The Chinese Revolution of 1949 (Part-1)

China had a long history of national unity and since the mid-seventeenth century had been ruled by the Manchu or Ch’ing dynasty. However, during the 1840s, the country moved into a troubled period of foreign interference, civil war and disintegration, which lasted until the communist victory in 1949.

The last emperor was overthrown in 1911 and a republic was proclaimed. The period 1916 to 1928, known as the Warlord Era, was one of great chaos, as a number of generals seized control of different provinces. A party known as the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalists, was trying to govern China and control the generals, who were busy fighting each other. The KMT leaders were Dr Sun Yat-sen, and after his death in 1925, General Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921, and at first it co-operated with the KMT in its struggle against the warlords. As the KMT gradually established control over more and more of China, it felt strong enough to do without the help of the communists, and it tried to destroy them. The communists, under their leader Mao Zedong, reacted vigorously, and after escaping from surrounding KMT forces, they embarked on the 6000-mile Long March (1934-5) to form a new power base in northern China.

Civil war dragged on, complicated by Japanese interference, which culminated in a full-scale invasion in 1937. When the Second World War ended in defeat for the Japanese and their withdrawal from China, the KMT and the CCP continued to fight each other for control of China. Chiang Kai-shek received help from the USA, but in 1949 it was Mao and the communists who finally triumphed. Chiang and his supporters fled to the island of Taiwan (Formosa). Mao Zedong quickly established control over the whole of China, and he remained leader until his death in 1976.


(a) Background to the revolution of 1911

In the early part of the nineteenth century China kept itself very much separate from the rest of the world; life went on quietly and peacefully with no great changes, as it had done since the Manchus took over in the 1640s. However, in the mid-nineteenth century China found itself faced by a number of crises. The prolonged period of relative peace had led to a rapid increase in the population – between 1741 and 1841 the population rose from 140 million to 410 million. This made it difficult to produce enough food for subsistence, forcing many peasants to turn to robbery and banditry as a means of survival. The ensuing chaos encouraged foreigners, especially Europeans, to force their way into China to take advantage of trading possibilities. The British were first on the scene, fighting and defeating the Chinese in the Opium Wars (1839-42).

Opium Wars

Opium Wars were two armed conflicts in China in the mid-19th century between the forces of Western countries and of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1912.

The first Opium War (1839–42) was fought between China and Britain, and the second Opium War (1856–60), also known as the Arrow War, was fought by Britain and France against China. In each case the foreign powers were victorious and gained commercial privileges and legal and territorial concessions in China. The conflicts marked the start of the era of unequal treaties and other inroads on Qing sovereignty that helped weaken and ultimately topple the dynasty in favour of republican China in the early 20th century.

(a) First Opium War

The Opium Wars arose from China’s attempts to suppress the opium trade. Foreign traders (primarily British) had been illegally exporting opium mainly from India to China since the 18th century, but that trade grew dramatically from about 1820. The resulting widespread addiction in China was causing serious social and economic disruption there.

In March 1839 the Chinese government confiscated and destroyed more than 1,400 tons of the drug—that were warehoused at Canton (Guangzhou) by British merchants. The antagonism between the two sides increased a few days later when some drunken British sailors killed a Chinese villager. The British government, which did not wish its subjects to be tried in the Chinese legal system, refused to turn the accused men over to the Chinese courts.

Hostilities broke out several months later when British warships destroyed a Chinese blockade of the Pearl River estuary at Hong Kong and occupied the city in May 1841. Subsequent British campaigns over the next year were likewise successful against the inferior Qing forces. The British captured Nanjing (Nanking) in late August 1942, which put an end to the fighting.

Peace negotiations proceeded quickly, resulting in the Treaty of Nanjing, signed on August 29. By its provisions, China was required to pay Britain a large indemnity, cede Hong Kong Island to the British, and increase the number of treaty ports where the British could trade and reside from one (Canton) to five. Among the four additional designated ports was Shanghai.

The British Supplementary Treaty of the Bogue (Humen), signed October 8, 1843, gave British citizens extraterritoriality (the right to be tried by British courts) and most-favoured-nation status (Britain was granted any rights in China that might be granted to other foreign countries). Other Western countries quickly demanded and were given similar privileges.

After suffering its first defeat to the West in the First Opium War the Qing court struggled to contain foreign intrusions into China. Efforts to adjust and reform the traditional methods of governance were constrained by a deeply conservative court culture where ethnic Manchu rulers did not want to give too much authority to the Han Chinese majority.

In the wars against the Taiping (1851–64), Nian (1851–68), Muslims of Yunnan (1856–68) and the Northwest (1862–77), the traditional Manchu armies proved themselves incompetent, and the court came to rely on local Han armies.

