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

Written by April Zhang on Monday, 01 May 2023. Posted in Front Page

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

May 4th 2023 is coming. 

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

The story started with the First World War. During the War, China made significant contributions to the Allied Powers, sending thousands of labourers to Britain and France to dig trenches, assemble shells and transport supplies and munitions.

In November 1918, the Allied Powers won. Germany and its allies lost.

Around that time, Germany occupied Shangdong area in China. Therefore, as being part of the victorious side, Chinese people believed that the Shangdong area would be returned to China. They were in for a shock.

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. The Chinese delegation was disappointed and did not sign the Treaty.

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, Latin grammar isn’t a good fit for Chinese and it has had negative effects on Chinese language learners). 

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. 

Therefore, two gaps were created. 

(1) Chinese character simplification movement left us two overlapping writing systems, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese. 

(2) Vernacular Chinese movement made most of people unable to read Classical Chinese texts.  

The first one is not too bad. Most people find that they can switch back and forth between the two systems easily.

But the second one is deep and profound. 

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, most of them do not have any idea of what classical texts look like. 

Although brilliant works have been written in the last 100 years or so 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 4000 years.

As a Chinese teacher, I felt that I must include some must read classical texts in the Mandarin Express series. And my latest effort was to make some short YouTube videos teaching bits and pieces of them, such as the one below.

I hope you’ll like it and feel that this adds a little bit more to your understanding of the Chinese language.

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.