Decline, Fall, and Aftermath of the Qing Empire (1800—1920)

It was a cruel coincidence of history that Qing dynastic decline coincided precisely with the early Industrial Revolution and the rise of aggressive western European powers competing for world domination through two major enterprises: trade and warfare. Spain and Portugal had first dominated the Asia trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Dutch dominated the trade in the seventeenth century, and Britain emerged as by far the dominant European power in the eighteenth century. As western European countries competed during these years in trade and warfare, they began to enslave millions of Africans and to conquer and colonize much of the New World, Africa, and India. The Qing court remained largely ignorant of these processes.

In the late eighteenth century, British traders came to feel increasingly frustrated with problems in the China trade. The British had grown very fond of Chinese silks, porcelains, and tea and were losing millions of ounces of silver annually to the China trade. Merchants ranked very low in the Confucian value system, and the Qing government saw international trade not as a way to generate new wealth but as a privilege granted to less-developed “barbarians” in exchange for their paying respects to the Son of Heaven and his court. British merchants were allowed to trade only at the southeastern seaport of Guangzhou (known in the West as Canton), where they were confined to a few warehouses and allowed to reside only temporarily to load and unload their ships.

In frustration, the British government sent two official missions to the Qing court in Beijing, in 1793 and 1816, to seek the opening of new trading ports to British merchants and to request that an official envoy from the British government be allowed to reside in Beijing. Both of these missions ended in complete frustration. In 1793, the Qianlong Emperor dismissed every British request as ridiculous, warning that British merchants would be expelled if they tried to come ashore anywhere other than Guangzhou and concluding with a standard emperor’s command to his lowly subjects: “Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!”

The emperor’s condescending attitude reflected how little he understood the power realities of the world at the end of the eighteenth century. Lord Macartney, the British envoy to Qianlong’s court in 1793, was struck by the inefficiency and fragility of the Chinese government, as he perceptively observed that China’s ship of state had fallen into serious disrepair. “She may, perhaps, not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shores; but she can never be rebuilt on the bottom.”

The problems of the China trade might have remained a minor irritant to the expanding British Empire in the early nineteenth century, but frustrations increased dramatically on both sides in the next few decades because of one additional factor: opium. From 1800 to 1810 China accumulated about twenty-six million ounces of silver through its trade with western (mostly British) merchants, because the British public became a nation of tea drinkers, while the Chinese remained largely indifferent to British products. British merchants found the answer to this economic problem in the growth and sale of the addictive drug opium. They began to grow opium on British-controlled plantations in India and to ship the drug to China in order to pay for the ever-increasing British imports of tea, silk, and porcelain.

Opium, produced from the poppy plant, had long been known in China as a pain reliever and treatment for diarrhea, but opium addiction had not been a serious social problem. In the eighteenth century, it was discovered that by vaporizing the sap from the opium poppy and inhaling the vapors through a long-stemmed pipe, the drug could be efficiently introduced into the blood stream, producing a strong sense of euphoria. This kind of opium smoking relieved boredom along with physical and mental pain. It was also highly addictive, and withdrawal produced chills, trembling, severe cramps, and nausea. As British traders discovered this magical solution to their balance-of-payments problem with China, opium addiction spread rapidly through a Chinese population that had little understanding of the poisonous dangers of the drug.

The economic effects of the growing drug trade were just as bad as the social effects. By the mid-1820s, China’s trade surplus with the West had disappeared. Between 1831 and 1833, ten million ounces of silver flowed out of China, as Britain paid for its tea, silk, and porcelain imports with opium profits. By 1836, British merchants sold about $18 million worth of opium in China and bought $17 million worth of tea. The Qing court became aware of the opium problem as early as 1807, when a government official complained that China’s laws against opium smoking were too lax. Occasionally foreign opium dealers were arrested in Guangzhou, but because Qing government salaries were low, foreigners were generally able to bribe local Chinese officials to look the other way. In the mid-1830s, some Chinese officials argued for the legalization of the opium trade so that the Qing government might at least tax the trade. Other officials raised strenuous moral objections to the legalization of such a harmful drug, and they prevailed.

