4. Felling a Dynasty, Founding a Republic


As the nineteenth century drew to a close and court factions in the Forbidden City engaged in murderous struggles, flood, followed by drought, stalked the north China plains. Landless young men prepared themselves through martial arts and spirit possession to purify the realm. The Yihequan—Boxers United in Righteousness (“boxers” referring to martial arts practices)—performed rituals designed to give them invulnerability in battle. The “Boxers,” as they have been called for short in Western writings since the spring of 1900, were not an organized uprising, but across hundreds of communities loosely affiliated groups of angry young peasants sprang up. Their goal was to restore the moral order in the face of real and perceived threats to community solidarity. At the head of those threats were foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians.

The Boxer movement had much in common with countless traditional peasant uprisings, including the White Lotus rebellion discussed in Chapter 2. The original Boxer groups sought as much to protect property from outside attack in a time of great troubles as to aggrandize their power. But a pattern of Boxer clashes with Catholic missionaries emerged in Shandong province in the mid-1890s. Missionaries had been spreading across the countryside since the 1860s and had often gained a reputation for interfering in local governance. Missionaries made relatively few converts, and though in some villages relations between Christians and non-Christians were amiable, relations were particularly disturbed in Shandong, where a set of German Catholic missionaries closely tied themselves to the growing German military presence. As a second and third year of natural disasters unfolded with no help from officials, the Boxer movement was suppressed in Shandong but then spread to neighboring provinces. Over the winter of 1899–1900, destitute peasants and drifters moved through thousands of square miles in the provinces of Zhili, Shanxi, and Henan, and even into the northeast, attacking Western missionaries and Christian communities. Gaining the approval of a few key officials and now called the Yihetuan (militia united in righteousness), Boxers fought under the banner of “Support the Qing, destroy the foreign.” Women Boxers organized independently in units called Red Lanterns. They burned churches and looted houses. Several foreign diplomats were killed as Boxers began to infiltrate the cities. The Boxers’ own explanations for their actions were diverse, but a typical piece of doggerel condemned Christians:

They proselytize their sect,

And believe in only one God,

The spirits and their own ancestors

Are not even given a nod.…

No rain comes from Heaven.

The earth is parched and dry

And all because the churches

Have bottled up the sky.

The Christians’ magic was especially feared. Christians, it was said, practiced incest, poisoned wells, created armies out of paper figures, used human organs to make magic, and scattered blood to make people go mad. Above all, they refused to join in community prayers to the village gods to make it rain: they angered the gods.

What separated the Boxers from traditional peasant rebels was not the support they often received from local gentry, but their target. What turned the uprising into an international war was the ability of missionaries to get help from their home countries. In the wake of the debacle of the 1898 Reform Movement (discussed in the Chapter 3), the Qing court had purged suspected reform sympathizers and moved the most competent of the high Chinese officials, Li Hongzhang, out of the north to become governor-general in the far south. Manchu–Chinese relations worsened. Many Chinese suspected the Empress Dowager Cixi of plotting to kill the emperor, and she was generally seen as having usurped his powers. Long-standing prejudice against women in government further damaged the court’s legitimacy. The failure of the court’s assassins to kill the escaped reformers Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, who had successfully fled abroad, made the court look weak as well as vindictive. Ultra-conservatives—Manchu aristocrats, Bannermen (the mostly Manchu hereditary military caste), and Chinese officials—were left without challenge in the court itself, but they felt increasingly besieged by the world outside. Their anti-foreignism reached new heights.

On June 21, 1900 Cixi issued an edict effectively declaring war on all the foreign powers. This remarkable, even bizarre decision to take on more powerful nations from around the world was made as war was breaking out anyway. Seeing the Boxer movement spread, by June foreign troops had already moved into Beijing and Tianjin, and clashes broke out among the foreign troops, Boxers, and Qing soldiers. The court finally had to decide whether to support or to suppress the Boxers. There had been clashes between Qing troops and the Boxers through May. However, on the whole, officials in north China found themselves too weak to deal firmly with widespread social disorder, and the official view of the Boxers was ambiguous. Several high-ranking Manchu officials were sympathetic at least with the Boxers’ anti-foreignism, although it is hard to believe many officials of any rank enthusiastically supported uncontrollable roving bands of violent men (and women). Nonetheless, as the foreign legations in Beijing summoned more troops to their support, the Qing court gambled on war. Not without justification, Cixi’s edict stated, “The foreigners have been aggressive towards us, infringing upon our territorial integrity, trampling our people. They oppress our people and blaspheme our gods. The common people suffer greatly at their hands, and each one of them is vengeful.”

Notwithstanding official and popular anti-foreignism, Qing attacks on foreigners were less than wholehearted. Provincial military commanders stayed entirely aloof, and key Beijing commanders understood the need for restraint. (In the south, Li Hongzhang not only guaranteed the safety of foreigners but ignored orders to send troops to the north.) The foreign legations in Beijing, as well as foreign communities in Tianjin and Harbin, held out until relief came in August. Certain officials in Beijing had even hedged their bets by helping to smuggle food and supplies into the besieged legations. This is not to say there was no fighting. There were major battles as the “Eight-Power Expedition” marched from Tianjin on the coast to Beijing. This army then sacked Beijing and spread out across the north China countryside to find “Boxers” and punish them. The force consisted of troops from Britain (including Gurkhas and Punjabi cavalry), Germany, Russia, France, Italy, the United States (including Afro-American cavalry), the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Japan. Of these eight invaders, Japan provided the largest number of troops and cemented its role as one of the imperialist powers. They took no prisoners. Mopping up operations, largely led by Germans, indiscriminately killed alleged Boxers through the rest of the year. The Chinese death toll was in the tens of thousands; Boxers had killed over 200 foreigners and several thousand Chinese Christians; Qing soldiers probably killed several hundred more foreign troops. The loot seized by foreign troops was tremendous, and continues to enrich museums and private collections around the world to this day.

