. Japanese troops occupied the German territory in China during the Siege of Tsingtao.

After the end of the war, the Paris Peace Conference met to decide the terms of the Versailles Treaty. The conference began on 18 January 1919, and the peace treaty was signed on 28 June 1919. At the conference, Chinese delegates insisted on having the occupied region returned to China.

On 3 May 1919, a telegram from the Chinese delegates revealed that the ‘Great Powers’ (Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States) had decided that Japan would be allowed to keep the occupied territory in Shandong. A secret agreement between Britain, France, Italy, and Japan was also revealed to have been made in 1917, giving Japan the territory in exchange for military aid.

This agreement sparked a mass protest on 4 May 1919 in Beijing, mainly led by university students. The students passed resolutions, sent correspondence to the peace conference, and targeted Chinese politicians who were seen as having failed the people. The protests developed into a mass movement across China, including general strikes and boycotts. As result, the Chinese delegates refused to sign due to the public pressure.

The May Fourth Movement was a turning point for China and its relationship to the West. What do British government documents tell us about how Britain and the other Great Powers viewed Chinese demands?


Starter task

  • Brainstorm: What do you know about China during the First World War? What do you know about the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles?
  • The Treaty of Versailles was not signed by China – in this lesson, your task is to work out why. Do you have any ideas before you start?

Sources 1a & b

Photographs of student protestors during the May Fourth Movement 1919.

  • Is there an original caption or title for the photograph?
  • Where is the photograph taken? Can you see anything relating to the event, environment, architecture, time of day, or season?
  • What can you see in the photograph?
  • Why do you think the photographs have been taken?
  • Who is the audience for these photographs?
  • What evidence do these photographs provide about the May Fourth Movement?
  • Does the content of photographs suggest other lines of enquiry?
  • What further sources would help us understand these photographs?
  • Look these photographs again at the end of the lesson:
    • Has your understanding of the photographs changed? Do these photographs give us a perspective on the May Fourth Movement that the written documents do not?

Source 2

Telegram from Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord George Curzon, 8 May 1919.

  • According to this source:
    • What is the Chinese point of view?
    • What is the Japanese point of view?
    • What is the British point of view?
  • Why do you think that Lord Balfour is supporting Japan’s position?
  • What appears to be Lord Balfour’s attitude towards Chinese claims?

Source 3

Telegram from Sir John Newell Jordan to Lord George Curzon, 10 May 1919.

  • What are the causes of the May Fourth Movement according to this telegram?
  • What angered the Chinese protestors?
  • Why do you think China signed treaties in 1915 and 1918 which signed over territorial rights to Japan?
  • Can you describe the attitude and tone of this telegram towards these events?

Sources 4a-c

These sources are all voicing their support for the aims of the May Fourth Movement. Each comes from a different perspective.

  • Compare and contrast the three sources using this table.
Who is writing it? What is the main argument/s of the source? What kind of language does the source use?
Source 4a
Source 4b
Source 4c
  • What are the main differences and similarities between the sources? How does these reflect the authors of the sources?
  • Which source do you think would have been most effective in changing the minds of the ‘Great Powers’ at the Paris Peace Conference? Why do you think all the arguments failed?

Source 5

Telegram from the British Foreign Office to the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, 22 May 1919.

  • According to the British Foreign Office, what have been the consequences of the Paris Peace Conference in China?
  • Why do you think Britain and the United States are worried about these consequences?
  • What do you think will happen if the Chinese delegates decide not to sign the Versailles Peace Treaty?
    • Extension activity: Research what happened in China immediately after this period. Is this what you would have expected?

Source 6

Telegram from Lord George Curzon to Lord Arthur James Balfour, 10 July 1919.

  • How long after the first breakout of the May Fourth movement was this source written?
  • What happened to the protest movement in June?
  • What form is the protest movement taking according to this source?
  • The Chinese delegates did not sign the Versailles Peace Treaty. Can you explain why? What could have been the consequences if they had signed the Treaty?


