20080217-uccting off queue in 1911 mclc.jpg
Cutting of the queue in 1911
The end of imperial rule was followed by nearly four decades of major socioeconomic development and sociopolitical discord. The initial establishment of a Western-style government---the Republic of China---was followed by several efforts to restore the throne. Lack of a strong central authority led to regional fragmentation, warlordism, and civil war. The main figure in the revolutionary movement that overthrew imperial rule was Sun Yat-sen (1866--1925), who, along with other republican political leaders, endeavored to establish a parliamentary democracy. They were thwarted by warlords with imperial and quasi-democratic pretensions who resorted to assassination, rebellion, civil war, and collusion with foreign powers (especially Japan) in their efforts to gain control.

Ignored by the Western powers and in charge of a southern military government with its capital in Guangzhou, Sun Yatsen eventually turned to the new Soviet Union for inspiration and assistance. The Soviets obliged Sun and his Kuomintang (Guomindang, Nationalist Party). Soviet advisers helped the Kuomintang establish political and military training activities. But Moscow also supported the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was founded by Mao Zedong (1893---1976) and others in Shanghai in 1921. The Soviets hoped for consolidation of the Kuomintang and the CCP but were prepared for either side to emerge victorious. The struggle for power in China began between the Kuomintang and the CCP as both parties also sought the unification of China.

A major political and social movement during this time was the May Fourth Movement (1919), in which calls for the study of “science” and “democracy” were combined with a new patriotism that became the focus of an anti-Japanese and antigovernment movement. Sun’s untimely death from illness in 1925 brought a split in the Kuomintang and eventually an uneasy united front between the Kuomintang and the CCP.

Beheaded revolutionists in Wuchang

Good Websites and Sources on Early 20th Century China Sun Yat-sen Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Time Asia ; My Grandfather Sun Yat-sen Asia Week ; May 4th Movement Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Obituary New York Times ; Madame Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ;

Good Websites and Sources on Empress Dowager Cixi: Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cixi’s Luxurious Life ; Book on Cixi; The Last Emperor Puyi Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Time Asia ; Hartford Courant; Puyi Biography

Foreigners in China: 19th Century Tea Trade in China Harvard Business School ; Early Chinese Emmigrants to America: Central Pacific Railroad Museum ; Chinese Americans Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Taiping Rebellion: Taiping ; Wikipedia Taiping Rebellion article Wikipedia ; Books About Taiping Rebellion; Boxer Rebellion National Archives ; Modern History Sourcebook ; San Francisco 1900 newspaper article Library of Congress ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Cox Rebellion PhotosCaldwell Kvaran ; Eyewitness Account ; Sino-Japanese ; Wikipedia article on the Sino-Japanese War Wikipedia ;

Good Websites and Sources on the Opium War : Emperor of China’s War on Drugs ; Good Images from the Period on MIT’s Visualizing Cultures MIT’s Visualizing Cultures , MIT’s Visualizing Cultures , MIT’s Visualizing Cultures and MIT’s Visualizing Cultures ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Websites on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Art ; Qing Dynasty Explained ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) e-book ; Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History)

Books: 1) The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston; 2). Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen R. Platt (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). Platt is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 3) God's Chinese Son by Yale's Jonathan Spence is also about the Taping Rebellion. Other Books from the period. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011); 2) China: Alive in the Bitter Sea by Fox Butterfield; 3) China: A New History by John K. Fairbank; 4) China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History by Charles O. Hucker; 5) In Search of Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence; 6) The Chan's Great Continent: China to Western Minds by Jonathan Spence (Norton, 1998). 7) Cambridge History of China multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); 8) The Last Emperors: A Social History of the Qing Imperial Institutions by Evelyn S. Rawski (University of California Press, 1999); 9) Sea of Poppies by Amitva Ghosh (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008) is a novel set during the Opium Wars mostly in India but also in China that was shortlisted listed for the Man Booker Prize. You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

Republican Revolution of 1911

The Qing Dynasty was brought down by a highly organized revolutionary movement with overseas arms and financing and a coherent governing ideology based on republican nationalism. Failure of reform from the top and the fiasco of the Boxer Uprising convinced many Chinese that the only real solution lay in outright revolution, in sweeping away the old order and erecting a new one patterned preferably after the example of Japan.

