May Fourth Movement and the rupture it created in Chinese teaching and learning

Written by April Zhang on Tuesday, 03 May 2022. Posted in Front Page

May Fourth Movement and the rupture it created in Chinese teaching and learning

May 4th 2022 is here. 

It’s time to commemorate the May Fourth Movement that happened on May 4th, 1919, and revisit the irrevocable changes happened to the Chinese language.

The story started with the First World War. During the War, China made significant contributions to the Allied Powers. In November 1918, the War ended. The Allied Powers won. Germany lost. Around that time, Germany occupied Shangdong area in China. Naturally, Chinese people thought that, as being part of the victorious side, the Shangdong area would be returned to China. However, things didn’t go that way.

With the support of the US, the UK and France, the Treaty of Versailles passed the German interests in Shandong to the Japanese. China remained a loser. 

When the news reached Beijing, people were outraged. On May 4th, 1919, many university students went to the streets to protest against the stipulation of the Versailles Treaty. Their protest is later to be known as the May Fourth Movement. Many political, cultural and social changes have been attributed to this movement, including Chinese teaching and learning. 

To understand the impact of the May Fourth Movement on teaching and learning Chinese, we need to know that, before 1920s, there were two versions of Chinese coexisting in China. One was vernacular Chinese (白话) which was used in daily conversations, and the other was classical Chinese (古文) which was used in writings. At schools, students studied classical texts. When they talked to one another they use vernacular Chinese. These two versions of Chinese are quite different. 

Back then, classical texts were almost entirely unpunctuated. It was common for school children to read aloud the texts while moving their heads left and right without understanding a thing. Very often, teachers simply asked students to memorise the whole book without giving any explanations. 

China was a weak country during the final years of Qing Dynasty all the way to the Republic era, and was attacked by everyone. The misery of the country prompted many ablest persons to make effort to change China for the better. Education was one of the areas to be changed.

Because Chinese characters were so hard to learn and classical Chinese texts were so difficult to understand, Chinese language itself was considered as one of the obstacles which were hindering social progress. Scholars began their effort to simplify Chinese characters, and vernacular Chinese was called for as the written form. But the progress was slow.

Finally, the sea change came with the May Fourth Movement. 

Around the late 1920s to 1930s, nearly all Chinese newspapers, books, and official documents were written in vernacular Chinese. A punctuation system, which was modelled after European languages, was widely accepted. A new grammar system, also modelled after European languages, was established as the theoretical framework of the vernacular Chinese (Unfortunately, I think Latin grammar isn’t a good fit for Chinese). Great thinkers and writers, such as Hu Shih (胡适), Lu Xun (鲁迅), and Chen Duxiu (陈独秀), became the representatives of a new cultural front. They basically defined Mandarin Chinese as we teach and learn today. And Qian Xuantong (钱玄同) made the first batch of simplified characters approved by the government. 

On the Chinese teaching and learning side, a gap was thus created. 

Chinese character simplification movement left us two overlapping writing systems, which are not too bad because most people can read the other version after they are proficient at one system first. 

The real gap is between vernacular Chinese texts and Classical Chinese texts. Most people are not able to read the latter. 

For native Chinese students, classical texts take up a small portion of a 12-year school Chinese curriculum. Students are no longer required to write in the classical format. 

For non-Chinese students, except a couple of poems from Tang Dynasty or an occasional quote here and there, many do not have any idea of what classical texts look like. 

Although brilliant works have been written in the last 100 years using vernacular Chinese, it is still a pity when we consider that there is such a rich collection of classical Chinese texts of more than 2000 years, which are nearly inaccessible to many people. 

At MSL Master, in order to help Chinese language learners understand a little bit of classical texts, a good chunk of famous writings throughout history were included in Mandarin Express Intermediate Level B. That makes it the best book in the whole series.

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About the Author

April Zhang

April Zhang

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and she enjoys teaching and interacting with students. She constantly explores new and interesting ways of teaching Chinese through creative and imaginative activities.

With her help, many students have achieved outstanding result, which has enriched their understanding about China and has significantly contributed to their work.



April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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(852) 9739 8065


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