Harold R. Isaacs

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

I. Seeds of Revolt

On the fringes of big Chinese cities the shadows of lofty factory chimneys fall across fields still tilled with wooden ploughs. On the wharves of seaports modern liners unload goods carried away on the backs of men or shipped inland on primitive barges. In the streets great trucks and jangling trams roar past carts drawn by men harnessed like animals to their loads. Sleek automobiles toot angrily at man-drawn rickshaws and barrows which thread their way through the lanes of traffic. Streets, lined with shops where men and women still fashion their wares with bare hands and simple tools, lead to huge mills run by humming dynamos. Aeroplanes and railways cut across vast regions linked otherwise only by footpaths and canals a thousand years old. Modern steamers ply the coasts and rivers, churning past junks of ancient design. Throughout the towns and villages, and on the tired land of the vast river valleys that stretch from the sea to the heart of Asia, these contradictions and contrasts multiply. They embody the struggle of nearly half a billion people for existence and survival.

The pattern of Chinese life is jagged, torn, and irregular. Modern forms of production, transport, and finance are superimposed upon, and only partially woven into, the worn and threadbare pattern of the past. That ancient fabric was already giving way a century ago when the West invaded China with its commodities, its greed, and its ideas. The result of that impact was catastrophic and revolutionary. Chinese economy was forcibly transformed. Classes of society, for so Long stable, entered upon a period of violent change. Forms of government, habits, and the entire social equilibrium were upset. The process of change was intricate. It posed the immense historical task of creating a new framework in which China’s productive forces could thrive. It created conflicts which soon accumulated, gathered momentum, and flowed swiftly toward a solution on the battlefields of the class struggle.

The backwardness of Chinese economy was determined primarily by the stagnation of productive forces over a lengthy historical period. Introduction of the iron plough led, some two thousand years ago, to an increase of agricultural productivity. Partially as a result of this impetus, land was at that time converted into private property. Land held in fief or cleared by imperial grant became alienable, that is to say, it could be bought and sold. Labour thus released and capital thus acquired were in part absorbed by the State in the construction of great public works, dams, canals, palaces, walls and fortifications. But capitalist modes of production did not develop. Feudal forms of exploitation were perpetuated in the village. Chinese society remained organized in small agricultural units. Home or local handicraft industries supplied the major supplementary needs of the community. The State took direct part in trade and manufacture. It exercised monopolies, for example, in salt and in iron. Both the system of production and the internal market were rigidly controlled by the State apparatus and all-embracing guilds of merchants and artisans. Urban centres of production and commerce grew up but seem to have been restricted to luxury products and regional specialities, fine silks, lacquer, chinaware, carvings, ironwork. Only further research into the nature and extent of the internal market, the operations of commercial capital, and the relative isolation of the small communities, will illuminate what Marx called the “Asiatic mode of production,” with its remarkable capacity for selfrenewal.[1]

The whole structure rested solidly on the mass of peasants who paid rent to the landlords, interest to the merchants and moneylenders, and taxes, in labour, in kind, and in money, to the State. The latter was represented by local officials joined in a loose hierarchy stretching up through the provincial viceroys to the Emperor. These officials joined with the landlords and merchants in the process of the exploitation of the peasantry. To meet the ever-increasing tax demands, the landlords multiplied their exactions from the men who actually worked the soil. Small landholders mortgaged themselves to the moneylenders and were gradually reduced to the status of tenants or agricultural labourers. As each succeeding dynasty passed its peak and went into decline, its financial demands increased and the corruption of its officials deepened. When the burden of accumulated rent, debts, and taxes became intolerable and the prevailing hardships further weighted by repeated natural disasters, local revolts against rent and tax collectors broadened into great peasant wars.

Military cliques, headed by landholding nobles, took the field at the head of scattered peasant detachments and provincial soldiery, overthrew the Dynasty, and fought for primacy among themselves. Attempts at drastic social and agrarian reforms usually featured the period of civil war and confusion which often lasted decades and at one time several centuries. The most famous of these were the attempted reforms of Wang Mang after the fall of the Han Dynasty at the beginning of the first century of the Christian era, and those advocated by Wang An-shih after the collapse of the T’ang Dynasty and the rise of the Sung at the end of the tenth century. Some of their proposals went as far as a primitive sort of nationalization of land, i.e., the abolition of private property rights in the land and its reversion to its original owner, the State. Others provided for the establishment of an embryonic state capitalism. None of these reforms, however, matured. The peasant wars which provoked them invariably exhausted themselves. One of the warring cliques would finally assert its supremacy and erect a new dynasty. While the new Emperor and his immediate descendants consolidated their rule and gradually suppressed all rival claimants to the throne, the original social forms in the village were reproduced and the same gradual process of expropriation resumed.

The Manchus came to power in the mid-seventeenth century by taking advantage of one of these peasant rebellions. Once established as alien rulers, they had a natural interest in preserving China from any other external contact while they completed the subjugation of the country. During this period Europe was locked in the bitter wars which accompanied the birth of Western capitalism. European contacts with Cathay were occasional and episodic. The early Manchu emperors were left free to enjoy the period of their ascendancy. With the passing of another two centuries, however, a remarkable growth of population brought renewed and sharpened pressure on the land. The Manchu Dynasty had already entered upon its decline. Its rule was already disintegrating and it had been compelled to make heavy levies on the population to meet repeated revolts in different parts of its domain. Chinese society was on the brink of a new era of political breakdown and chaos when the first waves of expanding Western capitalism broke against China’s shores. The advent of the new barbarians who came from across the seas deepened, transformed, and immensely complicated the inner divisions in the classes of Chinese society. Their coming meant that the old solutions, arrived at in the old manner, would no longer suffice.