Even so, most Boxers were able to blend back into the general population, while Cixi, the Guangxu emperor, and high court officials fled west to Xi’an. Cixi ordered Li Hongzhang to return north to negotiate surrender terms, which were harsh. The powers demanded that officials who cooperated with the Boxers be executed, apology missions sent abroad, foreign troops stationed in north China, and an indemnity of 450 million taels of silver (US$333 million) be paid over thirty-nine years at 4 percent interest: an unprecedented sum that further crippled a government that was already broke and whose annual revenues ran to about 250 million taels. Though obsessed with “punishment,” most foreigners did not want the Qing to fall lest the ensuing power vacuum draw the Western powers and Japan into fatal competition. Financial interests, including governments, needed a functioning Chinese government to recoup their investments. In the end, the Boxer debacle confirmed that “spheres of influence” would mark the informal colonization of China. Russian power expanded in the northeast, Britain in the Yangzi Valley, France in the southeast, Japan in Fujian across from its colony of Taiwan as well as southern Manchuria and Korea, and Germany in Shandong—but the outright division of China was avoided.

Several other features of the Boxer movement and the Boxer War were unprecedented as well. Imperialist aggression designed to inflict punishment through razing villages; declaring open seasons on killing, raping, and looting; and imposing indemnities were not new. But international cooperation against China on such a vast scale, and including Japanese even in the face of Western racist contempt for “Asiatics,” set a new pattern. Claims to represent civilization in the face of barbarism and talk of the “Yellow Peril” reached new heights, even while a few Western critics of imperialism wondered who were the civilized and who the barbarian. In America, Mark Twain commented, “We do not allow Chinamen to come here, and I say in all seriousness that it would be a graceful thing to let China decide who shall go there.” The Boxer War was one of the first “world events” the news of which was disseminated quickly, and even before the era of the transoceanic telegraph, faked newsreels of Boxer depredations were shown in the new cinemas of Western nations. For later generations of Chinese, the Boxers became a symbol of superstition, of backwardness, and of the decadence of an official class just as ignorant as peasants. Equally, however, the Boxers became a symbol of the potential of popular resistance and, indeed, righteousness.

From Guangdong—a somewhat peripheral province far to the south from Beijing’s point of view but a corner of the empire that had long enjoyed foreign contacts and that produced most of China’s overseas merchants—arose a small revolutionary movement dedicated to the outright overthrow of the dynasty. But although Sun Yat-sen and a few southerners had attempted to rouse popular revolt against the Manchus in the late 1890s, it was only after the Boxer disaster that a segment of leading reformers turned against the dynasty. A few intellectuals from China’s wealthy central provinces such as Zhang Binglin (who also wrote under the name of Zhang Taiyan) began to denounce the Qing as a foreign, inherently oppressive dynasty. Zhang even cut off his queue, symbol of submission to Qing rule. For a time, the distinction between reform and revolution remain blurred, perhaps because reformers wished to restore Guangxu to the throne at the expense of Cixi. And the Qing continued to proscribe “constitutionalist” writings that advocated a constitutional monarchy as vigorously as it proscribed revolutionary screeds. In August 1900, Tang Caichang, a follower of Kang Youwei, led an uprising in Guangxu’s name. Although this uprising was nipped in the bud, it suggested that constitutionalists who sought to reform the monarchy and revolutionaries who sought to overthrow it could still find some common ground. The two groups also cooperated with Chinese merchants in 1905 to boycott American goods in protest against the exclusion laws that prohibited Chinese immigration to the United States. With most of the organization and funds coming from Overseas Chinese supporters of Kang Youwei, the movement, brief as it was, foreshadowed the alliances between radicals, students, and merchants of the 1920s.

But the constitutionalists and revolutionaries soon drifted apart. An incident that helped clarify the meaning of revolution occurred in 1903. Russian troops that were originally part of the Eight-Power Expedition had remained in Manchuria instead of withdrawing as the Boxer treaty had stipulated. A group of radical students and teachers—partly protected by living in the foreign concessions in Shanghai—published polemics against the Qing in the Subao newspaper. Zou Rong, then 18 years old, wrote a pamphlet called “The Revolutionary Army” that almost hypnotically chanted, “To sweep away the despotism of these thousands of years, to cast off the servile nature bred in us over these thousands of years, to exterminate the five million and more of the furry and horned Manchu race, to expunge the humiliation of our 260 years of harsh and unremitting pain, to cleanse the great land of China, and to make the descendants of the Yellow Emperor all become Washingtons…The most exalted and incomparable aim is Revolution! How imposing a thing is revolution! How magnificent a thing is revolution!” Zou’s ardent republicanism was based on the premise that the Han Chinese needed to free themselves of the incubus of their Manchu overlords. Zhang Binglin criticized Kang Youwei’s reformism in a long attack, incidentally using the personal name of the emperor and calling him a “little clown.” The Qing government had had enough. It sought the deaths of the radicals associated with Subao. But British authorities in the Shanghai concession, operating with some adherence to free speech principles, refused to turn them over. The Qing’s prolonged efforts to extradite men it wanted to behead as traitors simply highlighted its vindictiveness and, worse, its weakness. That the Qing was falling apart is also shown by the actions of those officials who warned the radicals to escape, which some did, although Zhang and Zou decided to remain. Eventually the two men were sentenced to brief jail terms for lèse-majesté. Zou died in prison but Zhang was released a revolutionary hero in 1906.

