On 10 October 1911, revolutionaries belonging to the 8th Engineering Battalion of the 8th Regiment of the New Army in Wuchang began an armed insurrection, one of the many that had been organized to overthrow the Qing government between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. All revolts had so far failed, and no one expected that this uprising would create a domino effect, and that province after province and city and after city, the whole of China would declare its independence from the central government in Beijing.
|Establishment of the Republic of China with display of two flags of the Wuchang Uprising
The failure of the Qing Dynasty to protect China from foreign aggression and to carry out extensive economic and political reforms, had convinced a large part of the elite that the Chinese people must get rid of the absolute monarchy if they wanted to create a new, strong, modern China. The staunchest supporters of a Republican China were the revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen.
After the numerous defeats they had suffered, the sudden success of the Wuchang Uprising took them by surprise. When the revolution broke out, Sun Yat-sen was in the United States, and when he learnt of the victory of the Republicans, he immediately made preparations for his return to China. This is how Sun Yat-sen related in his memoirs the events that led to the revolt:
The atmosphere in Wuchang was electrical. Comrades Sun Wu, Liu, and others decided to act and raise a rebellion of the troops. However, quite unexpectedly, our committee was discovered, and thirty people were imprisoned […] At this time, there fell into the hands of the Imperial authorities a list of our artillerymen and other soldiers who were taking part in the work of the Revolution. With the object of saving these comrades from inevitable destruction, it was necessary to act immediately with great urgency […].
Governor Jui Chen,hearing the noise of the cannonade, immediately fled to Hankow, and appealed to the Consul of a “certain” country to bombard the city. But […] my old acquaintance, the French Consul, who informed the meeting that this rising had taken place on my instructions, […[ declared that the revolutionaries of the Sun Yat-sen Party were by no means making a senseless mutiny, but were fighting for the reconstruction of a political authority.
Therefore, they cannot be classed with the Boxers, and they should not be interfered with […]. The other Consuls joined […] and passed a resolution of non-intervention and maintenance of neutrality (Sun 1953, pp. 169-170).
Since the stand of the Western Powers was favourable to the revolutionaries,
the Chinese authorities fled to Beijing. The whole Hubei province was soon in the hands of the insurgents, and this success led to the downfall of the Empire.
The Qing government first tried to save itself by appointing General Yuan Shikai as Premier of the National Assembly in Beijing. Since Sun Yat-sen was abroad, he could neither lead the revolution nor take part in the negotiations between the Republicans and the Imperialists. Yuan Shikai held talks with another leader of the revolutionaries, the British-trained jurist Wu Ting-fang.
Wu left Yuan Shikai no doubt: the position of the revolutionaries was that the Qing government had to give place to a republic, and that this was the precondition for any further negotiation (see Harley Farnsworth MacNair: Modern Chinese History – Selected Writings. Vol. 2. 1927, p.p. 716-717). Seeing that no compromise could be reached, on 28 December 1911 the Empress Dowager issued an Edict, in which she proclaimed that:
the representative of the People’s Army (i.e. the Revolutionaries) Wu Ting-fang, steadfastly maintains that the mind of the People is in favor of the establishment of a republican form of government as its ideal […]. This is a matter that should not be decided by one part of the nation alone […] Therefore it is advisable to call a provisional National Convention and leave the issue to the Convention to decide (ibid., p. 717).
Late in December 1911 Sun Yat-sen arrived in Shanghai from Paris. His authority was such that the National Assembly in Nanjing offered him, as the undisputed leader of the revolutionaries, the post of Provisional President of the new state called Republic of China (see Dillon 2010, pp. 146-147). In his memoirs, Sun recounts the moment in which he proclaimed the Republic:
[T]he deputies from all the provinces of China, assembled in the city of Nanking [=Nanjing], elected me Provisional President of China. In 1912 I assumed office, and ordered the proclamation of the Chinese Republic, the alteration of the lunar calendar, and the declaration of that year as the First Year of the Chinese Republic. Thus thirty years passed as one day, and only after their completion did I achieve my principal aim, the aim of my life – the creation of the Chinese Republic [中華民國; pinyin: Zhōnghuá mínguó] (Sun 1953, pp. 175-176).
| Sun Yat-sen with the Five Races Under One Union flag, symbolizing the unity of Han Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, Muslims and Tibetans, and the Blue Sky with a White Sun flag
The day following his election, Sun presented a programme outlining the major steps the new Republic ought to undertake to achieve the ultimate goals of the revolution. Herein Sun addressed the issue of national unity and territorial integrity:
I say the foundation of a state is the People. The different races such as Hans, Manchus, Mongols, Muhammedans, and Tibetans are now to be united as a nation. This is what I call the unity of our Races (MacNair 1927, p. 720).