Opium smoking induced feelings of elation and also lethargy, as these men show by indulging in their habit in prone positions on their portable mat in a garden

Opium smoking induced feelings of elation and also lethargy, as these men show by indulging in their habit in prone positions on their portable mat in a garden. After British traders began selling opium in Guangzhou in the eighteenth century, opium addiction spread rapidly among all social classes, producing serious social and economic problems as addiction led to crime and broken families, while Britain financed its entire consumption of tea, silk, and porcelain with the profits from opium and still came away with a growing trade surplus. Adoc-photos, Coll. Gerard Levy, Paris, France / Art Resource, NY

In early 1839, an upright official, Lin Zexu, became the commissioner of trade in Guangzhou, where he was determined to suppress the opium trade. When he announced a ban on opium, the Western merchants handed over 1,000 chests of the drug, a small fraction of the total supply in the waters around Guangzhou. Lin responded by arresting 350 Westerners and confining them without their servants in their “factories” (warehouses). They would be released, he declared, only when they handed over all the opium in their control. Within two months, Commissioner Lin collected more than 21,000 chests of opium (each weighing about five hundred pounds), which was about half the annual total trade. Much to the shock of the Western merchants in Guangzhou, and to the British government in London, Lin proceeded to publicly destroy this entire supply of opium, which could have sold for somewhere between $10 and $20 million.

What Commissioner Lin and the Qing government saw as a wholly justified law enforcement operation the British government saw as an act of piracy against free trade, a severe violation of the rights of British subjects, and an insult to the British Crown. Great Britain sent an expeditionary force of sixteen warships, four armed steamers, twenty-seven transport ships, and one troop ship to China in 1840, with a total of 4,000 British troops. The Chinese had no naval forces capable of defeating such a force and little comprehension of how deadly serious the British government was in its determination to force the opium trade to continue and to grow.

After two years of failed negotiations alternating with fighting, the British forces (increased to 10,000 troops) eventually blockaded China’s major eastern seaport cities and sailed up the Yangzi River to Nanjing, threatening to cut the Qing Empire in half. The court at this point had little choice but to surrender and to accept every humiliating condition the British demanded. The result was the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, which stipulated that China would pay for all the British expenses in the Opium War ($12 million), the market cost of the opium destroyed (conservatively set at $6 million), and the accumulated debts of Chinese merchant houses owed to British merchants ($3 million). In addition, Great Britain took control of Hong Kong, an island of fishing villages off the south China coast, which had what turned out to be one of the best deepwater harbors in the world. Four new coastal cities were opened to trade with the British, and China promised to deal with Western governments as equals in the future.

In a supplementary treaty following the Opium War, China agreed to set a fixed tariff rate on its trade with the Western countries, to extend its agreements with Britain to every other Western country, and to allow Westerners in China to be subject not to Chinese law but to Western laws, under what was called extraterritoriality. The Qing court agreed to these stipulations without realizing that they were in effect giving up control of their own policies in trade and foreign relations. Opium was politely not mentioned in any of these agreements, but it was understood on both sides that the opium trade would continue without being regulated or taxed. By 1880, China imported about 80,000 chests of opium per year, twice the amount imported in the late 1830s.

As painful as it was, the Opium War was only the beginning of the Qing court’s troubles in the nineteenth century. The serious economic and social dislocations caused by the war and by the opium trade itself produced conditions ripe for rebellion. In 1850, a religious and military uprising threatened the immediate survival of the dynasty: the Taiping Rebellion, named for a peasant movement called Taiping Tianguo (Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace), which was inspired by Hong Xiuquan, a failed examination candidate from south China. Hong was from the Hakka people, a small minority group in south China whose women did not bind their feet. He had a nervous breakdown and suffered hallucinations after failing the civil service examinations several times. When he recovered, he recalled having read a Christian missionary pamphlet that he now felt explained the visions he had experienced. He came to believe he was the second son of the Westerners’ Christian God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

