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China - The Republican Revolution of 1911

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. When the empress-dowager died in 1908, the Manchus lost their last great leader, and were themselves eventually swept aside by the reform movement which she had partially espoused. For some time a republican movement had been agitated, largely by the Cantonese and by Chinese abroad, and, despite the fact that the beginnings of representative government had been established, the spirit of unrest grew apace, until by the spring of 1911 it had assumed alarming proportions.

The revolutionary leader was Sun Yat-sen (Sun Yixian in pinyin, 1866-1925), a republican and anti-Qing activist who became increasingly popular among the overseas Chinese and Chinese students abroad, especially in Japan. Kuangtung, the province that once gave to China a great rebel leader in the person of Hung Hsiu-ch'iian, has since produced a great revolutionist. The man was Sun Wen, better known to the people outside of China as Dr. Sun Yat-sen. In his younger days Dr. Sun attended a missionary school in Hongkong, where he prepared himself for the medical profession under a certain Dr. Cantlie, an Englishman. After graduation, he practiced medicine for a short time at both Macao and Hongkong. He then gave up his professional labours, in order to take up revolutionary work.

At an early age Dr. Sun was convinced that China must be reformed. With this end in view he organized at Canton the Hsing Chung Hui, or a Society for the Uplifting of China. He soon saw that under the Manchus no reform was possible, and did not hesitate to start a revolution in 1895, but it failed and many heads fell at the stroke of the executioner's axe. To save his head, the young doctor had to flee. During the next fourteen years, Dr. Sun travelled extensively, visiting all the Chinese centers around the world and always preaching revolution.

The cause of revolution never looked so bright as when China sent one party of students after another to Japan. As a rule these students, after having come into contact with Dr. Sun in Japan, returned to China imbued with revolutionary ideas; and were watching quietly to carry out their avowed purpose. In Japan Dr. Sun also met Huang Hsing and many other influential members of the various Chinese secret societies. As a result of these meetings, in 1905 the great Revolutionary League (United League), or Tung-meng-hui, came into being in Tokyo with Huang Xing (1874-1916), a popular leader of the Chinese revolutionary movement in Japan, as Sun'' deputy. The Tungmenghui established newspapers to arouse the Chinese against the Manchus.

While emissaries were busy in China working among the soldiery of the various provinces, others went from one Chinese colony to another, soliciting financial support. Thus was the revolutionary movement set on foot. 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.

Sun's political philosophy was conceptualized in 1897, first enunciated in Tokyo in 1905, and modified through the early 1920s. It centered on the Three Principles of the People (san min zhuyi): "nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihood." The principle of nationalism called for overthrowing the Manchus and ending foreign hegemony over China. The second principle, democracy, was used to describe Sun's goal of a popularly elected republican form of government. People's livelihood, often referred to as socialism, was aimed at helping the common people through regulation of the ownership of the means of production and land.

In 1911 bitter opposition was aroused in the provinces when the Imperial government (Manchu regency for the infant Hsuang-Tung) attempted to take over many of the provincially owned railroads and to complete them by means of foreign loans. On 08 April 1911 the Tartar General, Fu Ch'i, commanding the Manchu garrison of Canton, was assassinated. On the 27th of the same month a party of revolutionists attempted to destroy the Viceroy's Yamen with bombs; but this enterprise was ill-timed. The authorities in fact had information as to what was coming and were not at all unprepared for the emergency. The result was most pathetic. Scores of China's most promising sons were arrested and mercilessly executed. The Viceroy, Chang Ming-ch'i, was heartily commended by the Peking Government for his alertness and success in unearthing a revolutionary plot and in vanquishing his foes. The Government evidently thought that the cruelty of the Viceroy had dealt a severe blow to the movement; but nothing was farther from the truth. The revolutionists were temporarily suppressed; but they were not discouraged. They merely turned their attention from Canton to the Yangtze Valley.

