In this episode, we explore some of the major voices of revolution from the decade preceding the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912: Zou Rong, Qiu Jin and Sun Yat-sen [Sun Zhongshan].
Some names from this episode:
Kang Youwei, Confucian advocate of liberal modernization and focus of episode 8
Guangxu Emperor, Emperor of China who was put under house arrest by Cixi after attempting to assert his power during the Hundred Days Reform (episode 8)
Empress Dowager Cixi, ruler of China during this period
Liang Qichao, disciple of Kang Youwei
Zou Rong, author of The Revolutionary Army
Subao newspaper, newspaper run by anti-Qing revolutionaries out of the Shanghai International Settlement
Qiu Jin, China’s first feminist and anti-Qing revolutionary
Sima Qian, Han dynasty historian
Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Revolution and revolutionary communist par excellence
Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Revolutionary Alliance
Li Hongzhang, high level Chinese statesman and advocate of self-strengthening (episode 5)
Welcome to episode 10 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast!
Last episode we talked about the Boxer Uprising and the occupation and further subordination of China by the large western powers and Japan following the crushing of the Boxers. This episode, we move ever closer to the revolution that put an end to dynastic rule in China, the 1911 revolution. After the Hundred Days Reform of 1898, which we discussed in episode eight, it became all too apparent to many Chinese people that the only Manchu among the officials and royalty at court to support the reform process was the Guangxu Emperor. Following the Hundred Days and then the Boxer Uprising, the failures of Manchu rule and the cost of those failures to China as a whole resulted in a massive upsurge in anti-Manchu sentiment. Although following the catastrophe of the defeat of the Boxers, Empress Dowager Cixi inaugurated the ‘New Politics’ which essentially meant implementing the modernizing reforms that she had executed Hundred Days reformers for just a few years earlier, this was too little too late, and calls for revolution began to gain broad support among the Chinese people. In this episode, we will explore some of those voices.
One of the ironies of the revolutionary intellectuals who came forward to call for the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty was their use of aspects of the oppression of China by foreign countries to their tactical advantage in avoiding repression by the Qing. This was the case for Zou Rong, his friends at the Jiangsu News (or Subao) newspaper, and many of the others who we are going to discuss, both in this and future episodes.
The Subao newspaper was published in the Shanghai International Settlement, which was the part of Shanghai that was governed by the British (although it was formally Chinese territory, so it wasn’t an outright colony like Hong Kong). The Americans were also junior partners in running the International Settlement. That meant that the Qing police forces couldn’t arrest anyone without consulting with the foreign consular staff of the Shanghai Municipal Council. What this meant in practice was that there was a much freer press in the International Settlement than outside it. Between 1899 and 1902, the Subao paper published articles by Kang Youwei and his disciple, Liang Qichao. But in 1903 the newspaper became more radical. Kang Youwei maintained his Confucian loyalty to the Emperor, and so the editors of Subao began attacking Kang for continuing to support the Manchus. Subao had been inspired by the assassination campaigns of the Nihilists in Russia and began calling for the assassination of Manchu officials.
One young revolutionary intellectual who was a friend of the Subao editors was named Zou Rong. He had studied for a year in Japan. While Chinese students were initially drawn to Japan because of the example that Japan set as an Asian country which had quickly become a strong, modern power, when Chinese students arrived in Japan they were exposed to radical ideas that freely circulated in student circles, and to exiled revolutionary leaders like Sun Yat-sen.
Zou Rong had spent a year in Japan as a student before coming back to Shanghai’s International Settlement and publishing a book titled The Revolutionary Army in 1903. It was a rousing call for a revolution in the spirit of what were seen as the major revolutions of world history up to that time: the English, American and French Revolutions.
I’m going to read a couple excerpts from the book, to give you a flavor of what Zou Rong thought. Here’s one passage, dealing with Zou’s ideas about the importance of revolution:
“Revolution is a universal rule of evolution. Revolution is a universal principle of the world. Revolution is the essence of a transitional period of struggle for survival. Revolution follows nature and corresponds to the nature of man. Revolution eliminates what is corrupt and holds on to what is good. Revolution is to advance from savagery to civilization. Revolution is to eradicate slavery and become the master… I have heard that the English Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution of 1775, and the French Revolution of 1870 were all revolutions that followed nature and corresponded to the nature of man. They were all revolutions designed to eliminate what was corrupt and hold on to what is good and to advance from savagery to civilization. They were all revolutions to eradicate slavery and become the master. The individual was sacrificed to save the world; the nobility was sacrificed to benefit the common people and to allow everyone to enjoy the happiness of equality and freedom.”