Hong inspired his followers to pool their wealth, to worship this new Western god, Jehovah, and to destroy Confucian and ancestral temples as heathen idols. When local government officials tried to suppress this movement in 1850, Hong and his followers rose in open revolt against the Qing dynasty. They quickly recruited desperate peasants and unemployed workers to their cause, trained them to fight fiercely, and by 1854 had occupied the major city of Nanjing on the Yangzi, where they established the capital of their self-proclaimed Heavenly Kingdom. They asserted control of the prosperous Yangzi valley, and their armies came within twenty miles of Beijing in 1855, but poor planning for the northern winter and the dispersal of their forces in too many directions at once doomed that effort to failure.

The Taiping movement was a curious combination of Western Christianity with many traditional Chinese elements. Hong Xiuquan lived as a Chinese-style emperor in Nanjing, in palatial splendor with many concubines, while his movement outlawed opium use, declared equality of land ownership and taxation, and abolished the painful custom of foot-binding for women. Western missionaries were at first amazed and delighted at the thought of a Chinese Christian uprising that might overthrow the Qing dynasty. But when they learned of Hong’s claim to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ and his direct visions from God, they quickly lost their enthusiasm. Western traders successfully pressured their governments to support the Qing forces battling the rebels, as they feared above all the Taiping threat to the opium trade.

Hong Xiuquan’s power was based heavily on his direct access to divine revelation through his visions, and soon another Taiping leader, Yang Xiuqing, began to have his own visions, which posed a threat to Hong. This led to a bloody power struggle in Nanjing that decimated the Taiping leadership in 1856. Despite this setback, Nanjing was not recaptured by the government until 1864. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Manchu banner forces were so weak and ill-trained that the Qing court was forced to give several Chinese officials more military power and authority than ever before under Qing rule. The man most responsible for the eventual Qing victory over the Taiping forces was Zeng Guofan, a conservative Confucian who saw the Taipings as a much greater threat to the Chinese way of life than the Manchu rulers. Zeng and several other Chinese officials recruited and trained their own armies from their own home districts. These Chinese armies could have posed a grave danger to the Qing court, but in the heat of the Taiping Rebellion, the court had no choice but to give more power and autonomy to its top Chinese officials.

An estimated twenty million people were killed in the Taiping Rebellion, and there were several other rebellions that occurred during and after the Taiping. In the middle of these rebellions, in 1858-1860, what could be called a second opium war broke out when a joint Anglo-French force invaded Beijing, burned the emperor’s Summer Palace, and forced more unequal treaties on the Qing. This marked something of a turning point in relations with the West, as Western governments now got almost everything they wanted from the Qing court, including the right to have diplomats reside permanently in the capital. Fourteen treaty ports were now opened to Western trade, with whole sections of treaty ports completely under Western control. After 1860, Westerners also took over the entire administration of China’s taxes on trade and commerce. The once-great Qing Empire had become a semicolony of the West.

Western “coolie” (after the Chinese word, kuli, “bitter laborers”) traders recruited poor illiterate Chinese men with false promises, or simply kidnapped them, put them on virtual slave ships, and sent them to work in gold mines, to build railroads in the western United States, or to work on sugar and other plantations in Western colonies in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and South America. Treated as indentured servants, these workers were charged for their meals and transport and forced to work for years to pay off their “debts” to their overseers. The Qing government was powerless to protect its own citizens from this kind of exploitation.

The internal rebellions and the external wars of the nineteenth century served to keep the court engaged in a daily struggle for survival, leaving no one with time or energy to assess the dynasty’s need for longterm political and economic reforms. There were Confucian officials in the late nineteenth century who called for “self-strengthening,” learning from the West, and who began to build modern weapons, steamships, railroads and telegraph lines. But the Qing Empire was a vast, poor, mostly agricultural and overpopulated territory with a small, weak government, and the modernization efforts were confined to tiny coastal areas that had little impact inland.