Driving forward irresistibly toward the expansion of trade and the accumulation of capital resources, the Western nations smashed the barriers that had until now divided the Celestial Empire from the rest of the world. Out of this impact profound economic, political, and social changes had at last to come. Capitalist economy was drawing the whole world into its orbit. China’s isolation was at an end. For Capital was a new type of conqueror, hitherto unknown in Chinese history. Invading hordes which had swept down across the northern frontiers had in the past been assimilated with little difficulty into the more highly organized framework of the older Chinese civilization. These new barbarians possessed technical equipment and a material level which nothing in China could match. Mere traditions could not cope with cannon, any more than the hand could cope with the machine or the palanquin with the railway. Against the driving force and weapons of the Western barbarians, China could pit only the sheer weight of its age, its size, and numbers. These could determine the length and agony of this uneven conflict, not its outcome.

The Chinese economic and social structure, already in crisis, reacted swiftly at top and at bottom to the corrosive influence of the foreign invasion. Economically, China was laid prostrate. With the help of opium, the foreign traders established a balance permanently in their favour. Silver, heavily imported during the first period of the foreign trade, started draining away by 1826. Ten years later opium replaced silver as the medium of payment for Chinese tea and silk.[2] Through the breach made by the drug and widened by British and French cannon in the Opium Wars of 1842 and 1858, manufactured commodities made their way. British cotton goods stopped the export of Chinese woven cloth (nankeens) which practically disappeared from the export list by 1833. The curve of Chinese exports dropped sharply with the corresponding spectacular rise of opium imports during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Cotton imports advanced steadily, and by 1870 cotton goods accounted for 31 per cent of China’s imports and a few years later replaced opium at the top of the list. The rapid strides in industrial organization and technique in the West, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the development of steam navigation, stimulated the China trade, which doubled between 1885 and 1894. The flow of commodities was soon followed by capital investments and loans. Foreign shipping companies, cotton mills, railways, and telegraph lines occupied by the end of the century all the commanding positions in Chinese economic life.

This economic conquest was facilitated by the establishment of foreign political control. The Manchu regime was reduced to impotence. Its early attempts to check the silver drain by restricting the opium trade were battered down in a series of wars in which it suffered humiliating defeats and for which it had to pay heavy penalties. Humbled by the Westerners, the Manchu regime lost immeasurably in prestige and authority over the Chinese. Treaties exacted by the foreigners at the cannon’s mouth[3] provided for the free propagation of Christianity, the spearhead of Western penetration, and legalized the trade in opium.[4] But their most important provisions opened coastal and river ports to trade, limited the Chinese tariff to a nominal 5 per cent, granted territorial footholds and concessions whence later came the different foreign “spheres of influence,” and set up the system of extra-territoriality which exempted the foreigners from the jurisdiction of Chinese law and the payment of Chinese taxes. China became in all but name a subject land, saved from outright division and colonization only by the acute rivalries among the imperialist freebooters.

The spread of opium, the drain of silver, and the influx of machine-made commodities heightened to an acute degree the crisis in the country-side which derived from the rapid growth of the population and the shortage of cultivable land. [5] The widespread use of opium caused a flow of wealth from the country-side to the towns and led to an alarming contraction of the internal market.[6] The silver shortage caused by the drain resulted in a 20 to 30 per cent depreciation of the copper currency in common use and a sharp rise in the cost of living. Debased coinage came into use.[7] Foreign cotton goods and other commodities drove Chinese handicrafts to the wall, especially in the southern provinces. The weavers who had produced the 3,359,000 pieces of cloth exported in 1819 lost their means of livelihood when the export dropped to 30,600 pieces in 1833 and almost to zero in the three subsequent decades.[8] Finally, as if man and his works were not sufficiently malignant, nature joined in the physical destruction of the old order of things. Scarcely a year passed in the middle decades of the nineteenth century without its quota of floods and famines, droughts and plagues, in the great river valleys and beyond.

The accumulative result of all these agencies of dissolution was mass pauperization and the creation of a large floating population. Sporadic revolts and outbreaks among the racial minorities of the Miao tribes in the south-west and the Moslems in the north-west heralded the beginning of a new peasant war which, in the traditional course of events, would have confirmed the exhaustion of Heaven’s mandate to the ruling Dynasty and led to the rise of a new reigning house. But while an essentially peasant revolt was brewing in the provinces, the Chinese ruling class was finding resources for renewing itself by participating, directly and indirectly, in the profits of the foreign trade.

Merchants and officials in the seaports had early begun to accumulate great fortunes through their dealings with the foreigners. Prior to 1830 when foreign ships still arrived at Canton laden with silver dollars to pay for the tea and silk carried back to Europe and the United States,[9] little of this wealth had found its way back to the ultimate producers. Most of it remained in the hands of the port merchants and mandarins.[10] Members of the co-hongs, special merchant monopolies officially established to deal with the foreigners, and local officials, who had a free hand in levying special taxes and “contributions,” acquired great wealth, especially in the contraband opium trade. Membership in the co-hong was often worth as much as 200,000 taels. One Canton merchant boasted a fortune of $26,000,000 over and above the huge sums he had paid to the local officials in return for their benevolent support. [11]

From these merchants and officials a new class took shape, the class of compradores, brokers for foreign capital on the Chinese market. This was one of the first direct effects of the imperialist invasion upon the fabric of Chinese society. The commanding economic positions which imperialism secured for itself effectively blocked the main channel of indigenous, independent capitalist development. These Chinese merchants and officials stemmed, to begin with, from the landed gentry. The new wealth accumulated through the foreign trade went not into capitalist enterprise but into land, a process which visibly hastened the growth of large landed estates and the expropriation of petty landholders.[12] Landlords sent their sons into the cities to join in the lucrative business of compradoring. Rare was the compradore who was not an absentee landlord. Their profits went back not only into the land but into usurious loans to the peasants who had to borrow to bridge the gap between their decreasing incomes and the rising cost of living and taxes. Unable to compete with the superior force and material technique of the foreigners, the old landlord-merchant bourgeoisie was converted into a class of brokers, money-lenders, and speculators, with interests divided between town and country.

