On Jan. 1, 1912, the Chinese people cast off 2,000 years of imperial rule and proclaimed a free republic. Among other political objectives, the Chinese hoped at last to be able to stand up to other world powers as an equal among nations.
By the mid-19th century, China's large population and growing markets caught the attention of Europe and America, whose industrial revolutions saw an unprecedented output of goods. Soon, Western products began to flood into China, often at the displeasure of the imperial Chinese government. Such policies often led to conflict.
In the 1830s-40s, British businessmen began to import Indian opium into China, despite the drug being outlawed in China since 1729. When imperial officials of the Qing dynasty raided the warehouses of the British merchants and threw the opium into the sea (in a move that in some respects mirrored the Boston Tea Party), the British decided to intervene.
As Harvard historian Niall Ferguson wrote in his book “The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World”: “On Feb. 20, 1840, (Foreign Secretary Viscount) Palmerston gave the order. By June 1840 all the naval preparations were complete. The Qing Empire was about to feel the full force of history's most successful narco-state: the British Empire. ... For China, the first Opium War ushered in an era of humiliation.”
Soon after, Christianity took off in China. The traditional Confucian worldview was increasingly replaced with Western ideas. This social destabilization led to China's Taiping Rebellion, one of the bloodiest civil wars in world history, and made the imperial government even less able to stand up to the West's unfair trade practices.
Toward the end of the 19th century, many Chinese were tired of arbitrary European, American and even Japanese practices in their country. In many treaties with foreign nations, the imperial government had to recognize the principle of extraterritoriality, ensuring that foreigners who committed crimes in China would be tried by their own nation's courts, not Chinese. This was another slap in the face of Chinese sovereignty that the imperial government was helpless to oppose.
Finally, some Chinese began to stand up to the foreign powers on their own. This insurrection took the form of an anti-Western, anti-Christian, pro-Chinese nationalist movement calling itself “The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” or as it was dubbed by Westerners, “The Boxer Rebellion.” Once again European countries mobilized their armies, many nations setting aside rivalries back home in order to firmly re-establish the status quo in China.
In his book “The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West,” Ferguson wrote: “Nothing could have better symbolized the dominance the West had established over the East by the end of the 19th century than the destruction of the Boxers, whose faith in martial arts and animistic magic availed them not against the well-armed eight-power expedition. ... Under the so-called 'Boxer Protocol' signed in 1901, the European powers were granted the right to maintain their own military forces in the imperial capital; a heavy indemnity (£67.5 million) was also imposed on the Chinese government, and arms imports were suspended.”
In the years that followed the crushing of the Boxers, many Chinese realized that their nation could never be great as long as it was dominated by the unresponsive and corrupt Qing government. Additionally, the Qing rulers were not Han Chinese, an ethnic group that made up more than 94 percent of the population, leading to even more feelings of suspicion against the government. The empire had been no stranger to peasant uprisings throughout its existence, but this new rebellion against imperial authority was far more widespread and powerful than any before it. It was also driven by the humiliation and frustration of continued foreign dominance and the determination to see China become a great power.
In their book about the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, biographers Jung Chang and Jon Halliday wrote of the birth of the republic: “That summer (1911), extremely hot and humid as usual in Changsha, students debated fervently about how to overthrow the emperor. ... In October an armed uprising in neighboring Hubei province heralded the Republican Revolution. The Manchu (Qing) dynasty that had ruled China for over 260 years crumbled, and a republic was declared on Jan. 1, 1912. The child emperor, Pu Yi, abdicated the following month.”
Hopes were high that the republic would effectively stand up to foreigners, but it proved only marginally successful. Ferguson wrote: “The republic that succeeded him (the last Qing Emperor) had proved a precarious structure. ... The Nationalist Party (Guomindang), led by Sun Yatsen, was forced to yield the presidency to the militarily powerful Yuan Shikai. Yuan was able to crush a second revolution instigated by the Guomindang, but his bid to make himself emperor ended with his death in 1916.”
In fact, in many respects the new republican government proved just as unresponsive as the Qing government had been. The 1920s saw increasing disunity throughout the republic, as well as explosive levels of corruption. A growing indigenous Communist Party and an aggressive Japanese neighbor only exacerbated the weakness of the republic. In 1949, the the republican government was forced to flee to the island of Taiwan, while mainland China was conquered by the Communists.
The late 19th century saw China dominated economically by Western powers. Just over 100 years later it is a revived, energized, nominally Communist China that is increasingly dominating Western markers and economies. The legacy of the Chinese republic is twofold: a sad interlude between the empire and the Communist state and the free nation of the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps.