The Transition Of China From Dynasty Rule To Republic, 1912


The authors of Wealth And Power tell us that Confucian scholar Feng Guifen, in his work, Dissenting Views From A Hut Near Bin outlined his own plan for the coincidentally named concept of Feng (self-strengthening).  His opinion was that there needed to be in China a greater closeness between the ruler and the ruled.  This would enable each side to know better the mind of the other.  This, believed Feng Guifen, was part of Democracy’s strength and was an underlying reason for the West’s mysterious power.  Feng Guifen also insisted that China must do as Japan had done and implement Western-style reforms.  Otherwise, he wrote, “we Chinese will be meat and fish for the hundred other nations of the world.”

Though Feng Guifen was a Confucian scholar, he recognized that Confucius, living 2500 years previously, just might not have possessed all the answers for the modern world.  Feng Guifen asserted that any system of values must be judged by its accomplishments in the real world.  “If a system is no good,” he wrote, “we should reject it.  If a system is good, then we should follow it–“ and I like this last part he so magnanimously adds– “even if it originates from uncivilized people.”  As a way to facilitate China’s learning from the other parts of the world, he recommended that the Chinese learn foreign languages.

In 1905, Empress Cixi, quite aged by now, attempted some reforms of her own.  One of her most important reforms of that year was her abolition of the Civil Service Exams.  I cannot overstate how important the Civil Service Exams had become for men trying to rise in Chinese society.  Passing them gave one a ticket to a better life.  However, they also proved for millions to be a barrier uncrossable.  The Civil Service Exams were so difficult that even some of China’s greatest minds failed them the first time– or multiple times– or never passed.

The authors of Wealth And Power don’t go into, but I’m fairly certain that the reason behind abolishing the Civil Service Exams was not their difficulty, but the subject-matter they tested.  These exams did NOT test how well a Chinese man knew accounting techniques or managerial strategies or even modern legal basics.  Instead, they tested one’s knowledge of the Old Way, of the ancient and classic texts, and most especially of the family, social, ethical, and governmental philosophies of Confucius.

With the Civil Service Exams monkey off their backs, ambitious Chinese could now free-up time to study other subjects– subjects of important and practical application for the modern world– including languages, economics, modern administration, sophisticated finance, and the latest science.  Some of Empress Cixi’s reforms, and those of her nephew’s before her, proved painful for the Chinese people, but as Cixi explained when justifying the changes… one should not give up eating merely because one has once choked during a meal.

Three years after her reforms started in 1905, Empress Cixi was dead.  Her nephew, the Guang Xu Emperor (whom she had imprisoned after his failed “100 Days Of Reform”) had died one day before her.  This was probably more than coincidence… A 2008 examination of the Guang Xu Emperor’s remains revealed that he had died of acute arsenic poisoning.  Whether someone took out both Cixi and her nephew to get them out of the way– or Cixi herself decided it was time that they both exited the worldly stage– I don’t think anyone can say with certainty.

For a few years after the death of Empress Cixi, the Qing Dynasty clung to power, but an army revolt in 1911 eventually ousted the Qings and established the the Republic Of China.  By 1913, China was holding national elections– “mainland China’s first and last” note the authors of the outstanding history of modern China, Wealth And Power.

The first president of the Chinese Republic was Sun Yat-Sen— a surgeon, an well-known insurrectionist, a long-time expatriate, a Christian — and the man would come to be known as “the father of the nation.”

For Sun Yat-Sen, overthrowing the Qings was not only about getting rid of an inept government administration, but also a matter of ethnic pride— the majority Han should not, he felt, be ruled by the Qing dynasty from Manchu.

Perhaps if the Qing rulers had been successful in increasing China’s Feng (self-strengthening) and Wei Yuan (wealth and power), then Sun Yat-Sen could have lived with having a minority ethnic group in power.  As it was, he believed that those ruling China were only strong enough “to keep the great Chinese cow steady while foreigners extract the milk.”  Echoing Feng Guifen, he stated that “the rest of mankind is the carving knife and the serving dish, while we are the fish and meat.”

