Research Essay: The May Fourth Incident in the North China Herald

Wing Kin Puk

The year 2019 marked the hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth Incident in Beijing. On 4 May 1919, outraged by news about the Paris Peace Conference denying restoration of Chinese sovereignty over Qingdao, then a German colony occupied by Japan, college students in Beijing took to the street. They protested against government officials whom they regarded as traitors responsible for this national disgrace. This incident led to an intellectual campaign known as the May Fourth Movement, advocating for radical cultural reform.

This year — 2021 — is also a hundredth anniversary, that of the Press Congress of the World in Hawaii, 1921. In China, the May Fourth Incident is well known; not so the Press Congress, much less the fact that for two decades, until the outbreak of Sino-Japanese War in 1937, China wholeheartedly embraced the Missouri model of journalism education in its universities. I feel fortunate that I am able to contribute research exploring the interaction between news and history amid these two anniversaries. After all, according to Alan Barth, “News is only the first rough draft of history.”

My article is about the coverage of the May Fourth Incident by the North China Herald, an English-language weekly based in the Shanghai International Settlement. The NCH was founded in 1850 by Henry Shearman, a new migrant from Prince Edward Island. By 1919, the NCH group, including its newspaper the North China Daily News, was the most influential English media in China’s Treaty Port press. As a press, the NCH was independent and privately owned, but it owed much of its success to its connection with the semi-colonial establishment of Shanghai. Among others, the legal framework of extraterritoriality buttressed the independence of the NCH. Also, by using a language that most Chinese did not understand, the NCH completed the construction of a “comfort zone” within which it was immune against the body politic of China and remained “impartial not neutral.”

An interesting ambiguity towards the Chinese students in particular and China in general could be identified in the NCH’s reports of the May Fourth Incident in the first two months (May – July 1919): sympathy and suspicion, dedication and dismissal, affiliation and animosity, all at the same time. The NCH was aware of the rise of Chinese nationalism. It realized that, being part of the semi-colonial presence of the Shanghai International Settlement, sooner or later it was to bear the brunt of Chinese nationalism. The NCH mitigated this anxiety by counting on US-UK alliance, supposedly more enlightening and civilized power, to rescue China from its own weakness and from Japanese imperialism.

For years, like many students of modern Chinese history, I have been mining the NCH for interesting materials of teaching and research. Between 2016 and 2020, Li Zigui wrote a PhD thesis about the early history of the NCH (1850-1900), and I was her co-supervisor. Inspired by this exciting experience, I ventured to write a paper myself using the reports of the NCH. Being new to the field of media studies, I am very grateful to the editors and reviewers of Journalism History. Their patience and advice rid me of a lot of errors.

Featured image: Liang Yulong, May Fourth Movement (poster), Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 1976. Part of the Landsberger Collection, courtesy of

About the author: Wing Kin Puk teaches in the Department of History at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, specializing in the social and cultural history of late imperial China. He is the author of “North China Herald’s View of the May Fourth Incident” in the September issue of Journalism History.

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