No Qing emperor in the nineteenth century was very capable, and in any case the problems facing the dynasty were so great and complex that even a capable and engaged emperor would have had great difficulty in meeting the twin challenges of internal rebellion and external aggression. In 1860, the Tongzhi Emperor took the throne as a young man while real power was shared between his uncle, Prince Gong, and his mother, the Empress Dowager Cixi. Having entered the palace as a low-ranking concubine, Cixi became, through her combination of beauty, ambition, and shrewdness in cultivating allies among officials, the most powerful single individual in the Qing court, from her initial rise as empress dowager in 1860 to her death in 1908. No woman since the Tang Empress Wu had ever held as much power and influence in Chinese politics as the Empress Dowager Cixi.

The Empress Dowager has often been blamed by modern Chinese nationalists for selling out the interests of the Chinese people and living in splendid luxury in the palace while foreigners continued to increase their power and influence over China. She rebuilt the Summer Palace, which Western troops had burned down in 1860, and among other excesses she used funds originally intended for naval expansion to have a pleasure boat carved in marble beside the lake there. Today, tour groups from all over are shown this boat as a symbol of Cixi’s selfish indulgences and the corruption of the late Qing court. In retrospect, she was more a symptom than a cause of Qing weakness. The court was torn between conservative and reformist officials, and she maintained her power by alternating appeals to each group, allowing neither to dominate for long.

In 1894-1895, fighting over influence in Korea, Japanese troops quickly and soundly defeated Qing forces. This was a great shock to China and to the whole world, as the small island nation of Japan was roughly the size of one Chinese province and had long been regarded as a weak peripheral state. The Qing court agreed to pay Japan two hundred million ounces of silver and to cede to Japan the island of Taiwan, and the Pescadores chain of islands. Suddenly, all Western nations feared the coming collapse of the Qing dynasty, and each nation pressured the court to grant it special trading and taxation privileges in its own “sphere of influence,” in what became known as the “scramble for concessions.” Preoccupied with the anti-Spanish rebellion in Cuba and the Spanish-American War, the United States did not get deeply involved in the scramble for concessions, but after defeating Spain and taking over the Philippines in 1899, the U.S. government became worried that the European powers and Japan might start fighting colonial wars with each other in China. In September 1899, John Hay, America’s secretary of state, issued a series of “Open Door Notes” to Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan, calling on all foreign powers in China to allow free trade in all spheres of influence. The scramble for concessions soon subsided, not because of Hay’s Open Door Notes but because the foreign powers decided to ease pressures on the Qing court since they, too, feared the breakup of China.

Empress Dowager Cixi rose to power in 1860 when her young son was enthroned as the Tongzhi Emperor.

Empress Dowager Cixi rose to power in 1860 when her young son was enthroned as the Tongzhi Emperor. Because of the importance of filial piety, even adult emperors often felt obliged to obey their mothers. By manipulating the imperial succession when the Tongzhi Emperor died in 1874, Cixi was able to become one of the most powerful women in all of Chinese history, second only to Tang Empress Wu. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-56127

The humiliating defeat of Qing forces at the hands of Japan pushed some Chinese to begin to call for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, while others called for radical reforms within the dynastic system. In the summer of 1898, Kang Youwei, a brilliant Confucian scholar who admired Japan for its rapid adoption of Western institutions and industrialization, gained an audience with the young Guangxu Emperor, who was growing impatient with his subordination to the Empress Dowager Cixi. The emperor was so taken with Kang that within the short space of one hundred days, he issued edict after edict announcing sweeping reforms, including the introduction of Western subjects in Chinese education, the abolition of thousands of sinecure positions, a crackdown on government corruption, and a crash program of industrialization and Westernization.

Conservative officials quickly grew alarmed at the direction of these pronouncements and approached the empress dowager to intervene. When disciples of Kang Youwei countered by asking Yuan Shikai, the leading military official in the empire, to back the reformers in any conflict with conservatives at court, General Yuan reported this move to the empress dowager, who immediately ordered the reform movement crushed. The Guangxu Emperor was in effect imprisoned on the small island in the lake of the Summer Palace, and Kang Youwei and his closest disciple, Liang Qichao, fled to Japan to escape arrest and execution. Six of Kang’s closest followers, including his younger brother, were arrested and executed. One of them, Tan Sitong, refused to flee when offered the chance, saying that effective change in China would require the blood of martyrs.

