Published: 00:35, April 26, 2022 | Updated: 09:42, April 26, 2022
The May Fourth spirit and the building of inner strength
By Ho Lok-sang

To many people, the May Fourth Movement is part of the New Cultural Movement that had started in 1915, which promoted “Mr Science” and “Mr Democracy” at the expense of Chinese traditional practices and beliefs. Although this view is not inconsistent with the widely held belief that the May Fourth Movement is above all an expression of patriotism, it is too simplistic. The May Fourth spirit is also about building one’s inner strength, and it is the can-do spirit that makes national rejuvenation possible.

The background to the May Fourth Movement was a China that had weakened to the bone. China’s weakness then was in part due to the corrupt and inept Qing Dynasty administration that predated the inauguration of the Nationalist government in 1911, and in part due to the dysfunctional Nationalist government that failed to stand up against the colonial powers from all over the world. On May 4, 1919, thousands of students from 13 universities in Beijing rallied in front of Tian’anmen, outraged with the Treaty of Versailles, which was to transfer the German concessions in Shandong to Japan. The series of protests eventually led to China’s rejection of the treaty.

In ancient China, in the ancient book of I Ching, it is clearly spelled out: “Just as the heavens keep working tirelessly; so enlightened people should never tire of building strength.” Another important element in ancient Chinese culture is the idea of “Be ready to take advantage of whatever is available” (Xunzi) and “Complacency invites loss; humility brings benefits.” (Shujing). Still another advice from the ancient sages is “self-reliance is better than relying on others.” (The Analects) All this is about building inner strength.

An official statement from the State Council last year read: “The May Fourth spirit refers to patriotism, progress, democracy and science, with patriotism at the core. In the new era, Chinese youth are expected to carry on the May Fourth spirit and to strive for national rejuvenation.” Indeed, the May Fourth Movement is all about national rejuvenation, and that is an ancient ideal. The Great Learning in Liji teaches that the perfect life starts from relentless personal development, then bringing up a family, then serving the country and perfecting its governance, then bringing about a world that makes no distinction between different peoples.

In 1915, when the New Cultural Movement started, many intellectuals asked why the foreign powers were able to defeat China again and again. They thought traditional Chinese culture was the cause of China’s weakness and wanted to learn from the West. Many people cherished Western-style democracy and thought national rejuvenation could be achieved with democracy and science. But traditional Chinese culture has much to offer. Indeed, basic to personal development is humility, reflections and learning. It is exactly with this spirit that enabled China to discover its own model of democracy, and which has catapulted China’s economy and social life to new heights since 1978.

In the title of this article I used the term “inner strength”, but the original I Ching text is just “building strength”. In practice, however, true strength is always inner strength, which is always about overcoming one’s weaknesses. That is why although the Confucian Great Learning starts from personal development, the perfect life should lead to national rejuvenation and world peace and harmony.

Humility is a virtue from within. Without humility, personal development would not be possible. Without the personal development of our youngsters, the nation’s future development would not be possible. Last week marked the beginning of the Diploma of Secondary Education examination in Hong Kong. As I watched students going into the examination venue on the TV screen, I recalled the time when I did the same. These youngsters are the hope of Hong Kong. They must not just learn what is taught in their books, and must not just get good results from the examination. They must “stay hungry”: hungry for knowledge, hungry for personal development. There can be no end to learning. They must be ready to cast doubt on all dogmas, and humbly reflect on their experience and learn from it. They must “stay foolish” — meaning that they must forever be bold enough to experiment with new ideas that may appear foolish at the time. This is how China progressed all these years.

China has learned the hard way. It has made mistakes. But daring to make mistakes and learning from them made China wiser. China learned to use the market, to the extent that it is among the first in the world to adopt a cap-and-trade emission trading system, even ahead of the United States. While China adopted emission trading last year, “One of the most glaring absences from the list is the US, especially considering they are one of the world’s largest carbon emitters.” (

China had gone through serious environmental crises amid rapid growth. Today, China has tamed the pollution beast. China had gone through famines and shortages. Today, China has had many consecutive years of bumper harvests. Hunger and undernourishment are virtually nonexistent today. The May Fourth Spirit is also the Can-Do Spirit. As President Xi Jinping mentioned in his New Year address: China faces a bumpy road ahead, but no obstacle is too big for the Communist Party of China.

The author is director of Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.