Modern China

The 1911 Revolution


   Throughout the entire nineteenth century, China was wracked by revolutions beginning with the White Lotus Rebellion from 1796 to 1804. As the pace of rebellion picked up throughout the nineteenth century, the imperial gradually grew in power and influence. By the last half of the nineteenth century civilian officials were for the most part mainly occupied with military matters. By the 1890's, as the Ch'ing dynasty slowly tottered to its conclusion, the spirit of revolution spread throughout China. This spirit of revolution was a heterogenous mix: for some it was a nationalist fervor, determined to throw out the foreign Ch'ing dynasty as well as the foreign powers that had carved up China into "spheres of influence." There was also a rural/peasant spirit of revolution which aimed for the renewal of traditional Chinese values through the establishment of a new dynasty derived from the peasantry, in much the same way the Han and the Ming dynasties had been established. There was also a commercial/industrial component to the spirit of revolution, wealthy gentry that stood to lose investments based on government actions. Finally, the most prominent element of the revolutionary forces in China were the urban intellectuals who advocated modernity and Westernism. China, these revolutionaries believed, needed to abandon traditional ways of thinking, such as Confucianism, and traditional social structures and adopt instead Western style government, thinking, industry, technology, and social structures. These were the revolutionaries that drove the reforms in the latter years of the Ch'ing period, then overthrew the government, and then, after several years of fragmentation, united China under the Nationalist government.

The Reforms of the Early 1900's

   The humiliation of the Boxer Protocols imposed on China by European powers following the abortive Boxer Rebellion in 1900 drove the imperial government to undertake dramatic reform and Westernization. In 1901, the education system was reformed to allow the admission of girls and the curriculum was changed from the study of the Classics and Confucian studies to the study of Western mathematics, science, engineering, and geography. The civil service examination was changed to reflect this new curriculum, and in 1905 it was abandoned altogether. The Chinese began to send its youth to Europe and to Japan to study the new sciences, such as economics, and radical new Western modes of thinking started making their way into China, such as Marxism. The military was reorganized under Yuan Shih-k'ai (1859-1916), who adopted Western and Japanese models of military organization and discipline. Key to this new military was the establishment of the military as a career; a new professional officer corps was created built on a new principle: loyalty to one's commander rather than loyalty to the Emperor.

   The provincial assemblies that had originally been proposed by K'ang Yu-wei were established in 1909, the year in which the last emperor, Pu Yi, the Hsüan-tung emperor, ascended the throne. A national, democratically elected Consultative Assembly was established in 1910. Although the Assembly was meant to support the imperial court, in reality it was frequently odds with the interests of the imperial government. This is where things stood in 1911 when an uprising began in Szechwan province in the west. Angered at a government plan to nationalize the railways, the uprising soon grew into a national revolution that would end once and for all imperial rule in China.

Sun Yat-sen

   The 1911 Revolution began with an uprising the southwestern province of Szechwan. The uprising was motivated entirely by the imperial government's plan to nationalize the railway; as such, the main players were a diverse group of revolutionaries: wealthy investors who didn't want to lose their money, military commanders who wanted independence and, finally, Sun Yat-sen, a Westernized revolutionary who had first tried to overthrow the Ch'ing in an abortive coup attempt in 1895. The latter figure was the leader of the revolution; Chinese historians refer to him as "The Father of the Revolution." Having been educated in the West, Sun envisioned the revolution as a "three-in-one" revolution: a nationalist revolution with the goal of expelling the foreign, Manchu dynasty from China; a democratic revolution to set up a democratic Chinese republic; a social revolution to equalize land rights and wealth. In 1905, Sun unified the various revolutionary movements into a single movement, the Chinese United League (Chung-kuo T'ung-meng hui , known as the T'ung-meng hui ). At this point Sun began plotting the revolution, which he saw as happening in three stages: military government for three years, a six year period of "political tutelage" in which the Chinese were trained in democratic government, and, finally, a constitutional democracy.

Yüan Shih-kai

   The other major player in the 1911 Revolution was Yüan Shih-kai. A conservative bureaucrat and monarchist, the imperial government appointed him in 1911 to suppress the rebellion. His decisions as a military leader advanced the revolution in many ways. First, his response to the Szechwan rebellion was to overplay his hand; the deaths that resulted drove several other revolutionary attempts. Second, as the revolution continued, it became evident to Yüan that the monarchy was about to collapse, so he avoided any real, substantial confrontation with the revolutionary forces. The revolution, it would turn out, would sweep Yüan into power as a virtual dictator of China until his death in 1916.

The 1911 Revolution

   In all, there were ten attempts at revolution in the provinces, most of them in the southwest. The revolution really began with the uprising in Szechwan. Angered at the nationalization of the railway, students took to the streets on August 24, 1911, demanding a delay in the proposed nationalization. When the leaders of the movement were order arrested, conflict broke out between troops and the protestors and thirty two people were killed. From this point onwards, the military and the people of Szechwan fought directly with one another. The original movement, it must be stressed, was begun by conservatie and wealth gentry. They did not want to overthrow the imperial government; they only wanted their financial concerns met. When they found that the imperial government refused to negotiate with them, they turned their support to the revolutionaries.

   When the revolutionaries seized Wuchang, a series of provinces declared independence from the emperor in late October and the month of November: Changsha, Yunnan, Kwangtung, Szechwan. By the end of November, two-thirds of China had seceded from the Ch'ing empire.

   In December, a delegation of provincial delegates from central and northern China declared China a republic and elected Sun Yat-sen as the provisional president of the Republic of China. They set January 1, 1912, as the first day of the Republic. There still, however, remained one final task: the elimination of the Ch'ing.

