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9-08-2015, 21:27

CHINA IN DISINTEGRATION, 1900–29

About one-fifth of humanity lives in China, the most populous nation of the world. But until the nineteenth century, though in touch with the West, China followed its own path of historical development unaffected by Western contact. The chronological cycle of eastern Asian developments did not coincide with that of Europe, nor did the First World War mark the great break of ‘before’ and ‘after’ in Chinese history. The war simply intensified the ongoing disintegration. The hugeness of China in land area and population makes it all the more extraordinary that for more than a thousand years a concept of unity had been maintained. Other peoples were absorbed as China expanded. The ethnic origin of some of these peoples survives to the present day in the form of national minorities with which about one in eighteen Chinese identify – though intermarriage has obliterated the majority. In traditional China, to be considered Chinese was not a matter of race or nationality in the Western sense but depended on an acceptance of Chinese customs and culture. Those who did not accept them – even people within Chinese frontiers – were considered ‘barbarian’. The living traditions of Chinese culture were so strong that they absorbed the alien peoples who conquered China and so turned them into Chinese. These included the Mongol dynasty and, in the mid-seventeenth century, the Manchus who ruled from then until the revolution of 1911 as the Ch’ing dynasty. Foreign peoples were incorporated by conquest or else absorbed by China when they conquered the empire from without. The political and cultural continuity of China persisted, overcoming periods of internal rebellion and war. Integration, not disintegration, was the dominant theme of more than a millennium of Chinese history until the mid-nineteenth century. But how should historians interpret the century that followed? If we stop the clock in 1925 it would certainly seem that the disintegration of China had proceeded so far that the long tradition of the national unity of the Chinese Empire could never be restored. It was then a country torn by internal strife, economically bound to the West and Japan, yet without significant progress, as far as the mass of Chinese were concerned, to show for Western economic penetration, politically divided, and with parts of China dominated by foreign powers. From the later Ch’ing period in the 1840s until the close of the civil war in 1949, China knew no peace and passed through a number of phases of disintegration which no single ruler who followed the Ch’ing dynasty after 1911 could halt. Today, the Chinese Empire is unified once more and has reasserted its right to recover territories that were once Chinese or over which suzerainty was asserted. In the nineteenth century a double crisis threatened the cohesion and stability of China and undermined traditional China and the rule of the Ch’ing dynasty. A great blow to central authority was the defeat of the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty by the invasion of the ‘barbarians’ of the West. The West saw an opportunity to trade in China and made wars to force their way in. The British fought the Opium Wars (1839–42) and China ceded its territory (Hong Kong) and was forced to accept the opening of its trade to Britain. An even more fundamental cause of unrest was that population growth was no longer matched by an increase in the lands under cultivation. Amid the general distress occurred the greatest rising in world history – the Taiping Rebellion of 1850–64 which led to huge destruction and to the loss of between 20 and 30 million lives. The rising was mastered in the end by gentry-led regional armies. China was thereby pushed along a path where regional independence and strength asserted themselves against central authority. During this period and later in the nineteenth century other Western nations followed the British example and secured concessions; and so began a process whereby the Western powers acquired territorial settlements, colonies, leases, rights to trade in ‘treaty ports’, and concessions in some eighty towns on the coast and inland. The foreigners not only enjoyed immunity from Chinese government but in their settlements, in effect, ruled over the Chinese inhabitants as well. The largest, the foreign settlements of Shanghai, in 1928 comprised a Chinese population of more than 1 million subordinated to 35,000 Westerners. China was not only defeated and forced to accept the ‘unequal treaties’ by the West, but during the last decade of the nineteenth century was attacked by Japan as well. The impact of the West and Japan, as well as China’s internal upheavals, led Chinese intellectuals to question China’s future role. Yet their initial reaction was to seek to preserve Chinese traditions. China should strengthen itself through the adoption of Western industrial and military techniques. But little real headway could be made materially. It was not Confucian tradition that blocked the path but economic reality. China remained a peasant society with a surface scratch of industrial development, largely in the foreigndominated enclaves. The movement of ‘selfstrengthening’ was nowhere near sufficient to counter the forces of disintegration. The Ch’ing dynasty under the formidable Empress Dowager Tz’u-hsi attempted in a last spasm to adopt Western techniques in government and education, but always with the underlying conservative purpose of strengthening traditional China. The reforms were undertaken in the wake of the disastrous Boxer rising of 1900, which