The Chinese Revolution


chinese revolution

A photograph of a Chinese family, all apparently smoking opium

Today the People’s Republic of China is one of the most powerful nations on Earth. It boasts more than a billion people, a diverse economy producing in excess of $US8 trillion each year, considerable technological prowess and innovation, and the most imposing military force in Asia. Sometime in this century China will overtake the United States as the world’s preeminent superpower. Yet China’s strength today conceals the fact that the Chinese nation was a comparative latecomer to the modern world. At the beginning of the 1900s, a little over a century ago, China was a land of great economic potential – something recognised by Western imperialist nations, who sought to dismantle and exploit China for their own interests. But Chinese government and society was too mired in conservatism, feudal monarchy, internal divisions and peasantry to withstand foreign imperialism, shrug off its medieval political values or modernise the economy. It would take a revolution to achieve this. And the Chinese Revolution – much like the broader history of China – was long, complicated, tumultuous and marked by great human suffering.


As with the other great revolutions of history, the Chinese Revolution started with reformers but ended with power in the hands of radicals. The seeds of revolution can be found in the mid-1800s when China was governed by the Qing, a hereditary dynasty whose members claimed a divine-right to rule. The great size and diversity of China, however, greatly limited the political authority of Qing emperors. While the Qing claimed dominion over all China, much of the nation was a patchwork of sectarian, tribal, regional and religious interests. Foreign nations took advantage of this instability in the 1800s by infiltrating China and establishing ‘spheres of influence’. The spread of Christianity and the production and sale of opium, an addictive narcotic, aided the expansion of Western influence in China. Qing emperors and officials were too weak to resist these incursions, so the nation was at risk of segmenting into foreign-controlled colonies. The first ‘revolutionaries’ were not really revolutionaries at all: they were reformers, modernisers and nationalists who advocated ‘self-strengthening‘, not to topple the Qing regime but to fortify it. An enlightened and liberalised Qing government, these reformers argued, could better represent the needs of the Chinese people; a modernised Chinese army could support the government and resist foreign aggression and imperialism.

chinese revolution

An artist’s impression of the powerful Dowager Empress Cixi, circa 1900

But like all doomed monarchies, the Qing regime was unable to recognise these dangers or embrace the changes necessary to ensure their own survival. The figurehead of Qing conservatism was an old woman, the Dowager Empress Cixi. Once a concubine to the Xianfeng Emperor, Cixi held an honorary title and no political office – but by the late 19th century her power over the government was very real. Stern and imposing, politically cunning and manipulative, Cixi dominated China for more than four decades. In this time she blocked plans for progress and reform, while keeping two emperors at arm’s length from power. She achieved this with the support of the conservative Qing establishment: from loyal generals like Yuan Shikai and Ronglu, to a string of minor royals, mandarins, officials and court eunuchs. Despite internal pressures and demands for reform, this reactionary alliance held firm until the turn of the 20th century. In 1900-01 China was paralysed by a rebellion in Shandong that threatened to sweep north and swamp the capital, Beijing. The shadowy militia behind this rebellion were dubbed the Boxers, a movement fortified by superstition. Driven by a hatred of foreigners and Christians, the Boxers hoped to “drive out the foreign devils” and restore Chinese sovereignty. The Boxer uprising challenged the authority of the government and forced the Qing leaders to take sides. The Boxers were eventually defeated by an eight-nation military expedition and Beijing was occupied and subjugated by foreign troops.