At the same time—in the wake of the Boxer debacle—the court under a chastised Cixi began a series of “New Policy” reforms. These reforms were extensive but largely reflected the very ideas that the court had so violently rejected in 1898. The government was to be streamlined and modernized. Military reformers worked to build a better equipped, more disciplined, and even more educated army. Educational reformers began to build a new state school system. The number of schools gradually grew, especially in major cities, not incidentally providing employment for educated men and a few women and customers for publishers of textbooks and magazines. Money was found to send students abroad, especially to Japan where as many as 7,000 students were studying in mostly short-term legal and military courses by 1905 (some students were self-funded). Even before Japan’s astonishing victory over Russia in 1905, which inspired all of Asia, Chinese intellectuals and leaders looked to Japan as a model of modernization, and Japanese advisers and teachers were brought to China. The age-old Confucian examination system, producing the officials of the empire for over 800 years, was abolished in 1905.

Another reform was “local self-government,” though this was actually a policy to bring local leaders into the central bureaucratic system and was enormously disruptive to traditional patterns of rural authority. The most far-reaching reform, at least on paper, was the Qing promise of a constitution. A small team of Manchu aristocrats and high Chinese officials was appointed to study the issue. After an initial delay caused by a revolutionary’s assassination attempt, a delegation left to study the constitutions of Japan, Europe, and the United States in 1906. Imperial edicts over the following years set up timetables to implement a constitution and further streamline the administrative structure. A draft constitution was promulgated that followed the model of the Meiji Constitution of Japan, keeping all sovereignty and most powers in the emperor’s hands. It was never fully implemented, but provincial assemblies were elected in 1909, giving local elites a new kind of political voice. These constitutional promises gave hope to Chinese reformers and scared the revolutionaries, who insisted the Qing was just trying to cheat the Chinese people.

In the event, the reforms, sincere or not, came too late to save the dynasty. The late Qing reforms were not in vain—they formed a basis for the state-building projects of the generation that followed—but they actively undermined the Qing in the short run. Modernization projects were expensive, and peasants resented tax increases, such as those which paid for schools whose new curriculum seemed to depart from traditional moral concerns while offering nothing of practical use to farmers. That beloved temples might be forcibly turned into schools that only rich children could attend added salt to the wound. The abolition of the examination system was also destabilizing. Though elites were quick to turn to modern schooling for their children, men whose lives had revolved around study of the Confucian classics felt abandoned by a court that suddenly seemed to have no use for them. The exams had not been a mere institutional device to recruit officials but were integral to the Confucian integration of the dynastic realm.

The new educational system of course taught loyalty, but in practice schools became sites where radical students and teachers came together to protest every incident of Qing pusillanimity in the face of imperialist aggression. Perhaps most importantly of all, although suffrage was limited to wealthy and highly educated elites, the new provincial assemblies offered such men new ways to pressure the Qing court on a range of issues from taxes to the pace of constitutional reform. The assemblies reflected and fostered a new kind of national elite: largely based in the wealthy cities of the Jiangnan region (centered on Shanghai) but concerned with national rather than provincial issues. Furthermore, beyond the court’s purview, reform-minded Chinese were setting up a variety of political organizations: anti-footbinding societies, opium suppression societies, “citizen’s martial societies,” constitutional study societies, and the like.

Over the first decade of the twentieth century, constitutionalist and revolutionary organizations took root among Chinese students and merchants living abroad, most importantly in Tokyo. In normal times, these organizations would have remained marginal to events in China, but this was not a normal time. Overseas communities were by no means divorced from China—all of the students and many of the merchants had intimate business and family ties with the new national elites, and their writings evaded censorship to circulate widely in China itself. The “brush-war” between constitutionalists and revolutionaries was fierce, and sometimes involved shouting down and even attacking the enemy’s meetings. Emotions ran high, especially on the revolutionary side. In the first decade of the twentieth century a series of doomed uprisings, mostly reflecting Sun Yat-sen’s feckless faith that a spark would start a prairie fire, resulted in the deaths of hundreds in the southeast. Several students committed suicide to demonstrate the sincerity of their ideals and inspire comrades to continue the struggle. Others engaged in assassinations. Take the case of Qiu Jin. Abandoning her fairly wealthy family, including a husband and two children, she travelled to Japan to pursue her studies in 1904. A prolific author of classical poetry and vernacular political proclamations, Qiu argued both for women’s rights and Han Chinese nationalism. “Unbinding my own feet to undo the poisoned years | Arousing the souls of a hundred flowers to passionate movement,” she wrote on her way to Japan. Upon her return to China in 1906, she became a teacher. When her involvement in a plot to kill Manchu officials was discovered in 1907, she was executed. Much of Qiu’s life foreshadowed the actions of women revolutionaries in the ensuing decades.

The heart of the revolutionaries’ case lay in virulent anti-Manchuism. Zou Rong’s Revolutionary Army began with the command “Kill, kill, kill.” Zhang Binglin and Liu Shipei, both classical scholars, demonstrated that the Manchus were an alien and barbarian group from time immemorial. But the “Han race” was descended from conquering clans occupying China since ancient times. In the modern language of nationhood and race, therefore, Manchu rule over China was inherently illegitimate. As a hereditary military caste living in garrisons and separate urban districts, Manchus represented daily injustice. According to the revolutionaries, the Chinese were wretched today because their natural evolution into a strong nation had been suppressed by the Manchus. As “slaves of slaves” the Chinese had to throw off Manchu rule before they could stand up for themselves in the world. Accounts of the trauma of the bloody Manchu conquest of the seventeenth century aroused calls for ancestral revenge.