attempted to throw out Western influence – economic, political, territorial and religious – by force and was, in its turn, crushed by a Western international army joined by the Japanese. China was placed further in debt to the West and lost control over even more territory since the Russians refused to leave northern China and Manchuria. Then the Chinese had to stand aside as Russia and Japan in 1904 and 1905 fought each other for dominance over this portion of China. China was breaking apart into foreign spheres of influence; simultaneously the regions were asserting their autonomy from central government. In 1908 the empress died and the strength of the Ch’ing dynasty was spent. If the misery of the condition of the country and its people could prove such a thing, then the Ch’ing dynasty had lost its Heavenly Mandate. Among the small group of conservative intellectuals and administrators there were some who, under the impact of the experience of their own lifetime, looked at the world beyond China more realistically and knowledgeably. They contrasted Japanese success in maintaining national independence, in throwing off discriminatory treaties in their homeland and in inflicting military defeat on a great Western power with China’s weakness and helplessness. China had, in theory, preserved its sovereignty over all but small portions of its empire. The reality, however, was different since foreigners controlled its commerce, built its railways and established industries under their ownership. Here, though, it is necessary to distinguish the few Westerners who were dedicated to serving the interests of China as they saw them. These were officials like Robert Hart, head of the Maritime Customs Service, who warned in the aftermath of the Boxer rising that the Western powers should take care how they treated the Chinese: ‘a China in arms will be a big power at some future day’, he wrote; the Western powers should make sure that ‘the China of the future might have something to thank us for and not to avenge’. There were some Chinese reformers who sensed that China stood at the parting of the ways. China could emulate Japan or suffer the fate of India and south-east Asia, then part of the colonial empires of the Dutch, the British and the French. Many of these reformers had received part of their education in Japan or the West. Yan Fu, one of the most important, spent time not only in Japan but also in England. In his writings he contrasted the Chinese ideals of harmony and stability with Western encouragement of the thrusting individual, competition and the goal of progress. Yan Fu translated into Chinese seminal Western works on politics and the economy, books by T. H. Huxley, John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith among them. His translations and his own advocacy stimulated demands for a break with Confucian traditions and the adoption of a Western-style form of constitutional government. Another reformer of great influence in the first decade of the twentieth century was Liang Qichao, the intellectual leader of the young Chinese progressives, who wrote extensively about Western political leaders and thinkers in the hope of opening up a new world to the Chinese and thus transforming them into a new people. In its last years, not so much directly influenced by the reformers but reacting to the same stimuli – a desire to strengthen China against the foreigner – the Ch’ing dynasty promulgated reforms thick and fast, promising the gradual introduction of constitutional government, a process which when set in motion was to lead to its own downfall and the revolution of 1911. Thousands of students in the first decade of the twentieth century travelled and studied abroad. Their ideas were far more radical than those of the reformers. Their goal was a revolution against the ‘foreign’ Ch’ing dynasty and the establishment of a republic. They identified with another Western-educated revolutionary, Dr Sun Yat-sen. A farmer’s son, like many Chinese he had emigrated abroad joining, at the age of twelve, his brothers in Hawaii. He was educated in a British missionary school there and, later, in Hong Kong, where he graduated in medicine. He did not practise long as a doctor, instead seeing that his task was to awaken China to revolution. In breach of Chinese tradition, Sun Yat-sen encouraged the Chinese to view themselves as a distinctive race. The removal of the foreign Manchu Ch’ing dynasty provided a focus for the revolutionary movement. Sun Yat-sen wished to create a modern Chinese nation state, with a constitution based on that of the US together with some Chinese traditions grafted on to it such as a control branch of government – the old censors under a new name. In Japan he founded the revolutionary League of Common Alliance, an organised political movement which in 1912 joined with other groups to form the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party. Not until after his death in 1925, however, did the Kuomintang play a leading role in China’s history. Sun Yat-sen summed up his political programme and aims in three principles: first, the restoration of the Chinese identity, which came to mean the removal of both the ‘foreign’ Manchu dynasty and foreign imperialism. China, Sun Yat-sen said, lacked a national spirit; the 400 million people of China were ‘just a heap of loose sand’, and China the weakest and poorest nation – ‘other men are the carving knife and serving dish; we are the fish and meat’. China must seek its salvation by espousing nationalism and so avert the catastrophe of ‘China being lost and our people being eliminated’. The foreign oppression, he pointed