By the turn of the Twentieth Century China had experienced over a century of continued defeats and humiliations from the imperial powers of Europe. A nation that had spent millennia as the cultural and military centre of its known world had become been shaken to the very core of the neo-Confucian system that led to the understanding of China as cultural exemplar. This humiliation reached a zenith in the mid-nineteenth century when China was utterly defeated by Britain in the two Opium Wars, and experienced the most significant single disaster globally of the century when the Taiping Rebellion led the deaths of over twenty million people.
After the defeat of China in the 1890s war against Japan, the victory of a nation that had been part of the sinosphere and never before a threat to China led to push for reform by the Guangxi Emperor and some of his highest officials. This Hundred Days of Reform program attempted to radically modernise the culture of the government to match the way the military had already been reformed. The conservative members of the elite Qing (the Manchu non-Chinese ruling dynasty) officials, led by the Emperor’s aunt Empress Dowager Cixi had become unhappy at the extent of reforms away from traditional Confucian thought. Cixi instigate a coup against Guangxi, led by Yuan Shikai, the general in charge of the modernised Beiyang army, putting the Emperor under house arrest for the rest of his life. Cixi then halted the reform process.
Dowager Empress Cixi
The perception of continual weakness of the Qing led to the formation of the Tongmenghui, the Revolutionary Alliance and successor to the Guomindang (Nationalist Party) by Sun Yat-Sen (known in China as Sun Zhongshan or Dr. Sun), regarded by both the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic as the Father of Modern China. Sun advocated for the overthrowing of the Manchu Qing dynasty for the establishment of a Han (native Chinese ethnicity) ruled republic. in 1911 the Xinhai Revolution occurred when a group of republican members of the military staged a rebellion and forced the young Emperor Puyi to abdicated at order of the Regent Dowager when Yuan Shikai sided with the revolutionaries. The Provisional Republican government voted for Sun Yat-Sen to become provisional president, but Sun was forced to resign in less than a month in favour of Yuan, who established himself as dictator and eventually declared himself Emperor.
Poster celebrating the Republic of China – Yuan Shikai (left) and Sun Yat-Sen (right)
After Yuan Shikai died China split into a republic of warlords with an internationally recognised government in Beijing who controlled little outside that city. Each warlord ruled as a king over their area unanswerable to any central governement. Sun Yat-Sen and his Guomindang party ruled over his home Guangdong province in the south of China. At the end of the First World War the Beijing governement, which had lent troops to the Entente effort of the Western Front hoped that the Treaty of Versailles negotiations would lead to the transfer of the German possession of the Shandong Peninsula back to China (Shandong very much forms part of China Proper). When Shandong was instead transferred to Japan massive protests known as the May Fourth Movement erupted in China’s large cities to protest the ‘weakness’ of the Beijing governement. Strongly connected to the May Fourth Movement was the New Culture Movement led by author Lu Xun which advocated the writing of Chinese in Vernacular Chinese which uses grammar the same as the spoken language (different depending on Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese etc.) and the adoption of Western thought in favour of traditional Chinese thought. Lu Xun himself was the head of the Union of Left-Wing Writers, a translator of Mill, Marx and Darwin and a fiction writer in which he lampooned the Chinese peasantry’s mindset. At this time the Soviet led Comintern had decided that Sun’s Guangdong government should be supported to unify China, lending funds and training to establish a Leninist (non-Communist) organisation for the Guomindang and to establish an officer training base as long as they form a united front with the Chinese Communist Party. Eventually, after Sun’s death, this model would allow the party to unify China under Chiang Kai-Shek.
Propaganda woodcut of Lu Xun.
China underwent enormous modernising and Westernising as it moved into the twentieth century. The failure of traditional Chinese thought to deal with the threats from the modern West had led to deep discontent within China at the likelihood ability for China to meet the challenges of the world if they continued to assume supremacy without showing this to be so.
- Buggy, Terry. The Long Revolution. Sydney: Shakespeare Head Press, 1988.
- Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. China – Cambridge Illustrated History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- Keay, John. China – A History. London: Harper Press, 2009.
- Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
- Xun, Lu. The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China – The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. London: Penguin Books, 2009.