Sun Yat-sen was then a republican and anti-Qing activist who became increasingly popular among the overseas Chinese and Chinese students abroad, especially in Japan. In 1905 Sun founded the Tongmeng Hui (United League) in Tokyo with Huang Xing (1874-1916), a popular leader of the Chinese revolutionary movement in Japan, as his deputy. This movement, generously supported by overseas Chinese funds, also gained political support with regional military officers and some of the reformers who had fled China after the Hundred Days' Reform. [Source: The Library of Congress]

March of the revolutionary army on Wuhan

“The republican revolution broke out on October 10, 1911, in Wuchang, the capital of Hubei Province, among discontented modernized army units whose anti-Qing plot had been uncovered. It had been preceded by numerous abortive uprisings and organized protests inside China. The revolt quickly spread to neighboring cities, and Tongmeng Hui members throughout the country rose in immediate support of the Wuchang revolutionary forces. By late November, fifteen of the twenty-four provinces had declared their independence of the Qing empire. A month later, Sun Yat-sen returned to China from the United States, where he had been raising funds among overseas Chinese and American sympathizers. On January 1, 1912, Sun was inaugurated in Nanjing as the provisional president of the new Chinese republic. But power in Beijing already had passed to the commander-in-chief of the imperial army, Yuan Shikai, the strongest regional military leader at the time. To prevent civil war and possible foreign intervention from undermining the infant republic, Sun agreed to Yuan's demand that China be united under a Beijing government headed by Yuan.

On February 12, 1912, the 6-year-old child emperor of the Qing Dynasty abdicated, ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. On March 10, in Beijing, Yuan Shikai was sworn in as provisional president of the Republic of China.

Wuchang Uprising and Xinhai Revolution and Their Legacy

Robert Saiget of AFP wrote: “When the army of the Qing Dynasty turned its guns on the state on October 10, 1911, it signalled the end of 2,000 years of imperial rule in China and the promise of a democratic republican government.The first shots were fired in Wuchang part of today's city of Wuhan sparking battles between imperial forces and rebel soldiers during which 16 other regions declared independence in what has come to be known as the Xinhai Revolution. The Wuchang Uprising led to the establishment of the Republic of China by revolutionary Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist Party, which fought under the banner of nationalism, democracy and the people's livelihood. [Source: Robert Saiget, AFP, October 10, 2011]

China marked the centennial of the Wuchang Uprising with the release of "1911", a big-budget historical movie directed by Jackie Chan, and a new museum in the central metropolis of Wuhan where it began. But the celebrations were muted, particularly compared with those that marked the 90th birthday in July of the ruling Communist Party. That, say experts, is because of the troublesome connotations with democracy and Taiwan. October 10, the day the Wuchang Uprising began, is celebrated as Taiwan's national day.

"The (Communist) party will play up the ability of the people to throw off the yoke of imperialism, that the people have stood up, and day by day China is becoming a superpower," Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AFP. "But they will not want to discuss the democratic element. The emphasis is on wealth of the people and international power."

Beijing believes it is heir to Sun's legacy and argues that a dramatic rise in living standards during the past 30 years of economic reform is the fruit of his revolution. But the ideological battle between the Nationalists and Communists continues over whether the Xinhai Revolution ushered in a truly republican form of government in China.

Battle neat Hankow

"The eruption of the Xinhai Revolution overthrew several thousand years of imperial rule and has had a huge impact on the psychology of the Chinese people," historian Lei Yi of the China Academy of Social Sciences told AFP. "The Communist Party believes that they are continuing the spirit of the Xinhai Revolution and that the Nationalists betrayed the revolution."

