Also called the Xinhai Revolution, the Chinese Revolution of 1911 was the culmination of decades of social unrest and political weakness. Failed reforms, colonial pressure, and lack of harmony between various ethnicities inhabiting the Chinese Empire led to anger yet unseen towards the Imperial regime.
This event lasted from October 1911 to February 1912 and represents a major turning point in Chinese history. Nowadays, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China in Taiwan consider themselves the legitimate successors of the 1911 Revolution. But how did such a ground-shaking occurrence come to be? Why did Chinese society overthrow a hereditary regime that ruled for millennia? What were the consequences of this revolution? And, in the end, did it end up delivering a better and more prosperous life for the people?
The Background to the Chinese Revolution
During the 19th century, China saw all of its influence and prestige collapse due to colonial pressure and the inability to respond to external threats. This period is remembered today as the century of humiliation.
After China lost the Opium Wars to Great Britain and France, the colonial powers imposed harsh and unequal treaties on China. The reigning Qing Dynasty attempted to enhance reforms in order to modernize its army and administration, but these efforts were spoiled by internal corruption and centralization of power in the hands of a strongly conservative court.
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The defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 convinced Emperor Guangxu of the necessity to enlarge the reforms to the economic and social sphere. With the help of prominent reformists Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, Beijing managed to launch the Hundred Days Reform in 1898. However, this attempt was cut short by a conservative coup d’état perpetrated by Empress Dowager Cixi. While the monarch was put under house arrest, the reformists fled the country to avoid execution.
The Empress Dowager not only put an end to Guagxu’s reforms but also encouraged the Boxer Rebellion against the influence of foreign dignitaries. This uprising took place from 1899 to 1901, during which foreigners and Chinese Christians were the targets of violence from ultra-conservative groups. This event led to a multi-national military intervention in China that imposed harsh conditions, binding Beijing to the West by the Boxer Protocol.
Following this additional humiliation, various anti-regime groups formed throughout the country. One of the most famous groups was the anti-Manchu movement of Zou Rong. Strongly nationalistic, this group aimed to remove the Qing Dynasty, which had Manchu origins, and replace it with ethnically Chinese rulers. The reformists Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao created the Emperor Protection Society, which demanded the return of Guagxu to power. Finally, the China Revival Society led by Sun Yat-sen had strongly revolutionary ideas and aimed at ending dynastic rule.
Opposition to Imperial Rule
Rebellions against the regime started as soon as 1895 when the China Revival Society attempted to take the city of Guangzhou through an uprising. However, the plans were leaked to the Qing Government, which was quick to react. The revolutionaries were swiftly arrested and executed.
Many uprisings occurred in China in the following years. In 1900, Qing authorities aborted an attempt to overthrow the Empress Dowager. Three years later, an anti-Manchu rebellion was killed in its crib. In May 1907, a revolutionary movement that included foreign volunteers attempted to take control of Chaozhou but was violently repressed. In 1907 and 1908, numerous uprisings were repressed by the regime despite some initial successes.
In November 1908, Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi both died, the latter naming a two-year-old relative, Prince Puyi, as Emperor. A group of eunuchs and Qing family members were left in charge of the regency.
But the new rulers did nothing to mend the situation with the opposition. After a relatively calm year, uprisings and rebellions started again in February 1910 with the Gengxu New Army Uprising. One year later, the Second Guangzhou Uprising took place in April and saw the massacre of 86 revolutionaries by government forces, of which 72 were identified. The twilight of the Qing Dynasty was near, and a few months later, a final rebellion was about to take place…
The Beginning of the Chinese Revolution
On October 10th, 1911, revolutionary organizations in the city of Wuchang, in the Hubei province, launched a massive uprising that took local authorities by complete surprise. By the next day, the entire city was in the hands of the insurgents. The local Qing officers either fled or were killed during the fighting. Encouraged by this success, other revolutionary movements, Chinese Han nationalist associations, and independence organizations launched numerous uprisings almost simultaneously, not leaving Beijing any room to retaliate.
