China: Is the absence of an emperor proof of the existence of a republic?

Nanjing Road in Shanghai after the Xinhai Revolution, full of the Five-Races-Under-One-Union flags then used by the revolutionaries.

Nanjing Road in Shanghai after the Xinhai Revolution, full of the Five-Races-Under-One-Union flags then used by the revolutionaries.

On 12 February 1912, the Xinhai Revolution, or the Hsin-hai Revolution, also known as the Revolution of 1911 or the Chinese Revolution, culminated with the overthrow of the Empress Dowager Longyu and the infant Emperor Puyi that marked the end of over 2,000 years of imperial rule and the beginning of China’s so-called republican era.

The goal of the Xinhai Revolution, for its leaders, was to establish a democratic republic in China. In a speech given at a Tokyo gathering on 2 December 1906 (“The Three People’s Principles and the Future of the Chinese People”), Sun Yat-sen said:

As for the Principle of Democracy, it is the foundation of the political revolution…The aim of the political revolution is to create a constitutional, democratic political system…After the revolution in China, this will be the most appropriate political system. This, too, everyone knows.

However, the notion that the government should consist of representatives of the people rather than a tiny oligarchy and its closest families was a republican ideal no Chinese state since 1911, excepting Taiwan, has been willing to embrace. Is the absence of an emperor proof of the existence of a republic? It is arguable, therefore, that China’s current Communist regime, in power since 1949, is yet another dynasty in China’s long imperial era.

The Xinhai Revolution arose mainly in response to the decline of the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty, which had proven ineffective in its efforts to modernise China and confront new challenges presented by foreign powers, and was exacerbated by ethnic resentment against the ruling Manchu minority (see “The Revolutionary Army” published in 1903 by Zou Rong). The turning point of the revolution was the Wuchang Uprising in October 1911.

The three flags of the early Republic of China

The three flags of the early Republic of China

Dozens of uprisings against the Qing Dynasty had failed between 1895 and 1911, most the work of small secret societies. What distinguished the Wuchang Uprising was that it originated from inside the Empire’s “New Army.” The New Army had been created by the Emperor and his Manchu cabinet with the intention of putting down the many rebellions across China and protecting the country from foreign powers after the Boxer Rebellion.

The Army’s 8th Division, stationed in Hubei Province, differed from other divisions throughout the country for several reasons:

  • First, the 8th Division was perhaps the most highly organised and cohesive.
  • Second, it was stationed in a port city and major transportation hub, Wuhan, on the Yangtze River. Wuhan had been a cosmopolitan port. Thus, its members had access to foreign ideas and influence.
  • Third, its officers were highly literate. Many had studied abroad or graduated from military university.

Many in the New Army’s 8th Division were also members of secret societies, the two biggest being the Literary Society and the Society for Common Advancement. The two underground organisations merged in September 1911, united by their opposition to the Manchu government. (Most of the Hubei army and the members of the secret societies were Han Chinese, who considered the Manchu as foreign as if they’d been European.)

Ultimately, the military that was supposed to strengthen the Empire against foreign powers and subversive ideas was the cause of its downfall. The uprising itself broke out largely by accident. Revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the Qing dynasty had built bombs and one accidentally exploded. This led police to investigate, and they discovered lists of Literary Society members within the New Army. At this point, the military revolted rather than face arrest and certain execution. The governor fled Hubei, and within two days the Division occupied the neighbouring cities of Hanyang and Hankou. (Years later, Wuchang, Hanyang, and Hankou merged to form the modern city of Wuhan.) As word of the rebellion spread, other provinces followed suit.

Major Events in the Xinhai Revolution

Major Events in the Xinhai Revolution

Future President Sun Yat-Sen has often been called instrumental in the Wuchang Uprising, but he was in fact in the United States at the time, garnering support for the underground movements. He returned to China on 29 December 1911. By 1 January 1912, the revolutionaries had declared the new Republic of China. After the Qing court transferred power to the newly founded republic in February 1912, a provisional coalition government was created along with the National Assembly.

Today, both the Republic of China in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China on the mainland consider themselves to be successors to the Xinhai Revolution and continue to pay homage to the ideals of the revolution including nationalism, republicanism, modernisation of China, and national unity. October 10 is commemorated in Taiwan as Double Ten Day, the National Day of the Republic of China. In mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, the same day is usually celebrated as the Anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution.

Unfortunately, the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in China in 1911 ushered in 38 years of Civil War and warlordism, and provided an opportunity for a Japanese invasion. In 1949, the bloodbath of the interregnum gave way to a greater bloodbath as the Communists consolidated power under Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. When seen as a continuum, this phase of Chinese history was a 65 year nightmare which took some 75 million lives.


Categories: History

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