There are a few interesting aspects to the ideology expressed in this statement. On the one hand, it’s a follows the old, 18th century liberal Enlightenment tradition of seeing revolution as an expression of natural rights. In that sense, it’s in line with other liberal or anti-monarchical or anti-feudal revolutionary statements, as one would expect from a revolutionary intellectual advocating the overthrow of a dynasty and the installation of a republican form of government. But there are some twists here which are interesting.
The invocation of the Paris Commune, rather than the earlier French Revolution, for example. In Japan, the Chinese students were exposed to Marxist and anarchist ideas, as well as various forms of radical liberalism and nationalism, and many students adopted an eclectic mix of ideas. The presence of the Paris Commune, the world’s first working class revolution, alongside the much tamer English and American Revolutions in Zou’s list is one way in which that radical student milieu left a clear trace on Zou’s thought.
The final line from the quote above, about individual sacrifice for the greater good, and the sacrifice of the nobility for the common good, are also important. They express a clear sense of the priority of collective interests over individual interests that is often absent in republican statements, and the notion of the sacrifice of the nobility indicates some familiarity with some concept of class dictatorship, of the fact that there may be personal injustice carried out against members of the nobility, but that this would serve an overall greater good. One sees statements like this in the case of the French Revolution, but these sorts of statements are much more often and consistently found in Marxist than in earlier liberal or democratic revolutionary expressions of ideology. (And, just in case you think I may be reading too much into just a few lines, there are other expressions along similar lines in The Revolutionary Army, what I have picked out to quote is meant to be representative on some level, not just an isolated part of the book.)
Here’s another passage, which gives us some insight into the character of Zou’s nationalism, and of the deep influence of Confucian ideas, even on revolutionary thinkers:
“Let me inform my countrymen: When the Manchu bandits came through the pass into China, weren’t the people they slaughtered our ancestral grandfathers and their uncles and brothers? Were not the women raped by the Manchu bandits the wives, daughters, and sisters of our ancestral grandfathers? The Book of Rites says: ‘One must not share the same heaven with the murderer of one’s father and brothers.’ Even a small child knows this! Therefore, when a son cannot take revenge for his murdered father or brother, he must pass this responsibility to his own son, and his own son should pass it on to his son and onward to future generations. Thus, a forebear’s feud is, in fact, the feud of one’s own father and elder brothers. If one does not avenge the feud of his fathers and elder brothers but, rather, serves those who are the object of the feud while talking about filial piety and brotherly love day in and day out, I cannot understand where filial piety brotherly love are to be found. If the spirits of our ancestors exist, they certainly cannot lie still in the underworld.”
So, here, in this passage, Zou situates the need for a revolution against the Manchus firmly in the Confucian intellectual tradition, as an obligation based on the importance of filial piety.
And, if anyone had any question about what Zou meant by avenging his ancestral grandfathers on the Manchus, further on in The Revolutionary Army, Zou put forward the proposal for his readers to consider and act upon (as part of a list of actionable proposals): “Drive out Manchus who live in China or kill them to take revenge.”
In discussing what sort of government should be set up after the revolution against the Manchus, Zou called for emulating the United States of America. In his list of points about the new government he included the following:
“The constitution will be modeled on the American constitution and will conform to China’s situation.
Laws for self-governance should all follow American laws for self-governance.
Any matter involving the whole populace or an individual, diplomatic negotiations, and the domestic division of government should all follow the American model.”
So as we can see, The Revolutionary Army was quite the eclectic document, representing a fairly militant form of liberal revolution, but ultimately aiming for something like a United States of China.
The vision of the United States demonstrates the dearth of inspiring models for republican government resulting from revolution in the world in the early 1900s, and points perhaps to the ultimate disappointment of liberal ideology in general. At the time that Zou wrote The Revolutionary Army, there was widespread outrage among progressive Chinese intellectuals and students at the treatment of Chinese in America, stemming from the anti-Chinese exclusion laws of 1882 and the resultant discrimination and persecution of Chinese in the United States. It was not uncommon for the immigration officers of the US Treasury Department to break into Chinese people’s homes to allegedly check registration, but also as an intentional form of harassment. Deportations were common. In 1902 the act was extended to Hawaii and the Philippines, which both had large Chinese populations, and this provoked further outrage in China. Even high level diplomatic Chinese delegations, such as the delegation to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and which included a prince from the royal family, were subjected to rough handling and abuse by immigration officials. If there was any other country which Zou Rong could have possibly indicated as a republican model for China, I’m pretty sure he would have used it instead.