On October 22nd, the Hunan Province fell to the hands of insurgents. On the same day, bloody combats took place in the predominantly Muslim province of Shaanxi, where Qing sympathizers and revolutionary forces fought until the abdication of the Emperor in February 1912.
On October 23rd, Jiujiang fell to the rebels. On the 29th, a bloody uprising took place in the Shanxi Province and saw the massacre of most of the Manchu inhabiting the region. This revolt was led by Yan Xishan, a future key figure of China’s tumultuous unrest during the Warlords Period.
By the end of October 1911, Yunan Province fell to the revolutionaries, and Jiangxi was close to follow. In the next two months, all of China was blazing with fires of rebellion. Lacking a centralized committee, the rebels were divided in ideologies. While some shared revolutionary ideas, others wanted to oust Manchu elites from China and replace them with Hans. In other regions, such as Tibet and Mongolia, pro-independence organizations managed to wrestle their freedom from Beijing and create new states.
It is also interesting to note that rebels took up arms in Japanese-occupied Taiwan. But Tokyo was fast to crack down on the insurgents and get the province under its control.
The Collapse of the Qing Government
In November 1911, the Qing Government named Yuan Shikai as Prime Minister. The Government passed the Nineteen Articles Reform that transformed China from an autocratic regime to a constitutional monarchy. However, these changes came too late and failed to satisfy the rebels.
In the South of China, revolutionary forces captured Nanking and turned it into a temporary capital of the new provisional government. In December, Beijing and Nanking delegations met in the British Concession territory of Shanghai for a conference to negotiate an end to the crisis. It was finally agreed that the Emperor would abdicate on the condition that Yuan Shikai was made president of China.
The latter did not uphold his part of the agreement, and revolutionary committees elected Sun Yat-sen as provisional president on the 29th of December. On January 3rd, 1912, rebel groups attempted to assassinate Yuan Shikai, and insurgent armies began marching on Beijing.
Cowed into submission, the prime minister executed his terms of the Shanghai Conference and suggested to Qing dignitaries that the Emperor should abdicate. The latter relinquished the throne on February 12th. In order to fully implement the terms of the agreement, Sun Yat-sen renounced the presidency, and Yuan Shikai was sworn into office on March 12th, 1912. The Republic of China was born.
Shortly after the nomination of Yuan Shikai, most of the revolutionary factions gathered in the Kuomintang Party, which dominated the first elected assembly. Song Jiaoren was elected as prime minister but was killed on the orders of Yuan in March 1913. China was about to enter a phase of instability as various influential figures vied for power in and out of the Kuomintang. Moreover, other movements, such as the Chinese Communist Party, were about to appear on the social and political map.
The Chinese Revolution of 1911: Failure or Success?
The Chinese Revolution of 1911 resulted from various uprisings against Qing rule. The movements behind those rebellions were not coordinated into a single organization and had different objectives. But all rebels were united in removing Manchu rule from China.
The revolution did achieve its primary goal of removing the Qing Emperor. However, from that point onwards, the various groups that formed the backbone of the Revolution pursued their own objectives.
Mongolia and Tibet managed to gain independence from Beijing. But for the other political factions, the victory transformed into further complex challenges. The nationalist movements were divided into two major groups: those who supported the emergence of a presidential state and those who wanted to replicate monarchic rule with an ethnically Chinese Han Emperor. In addition to this important difference, central authorities in Beijing failed to establish direct control over far away provinces. This unrest facilitated the appearance of local warlords who fought each other from 1916 to 1928. It was during this period that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) emerged as a major political player and engaged in military activities against the nationalist Kuomintang.
The civil war between communists and nationalists carried on from 1927 to 1949, with a truce from 1936 to 1945 to focus on Japanese invaders. The Civil War eventually ended with the CCP taking power in mainland China, while the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan, establishing an autonomous government.
Nowadays, the People’s Republic of China is a key industrial power, as well as an important player in world politics. The Republic of China established in Taiwan is also an important stakeholder in international affairs, being the main manufacturer of semi-conductors and various commodities exported worldwide. However, tensions between the two regimes persist to this day, and the fires of conflict still threaten the region.