The key position of the central Yangtze valley is held by the great commercial city of Hankow. Here at Wuchang, directly opposite Hankow, the radical reformers commanded by General Li Yuan Hung took advantage of the ill-feeling existing against the central government and led a successful rebellion in the fall of 1911. In the first place, it is to be observed that, even among Sun Yat-sen's advanced vangard of Cantonese reformers, there had never been any generally declared intention of replacing the Manchus by a Republic until some five weeks after the outbreak of the successful (but evidently accidental) revolutionary movement at Wuchang in October 1911.

The republican revolution broke out on 10 October 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. Wuchang was taken by the revolutionaries and an independent military government declared. The revolt quickly spread to neighboring cities, and Tongmeng Hui members throughout the country rose in immediate support of the Wuchang revolutionary forces. This was quickly followed by the secession of province after province [by the beginning of 1912 fourteen out of twenty-two provinces including Manchuria, Liang Kuang, Kiangsu, Hupei and Hunan, had thrown off their allegiance to the Manchu Government].

In 1895 when the 'Young China' party was definitely organised at Canton, its object was the establishment of Constitutional Government on lines similar to those of K'ang Yu-wei's reform movement of 1898. When, coincident with the outbreak of the rebellion at Wuchang, the Cantonese revolutionaries became active, there was still no question of a Chinese Republic. The movement then assumed a purely provincial form, self-government for Kuangtung being the order of the day. On October 28th, the flag of independence was hoisted over a section of the City, and the Manchu garrison came to an amicable arrangement with the 'reformers' pending consideration of the lattcr's proposals for a mutually satisfactory change in the form of government.

As early as 14 October 1911 (three days after the revolution had broken out in Wuchang) the Manchu government in a panic called to their aid by imperial edict Yuan Shi-kai. Yuan Shi K'ai had been prominent under the empress dowager, first as Chinese resident in Korea before the fateful war with Japan and later in the coup d'etat of 1898 when he was accused of betraying the young emperor. As governor of Shantung during 1900 he showed his good judgment by opposing the Boxer madness. He was unpopular with the regency and had been dismissed from court after the death of the empress dowager. He was primarily a soldier, a leader of the new army, thoroughly convinced of the necessity of reorganizing China by adopting Western ideas; but being a Northerner he represented a more conservative type of reformer.

This Imperial Edict told the world that the Court in Peking was in extremis, yet ever astute. There was one man who could deal with the situation, one man to whom the Northern Army would be loyal in a conflict with the Army of the South [the revolutionary army]; that one man was the neglected Yuan Shih K'ai. At first Yuan refused the proffered honor, but afterwards General Yin Chang, who commanded the troops, interviewed him, and on the 18 October 1911 Yuan formally accepted the appointment and proceeded south. It was a time fraught with great issues: Yuan the Reformer in close contact with Li the Revolutionary. In the battle of brains (as well as of bullets) who would prove to be the stronger man?

As the utter helplessness of the Manchus and the general disorganisation of the Government became more apparent with every success of the Yangtsze rebels, the program of the Radical extremists, supported by the Americanised Chinese of the Pacific coast, became gradually bolder and more aggressive, but it was only at the beginning of November 1911 that the idea of a Chinese Republic found definite expression, supported by Li Yuanhung (under compulsion), at Wuchang, and by influential bodies of disaffected mandarins at Nanking and Shanghai. Up to this time, all the activities of Young China had been steadily directed towards acceleration of the Government's programme of Constitutional Government and the convening of a National Parliament under the Monarchy.

The Dynasty sought to give itself time by granting every demand of the people and retaining for itself the mere empty title of sovereignty. The Senate was requested to draw up a Constitution, which it did at 48 hours notice, and this was sanctioned by edict issued on 03 November 1911. It was only when the terrorised Throne, on 05 November 1911, issued a humiliating edict recognising the 'Ko Ming Yang' Revolutionary Society as a regular political party, entitled to a voice in the government of the country, that the extreme Radicals realised, and promptly seized their opportunities of attaining supreme command of the situation. Sun Yat-sen's party in the south, and General Li Yuan-hung at Wuchang perceived that, thanks to the sympathetic attitude of the European communities at the Treaty Ports and the chaotic demoralisation of the Manchus, only a strong policy was needed to carry the day. The Manchus were clearly doomed, and the position was at the mercy of the first bold stroke. Up to this point, the National Assembly, recognised by the Throne as the elected representatives of the nation, though aggressively progressive, had adhered to the Constitutional program.