With the reformers crushed after only one hundred days, conservatives now seized control of the court, a dangerous turn of events that happened to coincide with the boiling over of a sense of rage and frustration in the north China countryside. During the severe drought of the summer of 1899, secret society groups of peasants and illiterate day laborers called the Boxers went on a rampage, capturing and killing any foreigners they could find. Most of this anger was directed at Western Christian missionaries who moved into many parts of the Chinese countryside in the late nineteenth century. Western missionaries were courageous people, and some of them did amazing medical and social work in China. The first women’s movement against foot-binding was inspired by Western missionary women. But many Chinese could not forgive the fact that Western Christianity and opium came to China at the same time and in the same way, backed by Western guns pointed at Chinese heads. Much wealthier than most Chinese peasants, Western missionaries lived in their own walled compounds apart from the Chinese, under the protection of extraterritoriality. Some poor Chinese “converted” to Christianity for economic reasons, gaining the label “rice Christians,” and authorities suspected Chinese criminal elements of becoming nominally Christian only to use extraterritoriality to avoid Chinese prosecution. All of these practices angered poor Chinese peasants, as did all the foreign wars and unequal treaties of the past half century.

After initially trying to suppress the Boxers’ attacks on foreigners, the Qing court in the summer of 1900 decided to support the Boxers and to try to use them to drive the foreigners out of China once and for all. One factor in the empress dowager’s decision to back the Boxers was that foreign governments had strenuously objected to her plans to depose the Guangxu Emperor in 1898, an act she saw as an intolerable level of foreign interference in Chinese affairs. Some court officials also told her that the Boxers’ religious rituals made them immune to Western firearms, and this appeared to be true when she was given a demonstration (with the shooters using blanks).

All that saved the dynasty from collapse at this point was the fact that southern Chinese officials ignored the court’s orders to declare full-scale war on all foreigners. An eight-nation invasion force (the Western powers plus Japan) quickly took Beijing in 1901, and the empress dowager fled the capital disguised as a Buddhist nun. On her trip through the desolate countryside, she was confronted for the first time with the realities of China’s poverty and weakness. Once a new truce was negotiated, with China agreeing to pay four hundred million ounces of silver in damages, the empress dowager returned to Beijing, invited the wives of Western diplomats to her court for tea, and vigorously promoted the same kinds of modernizing reform she had violently suppressed just three years earlier.

The Boxer Rebellion brought the Qing dynasty’s reputation to an all-time low throughout the world. China was now seen as a backward, dangerous, and barbaric place. One Westerner who perceived the larger significance of the event was Robert Hart, an Irishman who oversaw the China Maritime Customs Office from 1865 to 1908. In the aftermath of the Boxer uprising, Hart predicted with uncanny accuracy that in fifty years’ time, twenty million or more Boxers “will make residence in China impossible for foreigners, will take back from foreigners everything foreigners have taken from China, will pay off old grudges with interest, and will carry the Chinese flag and Chinese arms into many a place that even fancy will not suggest today . . .”

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Qing government tried finally to promote the reforms that might yet save the dynasty. However, it was too little, too late, as more and more Chinese concluded that the Manchus had in effect betrayed China by giving in to Western demands in order to preserve their own power. Many young Chinese began to study in Japan, Western Europe, and the United States, while Sun Yat-sen and others agitated for the overthrow of Qing rule. The court promised the adoption of a constitutional monarchy (basically what Kang Youwei had proposed in 1898), but as provincial assemblies were set up after 1908, they became centers of opposition to, rather than support for, the Qing imperial system.

