Plan of Versailles, the site at which the treaty ending World War I was signed in 1919. COURTESY OF THE BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, YALE UNIVERSITY.

The Treaty of Versailles marking the end of World War I did little to resolve issues of China’s national sovereignty. Japan, which fought on the side of the Allies, occupied German holdings in Asia during the war, including China’s Shandong Peninsula. The treaty condoned Japan’s actions, sparking Chinese nationalist protests.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919, marked the end of World War I for Europeans but did little to resolve fundamental disputes related to China’s national sovereignty. Talks between world leaders began in January 1919. The most important participants were the United States, Japan, Great Britain, France, and Italy. Russia had undergone Communist revolution in 1917 and did not participate. China was represented by delegates from Duan Qirui’s Beijing government, a warlord regime that actually controlled little of China. Asia was not the focus of talks, and China’s concerns were not paramount.

Tokyo had been determined to use World War I to increase its influence in East Asia. Shortly after fighting broke out in Europe, Japan joined the Allies and occupied German holdings in Asia, including China’s Shandong Peninsula. In early 1915 Japan presented the Twenty-One Demands to China. The demands were to give the Japanese privileges and power greater than what they had obtained through the unequal treaties, a series of agreements forced upon China by the imperialist powers since the 1840s. Yuan Shikai, leader of China until early 1916, attempted to weaken the demands and hoped to find a way to restore Chinese control in Shandong.

China entered World War I on the side of the Allies in 1917. Duan Qirui’s government sought to obtain foreign loans, international legitimacy, and a voice at the postwar peace settlement. To many Chinese, joining the Allies was a way to remove Japanese influence in Shandong Province. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, first articulated in January 1918, offered hope to Chinese Nationalists because the president called for open diplomacy, self-determination, and the creation of an organization “for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike” (Wilson, 1918).

Japan’s effective great power diplomacy and support for the Allied cause ensured that the Europeans acquiesced to Tokyo’s demands. The Lansing-Ishii Agreement of 1917 had given the Japanese confidence that the United States would not interfere with Japan’s “special interests in China,” while the United States assumed that Japan accepted the Open Door principle and China’s territorial integrity. Weak protests from the U.S. delegation at Versailles, France, had little effect, and Wilson placed priority on enticing the European powers and Japan to support the League of Nations. Article 156 of the Treaty of Versailles ratified Japanese control of Germany’s concessions in the Shandong Peninsula. Japan also obtained control over German possessions in the southwest Pacific as one of the treaty’s “mandates.” In short, the treaty ratified Japan’s wartime imperialism.

In China and among overseas Chinese communities around the world, the Treaty of Versailles sparked outrage at the Japanese, China’s warlords, and imperialism in general. The protests and strikes that resulted were known as the “May Fourth Movement.” Although no longer in power, Duan was accused of being a puppet of the Japanese, as were the Chinese representatives at the peace conference. The Beijing government repudiated the Treaty of Versailles but was unable to modify Article 156 or other parts of the treaty. Many students and intellectuals were bitterly disappointed at the United States and Wilsonianism. Some of those people moved to political action by the treaty would go on to establish the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

Further Reading

Chow Tse-tsung. (1960). The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual revolution in modern China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cohen, W. (1990). America’s response to China: A history of Sino-American relations. (3rd edition). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wilson, W. (8 January 1918). Address to a Joint Session of Congress on the Conditions of Peace. Retrieved December 19, 2008, from The American Presidency Project:

Source: Phillips, Steven. (2009). Versailles Peace Conference. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2390–2391. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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