It is extremely important to stress this point. Nowadays people criticize the government of the PRC for pursuing an alleged ‘imperialistic’ policy in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan etc. However, we should emphasize that the concept of ‘one China’ comprising all territories of the former Qing Empire was already enshrined in Chinese nationalism long before the Communist Party was founded. Sun Yat-sen and his successor Chiang Kai-shek struggled to unite all parts of what they considered China. It did not matter to them whether these areas were under factual control of the government. In fact, the Republican government was never able to control the whole territory it claimed to represent. But in their view, actual control and sovereignty claim were two separate things.
From this perspective, when the Communist Party and the Guomindang both argue that there is only one China, they do it in the same way Sun Yat-sen did. For the CCP and the KMT alike, which are both imbued with the spirit of Chinese nationalism, there is and can only be ‘one China’ and one Chinese government. This does not mean that Taiwanese nationalism is not legitimate, on the contrary. Both Chinese and Taiwanese nationalists have legitimate – though incompatible – political programmes. But it is important to understand what Chinese nationalism is about and why it is still a powerful force in the debate over the future of China-Taiwan relations. It is thus important to show that Sun Yat-sen, as soon as he took over the Presidency, declared the unification of the nation in the boundaries of the former Empire as a vital task for the future of the new Republic.
Although the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen’s dream, had been established, it soon became clear that the consolidation of the new government was far more difficult than the revolutionaries had predicted. The overthrow of the Manchus did not usher in an era of peace and prosperity, but rather a protracted period of chaos, social unrest, disillusionment, and of wars. In the collective memory, the Republican era is not associated with the rebirth of China, but with warlordism, corruption, economic weakness, civil struggles and foreign aggression.
Sun Yat-sen’s post as Provisional President by no means contributed to the stability of the new state. Though he was the most influential and revered man in China, Sun accepted to retire from the function of President as soon as the Manchu Dynasty was officially overthrown. In fact, we should bear in mind that despite the proclamation of the Republic the Manchu Dynasty had not relinquished its title and had not recognized the Republican government as legitimate. Since no official abdication had occurred, China de facto had two governments, the Republican and the Imperial. Sun Yat-sen’s task was to lead the Republic of China until the Manchus had resigned and the country had been pacified. In the oath he took on January 1st, Sun declared:
[I will] perform my duty in the interest of the public, until the downfall of the absolute oligarchic Government has been accomplished, until the disturbances within the nation have disappeared, and until our Republic has been established as a prominent nation on this earth […]. Then I […] shall relinquish the office of Provisional President (MacNair 1927, pp. 718-719).
Today, it is almost forgotten that in 1912 a civil war between the Imperialists and the Republicans could have broken out. In fact, the Manchu aristocrats were unwilling to give up their power, and some of them wanted to resist the revolutionaries. They were backed by their military commanders, among them Yuan Shikai.
Yuan Shikai became the most influential person at the imperial court during the revolution. His political genius and personal ambition led him to adopt a pragmatic stance towards both the Qing and the revolutionaries. At first, he played the role of mediator between the Republicans and the Manchu Dynasty, trying to save the latter. But the revolutionary forces were resolutely determined to oust the Manchus. When Yuan Shikai demanded the dissolution of the provisional government in Nanjing, Sun Yat-sen was firm: he would make concessions only if Yuan Shikai pledged loyalty to the new Republic (see Chen 1972, p. 98).
Yuan Shikai realized that his political career wouldn’t last long if he sacrificed himself for the Qing Dynasty. The salvation of the Empire was a lost cause, because the majority of China’s elites would not tolerate any compromise on this matter and were ready to fight. Yuan Shikai thus changed his strategy. He strove to solve the crisis by ensuring a smooth transition from Empire to Republic, presenting himself as a peacemaker and a faithful servant of the new state.
The Imperial family was divided between those who favoured an abdication and those who wanted to suppress the revolution. Yuan Shikai made clear to the imperial family that if they wanted to fight against the revolutionaries the sum of 12 million taels had to be made ready to finance the war. But the imperial treasury was empty, and none of the Manchu princes was ready to sacrifice his personal fortunes to pay for the army (ibid., p. 99).
On January 26, the imperial cabinet met at Yuan Shikai’s residence. 40 high-ranking officers of Yuan’s troops had sent a telegram urging the Manchus to abdicate. On that very night, Liang-pi, the army chief-of-staff, was killed by a fanatic revolutionary on his way home. Following this murder, the fear for the safety of the imperial family increased.
|Emperor Xuantong (right, standing) , commonly known by his name Puyi (1906 – 1967).
