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Essential History of China (Part 1): Dynasty & Republic

Today, China is one of the most influential nations on earth. However, most of us don’t know terribly much about the history of China and how they transformed from an impoverished, isolationist empire into the economic powerhouse that it is today.

Note: China has a very, very long history that predates the West by quite some margin (the first dynasty, the Xia, emerged around 2100BCE) and their cultural values are significantly different to those in the West. This context is important, and for a better understanding of the content we’ll be covering, we recommend studying the reading material provided at the end of this article.

China in 1900

At the beginning of the 20th Century, China was still reeling from the loss of the Opium Wars of the 19th Century, which paved the way for Europe’s domination of global politics, as well as the cession of Taiwan to Japan, along with a reduced influence in the Korean Peninsula, following the loss of the First Sino-Japanese War.

This led to growing disillusionment with the Qing dynasty which had been ruling China since 1644. This, coupled with internal unrest, such as the White Lotus Rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion and the Dungan Revolt, as well as a three year famine in Northern China, spurred on mass emigration and demands for reform. Empress Dowager Cixi initially thwarted plans to reform China into a constitutional monarchy.

One policy reform that was high on the list of priorities was self-strengthening – to adapt European military technology and systems of education. It was a policy that reaped tremendous success in Japan, but had failed to take off in China.

It led to the anti-West Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), which led a generation of liberals including Sun Yat-sen to plot the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, which eventually feel, following the Xinhai Revolution of 1911–12.

The Republic of China

The Xinhai Revolution, led but Sun Yat-sen, who is still seen as “the father of the nation” and the “Forerunner of the Revolution” and revered both in mainland China, as well as Taiwan – making him unique among 20th Century leaders. It lasted roughly four months and resulted in the abdication of the last Chinese emperor, the six-year-old Puyi, on 12 February 1912. The Republic of China (ROC) was declared on 1 January 1912, with Sun Yat-sen taking on the role as China’s first “provisional president. However, he only served until March 1912, when he relinquished his title to Yuan Shikai, who controlled the Beiyang Army, the military of northern China, and was promised the Presidency for his role in the overthrowing of the Qing Dynasty.

Yat-sen’s three principles of the people (nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood) were the pillars of the provisional government but faded after Yuan became the president in Beijing. From 1915 onward, the Republic of China regressed into a state controlled by Warlords – with Yuan declaring himself Emperor –, due to the lack of military resources in the Republic or control of the New Army.

By 1923, Yat-sen had set up a tentative alliance with the Communist International to re-organise the KMT (Nationalist Party of China) to coalesce with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in order to strengthen his party’s position in a meeting in Canton. The KMT moved the nation’s capital to Nanjing and implemented “political tutelage”, an intermediate stage of political development outlined in Sun Yat-sen’s San-min program for transforming China into a modern democratic state. The political division in China made it difficult for then-Principle of the KMT, Chiang Kai-Shek, to battle the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), against whom the KMT had been warring since 1927 in the Chinese Civil War. This war continued successfully for the Kuomintang, especially after the PLA retreated in the Long March, until Japanese aggression and the 1936 Xi’an Incident forced Chiang to confront Imperial Japan.


In next week’s Essential History feature, we will examine China’s role in World War 2, the Communist Revolution and the CCP’s reformation to “Chinese State Capitalism” which gave birth to the China we know today.

Further reading

Bo, M. 1996. Blood Red Sunset: A Memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Penguin Books.

“Communists, Nationalists, and China’s Revolutions: Crash Course World History #37.” Performance by John Green, Crash Course History, 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUCEeC4f6ts. [VIDEO]

Spence, J. 1991. The Search for Modern China. New York, NY: WW Norton.

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