A stereographic photograph labeled “Some of China’s trouble-makers" shows Boxer prisoners captured by the 6th U.S. Cavalry in Tianjin

A stereographic photograph labeled “Some of China’s trouble-makers" shows Boxer prisoners captured by the 6th U.S. Cavalry in Tianjin. The United States joined the European powers and Japan in sending troops to free the foreign legations in Beijing and quell the Boxer uprising in 1901. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-68811

Sun Yat-sen was a charismatic visionary from Guangzhou who went to Hawaii at age thirteen to live with his brother. He became a Christian, attended a British medical school in Hong Kong, and practiced medicine briefly in Macao. But his true calling was politics, and his great desire was to save his country. After the Sino-Japanese War, he decided the only hope for China was to overthrow the Qing dynasty and replace it with a democratic republic. In 1895, Sun and several friends were discovered plotting an armed uprising in Guangzhou, and he escaped to Japan. He cut off his queue, grew a mustache (then the popular style in Japan), adopted a Japanese name, Nakayama (Zhongshan, or “Central Mountain,” in Chinese), and started wearing Western clothes. He attracted a following among Chinese students in Japan and inspired audiences with his vision of a modern democratic China. He called for three principles of the people: racialism, meaning China for the Chinese and not the Manchus or foreigners; democracy, or people’s rights; and socialism, or people’s livelihood. To answer the argument that China was not ready for democracy, Sun suggested a transition period of “tutelage” during which military rulers would gradually turn over power to an elected civilian government.

Sun’s career was almost ended in 1896 when he was seized and held in the Qing embassy in London when officials there recognized him as a revolutionary. Fortunately for Sun, his British friends successfully lobbied the British government to pressure the embassy to release him. Thereafter, Sun stayed safely out of China and raised money for his revolutionary cause among overseas Chinese communities around the world. He plotted many uprisings against the Qing government in the first decade of the twentieth century, and some of his co-conspirators were caught and executed.

One of the most impressive of the anti-Manchu revolutionaries was a woman, Qiu Jin. When her merchant husband wanted to take a concubine in 1904, she left him in disgust, sent their two children to her parents, and sold the jewelry in her dowry to finance a trip to Japan to study. She dressed like a man, carried a sword, and wrote fiery calls for revolution against both the Manchus and the traditional Chinese family system. She returned to China in 1906 to work for the end of Qing rule. In the second week of July 1907, she heard that her cousin had been arrested for plotting to assassinate a Manchu provincial governor and knew they would soon be coming for her. She refused to flee and instead wrote these lines to a friend: “The sun is setting with no road ahead / In vain I weep for loss of country. Although I die, yet I still live / Through sacrifice I have fulfilled my duty.” Qiu Jin was soon arrested and beheaded for treason. Her death made her a national celebrity and only intensified the populace’s growing anger at their Manchu rulers.

When the Qing dynasty finally fell, after a century of decline, rebellion, and humiliation, it seemed almost accidental. The examination system was abolished in 1905, leaving many upper-class Chinese uncertain how they could relate to the Qing government, which had promised a constitutional monarchy but seemed to be dragging its feet. The empress dowager died in 1908, one day after the Guangxu Emperor (whom she was rumored to have poisoned so that he would not be able to assume power himself). The throne was passed to the three-year-old imperial prince, Puyi, who became the Xuantong Emperor. The court was now at its weakest point in two and a half centuries.

On October 9, 1911, in the central Chinese city of Wuchang on the Yangzi River, a group of revolutionaries loosely affiliated with Sun Yat-sen were preparing to rise in revolt when one of them carelessly set off an explosion as a live ash from his cigarette fell into the gunpowder he was putting into rifle shells. The explosion brought the authorities to investigate, and they found revolutionary tracts and plans for a rebellion. Facing immediate arrest and execution, the revolutionaries in the Wuchang vicinity decided to declare themselves at war with the Qing state on October 10. The local governor-general had recently sent his best troops west to Hunan to suppress riots over disputed railroad rights in the area. Rather than calmly commanding the suppression of this ramshackle uprising, he fled Wuchang, and the rebels found themselves in control of a major city.