He was the last Emperor of China.
|Empress Dowager Longyu
On January 27, the Empress Dowager Longyu (1908 – 1912), the wife of the deceased Emperor Guangxu and the adoptive mother of the last Chinese Emperor, Puyi, was in a state of panic; she screamed at Yuan Shikai’s deputies, beseeching them to convey to the General the message that the Emperor’s and her own life were in his hands, and that he had to save them from death (ibid., p. 100).
Three days later, Empress Longyu made the decision that would end the most ancient Empire in the world: she agreed to proclaim the abdication of the Qing Dynasty. The revolutionaries, wishing to avoid further conflicts, granted the imperial family special privileges: the Emperor would retain his title and be treated by the Republican government with the respect due to a foreign sovereign, he would receive an annuity, be allowed to reside in the imperial palace, perform traditional religious rituals etc. (see MacNair 1927, pp. 723-724).
On the 12th of February 1912 (the 25th day of the 12th month of the 3rd year of Emperor Xuantong’s reign), the Empress issued the Abdication Edict. By this edict the imperial family entrusted Yuan Shikai with ample powers, a decision that would have major consequences for the future. The authority conferred upon Yuan by the Empress, as well as his role as a mediator between the Manchus and the Republicans, became the foundation of his political ascendancy in the young Republic. Here is an excerpt from the Abdication Edict:
I, Empress Dowager, […] together with the Emperor, hereby hand over the sovereignty [ 統治權: tǒng zhì quán] to be the possession of the whole people, and declare that the constitution shall henceforth be Republican, in order to satisfy the demands of those […] hating disorder and desiring peace, and anxious to follow the teaching of the sages, according to which the country is the possession of the People (天下爲公). Yuan Shi-kai, having been elected some time ago president of the National Assembly at Peking, is therefore able at this time to of change to unite the North and the South – let him then, with full powers so to do, organize a provisional Republican Government (MacNair 1927, p. 722-723).
As soon as the news of the abdication reached him, Sun Yat-sen expressed his willingness to immediately resign, thus fulfilling his oath as a Provisional President. This selfless act gained Sun great respect among the Chinese, but it was tactically unwise. Sun urged Yuan Shikai to renounce the powers bestowed upon him by the Manchus, because the Emperor had no right, according to Sun, to confer such a power; it was only the people who had this right. Nevertheless, Sun too naively accepted Yuan Shikai’s promise to serve and defend the Republic. Sun Yat-sen advised the National Assembly in Nanjing to elect Yuan Shikai as President. On February 14 Sun Yat-sen declared before the Assembly:
To-day I present to you my resignation and request you to elect a good and talented man as the new President. The election of President is a right of our citizens, and it is not for me to interfere in any way. But according to the telegram which our delegate Dr. Wu [Wu Tingfang] was directed to send to Peking, I was to undertake to resign in favor of Mr. Yuan [Yuan Shi-kai], [who] has declared his political views in support of the Republic. […] The abdication of the Ching [=Qing] Emperor and the union of the North and South are largely due to the great exertion of Mr. Yuan. Moreover, he has declared his unconditional adhesion to the national cause. Should he be elected to serve the Republic, he would surely prove himself a most loyal servant of the state (ibid., p. 728).
But Sun Yat-sen and all the revolutionaries who put their trust in Yuan Shikai were gravely mistaken.
Meanwhile, the National Assembly worked on a Provisional Constitution, which was promulgated on the 10th of March and which, among other articles, defined the territory of the Republic of China as comprising “the twenty-two provinces [what we may call ‘China proper’], Inner and Outer Mongolia, Thibet and Kokonor” (ibid., p. 729). At that time, neither Taiwan nor Hong Kong, which were respectively under Japanese and British rule, were included in the territory of the Republic of China, though the fact that they had belonged to China before the period of national humiliation did not fade from the memory of the revolutionaries.
However, it is important to understand that the supposed territorial extension of China depended on the realities of the time. For instance, in one of his works Sun Yat-sen says: “I traveled to Formosa [Taiwan], intending again to think out some means of getting into China” (Sun 1953, p. 152). Obviously, Sun considered Taiwan as not being part of China any more. He seems to have seen Taiwan as an area lost to the Japanese forever. Recovering Taiwan was not among Sun Yat-sen’s priorities.
Yuan Shikai’s Presidency and the Founding of the Guomindang
The proclamation of the Republic and the abdication of the Manchus prompted a realignment of power in China. Old political structures were replaced by new ones and new elites emerged, who were supposed to govern China as members of the elected parliament, but who were completely inexperienced in state affairs. No one knew how to run a country, let alone such a huge one which had enormous economic and political problems to solve.