out, was not just political, which was easily recognised, but economic, transforming China ‘into a colony of the foreign powers’. The second principle was democracy, by which he meant the creation of a strong executive central power and the ultimate sovereignty of the people expressed in an electoral process. The third principle, socialism, was the vaguest; in theory it stood for landownership equalisation and some state control to prevent the abuse of monopoly capitalist power, but since the Kuomintang drew support from businessmen, the principle was blurred. Sun Yat-sen developed these ideas throughout his political life, though in his own lifetime they found little application. The advocates of Westernisation always faced one serious emotional and intellectual problem. The very people they wished to emulate showed their belief in Chinese inferiority. Foreign residents, whether missionaries or merchants, only too frequently looked down on the Chinese, regarding their culture as pagan. The roles of the civilised and the barbarians were reversed. In Shanghai there were parks reserved exclusively for the Westerners, characteristic of the racial prejudice of the time. The Christian missionaries saw themselves engaged in saving souls otherwise lost to heathen ways. So the Chinese reacted to Western ways with both admiration and intense hostility. The political and economic behaviour of the Western powers could only strengthen that hostility. The course of the revolution of 1911, which soon ended the monarchy, was not determined by Sun Yat-sen, though a Chinese Republic did come into being. A strong Chinese nation dedicated to the objectives of his loose Alliance movement did not emerge when the revolution had succeeded in its first task of overthrowing the Manchus. The membership of Sun Yat-sen’s party amounted to only a few thousand within China. More significant in determining the subsequent course of events were the men of influence in the provinces – the merchants and the gentry – who took advantage of constitutional reform to assert the independence of the provinces in the newly elected assemblies. The spark for starting the revolution was provided by a rising of a small group of revolutionary soldiers in Wuchang in central China in October 1911 with only the weakest links with Sun Yat-sen’s Alliance. Sun Yat-sen at the time was in Denver in the US. The rising could easily have been suppressed. But so weak had the power of the central government become that province after province in October and November 1911 declared its independence from the central court government. Hostility to the dynasty was widespread. The court turned to Yuan Shikai, recently a governor-general of a northern province, where he had built up a modern Chinese Northern Army. Yuan Shikai was in retirement when the revolution broke out; the dynasty saw him now as the only man considered capable of commanding the loyalty of the officers of the Northern Army, whose military strength might still re-establish the dynasty’s authority. Yuan Shikai, however, was determined to be his own master. He negotiated with the revolutionaries. They agreed to his assuming the presidency of the Chinese Republic provided he could secure the abdication of the Ch’ing dynasty. In February 1912 the abdication decree was published and in March 1912 Yuan Shikai became the first president of China as the man most acceptable to the provincial gentry and merchants. These men were basically conservative, and Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary movement was abhorrent to them. There was to be no social revolution. The republic and its new parliament representing the unity of China were frail institutions. During the last four years of Yuan Shikai’s life, from 1912 to 1916, he ruled more and more as a military dictator through the army and, shortly before his death, attempted to revive the monarchy with himself as emperor. Through his hold over the army, the provinces were unable to assert complete independence from Peking. But Yuan Shikai could establish no genuine national unity and with his death the disintegration of China accelerated. The years from 1906 to 1928 mark the warlord era in modern Chinese history. To the outside world the Republic of China was governed from Peking. In reality this was just one of the hundreds of governments, each headed by a warlord with a personal army which had gained control of an area sometimes small, sometimes covering a whole province. The warlords intrigued and fought each other in constant wars throughout twelve years of strife and bloodshed. The peasants suffered from pillage, tax oppression, destruction of their property and bloodshed. But during this bleak period a continuous process of state-building also took place. This same period saw some other positive developments. The combination of China’s misfortunes internal and external welded together a new national movement which tried to recapture the objectives set by Sun Yat-sen but totally disregarded after the revolution of 1911. Foreign encroachments on Chinese integrity provoked the strongest reaction among the young students and intellectuals. Peking University became the centre of the intellectual ferment and participated in what became known as the New Culture Movement. Japan’s Twenty-one Demands in January 1915 took advantage of the preoccupation of the European powers with winning the war in Europe to demand of the Chinese government its practical subordination to Japan. In China they were met with a storm of protest. An even greater outburst of indignation greeted the decisions of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. China