In this process the whole State structure took part. The Manchus had been defeated by the British in the Opium Wars “with an ease that shook their own confidence in the prowess and destiny of their race and completely dispelled its prestige of military power in the eyes of the subject Chinese.”[13]

Broken by military defeats, the Manchu bureaucracy was soon undermined by bribery and the attractive profits from the smuggling of opium.[14] Edicts from Peking often remained inoperative. Peking was far away and the clink of foreign silver near and enticing. Chinese officialdom, theoretically virtuous, already had an ancient tradition of corruption. The dependence of officials on tax revenues for their own sustenance had from time immemorial placed a premium upon official honesty. The riches of the foreign trade crowned this tradition with a new source of illegitimate income. With the decline of the Dynasty, the falling off of revenue to the centre, and growing financial stringency, all pretence at virtue was thrown to the winds and official position became an object of open barter. The plums of power were acquired not by the learned but by those who had the price. Naturally it was the already wealthy merchant or compradore who could buy his son or his brother a mandarin’s button. As the practice became common, the merchants, landlords, and officials became even more distinctly the branches of the same class tree. This class, fundamentally concerned with the preservation of all the inequalities on the land from which it profited, became one of the chief instruments of foreign penetration and control. Imperialism, on its part, having battered the Imperial Government into submission and adapted the upper strata of Chinese society to its uses, became the protector of the Chinese rulers against the wrath of a ravaged people. This was to become the basic formula of imperialist control in semi-colonial China. The whole Chinese economic, social, and political structure had been thrown into solution by imperialism, but new elements had barely begun to form when imperialism found itself compelled to join with everything conservative, oppressive, and backward in the nation to resist and smash agencies of revolutionary change.

This relationship crystallized during the Taiping Rebellion which threatened to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty in the middle of the nineteenth century. Repeated revolts, engendered by intolerable economic conditions, culminated in 1850 in a mighty anti-dynastic peasant rebellion which swept northward from Kwangsi and established its power for a period of eleven years in the Yangtze Valley. Beginning as a tiny religious sect of neo-Christian “God-worshippers” who came into conflict with local authority in the south, the Taiping movement developed swiftly into a social upheaval of the first magnitude. All the discontented and rebellious of the land flocked to its standard. Ancient anti-Manchu secret societies, never entirely extinguished, came once more to life. Chinese intellectuals and members of the lesser gentry, dispossessed from their land, weary of Manchu exactions, and angered by Manchu racial discrimination, joined its leading ranks. In the flush of anti-Manchu sentiment, the queue, badge of subjection, was abolished and the old Ming costumes restored. But above all and primarily, the great masses of pauperized peasants, migrating artisans, and seekers of land, long in revolt against local officials, landlords, and tax collectors, gave the movement its flesh and blood and stamped it with the traditional features of the peasant uprisings which in the past had led to dynastic changes.

Military successes were rapid and spectacular. Manchu authority was swept from the provinces of the south and the Yangtze Valley. Taiping armies reached almost to the gates of Peking. Hung Tsui-chuen, the fanatically religions leader of the movement, assumed the title Tien Wang, or Heavenly King, and established his capital at Nanking. At its height the movement was characterized by the independent seizure of land by the peasants in many places. This fundamental agrarian radical tendency was not supported at the top, although its pressure produced unenforced decrees for the destruction of land titles and plans for a collective sharing of landed property.[15] Beside the agrarian reforms carried out by the peasants at the base, it is also a significant fact that wherever the Taiping regime was relatively stabilized not unsuccessful efforts were made to suppress the opium trade, check the silver drain, stimulate the internal market, standardize taxation, and increase agricultural productivity. It is a fact of utmost interest, for example, that during the Taiping period the export of silk from the Kiangsu districts to the coast reached new high levels. The Taipings, if some accounts are to be believed, made repeated efforts to conciliate the foreigners on a basis of free exchange and suppression of the ruinous opium trade. Thus the Taiping Rebellion, primarily a peasant war of the primitive or traditional variety, also revealed tendencies, neither too directly nor clearly, but unmistakably, toward a “normal” bourgeois development.

The Taiping movement came into collision with all the forces of privilege on the land and in the cities. The rebellion destroyed the authority and position of the old official class. The agrarian measures of the peasants brought them into direct conflict with the land-holding class as a whole and with the compradores and merchants who were so heavily involved in landed property through loans and mortgages. The “destructiveness of the Taipings,” states a typical “standard” history, “antagonized the influential classes.”[16] The “influential” Chinese classes were ranged solidly on the side of the Manchus.

For the imperialists the Taipings represented in their earlier stages a possibly more satisfactory alternative to the Manchus as the rulers of China. The Christian character of the movement aroused a certain sympathy among the missionaries. The Taipings, moreover, gave some promise of stimulating trade and restoring the tranquillity which the Manchus were unable to preserve. Nevertheless, despite all these factors, the foreigners soon threw their full weight to the side of the Manchus. The opium trade, it must be remembered, was still the most lucrative division of the Chinese market for the foreigners. It corresponded to the need for continued primitive accumulation and laying up of balances which only at a later date would make the marketing of more legitimate commodities more profitable. The fact that the Taipings opposed the trade in the drug placed them in opposition to the immediate interests of the foreigners.[17]

