The overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, followed by the first years of the Republic of China.
Further reading on the 1911 Revolution:
Joseph Esherick and C.X. George Wei, editors, China: How the Empire Fell
Some names from this episode:
Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Revolution and revolutionary communist par excellence
Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Revolutionary Alliance
Huang Xing, Vice-President of the Revolutionary Alliance and military leader of the April 1911 uprising in Guangzhou
Puyi, child emperor who abdicated his throne at age five
Prince Chun, regent for Puyi
Yuan Shikai, leader of Beiyang Army
Empress Dowager Cixi, power behind the throne who died in 1908
Kang Youwei, Confucian advocate of liberal modernization and Qing loyalist
Guangxu Emperor, Emperor of China during the Hundred Days Reform of 1898
Song Jiaoren, leading Guomindang organizer, assassinated in 1913
Zeng Guofan, leader of Qing forces that defeated the Taiping rebels
Li Hongzhang, high level Chinese statesman and advocate of self-strengthening
In August of 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party was on the verge of victory in the Civil War which ended in the creation of the People’s Republic of China on October first of that year, Mao Zedong wrote: “Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again . . . until their victory; that is the logic of the people, and they too will never go against this logic. This is another Marxist law. The Russian people’s revolution followed this law, and so has the Chinese people’s revolution.”
While the article, which was titled “Cast Away Illusions, Prepare for Struggle,” was not about Sun Yat-sen, Mao’s statement about fighting and failing until you finally succeed being a revolutionary lesson could easily have been drawn from the experience of Sun Yat-sen, the leading spirit of the Chinese Revolution of 1911.
Between 1906 and 1911, Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance launched numerous uprisings in attempts to overthrow Manchu rule in China. The last of these uprisings took place in Guangzhou on April 27, 1911. The strategy of the uprising went like this: The Vice-President of the Revolutionary Alliance, Huang Xing, led about 100 patriotic youth in a surprise raid on the residence of the governor of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. After the initial surprise of the attack had passed, the more numerous and better armed Qing troops slaughtered most of the revolutionaries. Those who were arrested were executed. In all, 72 of the revolutionaries died, although Huang managed to escape, despite being wounded.
The attackers’ hope had been that their act of rebellion would have sparked a broader uprising, especially if they had defied the odds and been successful in their raid on the governor’s mansion. But they also knew they were probably going to their deaths when they launched the uprising. This is a revolutionary strategy that we can see repeated at different times and places in history, where in the absence of a strong mass organization, there is a hope that a desperate heroic act will spark revolt. You can see it in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, and you can see it in Fidel Castro’s raid on the Moncada Barracks in Cuba in 1953.
Militarily, these actions are universally hopeless. And they never seem to spark the sorts of uprisings that the revolutionaries hope will break out at the time of the attack. But politically, these actions, when they resonate with large parts of the population, can have major downstream effects that the revolutionaries would approve of. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry served to further polarize public opinion and propel the United States toward Civil War and the end of slavery. Fidel Castro’s raid on the Moncada Barracks cemented his reputation as a righteous leader against the corrupt Batista regime. And Sun Yat-sen’s numerous quixotic attempts at overthrowing the Qing Dynasty cemented his reputation as an unrelenting opponent of the Manchus, and when a revolution did break out later in 1911, which he had nothing to do with organizing, his importance as a symbol of resistance led him to become the Republic of China’s first president.
The 1911 Revolution
The revolution that did bring down the Qing came out indirectly as the result of the efforts at modernization that the Manchu elite had finally endorsed after the Boxer Rebellion was crushed and Beijing was occupied by the eight-nation alliance of foreign powers. These modernizing efforts were called the ‘New Politics.’ One key aspect of the ‘New Politics’ was the modernization of transportation, which meant the promotion of railroad construction. Another aspect of the ‘New Politics’ was the modernization of the armed forces. Both these efforts backfired spectacularly on the Qing in 1911.
First, let’s talk about the role that railroad modernization had in the revolution.
