Chinese imperial history always seems so distant, so ancient. It’s easy to forget that we are only a hundred years away from a time when the Qing Dynasty still ruled China. As recently as a hundred years ago an emperor (albeit a child) was still living in the Forbidden City, many aristocratic women had bound feet, and most of China’s coastal cities were under foreign control. Mao Zedong was a child and the Chinese Communist Party had not yet come into existence.
But on this day in 1911, it all came crashing down in what has come to be known as the Xinhai Revolution. It started with an uprising in Wuchang which brought an end to the Qing Dynasty and 2000 years of imperial rule in China. Within a year the Republic of China (whose government still lives on in Taipei) was established and Sun Yat-sen became China's first president.
Of all of the momentous events of the 20th Century in China (the Boxer Rebellion, the Long March, the Rape of Nanking, the Founding of the PRC in 1949 and subsequent political campaigns), the Xinhai Revolution is probably the least well known. But it’s significance should not be underestimated since it set the stage for the great philosophical, political, and military battles that would rage across China for the next half a century. Old China had been brought down, but what a new, modern China was to look like had not yet been decided.
Would it look to the west for inspiration, adopting western ideas and methods of democracy and science? This was the vision of the May Fourth student movement that would emerge in 1919.
Would this merely be an interlude between dynasties, as all previous dynastic falls had been? This certainly seems to have been the thinking of Yuan Shikai, the Republic of China’s second provisional president who declared himself emperor in a ceremony at the Temple of Heaven. No one else recognized his imperial status and a few months later, he was dead.
In the chaos that followed, central authority collapsed and China descended into several decades of chaos, often referred to as the Warlord Era. It was in this milieu that the Chinese Communist Party was born, and with it the vision of re-uniting China under the banner of Marxism, a vision that eventually won the day.
Today has been an interesting day in "Greater China" as the governments on both sides of the Taiwan Straits have tried to claim the legacy of the Revolution. “The Xinhai Revolution is mine!” “No, it’s Mine.” “Is not!” “Is too!” And so on, and so forth....
In Taipei, the day was marked with parades and public celebrations. In Beijing, the leaders gathered in the Great Hall of the People to read each other speeches. Everyone else got a Jackie China movie.
What an amazing century!
If you're interested in learning more about the Xinhai Revolution and its significance, check out these articles:
From Sun to Mao to Now (The Economist)
100 Years After the Xinhai Revolution (China Media Project)
Fear of Dragons (The New York Times)
1911: The Xinhai Year of Revolution (China Heritage Quarterly)
(photo source: Cultural China)