The second Opium War (Arrow War, 1856-1860)

In the mid-1850s, while the Qing government was embroiled in trying to quell the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), the British, seeking to extend their trading rights in China, found an excuse to renew hostilities.

In early October 1856 some Chinese officials boarded the British-registered ship Arrow while it was docked in Canton, arrested several Chinese crew members, and allegedly lowered the British flag. Later that month a British warship sailed up the Pearl River estuary and began bombarding Canton. In December Chinese in Canton burned foreign factories there, and tensions escalated.

The French decided to join the British military expedition, using as their excuse the murder of a French missionary in the interior of China in early 1856. After delays in assembling the forces in China (British troops that were en route were first diverted to India to help quell the Indian Mutiny), the allies began military operations in late 1857. They quickly captured Canton, deposed the city’s intransigent governor, and installed a more-compliant official.

In April 1858 allied troops in British warships reached Tianjin and forced the Chinese into negotiations. The treaties of Tianjin, signed in June 1858, provided residence in Beijing for foreign envoys, the opening of several new ports to Western trade and residence, the right of foreign travel in the interior of China, and freedom of movement for Christian missionaries. In further negotiations in Shanghai later in the year, the importation of opium was legalized.

Following defeat in the Second Opium War, the Qing tried to modernize by adopting certain Western technologies through the Self-Strengthening Movement from 1861.

Taiping Rebellion (1850-64)

Next came the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), which spread all over southern China. It was partly a Christian religious movement and partly a political reform movement, which aimed to set up a ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’ (Taiping tianguo). The movement was eventually defeated, not by the Manchu government troops, which proved to be ineffective, but by newly-formed regional armies. The failure of the government forces was a serious blow to the authority of the Ch’ing dynasty. It left them dependent on regional armies that they did not control. This began the process in which provinces began to assert their independence from the central government in Beijing (Peking), culminating in the Warlord Era (1916-28).

First Sino-Japanese War

It was conflict between Japan and China that marked the emergence of Japan as a major world power and demonstrated the weakness of the Chinese empire. The war grew out of conflict between the two countries for supremacy in Korea. Korea had long been China’s most important client state, but its strategic location opposite the Japanese islands and its natural resources of coal and iron attracted Japan’s interest. In 1875 Japan, which had begun to adopt Western technology, forced Korea to open itself to foreign, especially Japanese, trade and to declare itself independent from China in its foreign relations.

Japan soon became identified with the more radical modernizing forces within the Korean government, while China continued to sponsor the conservative officials gathered around the royal family. In 1884 a group of pro-Japanese reformers attempted to overthrow the Korean government, but Chinese troops rescued the King, killing several Japanese legation guards in the process. War was avoided between Japan and China by the signing of the Li-Ito Convention, in which both nations agreed to withdraw troops from Korea.

In 1894, however, Japan, flushed with national pride in the wake of its successful modernization program and its growing influence upon young Koreans, was not so ready to compromise. In that year, Kim Ok-kyun, the pro-Japanese Korean leader of the 1884 coup, was lured to Shanghai and assassinated. His body was then put aboard a Chinese warship and sent back to Korea, where it was quartered and displayed as a warning to other rebels. The Japanese government took this as a direct affront, and the Japanese public was outraged.

The situation was made more tense later in the year when the Tonghak rebellion broke out in Korea, and the Chinese government, at the request of the Korean king, sent troops to aid in dispersing the rebels. The Japanese considered this a violation of the Li-Ito Convention, and they sent 8,000 troops to Korea. Chinese tried to reinforce their own forces,  further inflaming the situation.

War was finally declared on August 1, 1894. Although foreign observers had predicted an easy victory for the more massive Chinese forces, the Japanese had done a more successful job of modernizing, and they were better equipped and prepared. Japanese troops scored quick and overwhelming victories on both land and sea. By March 1895 the Japanese had successfully invaded Shandong province and Manchuria and had fortified posts that commanded the sea approaches to Beijing. The Chinese sued for peace.

In the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the conflict, China recognized the independence of Korea and ceded Taiwan, the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria.

China also agreed to pay a large indemnity and to give Japan trading privileges on Chinese territory. This treaty was later somewhat modified by Russian fears of Japanese expansion, and the combined intercession of Russia, France, and Germany forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula to China.

China’s defeat encouraged the Western powers to make further demands of the Chinese government. In China itself, the war triggered a reform movement that attempted to renovate the government; it also resulted in the beginnings of revolutionary activity against the Qing dynasty rulers of China.

Hundred Days’ Reform (1898)

Hundred Days of Reform was an imperial attempt at renovating the Chinese state and social system. It occurred after the Chinese defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the ensuing rush for concessions in China on the part of Western imperialist powers.