In 1905 in Tokyo, small and disparate revolutionary groups were brought together in an umbrella organization, the National Alliance or Tongmenghui, under Sun Yat-sen’s leadership. An activist and money-raiser more than an intellectual, Sun was able to loosely unite revolutionary students around the principles of anti-Manchuism (nationalism), republicanism, and the “equalization of land rights” or a vaguely socialist sentiment. France and the United States stood as examples of the patriotic energies engendered by republicanism, and revolutionaries tended to argue that republicanism represented universal human values seen, at least in embryonic form, in China as well as the West. They trusted that representative institutions would strengthen China, not weaken it. Indeed, they argued that since all persons were aware of the evils of the absolute monarchy, it would be easier to carry out a republican revolution than to pursue constitutional reforms under a hopelessly recalcitrant dynasty. They linked the idea of revolution (geming, an ancient term referring to the change of dynasties) to restoration (guangfu): the recovery of China by the Han people.

Socialism won Chinese adherents by promising a practical path toward economic development. Intellectuals who studied Western socialism concluded that China lacked the class conflict that was roiling Europe and America. They certainly understood that some Chinese were richer than others, but they saw the task before them as enriching society as a whole, not sharing the poverty. Sun Yat-sen was particularly attracted to the single-tax proposal of Henry George—that a tax be levied on the appreciation of land prices, an idea popular at the time but with little relevance to Chinese economic conditions.

The National Alliance’s support for land nationalization was not designed to “free” peasants but to forestall future class conflict as well as provide the basis for future state development programs. Only a handful of anarchists advocated full-scale “social revolution.” Two groups of Chinese anarchists, one in Tokyo and one in Paris, called for the abolition of the state entirely, though not necessarily through mass violence. The Paris group advocated “revolutionary education” as a means to promote “free association.” The Tokyo group spoke of a revolution of the “whole people.” The institutions of republicanism, in their view, were no less oppressive than those of monarchism. Anarchists also advocated cultural revolution, criticizing the Confucian “Three Bonds” that reinforced an entire social hierarchy in the model of the relationships of parent–child, ruler–subject, and husband–wife. The traditional morality of filial piety was to be replaced with equality, freedom, and rights. Anarchists demanded that respect be paid to traditionally despised groups: peasants, workers, women, and youth.

The main spokesman for the constitutionalist reformers was Liang Qichao, and it was Liang’s innovative journalism that introduced many Chinese, including his revolutionary opponents, to Western political doctrines. In the 1890s, Liang had criticized the Manchus for their reactionary and sclerotic leadership, their refusal to tear down the boundaries separating Manchu and Han, and indeed their “racial backwardness,” in the parlance of the era. But in the early 1900s his fear of revolution was greater than his distrust of the Qing court. Revolution, Liang claimed, would bring disorder and could well weaken China to the point that the foreign powers would take it over entirely. He distrusted republicanism, at least for the foreseeable future, as inherently less stable than constitutional monarchism. Pointing to Britain and Japan, Liang saw in constitutional monarchism a recipe for steady progress, giving the people a voice in government while providing overarching institutions to resolve conflicts among the people. He foresaw that by building up a civic culture gradually, the Chinese state would be defined by active citizens rather than “racial solidarity.” Liang contrasted the “narrow nationalism” of an “ethnically pure” Han China to “greater nationalism,” or “the unity of all groups belonging to the national territory to resist all foreign groups.” In racial terms, the Han and the Manchus shared a common enemy: the Whites. In political terms, institutions mattered less than raising the ability of the Chinese to cooperate among themselves and identify with the state. Given the people’s current backwardness, Liang said, republicanism was bound to fail.

For Liang, the nation-state was the only effective unit of struggle in a Social Darwinist world. The nation was not a biological given but an artifice of state-building. The strong survived while the weak perished. China’s contemporary crisis, in Liang’s view, had deeper historical roots than the Manchu conquest or Qing policies. Rather, although Liang was occasionally enticed by the notion of “enlightened absolutism,” he blamed China’s weakness on its long failure to progress out of an era of central imperial rule. This failure rested on two factors: first, the sclerotic institutions of absolute monarchy; and second, China’s long dominance in East Asia, which meant the state had not faced the kind of competition that would have forced it to evolve. Liang called for all Chinese to become citizens—members of the national community bearing rights and duties—because he saw this as the basis for strengthening the state. The people depended on the state and the state on the people. But ultimately state interests had to come first for Liang. He had no use for the revolutionaries’ advocacy of popular sovereignty, remained suspicious of egalitarianism, and despised cosmopolitanism (which threatened to weaken commitment to the nation’s struggle for survival). While some revolutionaries advocated women’s rights and free marriage on the grounds of natural justice, for example, Liang argued that women should be educated essentially in order that they could raise better citizens of the future.

In an influential stream of articles published over the first decade of the twentieth century Liang did much to create public opinion in China itself. Publishing houses and the schools formed the institutional basis for public opinion. Not coincidentally, the late Qing saw a profusion of fiction-writing and translation, much of which was designed to foster patriotic sentiments. Potentially seditious public opinion included the notions that the Qing dynasty was not the same as China and ultimate loyalty was owed only to the latter; that a new basis of the legitimacy of rulers lay in some kind of consent of the citizens; and that citizens constituted a political community that belonged to its members. Even officials used Liang’s words to talk about reform. When the National Assembly met in late 1910 it demanded to be treated as a legislative body, not the advisory role it was assigned in law. Some of the controversies that poisoned the relationship between assemblymen and the Qing court involved finances and official appointments. Some were symbolic, such as demands to abolish the queue and to pardon Kang and Liang for their role in the 1898 reforms.