Qin Yongmin, a Wuhan resident who was released last year from a 12-year jail term for subversion, argues that the revolution only replaced one dictator with another. "I do not have a very high appraisal of the Xinhai Revolution," Qin, who was jailed in 1998 after calling for multi-party democracy in China as chairman of the outlawed China Democracy Party, told AFP. "The imperial system was removed, but a totalitarian dictator stepped in. Mao Zedong was not an emperor, he was worse than an emperor, he was more of a dictator than the emperor."

At an official event commemorating the centennial in Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao said the Communist Party is "the most faithful successor" to the spirit of the Xinhai Revolution. Hu then called on Taiwan to work toward reunification, urging China and Taiwan to "heal the wounds of the past and work together to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." In the run-up to the anniversary, China's state-run newspapers carried front-page articles on the 1911 uprising, but avoided any mention of its democratic aims. Chan's film, "1911", is similarly quiet on the subject.There have also been reports of academic events being cancelled or pressure placed on their organisers to avoid reference to the contemporary implications of the revolution's aims. The Wall Street Journal argued that “with the ideological heritage of communism neutralized by cronyism and corporatism, the CCP insists that the revolutions of 1911 and 1949 were powered by the elusive stuff of “nationalism.”"

"Wuhan has always been proud of the Wuchang Uprising and its contribution to China's development, but the people are actually very indifferent to it," said retiree Guo Xinglian as he strolled in a park near where the uprising began. "Today a lot of people think the Communist Party is more corrupt than the Qing Dynasty, but they also know that the Communist Party is very strong and any attempt at an uprising will be crushed."

Background Behind the Wuchang Uprising and Xinhai Revolution

Pamela Kyle wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “China has a long history of uprisings against corrupt officials, high rents and foreign trespass. From the end of the 19th century, the Chinese demonstrated and occasionally rebelled against territorial seizures by foreign powers, the intrusion of foreign goods into Chinese markets, the foreign monopoly on railroads, official corruption and military incompetence. This resistance became a resource for those attempting to concentrate the fire of public discontent on the Qing court. [Source: Pamela Kyle, Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2011]

Rebels entrenched at Kilometer 10

Traditional Chinese society was skilled in organizing the resources necessary for sustaining civil action---and uncivil if needed---against the government. The power of the Chinese public to mobilize fuels reform and creativity in China, while marking some real limits to government abuse. This continues to define the Chinese identity in the 21st century. Yet it is so loathed by the Chinese Communist Party that even the phrase "civil society" is banned online and in print.

The 1911 revolution was also international in origin and orientation. Its leading figures, including Sun Yat-sen, had been raised at the margins of traditional China, or had spent their entire adult lives abroad---whether in the British colony of Hong Kong, the United States and its Pacific possessions, the European colonies of Southeast Asia, or the cities and universities of liberal Meiji Japan. They were accustomed to legal protections on political speech, the idea of impartial government and the prospect of democracy.

After being banished from the Qing territories in the 1890s, reformers and revolutionaries traveled to or published in the Chinese communities of the Pacific, Latin America, North America and Europe to raise money for their cause. Not surprisingly, when the new republic was erected, its international orientation persisted, though it lost some credibility as Japan became financially and militarily more predatory. Nevertheless, collaborative relations with the United States, the Soviet Union and Europe (including the despatch of more than 100,000 men to support British and French armies in World War I) remained a defining element of the first Chinese Republic, and in many forms persisted in the P.R.C. until the late 1950s.

China was part of the Qing empire, ruled by foreign invaders, the Manchus. The Chinese themselves had no armies, no defined boundaries and above all no concept of national sovereignty. At the end of the 19th century, as in the cases of many peoples entering the twilight of the great land empires, Chinese leaders arose who claimed the banner of nationalism. Their opposition to the Qing, British and French empires was clear enough. What was unclear was the basis of this nationalism once the Qing fell and the assaults of foreign empires withered away.