The civil war provided the imperialists with an excellent opportunity for strengthening their grip and extending their economic and political positions. In 1854 foreign guns prevented the anti-Manchu Triads from capturing Shanghai and took advantage of the complete collapse of local authority to assume control of the customs administration[18] and extend the domain of the foreign settlement. In 1858 French and British guns hammered away at the weakened Manchu forces in the north and forced the signature of new treaties fully satisfactory to foreign interests. The opium trade was legalized and the entire country was thrown open to foreign -penetration. With the signing of these treaties, the foreigners had a definite stake in the preservation of the existing regime. The subjugation of the Government was completed by the campaign of 1860 with its brutal sacking of the Summer Palace. Now a fully pliable instrument, the Dynasty became an asset definitely worth protecting. The Taipings were transformed in the eyes of the foreigners “from possibly friendly successors to the Manchus into mere rebels who interfered with the carrying out of the new agreement.”[19]

The Taiping version of Christianity, no less reasonable, certainly, than other variations on the themes of Jesus, was promptly perceived to be the rankest blasphemy. The Christian General Gordon took the field with the fervour of a crusader and stopped at nothing, treachery included, to deal with the Taipings as Jehovah’s chosen people dealt with the Amalekites and all the worshippers of Baal. British and French forces, throwing aside all formal pretence at “neutrality,” intervened actively in the struggle with decisive results. The battle for the preservation of the Manchu Dynasty was fought and won by two Chinese statesmen, Tseng Kuo-fan, representative of the landed interests, and Li Hung-chang, spokesman and leader of the new compradore class. They organized and led the defence of the Dragon Throne and they in turn succeeded only because foreign military and naval forces swamped the ill-armed Taipings before whom the Manchu troops were helpless.

The final defeat and dispersal of the Taipings in 1865 took place when the movement was already itself internally exhausted. The ravages of the civil war, which cost heavily in lives and laid waste large sections of the land, dissipated the resources of the peasant war. The leaders of the Taiping movement were unable to give a consistent lead to the agrarian movement which degenerated, inevitably, into partisan warfare and banditry. The leadership split into warring cliques of hopeless adventurers. The great Taiping Rebellion failed and the status quo was preserved because there was no class in Chinese society capable of leading the country out of its impasse. The weight of imperialism, stifling the free growth of China’s own productive forces, at the same time made forever impossible a repetition of the old cycle of peasant war, dissolution, and dynastic change.

Here emerged the central contradiction around which the class struggle in China would henceforth revolve. The very coming of foreign imperialism, the end of Chinese isolation, and the appearance of the machine-made commodity on the Chinese market inexorably decreed the revolutionary transformation of Chinese society. Once entrenched, imperialism threw its weight into the balance for the perpetuation of all that was archaic and retrograde in that society. Revolutionary change for China now required the destruction of the old system of land-holding and the release of pressure on the land. Imperialism joined in propping up the sway of the landlords, merchants, and officials who kept the mass of peasants in bondage and who provided the channels for the flow of foreign commercial capital into the remotest hinterland. Solution of China’s economic, social, and political problems urgently demanded the unity of the country to ensure the best possible exploitation of its resources. The rivalries of the imperialist Powers perpetuated internal conflicts which under-mined the central authority by their unceasing exactions. Economic progress was contingent upon national independence. The maintenance of imperialist privilege demanded continued subjection.

The Taiping Rebellion was the last attempt to respond to a need for change in the “traditional” Chinese manner. It failed because the path to that solution was cut off by the entirely new conditions created by the imperialist invasion. Exhausted by twenty years of revolt and defeat, the Chinese masses had to await renewal in a new generation under entirely new circumstances before they could again intervene. At the base of Chinese society in the ensuing period all the contradictions responsible for chronic mass poverty profoundly deepened. The concentration of land continued. The flow of commodities and commercial capital into the villages broadened and gripped the lives of all toilers. Meanwhile, at the top of the social structure and in the developing urban centres, fundamental revisions were taking place, giving new form and new content to the struggle for China’s future.

From the struggle against the Taipings and other sporadic revolts which lasted until 1880, the Manchu Dynasty emerged a spent force. Having barely sustained the shocks of internal rebellion, famines, and repeated natural disasters; it had again to face blows from without. In the face of a new imperialist offensive on the fringes of the Empire, it was helpless. France occupied Cambodia and Annam in the late ‘60’s and “legalized” its acquisitions by a brief war in 1884-5. The next year Britain added Burma to its Indian Empire. Across Asia on the northern frontier, Czarist Russia laid the course of a new railway and established in North Manchuria its “sphere of influence.” In these same years Japan, responding more unifiedly and more quickly to the imperialist impact, had razed most of its feudal structure and with the Meiji Restoration embarked upon its remarkable course of adaptation to Western modes of production and organization. It was already reaching across the narrow strip of sea, seeking a continental foothold. In 1894 the new island power inflicted a humiliating defeat upon its aged and hitherto venerated neighbour. The amputation of Korea and the establishment of Japanese influence in South Manchuria was the signal for a new scramble among the Powers for territories and concessions. Buffeted and helpless, the Imperial Court signed treaty after treaty. The dismemberment of China and the absorption of its several parts into the colonial empires of the Western nations seemed imminent.

Renewed imperialist pressure, however, brought to life new movements of reform and revolution quite different in character and class origin from the great mass revolts of the mid-nineteenth century. These new agencies of change developed in the upper strata of Chinese society. Foreign pressure had hammered the Chinese ruling class into a shape fitting imperialist requirements and foreign privilege closed most doors to native capitalist development. Nevertheless, the accumulation of wealth by this class could not fail in the nature of things to stimulate efforts to compete with the foreigners on their own ground. Imperialism had destroyed the old economic base. It could hinder but not entirely prevent the erection of a new one. Li Hung-chang, compradore-in-chief, himself initiated the first independent Chinese capitalist enterprises. The first rice-cleaning mill was built in Shanghai in 1863. The Kiangnan ship-yard was established in 1865. Seven years later the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company was organized to compete with the foreign monopoly in coastal and river shipping. The next year the first modern silk filature was built, and in 1876 the first railway, a twelve-mile span from Shanghai to Woosung, came to confound the spirits of the ancestors of frightened peasants. A modern coal mine began operations at Kaiping in 1878, and in 1890 the first cotton spinning and weaving mill was built at Shanghai and the first ironworks at Wuchang. Match factories and flour mills had followed by 1896. The industrialization of China had begun.[20]