Assemblymen were no radicals, though some of their sons and daughters were. Rather, they were frustrated by a court that was seemingly incapable of change. Since the deaths of Cixi and Guangxu in 1908 and the ascension of a 2-year-old to the throne, the Manchu regents’ commitment to reform faltered. Worse, the regency had cashiered prominent Han Chinese officials such as the military leader Yuan Shikai. Behind the clashes between the assemblymen and the Qing court lay the issue of how far power was going to be centralized—and whether it was going to be centralized in the hands of the imperial clan.

The political culture of urban elites was transformed at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the countryside was sinking further into stagnation. The gap between urban and rural China would continue to grow throughout the twentieth century, and it was in fact cemented into place by Maoist policies from the 1950s through the 1970s. Throughout the first decades of the century the rumble of rural unrest never ceased, and peasants resisted new tax impositions whenever they could. Such movements were local and less class-based than they were community-based. To speak of “peasants” is to include not only farmers but a range of men and women from drifters and beggars to petty merchants and lower gentry. An important group in much of rural China might be called “lumpen gentry”: traditionally educated men of some but not great or even secure property whose status in the community—and chances of upward mobility—had been disrupted by the abolition of the exams. Some of this group lost property and status in the course of the late Qing reforms, but others were able to make themselves into a new type of community leader by organizing armed bands of supporters.

Whole villages might band together to resist outside impositions or to struggle with neighboring villages over scarce resources like water. Rioting peasants would seize government buildings and grain storehouses. They often attacked the new schools and police offices, which not only demanded new taxes but expropriated temples and land. They knew nothing of democratic theory, though they possessed a strong sense of morality based on the mutual obligations of kin and community. Peasants often belonged to religious sects and secret societies. These were fraternal organizations, sometimes Mafia-like robbery and extortion rings, but mostly dedicated to self-defense. Such organizations could number their adherents in the tens of thousands and sometimes were headed by men of considerable wealth and power. Officials increasingly found themselves working with secret societies, the existence of which was obviously not secret, though some of their rituals and practices were. And the lines between peasants taking collective action, the formation of local militia, and the government’s regular soldiers were often blurry. Many men divided their time among their family’s fields, soldiering, and banditry, depending on the season and circumstances. Bands of beggars also roamed the land. Revolutionaries in the years before 1911 looked to secret societies for support. However, the revolutionaries’ national perspective clashed with the secret societies’ dedication to local interests. Rural unrest contributed to the revolution in mostly indirect ways, forcing elites to ask themselves who would control the peasants if officialdom failed to do so.

In 1910 the attempt to conduct a new national census provoked an explosion of opposition. Officials thought of the census as part of the new electoral system and the modernization of China; peasants thought of it as a means of imposing new taxes. As long as provincial elites backed the Qing, rural unrest delayed modernization plans but was politically irrelevant. Conflicts between the court and gentry leaders, however, were rising. Take railroads: enormously expensive and disruptive, requiring the government to borrow money and expropriate land, offering the opportunity of profit for a few, and involving the most sensitive issues of national sovereignty. Foreign investment in railway construction had become the norm, and gave foreigners rights to mine natural resources along the tracks as well. “Railway rights recovery” movements sought to gain control over the railroads for Chinese investors. But the court opposed local railway projects, and its insistence on nationalizing private railway companies after 1908 seemed to many provincial elites to be a sell-out to foreign interests. Of course, such men also saw that their own interests were at stake. The plan for a line from Hankou to Chengdu in Sichuan promised the exciting possibility of opening up the entire southwest to development. Sichuanese backers were enthusiastic, even though they themselves were divided into competing groups and even though a good deal of their money was lost to corruption and bad investments. At any rate, they agreed on opposition to court efforts to nationalize their companies—not least because the government was planning to use a foreign loan to do so—and street protests started in the spring of 1911. Student and merchant strikes crippled Chengdu, and peasants and secret societies attacked police and tax bureaus all through the region. Local militia clashed with soldiers over the following months, and revolutionaries became involved. The scale of the violence was extreme in Sichuan, but the issues were national.

Just as these events were unfolding in Sichuan, the Wuchang Uprising broke out down the Yangzi River in central China on October 10, 1911. Tensions in the area, reflecting the disturbances upriver, had been running high. Student radicals, some but not most affiliated with the National Alliance, had worked hard since at least 1904 to recruit New Army soldiers to the revolutionary cause. Of 18,000 troops in the area, about a third were members of various revolutionary organizations by 1911. On the night of October 9 revolutionary bomb-makers suffered an accidental explosion, and Qing officials began to make arrests, seizing key membership lists. Surviving revolutionaries realized they could not go underground: they had to resist, and the rebellion got under way the following morning. The Manchu governor-general and the top military commander both fled, and the rebels found themselves with a local victory. The rebels convinced a reluctant colonel to lead them. This man, Li Yuanhong, had prestige among the troops, spoke some English, and was familiar to the elites of central China. The Qing response was to send in military reinforcements and to ask Yuan Shikai to return to official service. Yuan, however, did not accept his new command until he had placed men loyal to him in critical positions. Meanwhile, although the Wuchang revolutionaries were bottled up, revolution broke out in other cities over the last ten days of October: in the provinces of Shanxi, Hunan, Jiangxi, and Yunnan. By the end of November, central and southern China had in effect seceded from the Qing empire, along with Shanxi and Shaanxi in the north. Cities with major Qing garrisons were taken by the revolutionaries, sometimes after fierce fighting and even massacres of Manchus. Still, all-out civil war did not occur. In some places that the Qing lost, the military took control; in others urban elites worked with the military; in a few places revolutionaries held power. But Qing forces held in the north, and a stalemate ensued. In December Yuan Shikai sent a representative to conduct negotiations with the revolutionaries in Shanghai. It may be that Yuan thought the Qing could be turned into a genuine constitutional monarchy, with a new parliament and himself as prime minister.