Reforms Before the 1911 Revolution and Failures Afterwards

Sebastian Veg wrote in the The China Beat, “China’s 1911 Revolution ushered in a constitutional monarchy, rapidly followed by the proverbial “first Republic in Asia, “with Sun Yat-sen as its short-lived first president. Although political change had been expected, the revolution itself came as something of a surprise at the end of a decade of political reforms known as the “New policy “by the Manchu court, which had already largely transformed the organization of the Chinese state. The abolition of the century-old system of civil service examinations, the election of various provincial-level assemblies (albeit by a very small franchise) which fostered the power of the local gentry, the establishment of modern schools and universities, and the influx of western commodities and techniques under the motto “Chinese learning as substance, Western learning as function” all took place during the last years of Qing rule. When the revolution finally occurred, it came as the icing on the cake of an incremental institution-building process that had taken place over the preceding decade. [Source: Sebastian Veg, The China Beat, October 10, 2011. Sebastian Veg is the director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (Hong Kong). He has published a monography on Lu Xun and European modernism, and his current research interests are in the area of literature and intellectuals in modern and contemporary China.]

Pitched battle between imperial and revolutionary army

However, the top-down reforms launched by the court throughout the 1900s were at the same time being outpaced by the growing radicalization of China’s intellectuals, many of whom spent this decade in Japan. While Kang Youwei’s idea of a constitutional, Confucian monarchy had appeared as revolutionary in 1898, by 1911 Kang was seen by most progressive thinkers and activists as a hopeless and eccentric reactionary. Even Liang Qichao, one of the most prominent and widely-read advocates of constitutionalism and an admirer of the British system, was outflanked by the cultural and political vanguard represented by activists like Zhang Binglin (Zhang Taiyan), the editor of the influential Minbao, published in Tokyo. Zhang and many of his followers, in particular the group known as the “Tokyo anarchists”, criticized what they saw as the pro-Western bias in the institution-building process and advocated a different kind of democracy, rooted in social equality and inspired by archaic and often esoteric Chinese thinkers.

The 1911 revolution, whether because of the initial weakness of its proponents or through a series of unlucky historical coincidences, rapidly led to the restoration of Yuan Shikai to the imperial throne. The long-anticipated democratic system and the greater social and civic equality that was to result from it remained elusive, prompting a decade of soul-searching among China’s intellectuals. The most famous product of these reflections was without doubt Lu Xun’s Ah Q, the epitome of a revolutionary who is unequipped and unable to become a citizen. How were China’s Ah Qs to be made into citizens” This became the foremost preoccupation of the country’s intellectual elite for many years, setting them apart from the world of power politics. The New Culture movement, with its emphasis on education and individual autonomy, was followed by cultural agendas that became increasingly utopian as politics became more cynical and polarized. When Duan Qirui sent his troops into Beijing, Lu Xun’s brother Zhou Zuoren took his Beijing University students to study in the countryside, emulating the Japanese “New Village movement.” As Chiang Kai-shek massacred supposed communist sympathizers, Liang Shuming set up utopian rural schools in China’s remote backwaters. “Real” democracy was always seen as outside the corrupt institutions of party politics; however, the utopian vision of “fostering citizens” never led to the desired changes in the political system. Similarly to Weimar Germany, the Republic of China was a time of great freedom and intellectual ferment, but also a Republic without republicans, a regime whose institutions no one was prepared to invest in.