Following the model of Western democracies, parties were formed as the instruments of government. Political parties had not existed in China prior to the revolution. During the last decades of the Qing Empire, there had been numerous secret societies and revolutionary organizations, which constituted the natural, albeit illegal, political opposition to the Manchu regime. The most important of these organizations was the Tongmenhui, or United League, which had been founded by Sun Yat-sen and his supporters on 30 January 1905 at a conference in Tokyo. The Tongmenghui counted only around 400 members when it was founded, but its number would increase to almost 10,000 by 1911 (Dillon 2010, p. 141).
Because of its revolutionary character, until 1912 the Tongmenghui had been a secret society. After the successful revolution, the Tongmenhui merged with other similar parties and groupings and became a legal political party. Its new name was 中國國民黨 (pinyin: Zhōngguó Guómíndǎng, meaning Chinese Nationalist Party). The Guomindang was Sun Yat-sen’s party. It would subsequently rule mainland China from 1927 to 1949 and Taiwan from 1945 until 1991. The Guomindang is still one of the major parties in Taiwan, and it keeps the name 中國國民黨; the word 中國, which means ‘China’, shows that the Guomindang has maintained its Chinese nationalist ideology to this very day.
|Flag of the Guomindang, still in use today
The Guomindang was by far the largest political alliance in the first parliamentary election in the Republic of China. Its political programme included “the political unification of China; the development of local self-government; the abolition of racial discrimination; improvement of the standard of living and the maintenance of international peace” (ibid., p. 149).
Despite being the first political force in the parliament, the Guomindang soon experienced its first major defeat. It became more and more clear that Yuan Shikai, whom Sun Yat-sen had entrusted the defence of the Republic, was in reality the most dangerous enemy of the new state. Backed by his military power, Yuan began to disregard the constitution and to intimidate his political opponents.
Within the Guomindang, Sun Yat-sen at first belonged to the moderate wing which tried to co-operate with Yuan. But another Guomindang leader, Song Jiaoren, was more assertive. He wanted the parliament, and not the President, to govern the country. In the provincial election of 1913, the Guomindang gained 360 seats, becoming the largest party in the lower house of the National Assembly (ibid., p. 150).
As the influence of the Guomindang grew and Song Jiaoren struggled to turn numbers into actual political power, Yuan Shikai acted to consolidate his Presidency, which had already taken quasi-dictatorial character. On 20 March 1913 Song Jiaoren was shot while he was waiting for a train at the Shanghai railway station. He died two days later (ibid., p. 150).
Song’s murder initiated a period of political repression against the Guomindang. Sun Yat-sen and other party members began organizing a so-called ‘Second Revolution’, this time against Yuan Shikai. But in August Yuan struck, launching an attack that ended with the capture of Nanjing at the beginning of September 1913. The Guomindang did not possess the military capability to impose its will by force. Sun Yat-sen and hundreds of Guomindang members fled to Japan in August 1913, fearing for their life. Yuan Shikai ruled as a dictator and was even planning to proclaim himself Emperor. But on the 21st of May 1916 he died of natural death, and a new chapter in the history of the Republic began.
Warlordism and the Military Restructuring of the Guomindang
The period that followed Yuan’s death did not see the establishment of a central government, but rather a further deterioration of the political situation. Local warlords took control of China, dividing the country among themselves and thus creating semi-independent states within the Republic of China. De facto, China did not have a government until 1927.
It was in this period that the Guomindang reorganized itself. The bitter experiences of Yuan Shikai’s dictatorship and warlordism had changed Sun Yat-sen profoundly. He realized that the success of the 1911 revolution had only been the start of a long struggle. The Republic existed only in name. None of the major points of Sun’s programme had been achieved except for the end of Manchu rule.
Consequently, his political view ‘hardened’. He came to believe that the only way to unite China was to reconstruct the Guomindang on a military basis. Faced with the reality that in China only those could rule who had an army to back them, Sun sought to establish a military rule over the country. Sun returned to China in 1917 and created a military regime in Guangdong Province. From there, he organized the struggle for the Republic. In his book Fundamentals of National Reconstruction, Sun Yat-sen – perhaps unintentionally – laid the foundations of Guomindang one-party rule, which was to last until 1987:
Revolution, which is a destructive force of an extraordinary nature, should be followed by reconstruction of an equally extraordinary nature. After thirteen years of bitter experience, we should realize that what are known as the people’s rights and the people’s happiness should be a reality instead of a mere name. If we now follow up the Fundamentals of National Reconstruction, we shall have got rid of reactionary influences by the end of military rule and shall have ushered in democracy by the end of political tutelage.
