USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Struggle For Power in Waning Years of the Qing Dynasty

Competing loci of power emerged in China in the final years of the Qing Dynasty, representing very different ideas about the Chinese past and the potential ways forward. The most significant source of power in this context was in the military. The Manchu leadership had undertaken a process of reorganizing the Chinese military in the first years of the twentieth century, and though these reforms (modeled, like Japan’s, on European and especially German innovation) were able to produce some victories for the Qing in actions like the Tibetan campaign, they also created a new class of military leaders with tenuous loyalties to the state. New leaders tended to be sympathetic with reformist or even revolutionary movements, believing that the Qing Dynasty had led China into a state of deep humiliation. The military reform also alienated the older core of generals, who still maintained their bases of power within their units. Increasingly, soldiers were loyal to their individual units and generals within the larger Qing military structure rather than to the emperor or state. Generals, in other words, were precariously close to becoming area warlords.

In addition to the military challenge, the emperor also faced rising resistance from urban intellectuals and workers, many of whom adopted various types of Western political ideologies. Some Chinese chose for a European-style nationalism, whose rhetoric was national renaissance and an end to foreign domination of Chinese domestic affairs. Others were motivated by more radical ideologies, like communism in its Marxist form (though remember that this is well before the Russian Revolution), anarchism, variants of socialism, and democratic republicanism. The only element that these radical and reformist groups could agree on was that they wanted to get rid of Qing rule. Eventually, they were able to put aside some of their ideological differences and form what was called the Revolutionary Alliance under the leadership of the long-time dissident Sun Yat-sen.

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