Chinese Revolutions

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Chinese Revolutions

China's Five-thousand-year-old imperial government entered the twentieth century under the traditionalist Qing dynasty (1644–1911) at a time when China faced challenges from industrialized European powers anxious to expand their Asian empires, and from Japan, which followed the Western example of modernizing its civil society and its military. Beginning in 1842, with China's defeat by Britain in the First Opium War, Qing officials had allowed Britain, Germany, France, and the United States to set up miniature colonies, known as settlements, in scores of China's major cities. Japan, with a new modern navy, defeated China in the war of 1894 to 1895, and claimed favorable trading and legal concessions similar to those already accorded to Western governments. Confined by tradition and unwilling to alter its policies, the Qing dynasty's weaknesses provoked widespread domestic political discontent. In southern China, where Western penetration was greatest and Qing domination was weakest, a twenty-year peasant-led utopian uprising, known as the Taiping Rebellion, had its roots in popular distrust of the central government and its tolerance of opium smoking, footbinding, and slavery. The Taiping Rebellion demonstrated the Qing's military weakness even within China's borders.


Sun Yat-Sen (Sun Zhongshan, 1866–1925) emerged as the nationalist leader around whom the Chinese people rallied as the Qing leadership's deficiencies became increasingly evident in the early 1900s. Sun was a born organizer who had spent much of his youth in the largely westernized kingdom of Hawaii. He received a Western education, earned a medical degree, and returned to China to promote radical changes there. Sun's popular Three Principles program included a call for democracy in China, freedom from foreign powers, and governmental attention to the people's welfare.

In 1895 Sun led an attempt to overthrow the Qing dynasty, but the coup's collapse forced him into exile in Japan and Europe. In 1911 a military uprising by reform-minded politicians and military commanders in central China provided a pretext for Sun's return, and in late December the Qing rulers were deposed. Sun, backed by the political network known as the Guomindong (Kuomintang [KMT]) or Nationalist Party, became president of the new Republic of China. The KMT publicly endorsed Sun's Three Principles, but corrupt officials enacted policies that benefited China's wealthy business and landowning classes, often at the expense of the poor.

Although Sun was popular with China's general population, he had few advocates within China's military. Sun sought support from China's most powerful general, Yuan Shi-kai (1859–1916), whose army was based in the north. Unfamiliar with military politics, Sun was ousted by Yuan and exiled to Japan. From there Sun reorganized his KMT supporters, and in 1921, once again in southern China, he was proclaimed president of the National Government based at Guangzhou (Canton).

Meanwhile, Yuan had imposed military rule from his headquarters in the north, even proclaiming himself "emperor" of China in 1915. This decision alienated most of his generals, and when Yuan died in 1916 his administration fractured into several competing regions led by warlords who used brutal methods to retain power. Sun recognized that the warlords' competition presented an opportunity for the KMT to establish its power throughout China. Guided by his Three Principles of nationalism, democracy, and socialism (which Sun understood to mean equal distribution of land among China's peasant farmers), the KMT recruited new members and trained troops. In 1926 KMT forces marched northwards against the warlords, but Sun did not live to see the KMT's victories, having died in Beijing in 1925.

Sun was succeeded by KMT military commander Jiang Jieshi (Chang Kai-Shek, 1887–1975). Jiang had overseen the growth of the KMT military and approved its policy of cooperating with the small but vibrant Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP had been founded by a group of intellectuals, writers, and students, many of whom were radicalized during China's May Fourth Movement, a period of nationalist fervor and intellectual ferment that grew out of mass protests against the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which settled the immediate aftermath of World War I. Students, workers, and civil servants had been appalled to learn that China, having joined the Allies in 1917, was not represented at Versailles, and that instead Japan had been awarded special concessions at China's expense by the Western powers.

The resulting shock and shame soon developed into renewed interest in China's modernization and reform. University students in many of China's major cities formed coalitions with merchants and industrialists, and organized a mass boycott of Japanese imports. Nonetheless, the examination of Western ideas that characterized the May Fourth Movement was limited to small groups of students and writers who began to form nationalist, prodemocracy, and communist study circles. In 1921 one of these groups formed the CCP.

The CCP helped the KMT capitalize upon anti-Japanese sentiment of the kind that erupted in Shanghai after the shooting on May 30, 1925, of a Chinese laborer by his Japanese foreman. The nationwide wave of antiforeign strikes that followed this May 30 Incident strengthened urban CCP networks, including those in Guangzhou, the center of KMT influence. Jiang, the new KMT leader, invited the much smaller CCP to cooperate in a "united front," but the cooperative relationship only lasted until April 1927, when KMT forces turned on CCP organizers, destroying much of the Communists' organization.