As part of the ‘New Politics,’ local provincial governments were encouraged to promote railroad construction and other modernization projects. As part of this effort, the Sichuan provincial government decided to build a railroad linking Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, with Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, and a major city on the Yangzi River. When the province couldn’t fund the railroad itself, it sold shares. Because a lot of normal people both thought that connecting Chengdu more closely with the rest of the country would benefit them, and because they felt it was a patriotic effort, lots of regular people bought shares in the railroad. So someone with a little extra money, but not rich by any means, might see investing in the railroad as a way both to benefit themselves and as a patriotic gesture. A tax was also instituted to fund the railroad, where people got shares in the company in exchange for paying the tax. So a lot of people ended up invested in the railroad one way or another.
The company to build this railroad between Chengdu and Wuhan had been started in 1905. And progress building it was slow. By 1911, because of disagreements, disorganization and corruption in the administration of the railroad, only 10 miles had been built. At this point, the central Qing government decided to take matters into its own hands. The central government thought it could kill two birds with one stone.
On the one hand, the central Qing imperial administration wanted to break the deadlock and get the railroad built faster than was happening. And on the other hand, if you will recall from past episodes, the Qing Empire was saddled with a huge debt burden from the indemnity it was forced to pay after losing the 1895 war to Japan, and then the huge debt it owed to a bunch of foreign countries after the Boxer Rebellion.
So, to address both these goals, to get the railroads built faster and to raise funds to pay the debt burden, the Qing administrators decided to nationalize the railroad, and then, after nationalizing it, to sell it to a consortium of British, German, French and American banks. As a result, current shareholders would be partially compensated in government bonds. So, both the patriotic initiative of the railroad and the basic financial interest of the investors was undermined. Where someone who invested in the railroad had previously felt that they were doing something to benefit both China and themselves, they were now essentially being robbed of part of the value of their investment, and for the benefit of a bunch of foreign banks in the bargain!
Needless to say, people were pissed. What resulted was what is called the Railway Protection Movement.
In Chengdu there was an escalating series of protests and strikes. When the governor-general of Sichuan had some of the leaders arrested, protestors marched on the governor’s office, where Qing troops opened fire on them, killing 32. Rather than put down the movement, this massacre escalated things, with members of the Revolutionary Alliance and other anti-Manchu groups starting to initiate armed attacks on Qing troops in the area around Chengdu.
Meanwhile, in Wuhan, at the other end of the proposed railway line, several anti-Manchu organizations got together and decided to launch an armed uprising against the Qing. They set the date for the uprising for October 16, 1911. But on October 9, some of the conspirators who were preparing bombs for the uprising accidentally set one off, and alerted the authorities to their presence. Wuhan was a treaty port (even though it was far inland, on the Yangzi River), so just like the revolutionaries we discussed in the last episode took advantage of the lack of Qing authority in the International Settlement area of Shanghai as an area where they could be relatively safe, the conspirators in Wuhan were making their bombs in the Russian Settlement Area of Wuhan. So it was actually the Russian police who came and investigated the scene when the bomb went off.
The Russian cops found a bunch of flyers that the conspirators were going to hand out during the uprising, and turned the bomb-makers over to the Qing authorities. This set off a dragnet by the Qing in an attempt to round up all the leaders of the uprising. But what the Qing had not counted on was that one of their other modernizing efforts would lead to their doom.
An important aspect of the ‘New Politics’ was the modernization of the armed forces. In order to modernize the armed forces, the Qing organized new army units called, creatively, the New Army. In order to train modern officers and soldiers, many were sent to Japan to study. As you might remember from the last episode, Japan was rife with Chinese students who were engaged in radical politics and plotting the overthrow of the Qing. The New Army trainees were no exception, and some of them joined the Revolutionary Alliance and other anti-Manchu societies.
Revolutionary troops in the New Army in Wuhan decided to launch the uprising early, rather than to be caught in the dragnet following the arrest of the bomb-makers, and so on the evening of October 10, the next day after the bomb makers were arrested, they took the strategic gated entrance to the city and captured an ammunition depot. Withing two days, Wuhan had fallen to the revolutionary troops. The revolutionaries declared the foundation of the Republic of China, and called on other provinces to rebel and join the Republic.
Over the next several weeks, New Army soldiers mutinied against the Qing around the country, joining with members of the Revolutionary Alliance and other anti-Manchu groups to adhere their provinces to the new Republic and often slaughtering Manchus and high-ranking Qing loyalists in the process.
Sun Yat-sen was fund-raising in Colorado when the revolution broke out. His first action was to go to London and Paris to urge the British and French not to support the Qing with troops or loans. Then he went to China, where he was elected “provisional president” of the Chinese republic in Nanjing, just days after stepping off the boat which took him from France to Shanghai.
However, the actual political and military situation was very complicated, and as it turned out being elected the first president of the new republic was a very different thing than exercising power in the new republic.
The End of the Qing and the Beginning of the Republic
As it was, there was a situation of dual power in the country as a whole. Dual power is a concept that Lenin developed during the 1917 revolution in Russia, and it’s a phenomenon that often arises in the course of a revolutionary situation. In Russia’s case, Lenin was referring to how a new revolutionary authority, the Soviets, or councils of workers, peasants, and soldiers, competed for legitimacy with the official governmental authority, which was the provisional government in the case of the Russian Revolution. It’s an inherently unstable situation, and it ends when one of the authorities competing for legitimacy either overthrows the other one or establishes its own monopoly of legitimacy through the course of events. In the case of the Russian Revolution, the situation was resolved when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government.
In the case of the Chinese Revolution of 1911, Sun Yat-sen had emerged as the new president elected by the revolutionary forces. But the Qing imperial court had not been overthrown in Beijing, and in fact it still had considerable armed force at its disposal. The New Army rebels had not managed to keep all the territory that they had claimed in their various local rebellions. For example, the northern half of Wuhan, the part of the city north of the Yangzi River, had been retaken by Qing troops.
The Emperor in Beijing was the five-year-old Puyi. The Empress Dowager, Cixi, had died in 1908, and so Puyi’s father, Prince Chun, ruled as regent. Chun was a reformer, and one of his first acts had been to punish Yuan Shikai. If you will recall from episode 8, Yuan Shikai had been the high-ranking general who had appeared to be a reformer, but who had betrayed the Guangxu Emperor and Kang Youwei’s plans to arrest the Empress Dowager Cixi during the Hundred Days’ Reform. Prince Chun had Yuan Shikai forcibly retired from the army. But now that the revolution had broken out, the opinion at the imperial court was that Yuan Shikai was the only person capable of saving the dynasty. Yuan was appointed to the position of Prime Minister, a position that had just been created a few months earlier and had been held by a Manchu noble. In light of his enmity with Yuan Shikai, Prince Chun stepped down as regent, and Yuan Shikai was left holding the real power in Beijing.
The core of the New Army was the Beiyang Army, which had long been led by Yuan Shikai and many of whose commanders were personally loyal to him. Much of the Beiyang Army did not mutiny in 1911, and so when Yuan Shikai was appointed prime minister, he took command of the strongest single armed force in the country. Yuan’s reputation was ambiguous. If you will recall from episode eight, he had been a patron of Kang Youwei and was a reformer, and had led in the modernization of China’s armed forces. It was for this reason that Kang Youwei and the Guangxu Emperor had thought that Yuan would side with them against Cixi at the end of the Hundred Days’ Reform. However, as we saw, despite being a reformer, Yuan also was out for his own personal advancement, and in that situation he saw that Cixi was in the more powerful position and sided with her against the Emperor.
The situation at the end of 1911 and beginning of 1912 hinged on where Yuan Shikai saw his greatest advantage. Was it in rallying the Beiyang Army to fight their comrades in the mutinous units of the New Army, or did it lie in taking advantage of his situation to place himself at the head of a new republic?
Sun Yat-sen, setting aside his own ambitions for leadership in the interests of the goal of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, sent a telegram to Yuan Shikai on January 1, 1912. Sun stated that even though he had accepted the presidency, that the office “is actually waiting for you, and my offer will eventually be made clear to the world. I hope that you will soon decide to accept this offer.” Sun was offering Yuan the presidency of the new Republic of China if he would bring turn the Beiyang Army against the Qing.
At the end of January, the situation was basically decided when 43 commanders of the Beiyang Army sent a telegram demanding the formation of a republic. Yuan Shikai followed this up by negotiating the peaceful abdication of Puyi on February 12, 1912, in exchange for the Manchu royal family getting to keep living in the Forbidden City and getting to hold on to its wealth, as well as receiving a $4 million a year stipend. Puyi’s final act before abdicating was to grant Yuan Shikai the power to organize a provisional republic government. The next day, Sun Yat-sen relinquished his own claims to the title of president, leaving Yuan Shikai as the recognized leader by both the forces that had remained loyal to the Qing, and those who had rebelled.