China’s trade position, especially in cotton and cotton goods, visibly improved during this same period. An unfavourable balance in raw cotton was transformed into an export excess in 1888. The export of native woven cotton cloth, which had dropped almost to zero after 1833, recovered ground after 1868, rising from 238 piculs[1 picul equals 1331 lbs.] that year to 30,100 piculs in 1900, the sharpest rise occurring after 1883, although the import of manufactured cotton goods enjoyed at the same time an uninterrupted growth.[21] With the initial development of industry and the relative improvement in trade, transport, communications, and banking facilities were developed, although at a slower pace. A modern postal system came into existence in 1878. A telegraph line was laid between Shanghai and Tientsin in 1881. The Commercial Bank of China was organized in 1896 with all-Chinese capital. Other lines, other banks, soon followed in increasing numbers.

From the outset, Chinese capital fought a losing battle against foreign competition. The Treaty of Shimonoseki which concluded the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 established the right of foreigners to build industrial plants in China, and enterprises quickly sprang up to enjoy the benefits of cheap and plentiful Chinese labour. The superior technical equipment and knowledge of the foreigners, the economic and political privileges enjoyed by them, placed their Chinese rivals at an immediate disadvantage. In addition to being subject to technical limitations and tax burdens from which the foreigners were free, the Chinese were dependent upon the foreign market for credit facilities, machinery, and the great variety of manufactured commodities which China could not yet produce. The budding Chinese industrialists tried to overcome these disadvantages through the more intensive exploitation of labour. But it was not long before the desire to create more favourable conditions for the operations of Chinese capital forced its way into the political arena in the form of agitation for changes in a regime that no longer corresponded to the needs of newlygrowing economic interests.

In the period following the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion, Li Hung-chang sponsored a series of meagre attempts to modernize the regime. Initiating new industrial enterprises on the one hand, Li also introduced the beginnings of a modern army and navy, urged changes in the schools, and sent student groups abroad to acquire for China the secrets of Western economic and political power. His efforts were cut short, however, by the Japanese War. The defeat, the loss of territory, and the new drive of the Powers which followed brought new political tendencies to the surface. Quicker, more drastic changes were sought.

Two distinct currents dominated Chinese political life after 1895. The first hoped to reform the Dynasty and adapt it to the new requirements. It dreamed of an emperor who would play the role of Peter the Great, and of a Government that would resemble England’s constitutional monarchy. The second advocated the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty and the establishment of a Chinese republic along American or French lines. Entering upon the final period of its decline, the Manchu rulers gave way gradually before the reformers. By submitting to changes entirely incompatible with its own essential structure, the Dynasty hastened its eventual abdication in favour of the revolutionists.

The reformers began by revising Confucius. They daringly represented him, not as the classic defender of the status quo, but as a progressive liberal. Into the old channels of Chinese social, political, and economic conceptions, they tried to pour the ideas of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and Thomas Huxley, whose works began to appear in Chinese translations. They profoundly believed that the nation could be transformed by imperial rescript and thought their cause won when in 1898 they gained the ear of the young Emperor Kwang Hsu and launched the famous “Hundred Days” of reform. A series of sweeping decrees were issued to replace the archaic government of the Manchus with a modern state instrument. They called for the establishment of schools, election machinery, the elimination of tax abuses and official corruption. They ordered state aid to industry and agriculture and the democratization of the regime. Unhappily for the zeal of the reformers, the stream of new ideas that flowed out of the austere gates of the Forbidden City swirled only into the moat and there stagnated. To the old mandarins and magistrates it seemed that the Emperor had gone mad, for his orders seemed designed to strip them of all the perquisites of office and to destroy all the institutions canonized by centuries of usage. Edict after edict begged that the Imperial will be obeyed, but it seemed doubtful whether that will any longer enjoyed the sanction of Heaven. These doubts were swiftly confirmed at the Imperial Court itself where resistance to the reforms crystallized around the Empress Dowager. In September, 1898, she imprisoned her nephew and with a few strokes of her brush effaced all the reforms he had sponsored. Some of his advisers she executed. Others, including Kang Yu-wei and Liang Chi-chao, barely escaped into exile with their lives. These intellectuals had attempted during the “Hundred Days” to adapt the Manchu regime to Western ideas by working from the top down. The Chinese bourgeoisie was too immature, its economic base still too narrow and its interests still too divided, to impose its influence more aggressively upon the march of events. So the bourgeois intellectuals who sought reforms placed their reliance in an enlightened monarch. Unfortunately the “Imperial will” proved impotent as an instrument of social change. The Emperor only personified his own State apparatus. When he commanded it to destroy itself, it is not strange that it stolidly resisted. Against the inertia of the mandarinate, the reformers were helpless.[22]

The conservative Manchu bureaucracy could check the thin trickle of reforms supported only by a few individuals, but it could not resist the powerful and varied factors that were encompassing its doom. It was staggered by blow after blow from the imperialists. The closing years of the century were marked by the exaction of territorial, trade, and railway concessions by one Power after another.[23] Within the country the destruction of the old handicraft economy, the high cost of living, new floods and droughts, led to the rise of a new primitive mass revolt, this time in the northern provinces where ancient secret societies revived and flourished and turned the wrath of an outraged people against all the foreign barbarians, Manchu and Western alike. Recoiling from the reform movement, the Manchu bureaucracy, headed by the Empress Dowager, fell back on the dangerous expedient of turning this mass revolt against itself into a whip with which to lash the hated foreigners. Open official support was given to the I Ho Chuan (Fists for the Protection of Public Peace), the insurgent society known to the foreigners as “Boxers.” The rebels changed their slogan from “Down with the Manchus! Protect the Chinese!” to “Down with the Foreigners! Long Live the Imperial Dynasty!” [24]

Only disaster could follow. The fierce, primitive local uprisings were crushed by foreign arms and shattering penalties were imposed upon China by the victors, including an indemnity of U.S. $350,000,000 and sweeping military advantages under the Boxer Protocol of 1901. In the ensuing years China became the helpless spectator and victim of the rivalries and conflicts among the Powers. The fate of railways, of concessions, and of whole Chinese provinces was decided in European chancelleries. Control of Manchuria and Korea was determined by a war fought across Chinese territory by Russia and Japan and settled by a treaty which freely bartered Chinese possessions without consulting the Chinese Government. The Manchu Court no longer spoke for any effective section of the Chinese population, nor could it offer any resistance to the gradual destruction of its sovereignty.

