Category Archives: Xinhai Revolution

“1911: The Failed Institutional Revolution”

Yet more pondering on the Xinhai Centenary- this time a good one from ChinaBeat:

The 1911 revolution, whether because of the initial weakness of its proponents or through a series of unlucky historical coincidences, rapidly led to the restoration of Yuan Shikai to the imperial throne. The long-anticipated democratic system and the greater social and civic equality that was to result from it remained elusive, prompting a decade of soul-searching among China’s intellectuals. The most famous product of these reflections was without doubt Lu Xun’s Ah Q, the epitome of a revolutionary who is unequipped and unable to become a citizen. How were China’s Ah Qs to be made into citizens? This became the foremost preoccupation of the country’s intellectual elite for many years, setting them apart from the world of power politics. The New Culture movement, with its emphasis on education and individual autonomy, was followed by cultural agendas that became increasingly utopian as politics became more cynical and polarized. When Duan Qirui sent his troops into Beijing, Lu Xun’s brother Zhou Zuoren took his Beijing University students to study in the countryside, emulating the Japanese “New Village movement.” As Chiang Kai-shek massacred supposed communist sympathizers, Liang Shuming set up utopian rural schools in China’s remote backwaters. “Real” democracy was always seen as outside the corrupt institutions of party politics; however, the utopian vision of “fostering citizens” never led to the desired changes in the political system. Similarly to Weimar Germany, the Republic of China was a time of great freedom and intellectual ferment, but also a Republic without republicans, a regime whose institutions no one was prepared to invest in.

In this manner, mistrust of institutions remained strong among critical Chinese intellectuals for most of the century, and was notably instrumentalized to great effect by Mao during the Cultural Revolution – which is not to say that “organic” intellectuals did not crave recognition from the state when the opportunity arose. However, it was only after the beginning of Reform and Opening up (改革開放 gaige kaifang) that the Chinese elite again warmed to the theme of institution building: throughout the 1980s – a decade of intellectual ferment and political reform in many ways similar to the 1900s – the feeling dominated that an institutional compromise was possible between inner-Party reformers and idealistic intellectuals. After the violent crackdown of the 1989 student movement, a similar pattern emerged: rather than embarking on an uncertain long march through the institutions, many of China’s foremost critical thinkers once again took refuge in other realms: academia, legal activism, grassroots civil society organizations, personal investigations of recent history, documentary films, or emigration. Only Liu Xiaobo, loyal to the spirit of the 1980s, reaffirmed his commitment to formulating an institutional alternative, demonstrated most clearly in the Charter 08 he co-authored. On the whole, however, institutional reform was seen as both hopeless and useless (a point tragically demonstrated by Liu’s arrest) and the real battles were elsewhere.

It took almost one century from the fall of the Bastille until French citizens of all political stripes could to come together at the funeral of Republican icon Victor Hugo, a sign, according to historian François Furet’s famous pronouncement, that “Revolution had entered port.” This has not happened in China. To the contrary, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with its carefully crafted historical narrative, took great pains to avoid sketching out a possible political consensus on how to define the nation in the 20th century, closely confining itself to the cultural bric-a-brac of its “5,000-year history.” This absence of even a minimal consensus on the nature of the Chinese polity speaks eloquently to the open legacy of 1911. One hundred years on, the divide between an institutional apparatus that seems less and less amenable to reform and an aspirational form of democracy that has not yet found a satisfactory institutional translation on the Chinese mainland remains as deep as ever.

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“China’s Century-Long Identity Crisis”

On the Xinhai Centenary, WSJ has a good post by a Chinese history professor:

The Chinese Communist Party would like to forget this internationalism. Today the Party’s idea of a “superpower” is a nation capable of taking anything it wants from the global arena and free to give nothing back if it so desires. With the ideological heritage of communism neutralized by cronyism and corporatism, the CCP insists that the revolutions of 1911 and 1949 were powered by the elusive stuff of “nationalism.”

Non-Chinese take their notions of nationalism from the history of countries like Britain and France—where in the early modern period nationalist officials, historians and rhetoricians could work in the context of continent-wide laws recognizing absolute sovereignty and of emerging bases of civil opposition to royal power, military forces to protect economic independence and essential farmland, and boundaries defined by treaty. But during the same period, China was part of the Qing empire, ruled by foreign invaders, the Manchus.

The Chinese themselves had no armies, no defined boundaries and above all no concept of national sovereignty. At the end of the 19th century, as in the cases of many peoples entering the twilight of the great land empires, Chinese leaders arose who claimed the banner of nationalism. Their opposition to the Qing, British and French empires was clear enough. What was unclear was the basis of this nationalism once the Qing fell and the assaults of foreign empires withered away.

Today the CCP condemns questions, criticisms or opposition from abroad as assaults on China’s “national sovereignty,” a reaction only possible from a government with no historical grounding in what sovereignty is. Officials, along with collaborating writers and academics, have engineered a Chinese “nationalism” that consists of odds and ends of resentment against real wrongs done to China by foreign invaders and imperialists in the past; glorification of a genuinely distinct literary, artistic and philosophical tradition of some 4,000 years’ duration; fictive narratives of political and geographical continuity of a Chinese “empire” for that same period; and circuitous claims to dominate the former Qing empire territories of Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.

