Skip to main content

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

Written by April Zhang on Thursday, 02 May 2024. Posted in Front Page

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

May 4th 2024 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. More on that here: 

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.

Also, history has shown us that Chinese characters were not the roadblocks for social development, as perceived by people like Qian Xuantong. At that time, it was a series of deep rooted political and social issues that had set China back. Once China began to open up and develop both politically and socially after 1980s, the whole country changed. 

Luckily, thanks to the continuation of Chinese characters, with some help, most Chinese people today can still read texts written thousands of years ago and benefit from a vast reservoir of knowledge.

It is a different story for foreign students who want to learn Chinese. Many don’t know how to read and write. Even more don’t have the opportunity to learn any Classical Chinese. 

As a Chinese teacher, I felt that I had do something. My first effort was to include some must read classical texts in the Mandarin Express series. The latest effort was to make some short YouTube videos teaching bits and pieces of them, such as the one below. These videos do not simply translate Classical Chinese texts into English. Instead, they try to explain these texts in simplest terms possible in Chinese.

I hope you’ll like them and feel that these videos add 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.