In this manner, mistrust of institutions remained strong among critical Chinese intellectuals for most of the century, and was notably instrumentalized to great effect by Mao during the Cultural Revolution---which is not to say that “organic” intellectuals did not crave recognition from the state when the opportunity arose. However, it was only after the beginning of Reform and Opening up that the Chinese elite again warmed to the theme of institution building: throughout the 1980s---a decade of intellectual ferment and political reform in many ways similar to the 1900s---the feeling dominated that an institutional compromise was possible between inner-Party reformers and idealistic intellectuals. After the violent crackdown of the 1989 student movement, a similar pattern emerged: rather than embarking on an uncertain long march through the institutions, many of China’s foremost critical thinkers once again took refuge in other realms: academia, legal activism, grassroots civil society organizations, personal investigations of recent history, documentary films, or emigration. Only Liu Xiaobo, loyal to the spirit of the 1980s, reaffirmed his commitment to formulating an institutional alternative, demonstrated most clearly in the Charter 08 he co-authored. On the whole, however, institutional reform was seen as both hopeless and useless (a point tragically demonstrated by Liu’s arrest) and the real battles were elsewhere.

It took almost one century from the fall of the Bastille until French citizens of all political stripes could to come together at the funeral of Republican icon Victor Hugo, a sign, according to historian François Furet’s famous pronouncement, that “Revolution had entered port.” This has not happened in China. To the contrary, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with its carefully crafted historical narrative, took great pains to avoid sketching out a possible political consensus on how to define the nation in the 20th century, closely confining itself to the cultural bric-a-brac of its “5,000-year history.” This absence of even a minimal consensus on the nature of the Chinese polity speaks eloquently to the open legacy of 1911. One hundred years on, the divide between an institutional apparatus that seems less and less amenable to reform and an aspirational form of democracy that has not yet found a satisfactory institutional translation on the Chinese mainland remains as deep as ever.

Captured Republican prisoners

Ideas about Democracy in China at the Turn of the 20th Century

According to the Economist: “It is often said, even by some of the harshest critics of Communist rule, that China is not ready for democracy. Not quite yet. This was already a familiar refrain in Song’s lifetime. The scholar Liang visited America in 1903, looked scornfully at the “disorderly” life of the Chinese in San Francisco, and reached a harsh conclusion: “If we were to adopt a democratic system of government now, it would be nothing less than national suicide,” he wrote. “The Chinese people can only be governed autocratically; they cannot enjoy freedom.” Perhaps after 50 years, he suggested, “we can give them the books of [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau and tell them about the deeds of [George] Washington.” [Source: The Economist, December 22, 2012 <<<]

“The Chinese people, long yoked by Confucian tradition and insulated from Western influences, may have been unprepared for the radical terminology of liberty. But it arrived nevertheless. Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, an ideological precursor of the French revolution, appeared in translation in 1898; young Chinese were beginning to read about the deeds of Washington, too. Yan Fu, the era’s most important translator of Western thought, introduced Chinese readers to Darwin’s theory of natural selection in 1898, to John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” in 1899, Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” the following year, and Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws”—which, more than a century earlier, had influenced the drafters of the American constitution—in 1905. <<<

“Until then China had been largely ignorant of three centuries of new thinking by the “barbarians” of the West. In the case of industrial technology, the effects of this disregard were parlous. The Qing emperor Qianlong had turned away the British emissary, Lord Macartney, in 1793, saying he had no use for British products, “ingenious” as they might be. Britain came later with modern ships and weapons instead, to force China to buy opium. Together the Western powers (and, in 1895, Japan) began carving up China and raiding its treasury with a series of unfair treaties. <<<

“By the end of the 19th century these humiliations had given rise to nationalism and anti-foreign sentiment that posed a threat to the Qing rulers, who as Manchus were already considered foreign by Han Chinese. In 1898 the Qing began reforming the hopelessly antiquated Confucian education system, allowing the introduction of some “useful” Western concepts. Peasants and landed gentry alike were forming political societies, some secretive, some subversive, some progressive, including several devoted to ending the practice of binding women’s feet. The telegraph was coming into use, bringing news of international events; meanwhile, some imperial edicts were still being delivered by horse post. <<<