From hopes in reform the Chinese intelligentsia turned to propaganda for revolution. The realization that the Dynasty had outlived itself took firm root. Students and intellectuals turned their backs on Kang Yu-wei and began to listen more closely to the voice of another exile, Sun Yat-sen.

Sun had been among those who in 1895 had addressed reform memorials to the Emperor. His political development, however, was the product of currents different from those which influenced the more prominent reformers of that day. Born in a village near Canton the year after the final suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, Sun in his early manhood came into contact with underground radicals steeped in the Taiping tradition of armed revolt. Sent as a youth to Honolulu, he became a Christian and along with the Holy Writ absorbed American notions of democracy. At the very beginning of his political career, Sun took the road of conspiratorial organization of the overthrow of the monarchy. His first attempt in 1895 failed and Sun went into foreign exile, seeking and winning support among overseas Chinese for his revolutionary programme.

Sun’s connections with overseas Chinese were of decisive importance for the course of the first Chinese Revolution. Chinese capitalism at home suffered from all the disabilities of foreign competition and the organic link between urban Chinese capital and semi-feudal exploitation on the land. Hindering independent capitalist development, these factors also prevented the emergence of any strong, clear-cut bourgeois nationalist revolutionary movement. Chinese overseas, however, in the Indies, the South Seas, in Europe, and the United States, labourers and merchants, came into direct contact with modern democracy. The strong protection afforded foreign nationals in China contrasted sharply with the defencelessness of overseas Chinese in the face of racial discrimination and abuse. Among them a strong Nationalist sentiment took form long before it developed in China itself. Powerful racial, family, and traditional ties bound these emigrants to their native land and from them came the first financial and moral support for the revolutionary movement. It is interesting that only a few of the more wealthy overseas Chinese joined in the struggle for a strong and independent Chinese republic. Most of the money Sun raised came in small sums from contract workers and small merchants who proved ready before anyone else to support Sun’s programme.

This programme, focussed on the idea of overthrowing the monarchy by military conspiracy, attracted large sections of the disillusioned reformers and most of the new generation of students, especially those who flocked to Japan after 1895 and in much greater numbers after 1900. In China, the movement forged links with the secret societies. The new elements from the intelligentsia of town and country gave these organizations a Nationalist and Democratic coloration they had never before possessed. Students who went abroad and returned bulging with new ideas and radical fervour found recruits everywhere. Discontent with the existing order of things grew. Democratic and Nationalist ideas made headway. Russia’s 1905 revolution made an impression on the Chinese intellectuals and had a very specific influence in driving the Court toward concessions.[25] Chinese merchants and capitalists began to assert themselves more boldly. Nothing showed this more clearly than the boycotts against the United States in 1905 and against Japan in 1908.

These movements took on a broad, popular character. They were supported by the merchant guilds and the newly-grown popular press. The use of the economic weapon in China against the abusive attitude of Americans toward Chinese in the United States revealed the rise of a new spirit of confidence and solidarity among the merchants and petty capitalists. The campaign tightened the bonds between the Chinese in the United States and those at home. It helped break down sectional barriers. The boycott was strongest in Canton, most of the Chinese in America being Cantonese, but it was accompanied by demonstrations and boycott activities in Singapore, Shanghai, and Tientsin. Perhaps most significant was the conduct of the boycott in open defiance of imperial authority which had, in response to American diplomatic pressure, issued an edict against the boycott. The anti-Japanese boycott in 1908 was even more specifically anti-Government in character. It arose from the cringing submission of the Chinese authorities to Japan in connection with a shipping incident. Merchants burned Japanese merchandise and workers at the docks refused to unload from Japanese vessels, perhaps the first direct participation of Chinese workers in the anti-imperialist struggle of the present century.[26]

One of the demands that arose in connection with the anti-American boycott had been for the cancellation of the con-cession granted to an American firm for the construction of the Canton-Hankow Railway. It was around the issue of railway concessions that opposition to the Imperial Court now developed among the wealthy provincial merchants and gentry. Plans for the construction of railways linking Canton, Hankow, Changsha, and Chengtu had already been drawn up and companies had been established with Chinese capital to carry the plans through. The Peking Government, now a compradore instrument which found the game of granting concessions to foreign interests extremely profitable, used foreign money to buy up Chinese holdings already invested in various railway schemes in order to turn over the projects to the foreigners. Resistance to this flared among the incipient railway magnates, especially in Hunan, Hupeh, and Szechwan. The underground revolutionary societies[27] made broad agitational use of the issue which helped to identify the Manchu regime with the hated foreign exploiter and rival. This drew new strata of the upper classes into the struggle against the monarchy. It was an outbreak over precisely this issue, in Szechwan, which finally provoked open rebellion.