was an ally, yet Japan had been accorded the right to take over Germany’s extensive concessions in the province of Shantung, and the warlord government in Peking, representing China, had accepted this transfer of what was after all still Chinese territory. The fourth of May 1919 is an important date in the history of modern China. It was later seen as marking the moment when China reasserted its national identity once more in angry response to imperialism. Some 3,000 students in Peking University launched a national protest movement which took its name from that date. The government had arrested some students and the protest was directed equally against the government and national humiliation. In the burst of publications that followed, the May the Fourth movement had a powerful effect on stimulating the young intellectuals to reject the social and political traditions of old China, including the Confucian ideals of duty and filial obedience and the subordination of women. A boycott of Japanese goods, in turn, led to the organisation of Chinese labour in the ports. But the intellectual revolution also had a divisive effect as the mass of the countryside and the peasantry was virtually untouched by the fever for change. In 1923 Sun Yat-sen was looking for ways to strengthen his enfeebled Kuomintang Party, which was nominally ruling Canton but in reality was dependent on the local warlord. He turned for help to the tiny Communist Party, numbering less than a thousand members. The Comintern welcomed any opportunity to strike a blow against Western imperialism and agents were sent from Moscow. The cooperation of Sun Yat-sen and his Russian advisers soon bore fruit. Sun Yat-sen adapted his principles to the new situation and the Comintern ordered the Chinese communists not to form an alliance but to subordinate their interests and fuse with the Kuomintang. The communists, now forming the left wing of the Kuomintang, never lost their sense of identity. The party, with the help of Russian advice, was reorganised, and communist influence among Chinese labour working for Western interests rapidly grew; strikes were fomented and supported. In the countryside, too, the Kuomintang made headway among the peasants in encouraging the seizure of landlord’s land. The right wing of the Kuomintang controlled the national revolutionary army it was organising. The task was assigned to one of Sun Yat-sen’s loyal young followers, Chiang Kai-shek. In 1923 Chiang Kai-shek went to Moscow to study the new Soviet Red Army. On his return he was placed in charge of training the officers of the Kuomintang’s revolutionary army. In 1925 Sun Yat-sen died. There was no obvious successor. For a time the party continued under a collective leadership amid increasing strains between the left and the right. But Chiang Kai-shek soon made clear his opposition to the left of the Kuomintang. Chiang Kai-shek turned against the socialist plans of his communist allies. He also vied for the assistance of the propertied and for help from the West. Meanwhile the communists in following Moscow’s orders fared disastrously. In April 1927 the nationalists and their supporters crushed organised workers in Shanghai and shot protesters. In the countryside peasant risings were bloodily put down. By the end of that year the break between the communists and nationalists was complete. Driven out of the towns, the communists established base areas in remote regions. Mao Zedong, then in his thirties, created the most important in Jiangxi. Here the Red Army was trained by Zhou Enlai and taught to help and not plunder the peasants. Other significant reforms ended the sale of girls into forced marriages, while the peasants’ greatest need was land reform. After five years, surrounded by Chiang’s forces, the base became untenable. Daringly at night on 16 October 1934, leaving behind a rearguard and the sick and wounded, the communists broke through the encirclement and fought their way north for 6,000 miles on the epic ‘Long March’. Yet it was not civil war that dominated the 1930s but the Japanese invasion in 1937. Once more, fervent national feelings created a sense of unity in resisting the brutal aggressor. Before Chiang Kai-shek’s decisive breach he utilised the strength of the communists to support the northern military expedition started in 1926 to convert what was a local government into a national one. It was a tremendous feat to sweep successfully north from their base in southern China to Peking. There was some hard fighting; some warlords agreed to accept Chiang Kai-shek’s authority on behalf of the nationalist government now established in a new capital in Nanking. Chiang Kai-shek took care at this stage not to offend the Western powers in China. He smashed the anti-Western movement of the communists in the Kuomintang. He set himself as his first task to gain military control over China. But, though his success had been astonishing, he had not broken the power of all the warlords and by the close of the 1920s controlled less than half of China. In 1930 he quelled a rising in the north in large-scale battles. Thereafter the remaining warlords and Chiang Kai-shek’s government agreed to tolerate each other. China was more unified, but a new military struggle was opening up between the Kuomintang and the communists. Simultaneously Japan took advantage of China’s weakness to seize Manchuria in 1931. In the end Chiang Kai-shek, faced with the Japanese war and simultaneous civil conflict with the communists, failed to create the national unity of China which was Sun Yat-sen’s testament to his followers.

 

 

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