The people will enjoy their rights and happiness as if they were already under a constitutional government. Such rights and happiness would be impossible under absolute rule disguised as constitutionalism. Moreover, the transition from political tutelage to constitutional government will be smooth and free of pitfalls (Sun 1953, pp. 6-7).
The fact that Sun turned from a staunch advocate of democracy to a supporter of military rule, albeit a temporary one, made it possible for his successor Chiang Kai-shek to become the factual dictator of China in the following decades. Sun was probably not aware of the contradictions of his theories. In fact, how could a party that claimed to represent the will of the people set up a military rule? This inconsistency was to last for two generations until democracy was finally achieved in 1991 on Taiwan.
The order of national reconstruction shall be divided into three stages: first, the stage of military rule; second, the stage of political tutelage; third, the stage of constitutional government. […] In the stage of military rule, the whole administrative system shall be placed under military rule. The government on the one hand should employ its armed forces to eradicate all internal obstacles and, on the other, disseminate its principles so that the people may be enlightened and national unification hastened. […]
As soon as a province is completely restored to order, the stage of political tutelage shall commence and the military stage come to an end. […] People in various provinces may decide on their own constitutions and elect their own governors, but provincial constitutions must not conflict with the national constitution. The governors on the one hand should supervise self-government affairs in the provinces and on the other should administer national affairs under the direction of the Central Government. […]
The hsien (district) shall be the unit of local self-government. People in a self-governing district shall have the direct power of election and recall, initiative and referendum. […] The system of popular suffrage should be put into force. Class election based on property qualifications should be abolished. […] The people shall have complete freedom of meeting, assembly, speech, publication, domicile and religion. […] Legally, economically, educationally and socially, the principles of sex equality shall be definitely laid down to help the growth of women’s rights (Sun 1953, pp. 10; 57; 58; 59).
Sun Yat-sen’s principles appear as a mix of reactionary and progressive forces. It is interesting to note the use that Sun makes of the verb “enlighten”. He believed that Guomindang military rule would serve as a time to “enlighten” the masses, to make them “ready” for democracy. The clash between the democratic and autocratic elements within Sun’s doctrines were one the lasting legacies of his political thoughts. De facto, they served to suppress democracy and justify one of the longest military regimes in modern history. It is hard to tell what Sun would have thought if he had seen that his disciple Chiang Kai-shek never allowed democracy and that he brutally repressed opposition.
|Sun Yat-sen (seated) with
The militarization of the Guomindang is shown by the importance that Sun attributed to the organization of an army capable of conquering the whole of China. To this purpose, he allied himself with the Soviet Union. In this period, Sun’s ties with the Soviets as well as the Chinese Communists were quite close. Sun sent his protege’ Chiang Kai-shek to Moscow to study the organization of the Red Army.
In 1924, Sun founded the Huangpu Military Academy (in the West, it is often called Whampoa Military Academy). Its aim was to train the leadership of a revolutionary army, a task that had become one of Sun Yat-sen’s highest priorities. When Chiang Kai-shek returned from the Soviet Union, he was appointed commandant of the academy. Inspired by Leo Trotzky and the Red Army, Chiang Kai-shek set about the task of developing a strong modern army (see Dillon 2010, pp. 188-189). Interestingly enough, Chiang Kai-shek would later become one of the staunchest anti-Communist leaders in the world, as we have seen at the beginning of this post.
|Sun Yat-sen [middle behind the table] and Chiang Kai-shek [on stage in uniform] at the founding of the Whampoa Military Academy in 1924.
At the inauguration of the Huangpu Academy, Sun Yat-sen declared that in order to reach the goals of the revolution, it was necessary to rely on a strong army:
Because we have lacked a revolutionary army, the warlords have dominated the Republic and impeded the progress of the revolution. Our aim in opening this academy is to create the revolutionary task anew from this day and students of this academy … will be the bones and the trunk of the forthcoming Revolutionary Army (ibid., p. 189).
On on 5 September 1924 Sun Yat-sen launched the Northern Expedition to defeat the warlords and unite the country. However, he did not live to see the success of the campaign. He died on 12 March 1925 in Beijing (ibid., p. 191). After a power struggle broke out within the Guomindang, Chiang Kai-shek became the undisputed leader of the party. He initiated the cult of personality around Sun Yat-sen, and made the Three Principles of the People the official ideology of the party and of the Republic of China. In the following years, Chiang unified most of China and established a one-party regime that, with many high and lows, constant crises and setbacks, managed to remain in power on the mainland until 1949.