New Culture Movement  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The New Culture Movement 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, 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.



The founders of the New Culture Movement clustered at Beijing 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.<ref>Template:Cite book</ref>

Yuan Shikai, who inherited part of the Qing dynasty military power 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 the search for a replacement intensified.<ref> Template:Cite book</ref>

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 around this time. For example, Lu Xun's short fiction Diary of a Madman and The True Story of Ah Q created such a sensation when they first came out that their appeal has lasted to the present.

A substantial literary establishment—publishing houses, journals, literary societies, and of course universities—provided a foundation for an active literary and intellectual scene over the course of the decades of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. The New Youth journal was a leading forum for debating why China was weak, and the finger pointed at Confucian culture. One major starting point was the introduction of Vernacular Chinese (Template:Lang). 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).<ref>Chow, May Fourth Movement¸pp. 277, 46, 59}</ref> Literary societies such as the Crescent Moon Society flourished. Two major centers of literary and intellectual activity were Beijing -- home to Peking University and Tsinghua University -- and Shanghai, with its flourishing publishing sector.

A large number of Western doctrines became fashionable, particularly those which reinforced the cultural criticism and nation-building impulses of the movement. Anarchism, which had been influential earlier in the century, was largely displaced by socialism. The pragmatism of William James and John Dewey became popular, the latter through the work of Hu Shi, who later championed Chinese liberalism more broadly. 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.

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."<ref>Template:Cite book</ref>

Many New Culture leaders promoted feminism as an attack on traditional values. 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.<ref>{{

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}}</ref> Thus, the New Culture Movement advocated focus on a range of topics that included science, technology, individualism, and democracy.

Changing Views

The New Culture Movement was long seen as a revolutionary break with tradition 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. Both Chinese and western historians now commonly argue that while radical Marxists were important, there were many other influential leaders, including anarchists, conservatives, Christians, and liberals. They also recognize that New Culture leaders exaggerated the radical nature of their intellectual break with the past and that basic shifts had already taken place in earlier generations. Many historians now also 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.




  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 cdentury.
  • 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.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "New Culture Movement" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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