Lecture Thirty-One

The Fall of the Empire

Scope: The failures of reform efforts gave rise to more radical forces, and agitation for the overthrow of the imperial system grew through the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century. The revolutionary movement to create a Chinese republic was led by SunYatsen and had broad support among educated Chinese who wanted to save their country through modernization. In 1911, a military mutiny led to the collapse of the Qing dynasty, and China appeared to be on the way to a republican system. But corrupt military strongmen soon subverted this process, and by the middle of the 1910s, China descended into a decade of fragmentation, as warlords carved up the former empire into local satrapies.


I. Shocked by the occupation of Beijing after the Boxer uprising, the Qing made last-minute gestures toward reform, but these efforts were too little and came too late.

A. The dynasty developed a plan to modernize its administration and to move toward a constitutional monarchy.

1. In 1905, the Confucian examination system, which had operated without significant interruption since 1380 and with origins going back more than 2,000 years, was abolished.

2. Many reforms based on the model of 1898 were put into place.

3. A blueprint for a transition to a constitutional monarchy was developed, with provincial assemblies to begin meeting by 1916.

B. These measures, however, were not enough to restore faith in the Qing among educated, politically engaged Chinese.

1. Even in the 1890s, some had begun to advocate outright overthrow of the imperial system.

2. Anti-Manchu sentiment blended with anti-Western nationalism to spark interest in a revolutionary program of modernization.

II. Sun Yatsen emerged as the principal leader of revolutionary activity.

A. Sun was from Guangdong province in the south.

1. He had been educated in Hawaii and Hong Kong and became a doctor of Western medicine.

2. In the 1880s, he began to think about radical change for China.

3. He began to build a movement in the 1890s, aimed not at reform but at ending imperial rule.

B. By the beginning of the 20th century, Sun’s movement grew into the mainstream of revolutionary activity.

1. He founded the Tongmeng hui, the Revolutionary League, to bring together various anti-Qing movements.

2. He traveled extensively in China and around the world, raising money and promoting the ideal of a republican government for China.

3. Several abortive uprisings were organized by the revolutionaries, but all ended in failure.

III. In 1911, the dynasty collapsed suddenly.

A. The Empress Dowager and the Guangxu emperor had died in 1908.

1. A little boy, Puyi, came to the throne as the last emperor.

2. Conservative Manchu elders slowed down the process of reform.

B. The modernized military became a focus of revolutionary politics.

1. Qing efforts to build a modern army had unintended consequences: Officers and men wanted political reform as well.

2. Junior officers often joined the Revolutionary Alliance.

C. A mutiny at Wuhan triggered the collapse of the dynasty.

1. In October 1911, revolutionary soldiers in Wuhan, in central China, feared arrest and seized their garrison.

2. They proclaimed the surrounding province of Hubei independent of the dynasty.

3. Over the next weeks, a dozen other provinces declared independence.

D. In the winter of 1911—1912, events moved quickly.

1. Sun Yatsen, who had been on a speaking tour in America when the revolution broke out, returned to China at the end of the year.

2. Yuan Shikai, commander of the modern Beiyang Army, negotiated the abdication of the last emperor.

3. In a political deal, Sun yielded the presidency of the new Republic of China to Yuan.

4. A provisional assembly was elected in 1912, with Sun’s newly formed Guomindang, or Nationalist Party, gaining the most seats.

IV. Yuan Shikai betrayed the revolution and precipitated an era of warlordism.

A. Yuan refused to follow the new constitution and tried to hold on to power.

1. He dissolved the assembly when it would not support him.

2. He had a Nationalist leader, Song Jiaoren, assassinated.

3. He even tried to have himself made emperor.

4These efforts failed as a result of rivalry with other warlords. Yuan died in 1916.

B. Local military leaders then carved China into warlord domains and plunged the country into chaos.

1. Warfare between militarists caused economic disruption and great suffering among the people.

2. China’s weakness opened the door to Japan’s growing ambitions in China, which we will consider in a later lecture.

3. As the political world fell apart, many Chinese thinkers and activists were seeking new ways to come to grips with the crises they found around them. We will look at this process in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Marie-Claire Bergere, Sun Yat-sen.

Supplemental Reading:

Joseph W. Esherick, Reform and Revolution in China.

Questions to Consider:

1. In abolishing the examination system in 1905, the Qing destroyed the central cultural institution of the literati elite. How did they expect to retain the loyalty of educated Chinese without this?

2. In presenting his revolutionary program in the form of modern nationalism, how might Sun Yatsen have dealt with the problem of Chinese ethnic identity? Could Manchus be Nationalists, too?

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