Parliamentary elections were held in December 1912, and were contested by four large parties and hundreds of smaller political groupings. The idea was that parliament would select a premier and draft a constitution. Song Jiaoren, a young protégé of Sun Yat-sen, helped Sun in converting the Revolutionary Alliance into a new political party called the Guomindang, which can be translated as the Nationalist Party or as the National People’s Party. Song was put in charge of organizing the electoral campaign for the Guomindang, which was highly successful, with the Guomindang winning a large plurality in the election, and almost half of the seats in parliament.
In March 1913, as newly elected parliamentarians were traveling to Beijing to take their seats, Song Jiaoren was assassinated on a train platform in Shanghai. Song was widely expected to be elected the next premier of China, and Yuan Shikai was suspected of being behind the assassination. A suspicion that was later backed up by evidence. It quickly became clear that Yuan had no intention of giving up power just because of some elections.
When Parliament gathered, the Guomindang delegates pushed for the legislature to exercise control over Yuan Shikai. This quickly escalated into open conflict, as Yuan Shikai moved militarily against provincial governors who supported the Guomindang and, in response, most provinces in the south and in the Yangzi valley declared independence from Yuan’s regime.
This conflict laid bare what was the new reality in China: the importance of armed force in determining who was in charge of the country, or of any given part of the country. Yuan’s Beiyang Army was centered in the north, and so in order to enforce control over the rest of the country, Yuan either had to send his troops in to take over, or threaten to do so in order to get the people who controlled smaller armed forces in the region to fall into line. It meant that, despite the existence of a central government in Beijing, real power and authority often lay with local warlords. As we will see, this became even more the case after the collapse of Yuan’s government in 1916.
By the end of September 1913, Yuan’s Beiyang Army and allied militarists had brought all the provinces which had declared independence into line. Some were defeated on the battlefield, and others sent telegrams rescinding their earlier declarations of independence when they saw which way the wind was blowing. In October, Yuan used his troops to pressure Parliament to elect him to a five-year term as president, even though the constitution which would have done things like determine the role of a president in the government and how long their terms of service should be had not been written yet. He then ruled that the Guomindang was a seditious organization and outlawed it, kicking the Guomindang members out of Parliament. This left Parliament without a quorum, and so it was first suspended in November 1913 and then dissolved in January 1914.
As Yuan gave himself dictatorial powers, he himself was more and more subservient to foreign interests. China’s customs revenues were under the control of Martime Customs Service, which was staffed by foreigners and deposited customs revenues in foreign banks in order to pay off the staggering debts of the government. This meant that Yuan funded the government by contracting even more foreign loans. When World War One broke out and distracted the western powers, Japan took advantage of the situation to take over the German colony in Shandong and to issue 21 demands to China, which mostly boiled down to demanding all kinds of special economic rights, such as joint Sino-Japanese administration of a huge iron and coal works in central China, to special economic rights in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia.
The new Japanese depredations elicited a series of anti-Japanese rallies and a boycott of Japanese goods, and Yuan’s yielding to the demands sank him to new levels of unpopularity. He doubled down on his authoritarianism in response to this, and declared himself emperor on January 1, 1916. This was too much, even for his old military buddies in the Beiyang Army who had supported him so far. Foreign governments did not acknowledge him as emperor. Mass rallies broke out against him. The southern provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi all declared independence from his regime (which isn’t to say they no long considered themselves part of China, they just seceded from his regime). By March, Yuan backed down and canceled the monarchy, and in June he died. The medical cause was uremia, but this is one of those cases where it seems clear that humiliation and failure had to have played a major role in his death as well.
The death of Yuan Shikai marks the beginning of what is called the Warlord Era in Chinese history, when the Beiyang Army broke into different factions which competed with each other and with other regionally based armed forces for the control of territory. While a central government continued to exist, it was at the mercy of whoever currently occupied Beijing, and it held little power beyond the reach of the armed force allied with it. Sun Yat-sen, meanwhile, had left China again for Japan toward the end of 1913. He had been back in China for less than two years, and once again he found himself regrouping his forces.
Meanwhile, despite the disappointments of the aborted foundation of the Chinese Republic, a new period of political awakening was beginning to take place, which would accelerate toward the end of the decade.
Next episode, we will finally take our first close look at a very young Mao Zedong, and see what he was up to while all this was going on.