100 Years Later: The Difficult Offspring of Xinhai 辛亥的辛孩

Portraits of Sun Yat-Sen adorned Tiananmen Square for this year's anniversary

This fall marks 100 years since the Xinhai Revolution 辛亥革命 brought an end to China’s millennia-old tradition of monarchy and began the Celestial Empire’s long slog toward modern nationhood. Anyone who lived through the ensuing decades of feuding warlords, brutal invasion, more civil war, and social upheaval would scarcely recognize the emerging world power that China has become today. But even though the strength and unity of China’s government and economy has increased dramatically since those early decades, many underlying tensions remain.

In Taiwan this year, they will celebrate the centennial of the Republic of China, while the mainland commemorates the end of Qing emperors’ feudal oppression.Both lionize Dr. Sun Yat-Sen 孫中山, as “father of modern China.” Both governments agree that there is only one China, but just which government is Dr. Sun’s rightful heir is the subject of intense and emotional debate. Sadly, Sun Yat-Sen died of cancer in 1925, when he was just 58. Two years later, a tenuous communist-nationalist alliance violently and enduringly ruptured. One can only wonder how modern Chinese history would have been different if Dr. Sun had lived to see old age.

In the 19th century, China was plagued by bloody rebellions and humiliating conflicts with marauding foreigners. But the Qings’ hold on power really began to crumble after a military coup successfully took over the city of Wuchang 武昌 on October 10, 1911. To put down the rebellion, the Qing court summoned Yuan Shikai 袁世凱, the head of China’s powerful and modernized Beiyang army 北洋軍, wooing him out of retirement with the title of prime minister. He won substantial victories against rebel troops in the Battle of Yangxia 陽夏之戰 (pictured at right), and was poised to crush the leaders in Wuchang before agreeing to a ceasefire on Dec. 1. With the rebels still controlling the city of Wuchang and widespread uprisings leading 16 provinces to secede, Yuan controlled the only force strong enough to defeat the rebels and was in an ideal position to make demands. The general-turned-prime minister protected the Qing government from his northern base of power in Beijing 北京 (which translates to “northern capital”), while the revolutionaries began organizing a provisional government based in Nanjing 南京 (which translates to “southern capital”).

Although Sun Yat-Sen is recognized today as the major architect and fundraiser of the revolution, the uprising began without warning, and he did not return from exile until Dec. 25. His fame and prestige still led the provisional government to elect him as president of the new republic by January 1. The next day, Yuan Shikai perceived a threat to his power and called off peace negotiations. Fearing protracted civil war and the possibility of invasion since no foreign governments would recognize the republic, Sun Yat-Sen offered to resign the presidency in favor of Yuan if the general would persuade the royal family to give up the throne. Yuan informed Empress Longyu隆裕皇后, who was ruling as regent for her six-year-old nephew Puyi 溥儀, that the rebels would slaughter the royal family if she did not agree to the terms of abdication being offered. She signed the abdication agreement on Feb. 12, 1912, and the royal family continued to live supported by public funds in the Forbidden City until 1924. 

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This poster celebrates the ill-fated Yuan-Sun alliance
After the Nationalist Party won a large victory in the democratic elections of Feb. 1913, conspirators with ties to Yuan assassinated Song Jiaoren宋教仁, a nationalist party leader who vocally advocated an independent parliament and controls on presidential power. Shortly thereafter, the nationalist party was banned and its members ejected from the legislature. Sun Yat-Sen organized a second revolution, but it was no match for Yuan’s powerful army. In 1914, Yuan dissolved parliament and replaced provinces’ civilian leaders with independent military governors, sowing seeds for decades of warlord-fueled regional divisions and intermittent warfare. In late 1915, Yuan completed the return to autocracy by announcing his plans to become emperor. Widespread protests vociferously denounced this blatant power grab, and the southwestern provinces of Yunnan 雲南, Guizhou 貴州, and Guangxi 廣西 seceded in rapid succession. In light of this tremendous opposition, Yuan canceled his coronation and died of kidney failure three months later.

Warlords eagerly stepped into the power vacuum, forming cliques among themselves and contending for supremacy. Eventually, Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石, commandant of the Nationalist Party’s Whampoa Military Academy 黃埔軍校, reunited China with a military campaign known as the Northern Expedition that began in Guangzhou 廣州 and ended in Beijing in 1928. But warlords nominally loyal to the Nationalist regime maintained independent armies that periodically rebelled and fought with each other. And while the expedition began with an alliance between Nationalist and Communist forces, a brutal purge of communists in 1927 brought an end to such cooperation and foretold decades of insurrection and civil war to come. 

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Japan took advantage of China’s weakness to seize Manchuria in 1931, and the imperialist nation began a brutal campaign against China proper in 1937. Despite huge territorial losses, it took being kidnapped by a former warlord in 1936 to force Chiang into an uneasy truce with the communists. Still, the two forces jockeyed for advantage and sometimes openly fought each other during the war of resistance, and all-out hostilities quickly resumed after the Japanese surrender. Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist government eventually lost the civil war and fled to Taiwan in 1949, 38 years after the Xinhai Revolution. An uneasy peace ensued as both governments focused on consolidating control and quashing internal dissent; the two sides still have never reconciled. 

In retrospect, some would argue that a more gradual transition away from absolute monarchy could have avoided much heartache and bloodshed. Others would claim that the tumultuous strife among warlords, ideologues, and aristocrats was a necessary, if horribly unpleasant, transitional phase between archaic and modern governments. And still others would claim that the Xinhai Revolution accomplished little and really fruitful change would not come until after the communist takeover, or later still, after the party veered away from dogmatic Maoism in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. But virtually no one wishes for a return to autocratic monarchy, so even though we can all argue about its precise significance, we can all agree that this centennial is worth celebrating.

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The three flags of the early Republic of China


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