Elections in 1912 and 1913

Dog devouring the remains of killed soldiers

The Economist reported: “In the elections of December 1912 to early 1913 more than 10 percent of the Chinese population would be eligible to cast votes, an elite but still large group of 40 million male taxpayers who owned some property and had a primary-school education. (Women had not won the right to vote; one suffragist slapped Song in the face for not taking up their cause.) China’s first real democratic campaign had begun. What did this first go at democracy look like? Partisans roughed up opposing candidates and activists, carried guns near polling stations to intimidate voters, bought votes with cash, meals and prostitutes (some lamented selling too early, as prices went up closer to election day), and stuffed ballot boxes. At least one victorious candidate was falsely accused of being an opium-taker. In a word, it looked like democracy. Some historians discount these reports as scattered abuses in a fairly clean election. The Nationalists were accused of the preponderance of the election shenanigans, and they won in a rout, in effect taking half the seats in the legislature. [Source: The Economist, December 22, 2012 <<<]

While the Republic prepared for its first elections President Yuan Shikai ran roughshod over the new government. He was also canny, ruthless and megalomaniacal. Yuan did not want a strong prime minister, nor did he want the Nationalist Party to write a constitution that would limit his own power. He most certainly did not want democracy—and snuffed it out. In 1915 he tried to restore imperial rule and have himself made emperor. His death in 1916 left a divided country, fought over by warlords and bandits. <<<

“Jonathan Spence, a historian, writes that Liang Qichao—the pre-eminent Chinese intellectual of the era, an erstwhile monarchist and at that moment a close ally of Yuan’s— had come back to China to help organise a pro-Yuan party. He took this defeat for the authoritarians terribly, writing to his daughter, “What can one do with a society like this one? I’m really sorry I ever returned.” Disgusted, and believing his opponents had cheated, Liang would temporarily throw in his lot with Yuan’s rule, even as evidence suggested the president had assassinated his chief political rival. Ever the operator, Yuan worked to reverse the Nationalist victory at the polls by buying off elected officials, later banning the party altogether.

Song Jiaoren: China’s Democratic Revolutionary

Song Jiaoren

The Economist reported: “At 10.40pm on March 20th 1913 a young man who represented one possible future for China stood on the platform at Shanghai railway station, waiting with friends to board a train to Beijing. Song Jiaoren—30 years old, sporting a Western suit and a wisp of a moustache—had just brilliantly led his new political party, the Nationalists, to overwhelming success in parliamentary elections, the country’s first attempt at democracy after two millennia of imperial rule. He was in line to become China’s first democratically elected prime minister, and to help draft a new constitution for the Republic of China. Song was exultant. A fortune-teller had told him—when he was a fugitive in Japan, plotting a violent end to the Qing dynasty—that he would serve as prime minister for 30 peaceful years. With his Jeffersonian ideals and admiration for Britain’s Parliament, he was ready to change his country’s fate. But an assassin’s bullet prevented him from trying. [Source: The Economist, December 22, 2012 <<<]

“But what if Song had lived? How close did China come to forging a democracy 100 years ago? Was Song’s dream of a liberal revolution doomed? How far did an assassin’s bullet change China’s destiny—just as the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo soon afterwards changed Europe’s? China will never know. But without Song, the Republic was doomed. The Chinese people had taken enthusiastically to their new power to elect their leaders, but Yuan would disenfranchise them; they had begun to devour a thriving popular press, unleashed from imperial censorship, but Yuan would bring back the censors. His insatiable appetite for power alienated some of his old allies, including Liang, and his final bid to restore the monarchy was widely unpopular. But he did manage to manipulate an American constitutional adviser, Frank Goodnow, into endorsing his imperial ambitions. Goodnow had arrived in Beijing six weeks after Song’s murder, in May 1913, and saw only turmoil. He too declared the Chinese people unready for democracy. <<<

