The Revolution of 1911: Opening the Door to Progress in China

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2012-03-31 11:05
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 On October 10, 1911, the Literary Society and the Progressive Association, two revolutionary groups based in China’s Hubei Province, led China’s New Army in an armed uprising in the city of Wuchang. The New Army was not only equipped with Western-style guns, but also structured and trained according to Western standards. Within the space of just days, uprisings had spread throughout the country, and the doomed Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) collapsed as China’s various provinces declared their independence one after another. Occurring during the final year of the Qing Dynasty, the revolution became known as the Revolution of 1911. 


 Revolutionaries raise the iron blood 18-star flag, which represented the unity of the 18 provinces, in front of the office building of the Hubei Military Government after capturing the city of Wuchang. October 10 is celebrated as the anniversary of the Revolution of 1911. Under the command of Xiong Bingkun and Jin Zhaolong from the Eighth Engineer Battalion of the Hubei New Army, revolutionaries seized Fenghuang (Phoenix) Mountain and took the city of Wuchang, founding the Hubei Military Government. The revolution is known as the Xinhai Revolution because it occurred in 1911, the year of the Xinhai stem-branch in the sexagenary cycle of the Chinese calendar. / Xinhua

 I. A great revolution in modern Chinese history

 The unification of China in the year 221 BCE by the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty marked the beginning of the history of China as a centralized feudal state under imperial rule. China’s feudal society followed a tumultuous course over the two millennia that followed, witnessing many times the growth and decline of national power and the rise and fall of ruling dynasties. By the mid-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, the Industrial Revolution was well underway in Europe. As large-scale mechanized production replaced manual labor, capitalism entered a period of rapid development. However, the Qing Dynasty, who had closed its doors to the outside world, was totally unaware of the major developments and changes that were occurring in the outside world. Arrogant and complacent, it had been cut off from the tide of world progress.

 With the outbreak of the Opium War in 1840, the British became the first to wage a war of invasion against China. Soon after, France, the United States, Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Austria-Hungary scrambled manically to carve up Chinese territory. Owing to the cruel oppression of imperialism and the extreme corruption of the Qing Dynasty, Chinese politics descended into darkness, the national economy fell into decline, society was torn apart, and the people had no means of livelihood. China, a great Eastern land with an ancient civilization spanning thousands of years, was tragically reduced to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society and allowed itself to be trampled on at will.

 As the fate of the state and the nation hung in the balance, China’s bourgeois-democratic revolution took to the historical stage. The most outstanding representative of China’s bourgeois revolutionaries was Dr. Sun Yat-sen, whose revolutionary program consisted of the Principle of Nationalism, Principle of Democracy, and Principle of People’s Livelihood, otherwise known as the Three People’s Principles. By establishing the Minbao (People Newspaper), founding political parties, and launching a succession of 10 armed uprisings, Sun Yat-sen spread revolutionary thinking, built up a revolutionary atmosphere, and gave revolutionaries the courage and the faith to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. This was an important reason and a prerequisite for both the outbreak of the Revolution of 1911 and its success in toppling feudal autocracy in China.

 The Revolution of 1911 represented the beginning of a new era in Chinese history. According to Sun Yat-sen, the revolution resulted in two major accomplishments: firstly, it completely overthrew the Qing government that had ruled China for more than two centuries; and secondly, it put an end to thousands of years of autocracy in China. While the fighting in the Revolution of 1911 was neither spectacular nor bitter in comparison to famous peasant uprisings and battles for power in Chinese history, its historical significance was nonetheless extraordinary. The goal of the Revolution of 1911 was not simply to overthrow a feudal dynasty. It was a revolution, an attack on the very system of feudal monarchy and an attempt to replace a backward social system with a modern one. Unlike the various peasant uprisings and ethnic wars that occurred throughout the course of China’s feudal history, which were generally the product of domestic class struggles occurring in China at the time, the Revolution of 1911 was the first revolution in China to be influenced by the tide of world development. From that point on, China’s survival and development was no longer isolated from the rest of the world.  

