1911: The Revolution That Created a Republic
China, officially the People's Republic of China, is undoubtedly one of the most powerful nations in the world today. It is the most populous country, with over 1.4 billion residents, and the second highest grossing nation after America. It's also one of the five countries in the United Nations that enjoys veto power.
When we think about the history of China, the first thing that might come to everyone's mind would be the Chinese Communist Revolution extending from 1921 to1949 and its leader Mao Zedong. But before this, around four decades earlier, an uprising that altered the nation's political and cultural face had taken place, a rebellion that paved the way for the upcoming revolutions that occurred in 20th century China, a revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established democracy: the 1911 revolution.
The revolution of 1911, which marked an end to the Qing dynasty, is often understated in history books. According to Britannica, the Qing dynasty (also called the Manchu dynasty), which succeeded the Ming dynasty, was first established in 1636 by the Manchus to assign their authority in Manchuria (now the Northeast region of China). Beijing, the Chinese capital, was later seized by the Manchus in 1664 and then the Qing dynasty was established.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the rest of the world was evolving into a modern place, but the Qing dynasty failed to catch up with this, economically, politically, and technologically.
The Qings took China to new territorial heights. But by the 1800s, they began to decline following many reasons. The two Opium Wars (1839–42 & 1856-60), the Anglo-French War (1856–58), the Taiping Rebellion (1850-60), the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), and the Boxer Rebellion (1900) all led to its fall. The consequent military defeats forced the Qing dynasty to accept several unequal treaties with Japan and the western powers, which in turn led to the exertion of the imperial influence over the Chinese people. Back-to-back failures made the dynasty look weak and inefficient.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the rest of the world was evolving into a modern place, but the Qing dynasty failed to catch up with this, economically, politically, and technologically. The educated young generation of China began to respond against the idleness of the ruler. The regime also witnessed many peasant uprisings during the time.
A new middle class, including merchants, manufacturers, and bankers, emerged around the treaty ports, supplying much of the leadership and the money required for the movement. The youth of these classes had received foreign education and exposure, which made them realise that their country was underdeveloped, and things had to change. The tremendous increase in population, natural calamities and the rise of provincial leaders and their armies all added to the outbreak of a revolution.
The death of Empress Dowager Cixi, the last able leader of the dynasty, put the power in the hands of then three-year-old Puyi. Cixi, who initially refused to accommodate change, later tried to bring drastic reforms to pacify the population of China. But the social and political reforms that came too late, such as the establishment of elected provincial governments, were not capable enough to save the ailing dynasty.
According to History.com, the throning of the infant emperor made situations even worse. Leaving the child emperor on the throne as a spectator, the military troops formed several internal groups and either tried to capture power or allied with the revolutionaries. As the emperor weakened, provincial leaders organised and financed their army forces and declared independence.
One of the critical events that initiated the revolution was a bomb explosion on October 9, 1911. Beiyang Army leader Yuan Shikai, the chief of one of the largest regional armies in northern China, was appointed as the premier by the Qing court to stabilise the revolt. But instead, he supported the revolutionaries.
Other incidents that led to the revolution were the disputes and protests over railway ownership in Sichuan province and the surrounding areas. The decision of the Qing court to nationalise the railway lines to control local authorities and to gain revenue was the reason behind this unrest.
A republican-minded army unit in Wuchang mutinied in Hubei province, and the mutineers captured the Wuchang mint and arsenal. The spirit of revolution drastically spread and inspired the nearby regions as well.
The philosophies of Sun Yat-Sen influenced the uprisings against the Qing dynasty.
According to History.com, the man who played a vital role in the 1911 revolution or the political genius of the revolution was Dr Sun Yat-Sen, a physician who had studied in Hawaii and Hongkong. He built a politically disciplined revolutionary party which relied on his political philosophy named the Three Principles of the People: Nationalism, Democracy, and the Livelihood of People. The democratic ideas of Sun gained acceptance among the educated young population in China, especially the students abroad. He succeeded in establishing several revolutionary cells in Europe, and in 1905 he became the head of a revolutionary coalition, the United League (Tongmenghui), in Tokyo. A Chinese press founded by a reformist, Liang Qichao, also helped Sun in propagating his ideas.
The philosophies of Sun Yat-Sen influenced the uprisings against the Qing dynasty. At the time of the rebellion, Sun was touring western countries as part of fundraising campaigns for the nationalist movement. Dr Sun, who had spent the last 15 years of his life calling for an end to Qing rule, returned to Shanghai in December and was elected provisional president at a delegates meeting in Nanjing.
The Wuchang event and the revolutionists capturing the capital Nanjing marked the end of the dynasty. Yuan Shikai, an imperial minister who was entrusted with full power by the court, had an eye on the throne. Considering his leverage over the military, Sun Yat-Sen came into negotiation with Shikai and agreed to make him the president of the newly formed republic nation.
According to Britannica, the Edict of Abdication was issued on February 12, 1912, that transferred the government to the people’s representatives, marking the end of the Qing dynasty. The boy emperor Puyi officially became the last emperor to rule China, and the 267 years of Qing rule ended. On March 10, 1912, Yuan Shikai was sworn in as the first president of the Republic of China. It was just the beginning of China's transition to a modern nation.
Though the 1911 revolution succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and establishing China as a republic, it failed in unifying China. Instead of making China a democratic nation, Yuan Shikai proclaimed himself the next emperor. This led to a number of civil wars in the following years.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of the reasons that contributed to the Chinese revolution?
How would you describe the influence of Dr Sun Yat-Sen in the panning out of the 1911 revolution?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children, and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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