Sun Yat-Sen felt that China suffered a fate even worse than those countries which had been outright colonized by the Imperial powers.  It was China’s misfortune, he said, to suffer multiple acts of semi-colonization in the form of the humiliating Treaty Ports and the other special concessions contained within the clauses of the Unequal Treaties which China had been forced to sign.  China he said was “not slave of one country, but of all.”

Sun Yat-Sen only served as president of the fledgling Republic Of China for forty-five days before resigning in frustration– though he was to always remain a power in China.  As the first decades of the early 20th century rolled past, he drifted into the camp of those who considered that Communism should be the path forward for China– this in spite of the fact that he felt “Western history in the seventy-odd years since Marx has directly contradicted his theory.”

In truth, Sun Yat-Sen was no economic theorist.  What he wanted out of Communism was its organizational and training powers– the ones the world had seen exercised during the successful Russian Revolution of 1917.  “You, Lenin,” he once wrote, “you are exceptional!  You not only speak and teach, you convert words into reality.”  He told his fellow reformers that “we must learn from Russia its methods, its organization, its way of training party members.  Only then can we hope for victory.” 

 Sun Yat-Sen succeeded in obtaining Russian financial aid and training, and in 1923 he formed the First United Front of Communists and Nationalists.  He also sent to Russia for military training his understudy, a youngish Chiang Kai-Shek (later to become the President of the Republic Of China– and who was to be exiled with his government by the victorious Communists to Taiwan… but that tale belongs to another part of our story…).

Even as China was attempting to form a modern republican government and many intellectuals were clamoring for democracy, there were many who were doubtful that the “Central Kingdom” was adequately prepared for non-authoritarian rule…

Renowned writer Lu Xun worried that his fellow Chinese were not yet ready for the responsibility of self-government.  In 1925’s Random Thoughts Under The Lamp, he writes…  “The simplest and most adequate way of describing the history of China would be to distinguish between two types of periods:  1) the periods when people wished in vain to enjoy a stable slave condition, and 2) the periods when people managed to enjoy a stable slave condition.  The alteration of these two states is what old scholars called ‘the cycle of Chaos and Order’. “

In fact, when reformers asked Lu Xun to rally to their cause and help them rouse the masses, his first response was to question if such rousing were actually more beneficial or cruel for the average Chinese.  Why disturb the bliss of their ignorant slumbers?, he asked.  If no one truly knows how to better their lot, why not allow them to die peacefully in their sleep?

However, Lu Xun had great sympathy for his people, and he could become bitterly angry at those in power who abused the common man.  After learning that on 18 March 1926 Beijing’s military governor had fired on student protestors, Lu Xun wrote, “This is not the conclusion of an incident, but a new beginning.  Lies written in ink can never disguise truths written in blood.  And blood debts must be repaid in kind; the longer the delay, the greater the interest.”

Concurrent with China’s internal struggles, the world plunged into World War One… and the carnage and destruction unleashed gave the new Republic Of China pause… Perhaps the Western Way was NOT the best and only path to a wealthy and powerful future…


Other HAMMERING SHIELD posts on the politics of modern China…

Third Generation Rulers & Recent Dissidents In China

Deng Xiaoping & Tiananmen Square

Deng Xiaoping’s Counter-Capitalist Revolution In China

Permanent Revolution: The Rise And The Ruthlessness Of Chairman Mao

China Under Chiang Kai-Shek

China Goes Red: The Forgotten Chen Duxiu And The Founding Of China’s Communist Party

China’s May Fourth Incident (and another reason why the Treaty Of Versailles sucked)

Liang Qichao, Yan fu, and China’s Post WWI Disenchantment With The West 

China Stumbles:  Opium Wars and the Tiaping And Boxer Rebellions

China In The 19th And 20th Centuries:  The Time Of Writhing

China Today:  Post-Confucian, Post-Maoist, and Post-Communist 



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