“There were other turning points to come that might have sealed democracy’s fate, whether or not Song had lived. The Japanese invasion and occupation of China would have wrought havoc in the country under any government, creating an opportunity for, among others, Communist rebels. Japanese writers had given the Chinese language not only the words “democracy” and “freedom”, but also another Western concept, “socialism”. Eventually Chinese communists, led by Mao Zedong—another young revolutionary from Hunan, born 11 years after Song—would win a civil war and, in 1949, “liberate” China. The chaos of the Republic had played into Mao’s belief that dissent must be mercilessly repressed. Nearly three decades of his totalitarian rule followed. This year, as the Communist Party’s leaders again installed their own successors without public input, they declared, not for the first time, that “Western” democracy is not appropriate for the Chinese people. The death of a revolutionary The song of Song The shot that killed Song Jiaoren was not heard around the world. But it might have changed Chinese history. <<<

Song Jiaoren’s Early Life

Song Jiaoren with other nationalists

The Economist reported: “The contrast between a slow-hoofed regime and a world hurtling into modernity could be felt in rural Hunan province, in China’s interior, where Song was a boy in the 1890s. He clamoured to hear of current events, especially military matters, and he enjoyed playing at war. Wu Xiangxiang, a biographer of Song, writes that he would call together the children of the neighbourhood in the hills around his village and, flag in hand, climb atop a rock and take charge. Song, like many of his generation, found bitter confirmation of Manchu weakness in the news of China’s embarrassing defeat to Japan in 1895. Then 13 years old, he ran off from his family “to wail under a Kusamaki tree”. [Source: The Economist, December 22, 2012 <<<]

“He excelled at school and earned a degree that entitled him and his family to a relatively comfortable life in the Confucian scholar-gentry class. But he was attracted to Western teachings, and, unusually, he was encouraged even by his family to stray somewhat from his Confucian obligation to serve his kin. Kit Siong Liew, another biographer of Song, writes that his mother told him to “work toward the interests of all people under heaven”. At a provincial academy in neighbouring Hubei province, Mr Liew writes, classmates said Song “revealed his ambition to change and purify the world,” and talked of plots and revolution. <<<

He did not have to wait long for an opportunity. In 1904, at the age of 22, he fell in with a revolutionary group’s plan to bomb a municipal building in Changsha, capital of Hunan, and prepared to foment rebellion in his home province. But the plot was discovered—failed revolutionary gambits were to become a regular feature of the decade—and Song was forced into hiding. He fled to Tokyo, the destination of thousands of young Chinese reformers and radicals, taking advantage of another significant Qing reform at the turn of the century: allowing Chinese to study in Japan. <<<

Song Jiaoren’s Political Activity While in Exile in Japan

The Economist reported: “His nearly six years in Japan transformed Song from a disciple of revolution to a leader. Japan’s Meiji Restoration had introduced Enlightenment thinking and constitutional government to that society decades earlier. It was there that substantial numbers of Chinese students learned the language of democracy (the Chinese words for “democracy” and “freedom” were created by Japanese writers using Chinese characters). Tokyo became a testing ground for Chinese political debate; Liang and Sun—and Song—first fought their proxy wars of ideas in Chinese-language newspapers there. It was not long before the new rhetoric became seditious, with powerful echoes of America’s Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.. [Source: The Economist, December 22, 2012 <<<]

“Song would become the constitutional brain of the revolution. In 1905 he met Sun in Tokyo, becoming a founding member of the Revolutionary Alliance (a forerunner of the Nationalist Party), and took on the roles of political newspaperman, organiser, fund-raiser and strategist. But it was as a student of post-revolutionary governments that he distinguished himself. He became immersed in the constitutions of the world by translating several—including the American and French—to help pay the bills. He was persistently short of money and took succour in booze and opium. <<<