Word of this local revolt spread quickly, and some provincial assemblies began to declare their independence from Qing rule, while some troops, newly trained in the Western style, refused to support the Qing and instead began fighting for the rebels. Sun Yat-sen read about the Wuchang uprising on a train outside Denver, Colorado, where he had been raising money among overseas Chinese in America. Knowing the battle for China was just beginning, he headed east to London, where he hoped to raise more money for his cause. At this point, the Manchu court looked to the top Chinese military official in the empire, Yuan Shikai, who had earlier sided with the empress dowager against the reformers of 1898. But the revolutionaries also appealed to Yuan to support a new republic of China, free of Manchu imperial rule. Yuan in effect negotiated the end of the Qing dynasty.

The Qing court agreed to the six-year-old Xuantong Emperor abdicating the dragon throne in exchange for the promise that he and his family would continue to live in the imperial palace with a generous annual stipend while maintaining possession of the immense imperial palace collection of art treasures. Much to the relief of the revolutionaries, the Qing dynasty had been overthrown without China’s descending into chaos and without the Western powers and Japan carving up the country like a melon. Because Yuan Shikai controlled the military forces of the fledgling state, he rather than Sun Yat-sen assumed the presidency of this new republic on February 12, 1912.

While the anti-Qing revolutionaries were united in their desire to overthrow the dynasty, they were divided on most other issues. Sun Yatsen and his followers now organized a new political party, the Guomindang (Nationalist Party), which they saw as a “loyal opposition” party that would compete in electoral politics with the followers of Yuan Shikai. A number of other parties were formed as well, and National Assembly elections were held in December 1912. Only men who owned property, paid taxes, and had an elementary school education could vote. Some forty million men were qualified to vote, about 10 percent of the population. Given China’s lack of experience with electoral politics over the previous 2,000 years, this was an impressive start, and the elections of 1912 went remarkably smoothly. The manager of the Nationalist Party campaign effort was Song Jiaoren, an articulate advocate of democracy from Hunan who hoped to become prime minister in President Yuan’s cabinet. The Nationalists won 43 percent of the vote, far more than any other single party, and Sun Yat-sen, who had agreed to become the director of railroad development, was very pleased.

To Yuan Shikai, the idea of a “loyal opposition” was a contradiction in terms; he saw the Nationalist Party’s criticisms of his policies and their electoral success as a threat to his attempts to create a strong central government. Song Jiaoren had been outspoken in criticizing President Yuan’s cabinet choices and his policies. As Song was waiting in Shanghai to board the train for Beijing on March 20, 1913, a stranger walked up to him and shot him twice at close range. He died in a Shanghai hospital two days later, two weeks short of his thirty-first birthday. The gunman was never caught, but most assumed, with good reason, that Yuan Shikai had ordered the assassination.

President Yuan was a heavy-set, jovial man who charmed his dinner guests with his witty comments, but he was very traditional in his outlook (having for himself a dozen concubines) and quite ruthless toward his political opponents. The Nationalist Party responded to the assassination of Song Jiaoren with calls for Yuan’s resignation and soon rose in open revolt. As the man who had overseen the military modernization program at the end of the Qing dynasty, Yuan enjoyed the loyalty of most military commanders in the nation. In 1913, he made short work of the Nationalist Party uprising, crushing their armed forces very quickly and sending Sun Yat-sen fleeing once again into exile in Japan.

Yuan took all the power he could for himself and borrowed huge quantities of money from foreign banks and governments to buy weapons for his armies. He wanted a strong, modern industrialized state, but he could not quite imagine any effective political system other than the monarchy he had known as a Qing official. In 1915, he plotted with his advisors to restore the monarchy with himself as emperor. But too much had changed since 1911, and almost no one outside Yuan’s personal circle supported such a move. Yuan died of kidney failure in 1916, leaving a power vacuum at the center, with no national consensus about how political power should be created and exercised.