The KMT then established its capital at Nanjing (Nanking), marking the beginning of the Nationalist Decade (1927–1937). The KMT ruled most of southern and central China, while the north came under the control of a series of warlords, who claimed to be the lawful successors to the Qing dynasty, which had finally been overthrown in 1911. The KMT introduced banking, legal, and other reforms. Film and literature flourished, and the new Chinese elite produced lavish entertainments for Western visitors. However, Jiang's supporters indulged in corrupt business practices and employed paramilitary organizations to keep order and to crack down on the resurgent CCP.


In August 1927 CCP operatives had formed a fledgling military wing of their own, but harassment by Nationalist troops hobbled its development. In 1934 KMT troops pursued the nucleus of CCP forces on a zigzag route through west-central China. During this Long March, as it came to be known, the CCP selected a new leader, Mao Zedong (1893–1976), who emphasized the revolutionary potential of China's vast agricultural peasantry and who prescribed peasant-based guerrilla warfare as the means to seize power in China. Mao saw the potential to reap a political windfall by harnessing the ancient grievances of peasants against landowners. The CCP began recruiting peasants as political cadres, teachers, and soldiers, initiating land redistribution programs, and building a huge army trained in hit-and-run warfare techniques.

World War II began for China in 1931 when Japanese troops invaded Manchuria. The KMT, always weakest in the north, did not contest Japan's aggression. In 1937 Japan invaded central China, seizing Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing in succession. The attack on Nanjing was especially brutal, with over 400,000 civilians reported to have been terrorized, raped, and murdered. The attack forced the KMT to move its capital to Chongqing (Chungking) in remote southwestern China.

Japan's defeat in 1945 allowed KMT and CCP forces, which had largely avoided direct confrontations with Japanese troops, to reoccupy huge sections of China's mainland. Civil war between the two sides ensued. Communist troops, recruited from the peasantry, enjoyed the cooperation of rural farmers who resented the KMT's failure to fight the Japanese. Following Mao's "mass line," which proclaimed that the interests of the masses, rather than those of elites, must guide China's future, the CCP also gained adherents in China's cities, where the Japanese occupation had given way to the KMT's political suppression, corrupt practices, and hyperinflation.

Employing both conventional and mobile guerrilla tactics, CCP forces pushed KMT armies out of northern and central China. American mediation efforts failed, and the KMT was finally driven from the mainland altogether, exiled to the island of Taiwan, in 1949. Mao declared the founding of a new Communist government, the People's Republic of China (PRC), on October 1, 1949.


The breadth of the revolutions that occurred in China between 1911 and 1949—in international relations, government, civil society, education, political expression, and the arts—was virtually without modern parallel. The half-baked modernization efforts permitted by the Qing dynasty were replaced by a self-confident, ideologically driven government backed by an enormous, albeit technologically backward, military organization.

KMT officials, who lacked political cohesion and tenacity in combating Japanese aggression, were replaced by a highly organized Communist Party whose cadres followed Mao's doctrines to make China "stand up." Under Mao's leadership the CCP unleashed China's greatest asset, its enormous manpower, to modernize its economy. Communist China quickly emerged as a regional military power, as the Korean War (1950–1953) demonstrated, while also addressing such tradition-bound social injustices as usurious interest rates, predatory taxes, and the notorious practice of female footbinding.

In the early years of the twenty-first century, the Chinese Communist government founded by Mao still governed mainland China, but its orientation toward its past reflected political accommodations with Mao's revolutionary legacy. After Mao's death in 1976, reformer Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) took power, setting aside Mao's "mass line" in favor of "socialism with Chinese characteristics," in which the role of ideology was subordinated to the demands of economic efficiency. Mao's use of propaganda and mass mobilization campaigns gave way to macroeconomic planning and free-market mechanisms. Material incentives replaced political appeals, marking a trend that continued into the early years of the twenty-first century.

Several controversies about China's revolutionary period persist into the early twenty-first century. These include questions about Japanese atrocities committed during the "rape of Nanjing" in 1937, about the CCP's use of intimidation and brutality in land-reform campaigns, and about the silencing of CCP members who criticized Mao. Scholars in the West have also engaged in interpretive debates on whether the ouster of the Qing dynasty was in any real sense a "revolution," how far Western powers manipulated the KMT-CCP struggle, and whether Mao himself was a visionary social theorist or a ruthless political operator.

see also Extraterritoriality; Hong Kong, from World War II; Hong Kong, to World War II; Mao Zedong; Opium Wars; Self-Strengthening Movements, East Asia and the Pacific; Shanghai; Treaties, East Asia and the Pacific.


Chi, Hsi-sheng. Nationalist China at War: Military Defeats and Political Collapse, 1937–45. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982.

Fenby, Jonathan. Chiang Kai-shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2004.

North, Robert C. Moscow and Chinese Communists, 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963.

Selden, Mark. The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Snow, Edgar. The Long Revolution. New York: Random House, 1971.

Solomon, Richard. Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Teng, Ssu-yü, and John K. Fairbank. China's Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839–1923. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

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Chinese Revolutions

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