Song Jiaoren

“But he was clear-eyed enough to distinguish between the documents of the great liberal democracies and those of autocracies such as Prussia and Russia, which he also translated for a visiting Qing delegation in 1906. With her realm teetering, the Empress Dowager Cixi had taken a belated liking to constitutional monarchy. Song’s verdict on the Qing was laced with an exasperation that still resonates a century later: “Those of us who hope day and night for the Manchu government to effect peaceful reform, may they not now cease hoping?” <<<

“Song was convinced that the Qing dynasty would fall, and that if the revolutionaries were not prepared, the next government would be worse. He was prescient on both counts. Despite serious rifts among the rebels—including between Sun and Song—and a string of blunders in their plots, the revolution was successful virtually by accident. A prematurely exploded bomb in the city of Wuchang in Hubei province sparked the Xinhai revolution of October 1911. A series of provinces declared independence, and on January 1st 1912 a republic was formed, with Sun as president; Song set about designing the institutions of a new democracy. But it was a weak revolution. Many provinces maintained back channels to Beijing, where Yuan, leader of a well-organised army, negotiated the abdication of the Manchus and his own ascension to the presidency in Sun’s place. <<<

“Not yet 30 years old, Song believed that the institutions he had crafted, based on the principles of devout republicans such as Jefferson and Madison, could rein in a strong man. But this was not the American revolution, and Yuan was no George Washington. Song put his remaining faith in the polls. It was rumoured to have turned down a huge bribe from Yuan. He spent his last days making victory speeches around the country, attacking the would-be dictator and promising to curb the power of the presidency. He may have been too ready to believe a fortune-teller’s prophesy.” >>>

Assassination of Song Jiaoren

The Economist reported: “Armed with a Browning revolver, an unemployed ex-soldier in black military garb fired a single slug into his back and fled. Song was taken to a nearby hospital, where a bullet was removed from his abdomen. He knew death was near, and in the last political act of his life he dictated a telegram to his chief adversary, President Yuan Shikai; “I die with deep regret. I humbly hope that your Excellency will champion honesty, propagate justice, and promote democracy…” Song died on March 22nd. China’s best chance of democracy may have died with him. [Source: The Economist, December 22, 2012 <<<]

“Who ordered his death? The official inquiry eventually ran cold. The ex-soldier who pulled the trigger and the men identified as hiring him, including the acting prime minister in Yuan’s cabinet, all mysteriously died or went missing within a year. Two were poisoned, another slain by a pair of swordsmen aboard a train. <<<

“There was no shortage of people who might have wished Song gone. Ardent and self-assured, he had made many enemies both in the opposition and his own party. Liang Qichao, the pre-eminent Chinese intellectual of the era, an erstwhile monarchist and at that moment a close ally of Yuan’s, was forced to deny a rumour that he was behind the assassination (according to sources dug up by John Delury, a historian). The Nationalist Party’s co-founder, Sun Yat-sen, had been Song’s bitter rival for years; he opportunistically seized on the killing to foment a failed second revolution in a bid to regain control of the party. <<<

The man whom most historians blame, and who benefited most directly from the hit, was the recipient of Song’s dying plea for democracy. President Yuan had no interest in granting that wish. A career soldier who had served the Qing government and negotiated its abdication (to him), Yuan is the cartoon villain of this tale, with the bushy moustache, round open face and slightly overfed build of an indulged monarch. <<<

Might Song have saved the Republic by living? If he had not been assassinated, some scholars believe, Sun would not have attempted his second revolution, and Yuan would have continued as an incorrigible president with too much power—a disappointing outcome, but not as catastrophic as the country’s slide into anarchy proved to be. In this alternative history, China might have followed the path that Taiwan later did, with a militarised, authoritarian government slowly evolving into a liberal republic. The crucial question was whether Yuan could ever have been persuaded to tolerate Song. Could Liang have overcome his own bitterness about the election result to negotiate a peace between them? Could Song have patiently worked to build a government that would live longer than its president?

Image Sources: Cutting queue, Ohio State University; Wikimedia Commons


p> Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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