The Ch'ing Abdication

   The imperial government was dying. In one last, desperate struggle to survive, the Manchus appointed Yüan Shih-kai as governor-general of Hunan and Hupeh, two provinces that had not seceded, and the National Assembly in Beijing appointed him prime minister. Yüan, for his part, harbored a grudge against the Manchu dynasty and agreed only if the Manchus would inaugurate a national assembly, pardon the revolutionaries, give him full power of the military, and lift the ban on political parties. Since the emperor was only a boy, the Regent, Prince Chün, granted Yüan all his demands; the critical demand, however, was Yüan's total control of the military. Yüan, by the beginning of November, was convinced that the Manchu dynasty was at its close; his goal was to avoid civil war and become the first president of the new republic. The revolutionaries, for their part, saw Yüan as vital to their cause; they understood that he was the only individual who could bring about the revolution without civil war.

   On January 3, 1912, Yüan announced that he would force the Ch'ing to abdicate if he were offered the presidency of the republic. Sun, who had been voted the first president of the republic, agreed to these terms. None of the Mongol or Manchu nobility wished to abdicate, so Yüan "persuaded" them by inducing over fifty generals to declare support for the republic. On February 1, 1912, the Dowager summoned Yüan to an audience and, in tears, handed the government over to him.

   The new Nanking government was very generous with the former emperor. They agreed to treat the emperor and his family as foreign royalty and gave them an extremely generous allowance. On February 12, the emperor officially abdicated; on February 13, Sun officially resigned as president of the Republic. On April 5, the United States became the first foreign country to officially recognize the new republic.

   Although Yüan had declared himself a supporter of the Republic, he betrayed it as soon as he became its first president. In his first cabinet he gave all the important ministries (War, Interior, Navy, and Foreign Affairs) to his cronies and gave the revolutionaries the least important cabinet positions. Even though he was cordial and respectful to the T'ung meng-hui leaders, it became evident early on that they were in a precarious position.

The Kuomintang

   In the summer of 1912, Sun Yat-sen's T'ung-meng hui party absorbed four other revolutionary parties to form a new party, the Kuomintag, or Nationalist Party. The party was under the control of another prominent revolutionary, Sung Chaio-jen, who had studied parliamentary government in Japan.

   The provisional constitution demanded that parliamentary elections be held within six months of the formation of the government. In December, the Kuomintang won a majority of the Parliamentary seats. Sung's main platform had been the promise to check the unlimited power of Yüan through a responsible cabinet and opposition parties. Yüan tried to win over Sung with bribes and, when that failed, had him assassinated on March 20, 1913, just as he was leaving for Peking to assume the leadership of the new parliament. When Yüan threatened the new parliament with troops, parliament impeached him. In July, provinces began to secede from the new republic (the "second Revolution"), but Yüan easily brought them in line.

Yüan's Dictatorship

   Through the use of threats, Yüan forced the Parliament to elect him president in October, 1913. However, when the Parliament adopted the T'ien-t'an Constitution, which adopted a cabinet system of government over a presidential system, Yüan dissolved the Parliament permanently. Thus, by the beginning of 1914, Yüan Shih-kai had become the dictator of China. Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan and the Kuomintang was effectively expelled as a political party.

   Yüan really wanted to be emperor of China; that, above everything else, was the ambition that drove him through the first and second revolutions. Japan, through Prime Minister Okuma, had signalled that a constitutional monarchy would be more suitable to Japanese and Chinese relations than a Chinese Republic. The president of Johns Hopkins University, Frank Goodnow, who was Yüan's American advisor, began publishing a series of articles that argued that a repblucan system was unsuited to the character of China. On November 20, 1915, the National People's Representative Assembly overwhelmingly voted for a monarchy and in December, provincial delegates called on Yüan to officially become emperor of China.

   What Yüan really didn't know, however, was the depth and breadth of anti-monarchical sentiment. The most passionate anti-monarchical forces were provincial governors and military leaders. The first revolution began under the direction of the military general Ts'ai Ao in Yunnan province. When provinces began seceding in greater numbers, Yüan gave over his dream to be emperor in late March, 1916. It was too late. Provinces continued to secede and Yüan, deserted and humiliated, died of uremia in June. The last dream of imperial China had come to an end.

The Period of Warlordism (1916-1927)

   With the expulsion of the Kuomintang, the Chinese dream of a republic was over. The secession of the provinces in the last year of Yüan's career as president fragmented China into a series of independent states more or less under the control of military leaders. The presidency itself fell into disarray as questions of succession delegitimized the office. Meanwhile, the warlords in charge of the provinces began to pursue aggressive policies against neighboring provinces for the most trivial and illogical of reasons; China entered into a period of chaos.

   During this time, Sun Yat-sen struggled to consolidate his forces in the south. Failing this, he entered a period of retirement where he composed theories of how to unify and pacify the country. He reorganized his party into the Chinese Nationalist Party (Chung-kuo kuo-min-tang ), and he managed to seize Canton in 1921 and establish a republican government in that province. He declared his government to be the national government of China in direct opposition to the warlord government that was in power in Beijing. Finally, in 1924, with the country torn apart by anarchy and chaos, Sun Yat-sen died believing his dream to have been a failure. The republican revolution he had spent his life working for had, if anything, made China worse as it descended into disunity and violence. His dream, however, was not over. In 1926, a young general named Chiang Kai-shek, fanatically devoted to Sun's vision, continued Sun's efforts to crush the warlord government and, in 1928, established a Nationalist government in Nanking and, in theory at least, brought about the unification Sun had dreamed of.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-9-97