chinese revolution

Sun Yixian, the man widely considered to be the father of modern China

The Boxer Rebellion and the humiliating treaty that followed it further undermined and weakened the Qing regime. There were attempts to reform China’s political and social system during the Qing’s final decade – but these proved too little, too late. When Cixi died in 1908, the Qing dynasty itself seemed to be drawing its last breath. In exile abroad, nationalists like Sun Yixian (Wade-Giles: Sun Yat-sen) formed groups like the Tongmenghui to plot the overthrow of the Qing and create a new republican China. The last years of Qing rule saw many abortive or failed uprisings; the revolution was finally kick-started in October 1911, when radicals in a modernised army in Wuchang mutinied. The Wuchang uprising uncorked years of pressure and within weeks the entire nation was in revolution, prompting Sun Yixian’s return from exile. Sun was elected China’s first republican president – but within two months he surrendered the presidency to Yuan Shikai, a powerful but shiftless army general, in return for Shikai’s support against the Qing. Yuan Shikai did indeed secure the abdication of the Qing – but thought himself an emperor-in-waiting, not a republican statesman. For four years he undermined and sabotaged Sun Yixian’s vision of a democratic and accountable government, while Sun himself watched from the sidelines. By the time Yuan died in 1916, China had disintegrated into a jigsaw of provinces and fiefdoms, each ruled by powerful warlords and their factions.

chinese revolution

Jiang Jieshi, the republican but militaristic successor to Sun Yixian

Sun Yixian withdrew to southern China, where he devoted the final decade of his life to reunifying the nation and restoring republican government. To achieve this Sun formed his own political party, the Guomindang; forced an alliance with communists in the Soviet Union; and organised a military academy and a nationalist army. When Sun died prematurely in 1925, power fell into the hands of Jiang Jieshi (Wade-Giles: Chiang Kai-shek), who had been Sun’s military strongman rather than a political protege. Jiang finally achieved the reunification of China in 1927, after which he turned on the Guomindang’s former ally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For the next decade Jiang, the self-styled generalissimo, forged his paternalistic vision for a new republican China – while trying in vain to eradicate the CCP. In 1934 Jiang’s forces chased the CCP and its Red Army out of their southern base in Jiangxi, forcing them to undertake the famous Long March north to Shaanxi. Even as China was being menaced and then invaded by the Japanese in the mid-1930s, more of Jiang’s attention was on ridding China of communists. Jiang’s focus was only shifted by his kidnapping in 1936, during which he was persuaded of the necessity for another Guomindang-CCP alliance. This fragile Second United Front, as it became known, lasted until the Japanese surrender in 1945. With control of China up for grabs, the Guomindang and the communists soon fell into another civil war. In 1949 Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) and the CCP emerged victorious, declaring the formation of the People’s Republic of China; Jiang Jieshi and his cohort fled to the island province of Taiwan, still claiming to be the rightful rulers of China.

chinese revolution

Mao Zedong, the man who ruled China for almost three decades

From this point, the fate of China is inextricably linked with CCP leader and figurehead Mao Zedong. Mao had been the hero of the communist revolution – but his leadership of the new society was much less successful than his career as a revolutionary. Mao’s attempt at a ‘Great Leap Forward’ – radical reforms to agriculture and industry, to facilitate China’s ‘catching up’ to the West – were ambitious, naive and ultimately disastrous. His economic policies achieved negligible outcomes and contributed to one of the worst famines in human history. Few political leaders could have survived this catastrophe – but Mao, for all his economic naivety, was a political genius. Cunning and manipulative, Mao was able to exploit party factionalism, isolate and exclude opponents, and disassociate himself from disaster. For a time Mao fell out of favour with the CCP hierarchy, though he never relinquished his grip on the reins of power. In 1966 Mao and his acolytes initiated the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. On the surface it was a campaign to purify the revolution and its goals; in reality it was a campaign to restore and reinvigorate Mao’s authority by harnessing the enthusiasm of young communist Red Guards. The Cultural Revolution cemented Mao into power; he became the centre of an intense personality cult rivalling that of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Mao, his ideology and his legacy became sacrosanct: to question or criticise them was to risk denunciation, persecution, re-education or even death at the hands of followers. Only Mao’s death in 1976 freed China from this bizarre frenzy of adulation, loyalty, mass obedience and mob rule.



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