In China, the First World War brought about an intense transformation that led to national self-determination. It also gave rise to the forces that would ultimately lead to the Cultural Revolution 47 years later.

The First World War marked a turning point in the national history of many Asian countries. It gave rise to various political expectations in those countries: hopes for a new world, hopes for the ending of colonial exploitation and, most of all, hopes for being able to take part in the international democratic process.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, China faced serious internal challenges and foreign pressure. With the Qing dynasty’s humiliating defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), regional dominance had moved from China to Japan. Japan’s ambitions in China expanded due to its decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), which guaranteed Japanese presence in south Manchuria and Korea. The 1911 Revolution had brought an end to the Qing dynasty and started the Republican era in China. However, China remained susceptible to pressure from Western powers.

In August 1914, Japan declared war against Germany as an ally to Britain based on the Anglo-Japanese alliance formed in 1902. Under that alliance, Japan invaded Kiaochow, the German leasehold in the Shandong province of China.

In 1915, Japan presented a set of twenty-one demands to the Chinese government to gain greater control over China and its territories. These demands included territorial concessions, control over railways, and extraterritorial rights for Japanese nationals in China. The central government in Beijing was powerless and financially bankrupt, so regional fragmentation had increased. They were unable to resist Japanese pressure and agreed to most of the demands. This caused widespread anger and resentment among Chinese intellectuals and the broader population.

The Chinese government sought to fix this situation and regain control over Shandong Province. In 1917, they offered to send Chinese labourers to assist the Allies in the Western Front. They hoped that the Allied powers would then put pressure on Japan to return Shandong to China after the war.

After the Armistice, the Paris Peace Conference began in January 1919. The Chinese government sent a delegation to Paris to regain Shandong. They also wanted to discuss the abolition of extraterritorial rights [foreign citizens not being subject to Chinese law], the revision of customs and tariffs, and the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China.

However, these demands were not met. Judging China’s contribution to the war as minimal, the Allies confirmed Japan’s colonial rights and privileges gained in China. This news was revealed in a telegram from the Chinese delegates at the conferences on 3 May 1919. The reveal triggered mass protests in Beijing the next day, followed by demonstrations in cities all over China. This is known today as the May Fourth Movement of 1919.

During the May Fourth Movement, protesters rallied around the principles of science, democracy, and nationalism and called for a complete overhaul of Chinese society. The movement emphasised the need for modernisation and Westernisation to create a strong, independent China. Many intellectuals and students who participated in the movement went on to become leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and played a significant role in the Chinese Communist Revolution.

The May Fourth Movement is considered a significant turning point in modern China’s political and intellectual history. It dramatically changed the country’s political trajectory. At this moment, China went from a feudal, introspective society subject to semi-colonial rule by imperial powers, to a more open, forward-looking civilisation ready for social revolution and political independence. The movement emphasised a growing sense of China’s national unity and the awakening of Chinese nationalism.

Teachers' notes

This is the first in a planned series of three lessons on 20th century Chinese history.

This lesson can be used to support the study of Mao’s China (1945-76) as well as the overall development of China in the 19th and 20th centuries. It can also support the study of international relations in the period after the First World War, especially the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles.

For GCSE students, teachers may wish to reduce the number of sources in the lesson in quantity or length or assign small groups to work on different sources for students to feedback to the class.

Discussion questions:

  • What were the long-term consequences – from 1919 to today – of the May Fourth Movement?
  • What do you think would have happened if the Paris Peace Conference had agreed to return Shandong to China?
  • How do you think the May Fourth Movement is viewed (a) in the West (b) within China? Why is it important to explore different perspectives and interpretations in history?


All sources except for 1a & b come from the same document file in The National Archives: FO [Foreign Office] 608/210/3. This is a collection of papers related to China’s claim for the return of the territory in Shandong. It is part of the broader series FO 608, containing correspondence and papers from the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference.