Such was not to be the case. When the Wuchang Uprising broke out, Sun Yat-sen was in Denver, from whence he travelled to Europe seeking the powers’ neutrality and, if possible, loans. He arrived back in China at the end of the year and, though loan-less, was elected provisional president of the Chinese republic in Nanjing on January 1, 1912. Sun was something of a compromise candidate, but at least he represented long-term dedication to the cause of revolution. The founding of the Republic of China (ROC) was in itself a considerable blow to the Qing. Symbolizing its break from the imperial past and its membership in the world of modern nation-states, the ROC adopted the solar calendar and proclaimed Year One of the Republic.

Yet not until February 12 did the Qing actually abdicate, bringing the dynasty to an end after 260 years. The deal was this: as the revolutionaries wanted, China would become a republic; as Yuan Shikai wanted, Sun would resign as president, turning the post over to Yuan; as the imperial house wanted, or at least as Empress Dowager Longyu was willing to accept, the court would be given an allowance and certain privileges, such as temporarily remaining in the Forbidden City. Yuan became the ROC’s second provisional president, and Li Yuanhong became his vice-president.

The 1911 Revolution did little to affect class relations or the rural–urban gap. It did nothing to challenge imperialism. It even left many of the old provincial power-holders in place, if with new titles. The conservative aspects of the revolution are thus clear. Yet the revolution established fundamentally new political principles, and Yuan continued the battered reform policies of the late Qing: modernizing the military, building up the infrastructure, supporting new schools, and, not least, using foreign advisers and taking out foreign loans. The revolution demolished forever the right of any one family to claim the rule of the empire; it instilled the principle that legitimate power rested on the sovereignty of the people; and it created China as a modern state, claiming distinct borders to mark its territories and position in the world.

Backed by the power of the gun, Yuan Shikai formally became president in 1913 and remained in office until his death in 1916. His was not a happy presidency. Over the four years from 1912 to 1916 the liberal constitutional order dreamed of by reformers and revolutionaries alike was demolished to make way for Yuan’s autocracy, and self-destructive autocracy at that. Yuan had the support of the military, though only up to a point, as he was to learn. Anti-Manchuism did not disappear, but it diminished with the passing of the dynasty. In fact, it disappeared so quickly that we may wonder how important a factor it really was in the revolution. At any rate, by 1912, revolutionaries agreed with Yuan that China was to be the “republic of five races”—Han, Manchu, Mongol, Hui (Muslim, Uighur), and Tibetan. The ROC flag consisted of five stripes of red, yellow, blue, white, and black, symbolizing the five races. Such multi-ethnic nationalism was the basis for the ROC’s claim to the territory of the old Qing empire, a territory much larger than the Ming had governed. With considerable skill, Yuan’s government was able to maintain Chinese sovereignty over the non-Han borderland regions, with the exception of what became Mongolia under Russian sponsorship.

In 1912, while a rump Qing court remained in the Forbidden City, the Imperial City just to the west became the new presidential palaces (and it remains the Communist Party headquarters today). Yuan inherited the vast debts of the Qing. The land tax was in disarray. Tariffs were collected by the foreign-controlled Maritime Customs Service, but these were used to pay off indemnities and the interest on old loans. Yuan’s first task was to gain foreign recognition of the new government and a new loan. The foreign powers saw in Yuan the one man who might hold China together and protect their investments, and he duly received a loan to the tune of £25 million.

Parliamentary elections were held. The right to vote was broadened to include adult males with some property and education: about 40 million men or 10 percent of the population qualified. National political parties were formed, another demonstration of the new national consciousness. With Sun Yat-sen’s support, the revolutionaries coalesced around Song Jiaoren at the head of a newly organized Nationalist Party (Guomindang—ancestor to but distinct from the Nationalist Party founded at the end of the decade in a different political climate). Song promoted a strong cabinet system, which would have the effect of limiting Yuan’s powers as president. Song abandoned the revolutionaries’ socialism and rejected a role for women in politics. These moves were designed to appeal to voters who might otherwise support the Progressive Party, headed by Liang Qichao, or even more conservative parties. They paid off, with the Nationalist Party able to form a working majority of the new parliament in 1913. Song himself, however, was assassinated on his way to Beijing. Evidence pointed to Yuan as the culprit, but the case was never proved. Over the course of 1913 Yuan moved against the Nationalist Party and dismissed its members from parliament. Sun attempted to organize a “second revolution” against Yuan, but Yuan easily put it down and Sun’s men fled again to Japan.

