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X: Xinhai Revolution

Scenes from the Xinhai Revolution

Who knew that China has its own Statue of Liberty? A mini replica of the much grander lady of New York, it stands atop a mausoleum in a Guangzhou park, commemorating the martyrs of a failed uprising against the Manchu government in April 1911.

It was one of many revolts during the late Qing Dynasty, but probably the most emotive. The sacrifice of the 72 rebels stoked up the nationalist mood to new peaks and revolutionary sentiment swept across the country, triggering another uprising in Wuchang on October 10, 1911.

This one succeeded, signalling the sudden demise of more than two thousand years of imperial rule.

Why is it called the Xinhai Revolution?

The critical moment in overthrowing the Qing happened in 1911, which was the Year of Xinhai, or the 48th year in the 60-year cycle of the Chinese calendar.

In fact, rebellion had been in the air for years, fomented by a rising tide of frustration from Han nationalists, who argued that the Manchu Qing were the main reason why China was weak and impoverished.

Anger grew after the disastrous defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, when the Middle Kingdom was on the verge of being partitioned by foreign powers. More progressive politicians were still hoping for peaceful change, such as a switch to a constitutional monarchy. But after a period of experimentation ended with the leading reformers beheaded or exiled (see R for Reform), most opponents of the Qing came to the conclusion that the only way to save China was to overthrow the fragile government.

Many of the leading revolutionaries had been educated in foreign countries (including Japan). Often combining forces with local gangsters or politicians capable of raising funds from overseas Chinese, such as Sun Yat-sen, various groups staged uprisings across the country between 1895 and 1911.

Their rationale: once they took a major city by force, commanders of troops elsewhere would join them, thus bringing down the Qing.

Hence the commemoration of the uprising in Guangzhou in 1911. Although it had ended in defeat, it was a glorious one. It was now a matter of when and where the first dominoes would fall against the Qing.

Why in Wuchang?

Heads of cities and provinces still in control of Qing forces found themselves with a crucial decision to make. Should they stay loyal to the imperial rulers and suppress the revolts (knowing they risked retribution if the Qing court collapsed) or join the rebels and face execution if their uprising failed?

A strange sequence of events resulted in another rebellion in Wuchang, part of current-day Wuhan. The crisis started with a stock market collapse in Shanghai prompted by a crash in the price of rubber. Major banks backed by the Qing rulers went under. To raise funds to pay war debts, the Qing court decided to nationalise a railway in Sichuan and sell it to foreign investors. This stoked widespread protests and the central government was forced to redeploy troops from Wuchang to Sichuan.

This upset the military balance in the city. On the night of October 9, 1911, there was a huge explosion (caused, some say, by a careless bomb-maker who was smoking). When the house was searched, the police found a helpful list of all the plotters in the city. With their cover blown, the rebels felt that they had no choice but to rise up.

The head of Hubei, the local province, ordered a crackdown but his key subordinates mutinied and joined the revolt. This was crucial because it meant that the uprising was backed by regular troops, and not the more typical mix of chancers, gangsters and intellectuals. The mutineers established a military government for Hubei province the next day, which seceded from Qing rule. This created a template for others to follow. Emperor Puyi, only six years old, would abdicate just months later.

How is the Xinhai Revolution regarded in national history?

Many of the leading rebels in Wuchang went on to make up the core of the Kuomintang (KMT). After defeat in the civil war to the Communist Party of China (CPC), the KMT fled to Taiwan, where it still celebrates October 10 as “national day”.

Of course, the CPC has chosen another date for the same celebration: October 1, marking the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949. However, Party historians still credit the rising in Wuchang as a seminal moment, not least in bringing many centuries of feudal monarchy to an end. The Xinhai Revolution also created the conditions for a period of political experimentation and debate, laying some of the foundations for the more radical revolution that would follow in 1949. ­­­


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