The Revolutionary Army quickly achieved a wide circulation, and after its first printing in the International Concession area of Shanghai, tens of thousands of copies were reprinted both in China and in overseas Chinese communities abroad. Sun Yat-sen distributed thousands of copies of the book among his supporters in San Francisco and Singapore as part of his efforts to win the Chinese overseas community to support his revolutionary efforts, with his main ideological competitor being Kang Youwei, who still advocated loyalty to the Guangxu Emperor and the reformation of the Qing Dynasty.
The Chinese authorities demanded that the Shanghai International Settlement authorities seize Zou Rong and hand him over to them for execution. As a compromise, the International Settlement authorities arrested and tried him themselves for the crime of distributing inflammatory writings. He received a two year prison sentence, which would appear to be better than the death sentence that a Qing court would have given him. However, the conditions in the prisons were such that Zou got sick and died after a few months in prison, at just 20 years old.
The second important Chinese revolutionary actor who I want to highlight from the period leading up to the Revolution of 1911 is Qiu Jin, who has been called China’s first feminist. At the age of 29, in 1904, Qiu Jin got fed up with her arranged marriage and the expectations of family life and left her husband and two children to go study in Japan, where she was able to explore radical politics and got involved in Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance. The passage from Qiu Jin that I want to read here is from a lecture that she gave in Tokyo in 1904, titled “An Address to My Two Hundred Million Women Compatriots in China.” In this passage, Qiu Jin calls on different sorts of people to take different sorts of actions, and so it’s a good basis for evaluating what sorts of things people should be doing in order to liberate China.
“I hope that from now on we sisters will do away with the state of affairs from the past and exert ourselves to create new circumstances. It is as if we had died and been reborn as human beings. Those of you who are advanced in years should not say: ‘I am old and of no use.’ If you have a good husband who wants to establish a modern school, you should not stop him, and if you have a worthy son who wants to study overseas, you should not stop him. Those of you in your twenties and thirties who are wives should not be a millstone around your husbands’ necks, placing all sorts of obstructions in their way and making it hard for them to succeed in their work or achieve fame. If you have a son, you should send him to a modern school, and you should do the same with your daughters—and on no account should you bind your daughters’ feet! As for you young girls, it would be best if you would enroll in a school, but if you cannot go to a modern school, you should incessantly read books and practice writing at home. You wives of men who are rich or who hold official posts should urge your husbands to establish modern schools and factories and to take initiatives that will benefit the common people. You who are married to men without money should support your husbands in their labors and not spend your days in idleness, dining on unearned food. This is my hope.”
So, this passage tells us several important things. Clearly, Qiu Jin is appealing to women to act in their roles as wives and mothers, except for the youngest women she is addressing, who she exhorts to get educated. Even though we know from Qiu Jin’s personal practice and from other writings that she believed in equality between men and women, her political prescriptions were still constrained by the reality of most women acting in their capacity as members of a patriarchal household, even if she was not willing to be constrained by that social role herself.
The importance of education is also very clear here, and we can see the importance that Chinese nationalist revolutionaries placed on modern schools that were not based on the study of the Confucian classics, and that a vision of modernization was key to their understanding of what it would take to liberate China.
Just as with Zou Rong, though, these more or less traditional liberal emphases coexisted with a very militant spirit of rebellion, which could achieve an almost bloodthirsty expression. Qiu Jin dressed as a man and carried a sword with her, and so the following passage that I want to read, from her poem “Song of the Precious Sword,” should be read with the understanding that her attachment to swords was not merely poetic.
“You, my lord, gave me this gold-speckled sword,
Today as I receive it, my mind is virile and brave.
These are the days when red-hot iron rules,
And a million heads are not worth a feather.”
This last line in particular echoes the statement of Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian that “Though death befalls all men alike, it may be heavy as Mount Tai or light as a feather.” And which many people are familiar with from Mao’s rendition of this, in a speech that he gave commemorating a fallen comrade in 1944 and which was published under the title “Serve the People,” which went: “To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather.”
In 1906 Qiu Jin returned to China to help prepare armed rebellion for Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance, and she was executed after the failed Anqing Uprising in 1907.
So, now that we’re talking about armed uprisings inside China, let’s take a step back and talk about the leader of these uprisings and the “Father of the Nation” of post-Qing China, Sun Yat-sen.
Just a note on Sun’s name. In China, Sun is mainly known by the Chinese translation of the pseudonym he used while staying in Japan, which was Nakayama, which means middle mountain. So in China, he is mainly referred to as Sun Zhongshan (since Zhongshan means middle mountain), and you may see some books in English, particularly if they are written by Chinese people writing in English, which prefer that name for him. But because he used the name Sun Yat-sen while fighting for China’s liberation from Qing rule and traveled a lot in western countries and became known by that name in the west, and there is not the same tradition of changing names at different points in one’s life in the west as can happen in China, he is know as Sun Yat-sen in the west, and I’ll go ahead and keep using that name for him.