Yuan has thus come down in history as a traitor to the republic. The charge is fair, but Yuan’s devotion to state-building was genuine. In effect, Yuan continued the Qing’s “New Policy” reforms that he had originally helped to put into place. Unfortunately, he implemented them as top-down impositions on local society, and they continued to arouse popular opposition. Yuan’s efforts to suppress opium had some success, but his attempt to rationalize tax collection contributed to an alarming rise in rural banditry. At the same time, school-building and even prison reform gave Yuan’s rule an aura of modernity. Yuan’s habit of appearing in his generalissimo uniform, while not democratic, expressed the new China’s determination to strengthen itself. Late Qing intellectuals had already criticized traditional Chinese contempt for soldiers, and now Yuan embodied the ideal of a militarized society. Military parades dominated the anniversary celebrations of “Double Ten”—commemorations of the Wuchang Uprising of October 10. Schools turned physical education classes into military drills. Children were taught a new sense of bodily discipline, posture, and punctuality. This may have had roots in traditional concern for health seen in the kind of martial arts rituals practiced by the Boxers. But it rested on a new scientific understanding of childhood development. Schools preached endlessly about standards of hygiene, and demanded that students line up before and after class, defecate once a day on schedule, and generally abide by standards of “civilized” behavior. Notions of “civilized behavior” and bodily discipline deeply affected Chinese culture. New Republican citizens abandoned the kowtow in favor of shaking hands. Sun Yat-sen, among others, was to complain about Chinese who farted and blew their noses in public. Signs in Chinese cities to this day link proper spitting and urination to civilization. Queues were forcibly cut and anti-footbinding drives gained further momentum. New regulations stipulated that officials were to wear formal Western clothing on certain occasions.

The economy under Yuan benefited greatly from the European war that broke out in 1914. Western imports contracted, benefiting Chinese manufacturers, and foreign demand for Chinese resources rocketed up. Like America, China initially remained neutral, though Britain’s ally Japan took over the German concessions in Shandong. In January 1915 Japan presented Yuan with its “Twenty-One Demands,” mostly insisting on special Japanese economic rights in the north and in Fujian Province (opposite its colony of Taiwan). A final set of demands would have brought Japanese police and administrators into the central government itself. Yuan deliberately leaked the demands to the press, and predictable popular opposition was loud and swift. An anti-Japanese boycott dwarfed that of the anti-American boycott ten years earlier. This is perhaps the one occasion Yuan tried to work with—or at least use—public opinion and bottom-up politics. Finally, Japan issued an ultimatum, and Yuan had no choice but to agree to all but the most draconian of the demands on May 25, which became National Humiliation Day in future Chinese calendars. A sense of humiliation was to become a core element of Chinese nationalism in the 1920s and persists to this day. This was not merely an aggrieved charge of wrongs done to the Chinese people from the Opium War on, but a deeply embedded historical narrative. Every schoolchild came across “humiliation maps” in history and geography textbooks detailing when and where particular instances of imperialist aggression and territorial loss occurred.

In the immediate wake of the Twenty-One Demands, Yuan moved to make himself emperor of a new dynasty. This radical move was not entirely unexpected, and it seems probable that Yuan thought that the Chinese people wanted the return of an emperor to restore order. He may also have thought it would placate the monarchy across the sea, Japan. But he miscalculated on both counts. Public opinion—urban and educated—was aghast, and top army officers, hitherto loyal, were dismayed. Yuan’s traditionalism was long-standing. He had consistently demanded that Confucianism remain a major part of the school curriculum, though he resisted the demands of Kang Youwei and others that Confucianism be made the state religion. In December 1914 he had revived the ancient imperial practice of making sacrifices to Heaven at the winter solstice. The next year Yuan began to implement an elaborate—but perfectly transparent—hoax of supposedly popular petitions and elections demanding that he become emperor. He promised that his would be a constitutional monarchy, not the absolutist dynasties as of old. In this way Yuan tried to combine disparate forms of legitimization: the traditional will of Heaven and the new democratic notions of popular sovereignty. But in neither role he was convincing.

Yuan lost the support of all the social forces in China that mattered. The ordinary people were irrelevant, and most peasants had no knowledge of these events in Beijing. But of elites, even monarchists were dismayed, since most of them favored a restoration of the Qing. More representative of the various strands of urban sentiment, the rivals Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen alike denounced Yuan in the harshest terms. Provinces in the southwest were the first to declare their independence, armies were raised, within three months Yuan cancelled the monarchy, and within another three months he was dead of uremia and mortification.

Thus began the “warlord era” and further descent into political chaos. Li Yuanhong assumed the presidency and recalled parliament. But real power shifted into the hands of regional militarists large and small. In Beijing, Yuan’s top generals Duan Qirui and Feng Guozhang attempted to share power, but the government broke down in a welter of factional struggles. One result was that another general, one who believed in the restoration of the Qing, was able to briefly take the city in July 1917 and put the boy emperor Puyi back on his throne. That lasted not quite two weeks. Meanwhile, the Japanese government made further, secret loans to the Beijing militarists, in return for which the Japanese were allowed to station police and army troops in Mongolia, Manchuria, and Shandong. The foreign powers continued to recognize the Beijing government diplomatically, and a skeletal civil service continued to work in the areas of foreign affairs, education, and the legal system. It even managed to convince the powers to raise tariffs to 5 percent. But the unified polity was broken with Yuan’s death, if indeed it had not already disintegrated with the fall of the Qing.

The failures of Yuan’s monarchy in 1916 and of the Qing restoration in 1917 showed that what had been broken could not be put back together again. China, at least urban China, had moved on. By the 1910s, urban groups showed little nostalgia for the imperial order. Merchants were organized into Chambers of Commerce, skilled workers into guilds (unskilled workers might be members of gangs or secret societies), and students and young women insisted on being heard. All these groups were learning to speak in the name of the nation, progress, and civilization. If they had conflicting goals, they could also unite around shared causes such as the anti-Japanese boycott of 1915. The question facing politically minded Chinese was how to understand the failure of liberal constitutionalism and the ongoing weakness of their country.