China’s national evolution in the post-imperial period is rooted in a vibrant tradition of popular opposition to tyrannical government and an openness to international cooperation, but CCP-approved history and rhetoric feverishly denies this truth. The Party wields a blunt club of undefined and amoral “nationalism” that would be dangerous to it were the club to fall from its grasp. If a future government recognizes the history of China’s transition from empire to republic, however, it could temper relationships with its own people, as well as with international friends and rivals.

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“Fear of Dragons”

The NYT has a great piece by Yu Hua on the Xinhai Revolution anniversary:

Lord Ye, it is said, loved dragons so much that he had them carved on his wine vessels and personal accessories and even made them the theme of his interior decoration. One day a real dragon came down to check things out, pressing its nose up against Lord Ye’s window while its tail swished about outside. Lord Ye, scared out of his wits, turned around and fled.

I am reminded of the story as I observe the centennial of China’s 1911 revolution, the series of uprisings that brought down the Qing dynasty and established a democratic republic. The government loves the hoopla, which culminates Monday, as long as it can invent it and control it. But when the real thing shows any sign of approaching, it panics.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Chinese history has never opened its door to democracy. As 1911 demonstrated, democracy enters China only by smashing down the door. The years of intellectual ferment that followed, from 1912 to 1927, marked perhaps the period of greatest freedom in 20th-century China. In that era of social activism and freedom of speech, an immense variety of political parties and organizations played a role in society. Today, the eight so-called “democratic” parties are just helpmates to the Communist Party.

The freedoms of the early Republican period did not last. They were strangled in the cradle, and the guiding principles and separation of powers that Sun Yat-sen espoused perished with his passing.

Liang Qichao, a key reform figure in the late-19th century, once said that the measures taken by the Qing government to guard against popular unrest were infinitely more elaborate than those of advanced countries. Over a hundred years later, China remains the leader in efforts to forestall popular protest.

So it is with only superficial gestures that our officials commemorate 1911. They claim to be celebrating 1911, but in fact they are hailing 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed.

In Wuhan, the birthplace of the 1911 uprising, police were directed to reinforce their patrols between Aug. 27 and Oct. 10. Apart from the several thousand officers conducting patrols each day, 100 paramilitary police and 200 special police armed with submachine guns have been assigned to street duty. A quarter of a million surveillance cameras watch every corner 24 hours a day — all in the name of “creating a peaceful environment for the centennial.”

I have no doubt that Lord Ye loved dragons — so long as they were purely ornamental. Nor do I doubt that our government wants to commemorate the 1911 revolution — so long as the tributes are confined to decorative knickknacks, or to flights of fancy in interior design.

Exactly right. Even the random-numbered anniversaries were given bigger play this year than the 100th of Xinhai seems to be getting.

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“The Xinhai Revolution and Counter Revolution on the Frontiers of Republican China”

Awesome historian Tsering Shakya on the significance of the Xinhai Revolution for minorities on the edge of Qing China:

The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and the subsequent founding of the republic sought to remould China as being composed of five nationalities: Han, Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, and Uyghur. This vision of a multi-ethnic nation had no appeal to Tibetans and Mongols. In divergent ways, the Xinhai Revolution created an opportunity for China, Tibet, and Mongolia to create a modern nation state.

The revolution profoundly impacted China’s frontier regions. China’s authority disappeared, particularly from Tibet and Mongolia. Tibetans and Mongolians saw the overthrow of Manchu rule as an opportunity to free themselves from Qing colonialism. In the aftermath of the 1911 revolution, Tibet and Mongolia declared independence and became de facto independent states, remaining so until the mid-20th century. But only Mongolia achieved full recognition as a separate state while Tibet failed.

Independence from China brought Jazandamba, the Bodg Khan (spiritual and secular ruler), to power in a theocratic Mongolian government in the 1910s. Mongolian leaders shared the modernist goal of the Chinese revolutionaries and viewed traditional social structure as an impediment to modern nation status. Later Mongolian revolutionaries embraced the idea of the radical transformation of society and in 1921 became the first Asian country to declare a Communist revolution. Mongolia turned towards the Soviet Union in a strategic and ideological alliance.

Tibet, after expelling all vestiges of Manchu rule, became isolationist and any demand for social change was aggressively resisted. The death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933 left Tibet without leadership and plunged its ruling class into a power struggle, which further blinded them from developments occurring in China.

Between 1911 and 1949, the new regime in China was preoccupied with internal politics and faced resistance from Tibetans and Mongols. China was unable to reassert power in these two regions. Mongolia’s Communist revolution afforded Mongolians the protection of the Soviet Union and ensured its independence. Tibet remained independent of China’s rule between 1911 and 1950, although it never achieved de jure recognition.

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