We’ve covered just a little bit of Sun Yat-sen’s background in earlier episodes, but let’s review some here. He had been sent from his native Guangdong province to get a primary school and some high school education in Hawaii, where he had family, and then got a degree in western medicine in Hong Kong. However, the patient that Sun wanted to treat was China itself. In 1894 Sun went to Tianjin to try to get an audience with Li Hongzhang, the high ranking Qing official who championed the modernizing self-strengthening efforts.
Sun began his letter of introduction to Li in the following words:
“I have obtained a British medical degree from Hong Kong. As a young man, I had been educated abroad and acquired general knowledge of Western languages, literature, politics, customs, mathematics, geography, physics and chemistry. I paid, however, special attention to their (Western) ways of building up a wealthy nation and a powerful army, and to their laws for social reforms. I also discerned the essentials of current events and changes, and the means of maintaining peaceful relationship with other countries.”
But Sun Yat-sen was an unconnected nobody as far as Li Hongzhang was concerned, and Sun was unable to get an audience. Deciding that if the Qing officials wouldn’t even give him a hearing that there was no hope for reforming the Qing Dynasty, Sun left for Hawaii and founded the Revive China Society, which was dedicated to expelling the Manchus from China. Sun then returned to Hong Kong and started plotting the overthrow of the Qing.
He didn’t have long to wait for what seemed like a good opportunity, and took advantage of China’s humiliating defeat by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War (which we covered in episode seven) to launch an uprising in Guangzhou. The conspiracy to launch an insurrection was leaked to the authorities, however, and the uprising failed before it could really start. As a result, the Hong Kong authorities told Sun Yat-sen he wouldn’t be welcome back for five years, and so he went into exile, mainly in Japan, but also touring the world organizing support among the overseas Chinese communities.
In Japan, there were about 10,000 Chinese students, who were drawn to study there because of Japan’s example as an Asian power which had quickly modernized. Sun Yat-sen’s immediate activist social base was drawn from these students, and his financial support was mainly drawn from overseas Chinese communities around the world. In 1905, Sun’s Revive China Society united with the similarly named China Revival Society to form the Revolutionary Alliance, with headquarters in Tokyo and branches in Chinese communities around the world, from Singapore to Chicago.
The Revolutionary Alliance had four official goals:
1. Expulsion of the Manchus from China
2. Restoration of China to the Chinese
(which seems to naturally follow from #1)
3. Establishment of a Republic
So the Revolutionary Alliance was clear that it wanted a republic, and not a new Chinese dynasty.
and 4. Equalization of Landownership.
This fourth point, on the equalization of landownership, is very interesting, and somewhat novel in the context of revolutionary voices who we have heard from so far. Up to this point, the forces calling for overthrowing the Manchus had been mainly focused on traditional liberal values. As we saw in the statements from Zou Rong and Qiu Jin, as militant as they could be in opposing the Manchus, their politics was really that of establishing a liberal republic in China.
The Revolutionary Alliance’s call for equalization of landownership is something different. Here’s how they described this goal in a 1907 proclamation:
“The social and economic structure of China must be so reconstructed that the fruits of labor will be shared by all Chinese on an equal basis. Every tract of land in China must be assessed to determine its fair value in monetary terms, and this value belongs, of course, to the landowner. And added value, which results from social progress after the revolution, will, however, belong to the nation as a whole and must be shared by all Chinese. The ultimate goal of a responsible society is the guarantee of a satisfactory livelihood for all of its members and everyone, whomever he happens to be, shall have his own means of support, via gainful employment or some other source. Anyone who attempts to monopolize the livelihood of others will be ostracized.”
This clearly goes far beyond standard liberal political stances in weighing the equality and social wellbeing of the entire population over the right to private property and private ownership which is central to liberalism. As such, it prefigures Sun’s later endorsement of socialism, although that is a little ways off, and we’ll talk about that in its own right when we get there.
Between 1906 and 1911, the Revolutionary Alliance would launch almost 10 uprisings in China, including the one that Qiu Jin participated in, all of which failed. But finally, in an uprising in 1911 that the Revolutionary Alliance did not organize, an uprising would succeed which would finally end the Qing Dynasty in 1912. We’ll talk about those events, and how Sun Yat-sen briefly became China’s first president, in our next episode.