On 05 November 1911, simultaneously with the passing of the cities of Shanghai, Suchow, and Hangchow to the revolutionaries, the Assembly was denounced by the rebel leaders of several provinces for having failed to represent the true wishes of the nation. At the same time, a Republican Committee was definitely organised at Shanghai under the leadership of Wu Ting-fang, Wen Tsungyao and Li Ping-shu, well-known men whose claims to distinction rested as much on their careers as mandarins as on their Liberal views. On November 26th the Regent took on behalf of the Emperor the Oath of Constitution.

At the height of the crisis the Regent summoned to his side Yuan Shih-k'ai, whom he had summarily dismissed in January 1909, and granted him the powers of a dictator. On 10 November 1911 Yuan Shih K'ai was recalled to Peking, and five days later accepted the position of Prime Minister, which carried with it the difficult task of trying to pacify the nation and institute a Reform Government which would be satisfactory to a majority of both factions. He was appointed Prime Minister and Generalissimo of the forces and was requested to draw up his own Cabinet, which he did by summoning around him a number of his former trusted comrades. His accession to power brought with it the loyalty of the Northern Army, much of which was formed by him and all of which was devoted to him. Yuan's first move in Peking was an astute one, but it failed. His Cabinet that was to reconcile all parties practically resigned before it was ever constituted. Even the National Assembly found itself powerless to do other than pass resolutions.

After deliberation Yuan decided that the best policy would be to form a constitutional monarchy with the Manchus as a figurehead. This was accepted by most of the Northern provinces, but not by the Southern provinces, whose aims were more anti-Dynastic. By late November, fifteen of the twenty-four provinces had declared their independence of the Qing empire. In the meantime fighting had been going on along the Yangtse Yalley, the Imperialists recapturing Hanyang only to lose Nanking after a sturdy defence, and on December 9, 1911, a truce of fifteen days was called to allow of pourparlers between representatives of both parties at Hankow, when Yuan Shih-k'ai hoped to point out to the revolutionaries the advantages of a Monarchy for China over a Republic.

From October to November there had been fierce fighting between the imperialists and the revolutionists. On 04 December 1911, a truce was agreed to between these factions and on the 18th a peace conference met at Shanghai. Yuan Shih Kai's next problem was to so arrange matters that the Manchu Court should see fit to 'abdicate,' and at the same time temporise with the Republican party by means of the famous but fatuous Peace Conference. Here the master-hand revealed itself. For a time Yuan seemed trusted yet doubted alike by both sides. He succeeded in bringing actual hostilities to an end - and this may have been his objective.

The Premier's first great triumph over the Manchus was in bringing about the resignation of the Prince Regent, who had so summarily dismissed Yuan a few years before. On December 6, the Regent abdicated and the young Emperor was provided with two guardians, one a Manchu, and the other a Chinese. The reason for this was to make it perfectly plain that the Throue did not intend to take any further part in politics. The truce was continued. Sun Yat-sen returned to China from the United States, where he had been raising funds among overseas Chinese and American sympathizers.

While Yuan Shi-kai was quieting the revolutionists for the time being, he maintained friendly relations with the imperial family which he finally persuaded to leave Peking for its safety on 28 December 1911. On 29 December 1911, the Nanking (Republican) Assembly, a provisional convention in which 14 provinces only were represented, unanimously elected Dr. Sun Yat Sen President of the Republic of China. 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.

In the meantime pressure was being brought to bear on the Throne to force it to abdicate, and on January 17, 1912, a conference of Princes was held at the Palace to disenss the procedure of abdication. On February 12, 1912, the last Manchu emperor, the child Puyi, abdicated. It was not until February 15, 1912, that the abdication edict was published. The foreign Legations were informed that Chinese Ministers abroad were diplomatic representatives only, and that the Government of the country would be continued by the various ministers who would be heads of departments, pending the establishment of a new Government. On March 10, in Beijing, Yuan Shikai was sworn in as provisional president of the Republic of China.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:27:16 ZULU