Following the Sino-Japanese War, a series of clubs sprang up across China urging reform on the Western model. One of these was founded by a civil service examination candidate, Kang Youwei, who led a group of other candidates in the writing of a “Ten Thousand Word Memorial,” which advocated the rejection of the peace treaty and the institution of a whole series of reforms. This petition was ignored by the imperial Qing government.

Meanwhile, within established official circles, a group of conservative reformers—led by Zhang Zhidong, whose famous work “Exhortation to Learning” was distributed in 1898—called for the development of Western-style industrialization without the abandonment of China’s cultural heritage.

Spurred by this group and alarmed by the slow dismemberment of China by Western powers in the wake of the Sino-Japanese War, the government began to seriously consider the idea of reform. As a result, Kang finally came to the attention of the Guangxu emperor, and in January 1898 he met with a group of high government officials. On June 11, 1898, the emperor acceded to one of Kang’s requests and issued his first reform decree, urging his subjects to learn useful foreign information. This was the start of what was to be known as the Hundred Days of Reform.

On June 16, 1898, Kang was given his first interview with the emperor. Thereafter the government officials who had been advocating moderate reforms were pushed to the background, and Kang, his famous disciple Liang Qichao, and other followers became trusted imperial advisers.

In all, the emperor issued more than 40 edicts, which if enacted would have transformed every conceivable aspect of Chinese society. The old civil service examination system based on the Chinese Classics was ordered abolished, and a new system of national schools and colleges was established. Western industry, medicine, science, commerce, and patent systems were promoted and adopted. Government administration was revamped, the law code was changed, the military was reformed, and corruption was attacked.

The attack on corruption, the army, and the traditional educational system threatened the privileged classes of traditional Chinese society. Conservative forces rallied behind the empress dowager, Cixi; with the army on her side, she carried out a coup d’état and imprisoned the emperor in his palace. Kang and Qichao managed to escape to Japan, but six other young reformers were executed.

Although some moderate reform measures, such as the establishment of modern schools, were retained, the examination system was reestablished and most of the reform edicts, which had never been enacted anyway, were repealed. In the early 1900s, officials like Zhang Zhidong were allowed to carry out a full-scale reform effort, but it was a piecemeal, belated effort. The failure of the Hundred Days of Reform marked the last attempt at a radical revolution by the imperial regime in China.

Boxer Rebellion

Boxer Rebellion supported peasant uprising of 1900 that attempted to drive all foreigners from China. “Boxers” was a name that foreigners gave to a Chinese secret society known as the Yihequan (“Righteous and Harmonious Fists”). The group practiced certain boxing rituals in the belief that this made them invulnerable. Their original aim was the destruction of the dynasty and also of the Westerners who had a privileged position in China.

In the late 19th century, because of growing economic impoverishment, a series of unfortunate natural calamities, and unbridled foreign aggression in the area, the Boxers began to increase their strength in the provinces of North China. In 1898 conservative, antiforeign forces won control of the Chinese government and persuaded the Boxers to drop their opposition to the Qing dynasty and unite with it in destroying the foreigners. The governor of the province of Shandong began to enroll Boxer bands as local militia groups, changing their name from Yihequan to Yihetuan (“Righteous and Harmonious Militia”), which sounded semiofficial.

Many of the Qing officials at this time apparently began to believe that Boxer rituals actually did make them impervious to bullets, and, in spite of protests by the Western powers, they and Cixi, the ruling empress dowager, continued to encourage the group.

Christian missionary activities helped provoke the Boxers; Christian converts flouted traditional Chinese ceremonies and family relations; and missionaries pressured local officials to side with Christian converts in local lawsuits and property disputes. By late 1899 the Boxers were openly attacking Chinese Christians and Western missionaries. By May 1900, Boxer bands were roaming the countryside around the capital at Beijing.

In Beijing the Boxers burned churches and foreign residences and killed suspected Chinese Christians on sight. The empress dowager ordered that all foreigners be killed. The German minister was murdered, and the other foreign ministers and their families and staff, together with hundreds of Chinese Christians, were besieged in their legation quarters and in the Roman Catholic cathedral in Beijing.

An international force of some 19,000 troops was assembled, most of the soldiers coming from Japan and Russia but many also from Britain, the United States, France, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. On August 14, 1900, that force finally captured Beijing, relieving the foreigners and Christians besieged there. While foreign troops looted the capital, the empress dowager and her court fled westward to Xi’an in Shaanxi province, leaving behind a few imperial princes to conduct the negotiations. After extensive discussions, a protocol was finally signed in September 1901, ending the hostilities and providing for reparations to be made to the foreign powers.

More territory was lost to Japan as a result of the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), and China was clearly in a sorry state.

In the early years of the twentieth century thousands of young Chinese travelled abroad and were educated there. They returned with radical, revolutionary ideas of overthrowing the Manchu dynasty and westernizing China. Some revolutionaries, like Dr Sun Yat-sen, wanted a democratic state modelled on the USA.

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