 The Revolution of 1911 toppled the Qing Dynasty and led to the establishment of the Republic of China. With the election of Sun Yat-sen as the first provisional president of the Republic of China and the formulation of a provisional constitution, it seemed like the Revolution of 1911 had been a success. However, due to a number of different reasons, the revolution actually ended in failure. Under pressure from imperialism, the Beiyang warlords, constitutionalists from the various provinces that had declared independence, and particularly from parliamentarians within the Kuomintang itself, Sun Yat-sen announced his resignation on February 13, 1912, and nominated Yuan Shikai as his successor. At the time of his resignation, Sun Yat-sen had served as the provisional president for less than one and a half months.

 Yuan Shikai was a political representative of imperialism and feudalism. After ascending to the presidency, Yuan Shikai scrapped the provisional constitution of the Republic of China and agreed to nearly all of the Twenty-One Demands made by Japan in an attempt to subjugate China. In brazen defiance of public will, Yuan Shikai declared himself emperor of China on December 12, 1915. Pushing against the grain of history, Yuan Shikai’s actions were met with a wave of opposition across China, and he was eventually forced to abandon the monarchy on March 22, 1916. Not long after, Yuan Shikai died in obscurity, leaving behind a notorious legacy. Mao Zedong summarized that the Revolution of 1911 toppled the rule of the Qing Dynasty, ended more than two thousand years of feudal autocratic monarchy in China, and led to the establishment of the Republic of China, a provisional revolutionary government, and a provisional constitution. As Mao Zedong put it, there could never be another emperor after the Revolution of 1911.

 Following the Revolution of 1911, most of China was plunged into chaos as fighting among warlords raged. As separatist forces sought to capitalize on the loss of control in certain outlying areas, many coastal and border areas were seized by imperialism. With the peril of the nation having in no way diminished, Sun Yat-sen despaired at the failure of the Revolution of 1911. He called the Republic of China under the control of the Beiyang warlords a false republic, saying that democracy existed in name alone.

 Despite this, however, the Revolution of 1911 did topple the feudal monarchy and promote the awakening of the nation. It established the idea of a democratic republic deep in the hearts of the people, and led to the general consensus that the people would unite against anyone who would be emperor. For this reason, the historical successes of the Revolution of 1911 will be forever remembered. In his important celebratory speech to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, Hu Jintao stated that: “The Revolution of 1911 led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen put an end to the autocratic rule that had existed in China for several thousand years. This revolution greatly boosted China’s social progress, but it did not change the country’s nature as a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society or end the misery of the Chinese people.” The lessons drawn from the successes and failures of the Revolution of 1911 would later contribute to the success of the new-democratic revolution led by the Communist Party of China.

 II. The New Culture Movement and May Fourth Movement helped to further free minds in China

 In the wake of the Revolution of 1911, the nation lay in peril, the country had been torn apart, and the people were struggling to survive. At this time, a wave of different thoughts and ideas emerged in close succession as people sought to find a way out for the country. Of these ideas, both reformism and constitutionalism were highly influential around the time of the Revolution of 1911. However, owing to the fact that their core essence was to maintain the feudal system, their calls were naturally rejected as the revolution progressed, and the influence that the leading proponents of reformism had on revolutionaries and the public diminished rapidly. In this great search for change, the New Culture Movement rightfully emerged as the mainstream of the ideological revolution. The New Culture Movement started in September 1915 with the founding of Youth Magazine (later known as The New Youth) by Chen Duxiu, and continued to play out with the publication as its main battleground. Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, Wu Yu, and Lu Xun were fierce critics of traditional Confucian rituals in China. Speaking out loudly for “Democracy” and “Science,” Chen Duxiu voiced strong opposition to old culture and old ethics. He called for national awakening; and sought the liberation and progress of the nation. With the support and action of figures such as Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi, Lu Xun and Qian Xuantong, a huge surge of momentum built up behind a new literary revolution in China. Mao Zedong praised the New Culture Movement for “raising aloft the great two banners”: “Down with the old ethics and up with the new!” and “Down with the old literature and up with the new!” The New Culture Movement effectively promoted the freeing of minds and national awakening in China, becoming the mainstream contemporary notion for the development and progress of China following the Revolution of 1911.

 The hugely significant May Fourth Movement broke out in China on May 4th, 1919. The May Fourth Movement was a full-blown, uncompromising revolutionary movement against imperialism and feudalism. Following the end of the First World War, the victorious nations convened for the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919. Some Chinese people believed that this would be a just conference, clinging to the fantasy that China would receive fair treatment due to its status as a victorious country. However, the conference, which was orchestrated by the five imperialist powers of Britain, France, the United States, Japan, and Italy, denied the just claims of the Chinese delegation, refusing to give China an inkling of the justice it deserved, and showing absolutely no regard for its independence and dignity. Not only were these countries unwilling to relinquish the various interests and special privileges that they themselves had seized in China; even the territories and colonial privileges annexed by the defeated Germany in Shandong Province were seized by Japan. The Paris Conference was reduced to the sharing of spoils and the redistribution of world power among the victorious imperialist powers. The hopes of intellectuals and members of society in China, who had dreamt of the fairness, justice and democracy as preached by the West, were shattered by the events at the Paris Peace Conference. Chinese students in France were the first to take action, urging Chinese delegates at the conference to refuse to sign the peace treaty. On May 4th, students in Beijing, mainly from Peking University, took to the streets in protest. Holding up banners such as “Fight for National Rights and Punish Traitors,” they protested against the humiliation of China by imperialist powers and condemned the Beiyang government for yielding to and fawning on foreign countries. This sounded the beginning of the May Fourth Movement which stormed across China.

 Although only eight years had passed since the Revolution of 1911, the May Fourth Movement took place under the backdrop of a new era in world history, one which was ushered in by the First World War and the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. The May Fourth Movement was a mass patriotic movement against imperialism which took place under the influence of Russia’s October Revolution. For this reason, it was an inherent part of the world proletarian revolution. The New Culture Movement and May Fourth Movement defined a glorious period which saw the continued awakening and struggle of revolutionary intellectuals in China following the failure of the Revolution of 1911.

 The May Fourth Movement was a watershed in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, marking the transition from the old-democratic revolution to the new-democratic revolution. Large-scale strikes involving laborers and merchants broke out in response to the patriotic students’ movement, with a wave of industrial action spreading to over 100 cities in more than 20 provinces across China. This wave of strikes helped the patriotic students’ movement to evolve into a nationwide revolutionary movement. The impact of the May Fourth Movement was extremely far-reaching: it played an instrumental role in reviving the patriotic zeal of the Chinese nation; it marked the first time that the working class had taken to the political stage in an independent capacity; and it helped to foster the ideology and the cadres necessary for the founding of the Communist Party of China.

 III. The new-democratic revolution was the correct path to China’s independence and revival

 The Revolution of 1911 toppled the Qing Dynasty and led to the establishment of the Republic of China. The newly established state was an exact imitation of the bourgeois-democratic republics of Europe and the United States. Its full set of Western political systems consisted of a bicameral legislature, an elected president, a party cabinet, and the practice of parliamentary politics. Some people believed that the establishment of this system marked the success of the democratic revolution. Some people were content to act as councilors, some were intoxicated by their power as generals, and some even claimed that the rise of the revolutionary army meant there was no more need for a revolutionary party. As the ranks of the Kuomintang dissolved, Sun Yat-sen was forced to establish the Chinese Revolutionary Party. However, fact would prove that transplanting a Western social and political system into a semi-colonial, semi-feudal China was totally ineffective; imperialism would never allow China to be independent, feudal forces would never allow the people to be free, and both new and old dictators would never allow various political parties to be democratic. Democracy and republicanism became nothing but slogans in the political games of warlords who had gained the upper hand. There was no future for the democratic politics of the bourgeoisie, which were fundamentally unviable in a semi-colonial, semi-feudal China.