The threat of utter collapse was present during the whole last decade of the Dynasty’s existence. It was put off only by surrender to the pressure for reforms. The Empress Dowager and her advisers were compelled to realize that the growing critical unrest after the Boxer episode had to be met by compromise. It was a question, it seemed, of giving in or going down. In 1906 the Manchu Court, absolute ruler of the Celestial Empire for nearly three hundred years, grudgingly recognized the “principle” of constitutional government. After this initial dilution, the birthright of the emperors was gradually watered down. The Dynasty was already doomed when its last vigorous representative disappeared from the scene. The Empress Dowager died at the end of 1908. With her to the grave went the imprisoned Emperor Kwang Hsu. Her oldest advisers soon followed. On the Dragon Throne sat the three-year-old Emperor Hsuan Tung.[Otherwise known as Henry Pu Yi, destined to become Emperor Kang Teh of Japan’s puppet State, Manchukuo.] A foolish and incompetent man reigned as regent. The Court degenerated into a swamp of petty nepotism and clique rivalries. Paper reforms, more numerous but more niggardly and unreal, were admitted. In 1910 provincial viceregal assemblies, closely resembling the zemstvos under the Czar in Russia, came into existence as a result of rigorously limited “popular” elections.[28] These had only the right to debate, and to debate only certain topics prescribed by the Throne. But even these carefully hand-picked “long-gowned” assemblies came into conflict with the Court. They urged that a broader, more responsible government would alone preserve the monarchy. Delegates of the provincial assemblies joined in a national body in Peking and over Court resistance tried desperately to hasten parliamentary reform. Formal changes were introduced but the hand of the old regime, still heavy upon the new bodies, reduced them to hopeless fictions. The assembly, composed of imperial appointees and eminently safe friends of the viceroys, tried to drag the monarchy behind it to the illusory salvation summed up in the magic word “parliament.” While they wrangled, revolution overtook them and the Court they hoped to save.

A local outbreak against the imperial officials in Szechwan in September, 1911, was followed in October by the revolt of the garrison at Wuchang. When imperial troops stationed at Lanchow refused to march against the rebels, the days of Manchu rule were at long last numbered. While the revolt spread, the Court abjectly offered to surrender all claims to authority in return for the semblance of rule. But it was too late. The Empire crumbled and fell. With it went the “national assembly” whose banner it had tried feebly to wave in the face of an unalterable destiny.

Internal corrosion had already reduced the Dynasty to a cipher. Only a tiny push was needed to erase it. The revolution of 1911 generated only enough energy to produce this tiny push, no more. From it emerged no class capable of directing the transformation of the country, capable of solving the agrarian crisis and of regaining the national independence which alone could protect China from the continued incursions and pressure of the imperialist Powers. The identity of the Chinese bourgeoisie with the semi-feudal interests on the land predetermined its inability to lead the impoverished peasantry out of its difficulties. Nor were the revolutionists of 1911 driven even to make the attempt. The masses of the peasantry played no role in the overthrow of the Dynasty. Their passivity made it possible for the old provincial military and civilian apparatus to preserve the status quo minus only the dynastic label and the queues imposed upon the people as a badge of subjection by the Manchu conquerors.

With the disappearance of nominal central authority, power passed into the hands of provincial or regional satraps committed to the preservation of the whole existing exploitative system. Through them the foreign stranglehold on the country’s economic and political life was tightened. The regional powers that came into existence corresponded in the main to the respective “spheres of influence” of the Great Powers. Militarists in Yunnan and southern Kwangsi drew sustenance and support from France. The river valleys economically controlled by Hong Kong and Shanghai passed more definitely under British influence. The north became largely Japan’s special domain. The civil wars that soon broke out among these rival Governments came to reflect, primarily, the conflicts among the principal imperialist Powers jockeying for key economic positions. It is this fact which distinguishes the post-1911 period from similar periods of division, civil wars, and confusion following the collapse of earlier Dynasties.

The bourgeois intellectuals who had participated in the revolution proved helpless as these new divisions unfolded and took form. Their strategy in the fight against the Dynasty had never been able to acquire the form of an authentic popular movement because of the economic immaturity and political impotence of the class they represented. The preservation of its interests on the land meant the preservation of all that was backward in rural China, the feudal family system, illiteracy, superstition, of everything on which the old system rested. Its interests in the city were subordinated, and therefore subjected, to foreign capital. The struggle of the bourgeois intellectuals therefore took the form of military conspiracies which always failed. The downfall of the monarchy had occurred almost independently of their efforts. Afterwards they became mere appendages of the militarists who seized power. The parliaments and constitutions they elaborated were not organs of actual political control, but window-dressing tolerated or utilized at will by the militarists they depended upon for protection. Thus Sun Yat-sen, who had returned to China in triumph and had been elected first president of the Chinese Republic, was quickly compelled to give way to Yuan Shih-kai, a general of the old regime who took command in Peking.

Those intellectuals who did not become secretaries or jobholders under illiterate generals fell away from the movement into passivity and apathy. Sun Yat-sen and the remains of his party, the Kuomintang, fell prey to parliamentary cretinism, inscribing the slogan “Protect the Constitution” on the party banner. But the only protection they sought was in the camp of one set of generals pitted against another. At this game they lost with consistent regularity. Only the generals won.

The overturn of the monarchy, itself a progressive act of immense historical importance, seemed to have brought the country from bad to worse. The civil wars and the reign of the generals deepened the misery in the country-side. Exactions increased. Land was laid waste. Agricultural production declined. China was compelled to begin importing rice and wheat. Famines and unchecked disasters took heavy tolls in human life. Millions of peasants, driven off the land, swelled the hordes of the militarist armies or took to banditry. Harsh taxation and militarist requisitions hastened the destruction of Chinese rural economy and condemned the overwhelming majority of the population to chronic starvation. Domestic industry could not, and seemingly never would, absorb the large labour surplus. But it was precisely in this sphere that swift and sudden changes began to occur as a direct result of the Great War.