One answer was to critically examine Chinese culture for the causes of political failure. In this view, autocracy and monarchism were the symptoms, not the cause of the disease. It followed that the cure lay not in political action but cultural change. And by cultural change, certain intellectuals meant to tear out Confucianism root and branch. The New Culture Movement popularized the radically democratic and anti-Confucian sentiments first broached by a few thinkers in the late Qing. This is not to say most Chinese—even most young, educated Chinese—agreed that there was nothing at all good in Confucianism. Most people continued to have some respect for the values of filial piety, benevolence, and loyalty. But not if such notions conflicted with new values of democracy, egalitarianism, and science. New Culture intellectuals were cosmopolitans. Chen Duxiu, for example, praised the French Revolution. He had no more respect for the nationalism and imperialism of Western nations than he had for Chinese chauvinism. But he thought that Westerners had done a better job of encouraging innovation and individualism.

Chen founded his journal New Youth in 1915 as a response to Yuan Shikai’s monarchical movement. “All persons,” he wrote, “are equal. Each has the right to be independent, but absolutely no right to enslave others nor any obligation to make himself servile.” New Youth soon achieved a monthly circulation of 16,000, while hundreds of smaller journals were started over the next few years to convey similar messages of social progress and personal liberation. Many students were ready to hear that they themselves, not their fathers, should be choosing their own spouses, and that free marriage was part of any modern social order.

Chen argued that Yuan’s monarchical movement rested on the superstitious and backward beliefs of the general population. Confucianism, teaching the morality of social hierarchy and patriarchalism, was incompatible with democracy, for “Confucianism and the Chinese monarchical system possess an inextricable relationship.” Chen was an optimist, believing in the progress of civilization. But looking at current conditions, Chen concluded, “although the majority of the Chinese people say they are not opposed to the Republic, their minds are in fact stuffed full of the old thought of the imperial age.” And so, “To firmly secure the Republic today, we must totally wash the old thought of anti-republicanism clean away from the minds of the Chinese people.”

The institutional basis for the New Culture Movement was twofold, one leg in Peking University and other schools in Beijing and one leg in the Shanghai publishing industry. In the interstices of warlord China after Yuan’s death, a degree of protection was afforded radical critics. Chen became dean at Peking University. Another significant cultural change of the 1910s was a turn toward using the vernacular to replace classical styles of writing. Another Peking University professor, Hu Shi, first made his mark as an advocate of the vernacular—for Hu a matter of clarity in writing and thinking, but for Chen Duxiu equally a matter of overthrowing the old culture.

Not everyone agreed that the correct response to the failure of republican institutions was to turn to cultural reform. Sun Yat-sen organized a new Chinese Revolutionary Party in 1914, attracting some of the old members of the National Alliance to swear personal fealty to him. They were able to establish a government in Guangzhou in 1917, though Sun soon had to retreat to Shanghai. There he further honed his message and bided his time. Sun believed that the only route to change depended on direct political action but that some elements of traditional Confucianism were worth preserving.

The years of warfare across Europe from 1914 to 1918 supported both radical and conservative critiques of Western civilization. While radicals wished to separate out universal ideals from bloody practice, conservatives argued that it was those very ideals—excessive individualism, science pursued at any cost, and outright materialism—that proved the moral bankruptcy of the West. Initially, no Chinese saw a particular reason to support one group of imperialist aggressors over another. However, as French and British citizens went off to be slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands, the Allies realized that Chinese labor could help keep their factories, construction, and transport moving. The Beijing warlord government agreed to send about 150,000 Chinese contract workers to Europe between 1916 and 1918, where a handful of educated Chinese students was on hand to help with translation issues. A number of the workers and students became Communists during their sojourn in Europe. In 1917, pressured by the United States as well as Japan, China declared war on Germany.

The Allied victory in 1918 was thus a Chinese victory too. The New Culture intellectuals were jubilant, seeing in this result nothing less than the victory of good over evil. The president of Peking University, Cai Yuanpei, who had himself studied in Germany, exulted that the Allied victory represented the victory of mutual aid (an anarchist-tinged ideal) over sheer might; transparency over secret plots; democracy over autocracy; and even racial justice over oppression. The Japanese-educated librarian of Peking University, Li Dazhao, wrote: “To put it in a word, democracy is the only power operating in the world today, and the present era is the era of democracy.” For men like Chen, Cai, and Li, democracy was not merely a political system but an entire way of life, one that guaranteed that workers, peasants, and women would have an equal chance to develop their characters. Li understood the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia as the logical extension of the Allied victory over Germany. That is, the bourgeois democracy of countries like Britain and the United States had been a significant step forward from an earlier aristocratic social system; in turn, the workers’ cooperatives of Russia were now creating an even truer form of democracy that was coming to China.

Utopian longings were a natural response to the continuing disintegration of traditional society. Insofar as Chinese society had held together throughout the Qing dynasty, the means by which it did so were no longer available after the turn of the twentieth century. Instead, a new language of citizenship, equality, and democracy spoke of the political and social incorporation of previously downtrodden groups. Over the course of the “long 1911 Revolution” students, merchants, workers, soldiers, and women all demanded inclusion. The revolution did not immediately build institutions capable of dealing with the challenges facing China—imperialism, agrarian stagnation, poverty, and the like—but it fostered creative approaches and a vibrant if frustrated civil society. Thus limped forward the Republic of China, at least in the minds of its new citizens.

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