 The October Revolution in Russia carried the world into a new era. Prior to this, the bourgeoisie, as the representatives of capitalism, had played a leading role in revolutions against feudalism. With the dawn of the age of imperialism, the bourgeoisie, as the ruling class, became the guardians of the contemporary order, and thereby ceased to be the leading class of the revolution. By this time, the theory of the bourgeoisie no longer embodied the fighting spirit that it once did during the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century, which was characterized by a vigorous quest for scientific truth and equal rights. The history of the bourgeoisie as the leaders of the revolution had come to an end. On the one hand, the Chinese big bourgeoisie, which was comprador in character, was a lackey of imperialism, and the very target of the revolution. On the other hand, the Chinese national bourgeoisie, whose development had been hindered under the combined pressure of imperialism and feudalism, displayed a split personality, giving in to the forces of feudalism and imperialism despite being revolutionary in its opposition to internal and external oppression. For this reason, it was unable to lead China through the bourgeois-democratic revolution, something which was proven by history. China’s only hope for independence and democracy was to follow the path of new democracy under the leadership of the working class and its political party.

 The May Fourth Movement was followed by a surge in the promotion of Marxism and the establishment of communist organizations among certain revolutionary intellectuals in China. Li Dazhao founded a research society for Marxist theories in Beijing, while Chen Duxiu founded a research society for Marxism in Shanghai, which became two centers for the promotion of Marxism. The Communist Party of China was officially established in 1921, and immediately assumed the role of a leading force in China’s new-democratic revolution. New democracy, whose ideology, politics and culture had evolved out of the May Fourth Movement, was the correct choice for the continuation of China’s revolution after the Revolution of 1911.

 The ideology and course of the new-democratic revolution were established under the guidance of the Communist International at the Second National Congress of the CPC in 1922. The meeting put forward the idea that the revolution should be approached in two steps, and also clearly defined both the minimum and the maximum programs of the Party. The minimum program of the Party was opposition to imperialism and feudalism and the establishment of a democratic republic, which had originally been the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. As these goals conformed to the New Three People’s Principles and Three Policies proposed by Sun Yat-sen, they formed a common political foundation for cooperation between the CPC and the Kuomintang.

 The Great Revolution, which lasted from 1924 to 1927, was an exemplary period of cooperation between the CPC and the Kuomintang. The brave struggles of Chinese Communists, along with the revolutionary situation created by the CPC through the rallying of workers and peasants, played an unforgettable historic role in the success of the Northern Expedition and the promotion of national independence and unity in this period. However, the flourishing Great Revolution was stifled as right-wing forces within the KMT and new warlords sabotaged the cooperation between the two parties and adopted a reactionary policy aimed at destroying the CPC. During the Agrarian Revolutionary War against the reactionary KMT and the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, the CPC was able to expel the disruptive influence of “left” and right opportunism within the Party and commit itself to the ideology and course of new democracy, eventually claiming victory in the new-democratic revolution.

 The People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949. This signaled that the CPC, relying closely on the support of the people, had completed the historic task of realizing national independence and the liberation of the people. Moreover, the launch of land reforms and the confiscation and nationalization of bureaucrat-capitalist assets in this period signaled that the Party had also completed the tasks of opposing feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism. The three big mountains of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism, which had weighed down on the backs of the Chinese people for more than a century, were finally toppled, marking the complete success of the democratic revolution that began with the Revolution of 1911.

 In a century of revolutionary history, China has followed a path from the Revolution of 1911 to the New Culture and May Fourth Movements; from the old-democratic revolution to the new-democratic revolution; from the new-democratic revolution to the socialist revolution and construction; and eventually to socialist reform and development. Thus, we are filled with the belief that throughout the great course of China’s social development and progress since modern times, history and the people have chosen Marxism, the CPC, socialism, and the policy of reform and opening up, and that the CPC truly deserves to be called a great, glorious and correct Marxist political party, and the core force leading the Chinese people in breaking new ground in development.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.19, 2011)

Author: Vice Chairperson of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; President of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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