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

Sun Yat-sen and the Revolutionary Era

Sun Yat-sen is one of the key figures for the next phase of Chinese history. He was born in the area around Canton into a poor rural family. Lacking opportunity in imperial China, Sun followed some of his relatives who had emigrated from China to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, lured by the promise of a better life during the California Gold Rush. In the 1880s, Sun joined his older brother in Hawaii. There, Sun received an education in mission schools and was first exposed to Western notions of republicanism and democracy. After completing a medical degree and enduring a number of disappointing appointments in China, Sun returned to Hawaii, now radicalized, and formed what he called the Revive China Society in 1894. As the name implies, the goal of the society was somehow to reverse what Sun and others saw as China’s catastrophic decline and to return China to its past glory. The first step of “reviving” China, of course, was to get rid of the Manchu emperor and to replace him with a more modern form of government – preferably, for Sun, a republic.

Moving to British-controlled Hong Kong, Sun began to conspire in plans to incite a national uprising. His plans were discovered and Sun was forced to flee. He left Hong Kong for Japan, Japan for the United States (San Francisco) and the United States for England. He finally settled in London and immersed himself in Western literature on politics and economics. Sun won international fame when Qing authorities botched an attempt to kidnap him and bring him back to China for trial and execution.

During the next decade and a half Sun built up his support within a series of secret societies operating inside and outside of China, active throughout the Pacific and as far away as the United States. In the period between 1906 and 1908, Sun’s Revolutionary Alliance played a significant role in bringing about several anti-government uprisings by channeling resources from foreign anti-Qing Chinese back into China. Though sympathizers with Sun’s movement must have been much greater, even the spectacular growth of direct membership in the Revolutionary Alliance is telling, growing from a mere four hundred members in 1905 to around ten thousand by 1911. Many of these Revolutionary Alliance members and sympathizers had been students in Japan and had then infiltrated the ranks of the newly organized Qing army. The stage was set for a direct challenge to Qing authority.

This challenge came in October of 1911 in the area of Wuhan, a hotbed of anti-Qing activity. As the Qing attempted to mobilize their forces to meet the emerging threat in Wuhan, anti-Qing revolts broke out in other parts of the country. In the provinces of Shaanxi and Hunan, the Qing New Army units revolted, in places murdering members of the Qing government. Revolts spread to Shanxi, Yunnan, and other provinces, bringing political crisis to virtually all territory south of the Yellow River and north of Canton. This might not have been the death knell of the Qing, however, as the dynasty’s base of power had always been in the north, after all they were originally invaders from Manchuria. At the end of October, the Qing called on its northern army to march south and confront the growing, but still relatively small and disorganized, rebel units. Militarily speaking, there is little doubt that the situation was not incredibly dire. What was dire was the state of the people’s loyalties to their 250-year-old dynasty.

When the northern army refused to march, the Qing had no choice but to give in to the demands issued to it by the military establishment. Indeed, the first phase of the Chinese revolution should be considered as primarily a military coup against the emperor. In November 1911, a provisional national assembly formed and elected the powerful former Qing general Yuan Shikai as the premier of China.  At the same time, however, support was massing among the people for Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance. By the end of September, delegates loyal to the Revolutionary Alliance met in Nanjing and elected Sun as president of a Chinese republic.

The dawn of 1912 found China in an odd and uncomfortably transient position with a “premier” who was backed by the most powerful military forces in the country and who was tacitly bound together with the emperor in the framework of a constitutional monarchy (though the monarch was a mere boy). To the south, there was the Revolutionary Alliance of Sun Yat-sen, who controlled a populist movement with some military capacity, though this capacity was far inferior to that of General Yuan Shikai. Sun Yat-sen’s inferior strategic position made conflict undesirable for the Revolutionary Alliance. Within days, he resigned his position as president in favor of Yuan Shikai.

The first order of business under the provisional presidency of Yuan Shikai was to try to establish some legitimacy for a new government. The end of the Qing Dynasty was more than a simple shift in power. It called into question the entire foundation of the venerable and noble Chinese civilization, which for over two thousand years had been based on the social/political philosophy of Confucianism. In a fashion that will now be familiar with you, a provisional constitution was drawn up along Western lines. It was to be a representational democracy with two chambers, a Senate and a House of Representatives.

Sun Yat-sen had, in the meantime, transformed his Revolutionary Alliance into a political party called the National People’s Party, or the Guomindang. The result of the first national election was a resounding victory for the Guomindang. Within months, the Guomindang began to agitate for more control over governmental institutions. A military man, Yuan Shikai was not about to let go of the reins of power. Yuan sent his highly organized and professional army against the troops loyal to the Guomindang and routed them. He declared the party to be an illegal organization and forced its leader, Sun Yat-sen, into exile in Japan. With lightning speed, the Chinese experiment with democracy had ended. During the following years, Yuan set out to consolidate his power and expand his control over regions of the country that had been loyal to the Nationalists. He replaced the constitution with a document that basically arrogated all governing power to himself. The issue of foreign involvement was also pressing, as Yuan wanted to both win recognition and avoid conflict with foreign powers. At the same time, he did not want to be perceived as bowing to foreign demands, as had the Qing emperors for so many years.

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