The period from Yuan Shikai’s death in 1916 until 1927 was one of the darkest and most violent in China’s long history. Yuan’s former generals could not unite in support of one leader but began to compete with each other and use their troops as personal armies loyal only to themselves. The period is thus known as China’s Warlord Era, when the country was splintered into dozens of small warlord kingdoms. Whoever controlled Beijing was recognized as the “president of the republic,” but the republic was really a fiction as warlords large and small competed by raiding, looting, or taxing to death the areas under their control. The number of armed soldiers in China grew from 500,000 in 1913 to 2.2 million in 1928. Much of the wealth created during that time was absorbed in the training and equipping of these forces.

Some warlords were little more than bandits, while others actually tried to build a viable government in the area under their control. One of the “best” was Feng Yuxiang, who rose from a humble peasant background to become one of the most powerful military commanders in the country. Widely known as the Christian General, he indoctrinated his troops in Christian teachings as well as good military discipline, built orphanages and schools, and occasionally held mass baptisms for his troops, using a fire hose for sprinkling water on the converts. Zhang Zuolin was a former bandit from Manchuria, which he ruled with an iron hand; Yan Xishan controlled the northwest province of Shanxi, where he promoted public morality and industrialization.

With nearly complete fragmentation of power, the central government had little control of the areas outside the capital, Beijing, and no way to collect taxes from the nation as a whole. During World War I, Chinese businessmen were able to begin some successful modern industries because Westerners were so preoccupied with the war in Europe. Japan took advantage of World War I by issuing to Yuan Shikai’s government a list of “21 Demands” in 1915, demands that would have given Japan de facto control of the Chinese government. When public protests broke out against Japan, the Japanese dropped their most outrageous demands and settled for increased economic rights and privileges.

After the United States, Britain, and France defeated Germany, ending World War I, the victors at the Versailles peace negotiations decided that the former German-held concessions in north China would be turned over directly to Japan. News of this decision hit Chinese students, professors, and businessmen like a bolt of lightning. The Chinese had allied with the United States, Britain, and France in World War I and had sent 100,000 workers to Europe to support the allied powers. Woodrow Wilson had taken the United States into World War I declaring his idealistic desire to make the world safe for democracy and to promote self-determination for all countries of the world. For the Western democracies to reward Japan with formerly German property in China struck all informed Chinese as the height of hypocrisy, reminiscent of the Opium War being justified as a defense of “free trade.”

Word of this decision reached Beijing on the evening of May 3, 1919, and the next day, 3,000 Chinese students marched to the Gate of Heavenly Peace in front of the Forbidden City to protest the Versailles peace treaty. They marched to the home of a pro-Japanese government official and looted and burned it to the ground. Two dozen protesters were arrested, and in the following months students, professors, businessmen, and workers all organized protests and anti-Japanese strikes and boycotts. The May Fourth Movement came to be the name for these protests as well as a whole movement promoting cultural change that had begun already several years before.

Four years earlier, in 1915, two Beijing University professors, Chen Duxiu and Hu Shi, had begun a new journal called New Youth. In the first issue, Chen wrote an essay calling on Chinese young people to reject Chinese traditions, suggesting that they follow six principles: (1) be independent, not servile; (2) be progressive, not conservative; (3) be aggressive, not retiring; (4) be cosmopolitan, not isolationist; (5) be utilitarian, not formalistic; and (6) be scientific, not imaginative. China was backward, Chen argued, because it was too conservative and gave too much respect to tradition and to the elderly. Young people should rebel against the authority of their elders, reject the “wisdom of the past,” and embrace independence, individualism, and freedom.

Student demonstrators surround the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing on May 4, 1919

Student demonstrators surround the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing on May 4, 1919. Their protest against the Versailles Peace Treaty quickly grew into a popular urban movement against both foreign imperialism and traditional Chinese culture. Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis, MN

The events of 1919 suddenly brought many young people into the camp of the critics of Chinese tradition. In analyzing the foreign and domestic crises of the Warlord Era, students, teachers, writers, and journalists published periodicals, short stories, poems, and propaganda posters all blaming China’s weakness on two things: foreign imperialism and the conservative Confucian culture of Chinese tradition. The pace of change began now to accelerate.

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