Sources 1a & b are both photographs of student protests during the height of the May Fourth Movement. They provide a different perspective than that of the British government sources from the rest of the lesson.

Source 2 is a telegram from Lord Arthur James Balfour, who was Foreign Secretary in Britain at the time. He is writing to Lord George Curzon, who served in the small War Cabinet and War Policy Committee during the war. This source can be used to explore Britain’s perspective on the situation, as Balfour outlines both China and Japan’s positions as well as his own opinion.

Source 3 is a telegram from Sir John Newell Jordan, a diplomat who headed the British legation in Beijing. He is writing to Lord George Curzon. This source gives a good outline of what was happening on the ground and what the atmosphere was like. As it is from a British perspective, it can also tell us about what British officials might have found worrisome about the movement.

Sources 4a-c are all responses opposing the decision to allow Japan’s occupation. Three perspectives are represented: that of Chinese university students who have studied abroad, that of members of the general public, and that of British and American residents in Beijing. The university students take advantage of their knowledge of Western interests in arguing for a post-war spirit of international cooperation. The Chihli Citizens’ Convention is aimed directly at the Chinese delegation, drawing on the power of anger and indignation in the wider public. Finally, the Anglo-American Association is concerned with the impact on Western financial interests in China, wanting to avoid any social instability or upheavals. For these sources teachers could chose to break students into three groups, each group reading either Source 4a, 4b, or 4c using the questions provided. Then come together to create a Venn diagram with three circles looking at the similarities/differences between the sources’ arguments and language.

Sources 5 and 6 are both telegrams to and from British officials. They express British concerns about the potential consequences of the May Fourth Movement, especially as it relates to the Chinese delegation’s pivotal decision to sign or refuse to sign the Versailles Peace Treaty. Students can be encouraged to think about the consequences of either outcome – what would have happened if the Chinese delegates did sign the treaty, despite public opinion? What were the actual consequences, both long-term and short-term, of refusing to sign?

External links

Before and After the May Fourth Movement
Information from ‘Asia for Educators’ at Columbia University.

May Fourth Movement posters
A showcase of posters from later in the decade showing the legacy of the May Fourth Movement in China.

The Political and Cultural Impacts of the May Fourth Movement
Article from the Gale Review.

The First Sino-Japanese War and the ‘Kowshing’ Incident
Blog post from The National Archives about the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95.

Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front 
Blog from The National Archives exploring the British recruitment of Chinese labourers for the First World War. 

Milestones to Peace: The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles
Blog post from The National Archives about the Paris Peace Conference.

The National Archives blog posts about China
Blog posts from The National Archives exploring different facets of Chinese history.

May Fourth at 100 in Singapore and Hong Kong. Memorialization, localization, and negotiation
Reflections on the legacy of the May Fourth Movement from The International Institute for Asian Studies.

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 4

Edexcel GCSE History:

  • Mao’s China, 1945–76

OCR GCSE History:

  • International Relations: the changing international order 1918–1975
  • China 1950–1981: The People and the State

Key stage 5

AQA A-level History:

  • International Relations and Global Conflict, c1890–1941
  • The Transformation of China, 1936–1997

Edexcel A-level History:

  • The making of modern China, 1860–1997
  • Mao’s China, 1949–76

OCR A-level History:

  • China and its Rulers 1839–1989
  • International Relations 1890–1941
  • Japan 1853–1937
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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Early 20th Century 1901-1918

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Political and social reform, Revolution and Rebellion, The First World War

Suggested inquiry questions: Why did China not sign the Versailles Peace Treaty? Why was the May Fourth Movement a turning point in the history of modern China?

Potential activities: Explore the documents. Create a mindmap, table, or other kind of visualisation of the different people/parties involved and what their arguments were. Why do you think there was no agreement?

Download: Lesson pack

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