The War absorbed the undivided attention and the full industrial output of all the nations involved. Native Chinese producers unexpectedly found themselves with a great market open before them in their own country under conditions temporarily relieved of the constant pressure of foreign capital. Thanks to the War demands, China’s unfavourable trade balance dropped abruptly to record depths, amounting to only Tls. 16,000,000 in 1919, with exports rising sharply. Taking 1913 as 100, imports were 91.6 in 1914 and 105,9 in 1919. Exports rose from 83.8 in 1914 to 140.1 in 1919. In effect imports remained nearly stationary for the War years, giving the export trade a chance to leap forward.[29]

Far more spectacular was the spurt of industrial growth made possible by the breathing space of the War. Imports of industrial machinery rose from Tls. 4,380,749 in 1915 to Tls. 56,578,535 in 1921. Cotton mills increased from 42 in 1916 to 120 in 1923, spindles from 1,145,000 to 3,550,000. Silk filatures rose from 56 in 1915 to 93 in 1927. Four cigarette factories in 1915 grew to 182 by 1927.[30] If we take the year 1913 as 100, we have the following indices for 1923: coal production, 183.5; iron ore production, 180.6; silk exports, 152.3; bean oil exports, 432.5; cotton spindles, 403.9. At the same time there were smaller but appreciable increases in transport and shipping.[31]

This growth was accompanied by extensive alterations in the Chinese business structure. Corporate forms were adopted. Banking facilities were expanded. As machines replaced handicraft production in swiftly increasing measure, the old master-journeyman-apprentice relationship gave way in decisive economic sectors to the stockholder-manager-worker relationship.

This rise of productive fortes brought aspiring Chinese capital automatically into collision with entrenched foreign interests and the existing structure of foreign economic and political privilege. It also brought the new class of workers into conflict with their employers, foreign and Chinese alike. From these new springs flowed fresh Nationalist currents which swept China into the upheavals of the next decade.


1. Karl Wittfogel, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas, Leipzig, 1931, is still reputed the most scholarly discussion of this subject. Some Russian studies exist, but most of the facts needed for a thorough analysis apparently have yet to be dug out of Chinese records. Chao Ting-chi, Key Economic Areas in Chinese History, New York, 1936, is a recent contribution to one aspect of the problem.

2. C. F. Remer, The Foreign Trade of China, Shanghai, 1926, p. 26. For tables on the opium trade see Joshua Rowntree, The Imperial Drug Trade, London, 1908, p. 344 ; H. B. Morse, International Relations of the Chinese Empire, London, 1910-18, v. I, pp. 209-10.

3. Cf. Wen-tsao, Wu, The Chinese Opium Question in British Opinion and Action, New York, 1928, pp. 59-60.

4. “To the Chinese they (opium and Christianity) came together, have been fought for together, and were finally legalized together.”—Rowntree, Imperial Drug Trade, p. 242.

5. The population rose, according to one estimate, by 237,000,000 or about 190 per cent, between 1712 and 1822.—S. Wells Williams, The Middle Kingdom, New York, 1882, v. I, p. 283. Another estimate for 1741-1851 showed a rise from 143,000,000 to 432,000,000, or about 200 per cent.—E. H. Parker, China, Her History, Diplomacy, and Commerce, London, 1901, p. 190. Dynastic records for 1661-1833 indicated an increase of cultivable land of only about 35 per cent from 549, 357,000 mow to 742,000,000 mow.—Chen Shao-kwan, System of Taxation in the Ch’ing Dynasty, New York, 1914, p. 51.

6. “Memorial of Lin Tse-hsu to the Emperor,” 1838, tr. by P. C. Kuo, A Critical Study of the First Anglo-Chinese War, Shanghai, 1935, pp. 82-4.

7. Prices rose 200 per cent from 1830 to 1848 and 470 per cent between 1849 and 1851, according to one Russian study.— Problemi Kitai, Moscow, No. 1, 1929.

8. H. D. Fong, “Cotton Industry and Trade in China,” Chinese Social and Political Science Review, Peiping, October, 1932. Table 33.

9. H. B. Morse claims that $500,000,000 in silver was brought to China prior to 1830.—”The Foreign Trade of China,” China and the Far East, G. H. Blakeslee, ed., New York, 1910, p. 97.

10. G. E. Taylor, “The Taiping Rebellion,” Chinese Social and Political Science Review, Peiping, January, 1933, p. 558.

11. W. C. Hunter, The Fan Kwae at Canton before Treaty Days, 1825-44, London, 1882, p. 48.

12. Taylor, “Taiping Rebellion,” pp. 555-6.

13. The Chinese and Their Rebellions,

14. J. S. Hill, The Indo-Chinese Opium Trade, London, 1884, p. 51.

15. Taylor, “Taiping Rebellion,” pp. 597-9.

16. K. Latourette, The Chinese, their History and Culture, New York, 1934, v. I, P. 379.

17. It is of interest to note that foreign firms engaged in handling commodities other than opium continued to favour the Taipings against the Manchus. They were not yet dominant enough, however, to determine the ultimate policies of the Powers. Cf. A. Lindley (Lin-Ii), T i Ping Tien Kwoh, London, 1866.

18. J. K. Fairbank, ”The Provisional System at Shanghai in 1853-4,” Chinese Social and Political Science Review, account, based on self-justifying British official records, of how this control was assumed.

19. Taylor, “Taiping Rebellion,” p. 612

20. H. D. Fong, China’s Industrialization, a Statistical Survey, Shanghai, 1933, p. 2.

21. Fong, “Cotton Industry,” Tables 26, 30, 34.

22. For useful documents of this period see M. E. Cameron, The Reform Movement in China, 1898-1912, Stanford University, 1931.

23. For brief summary see Latourette, The Chinese, v. I, p. 404 ff.

24. R. Wilhelm, The Soul of China, New York, 1928, p. 26.

25. A Peking despatch to the London Times of November 10, 1906, referred, for example, to “the events in Russia and the alarmist telegrams of the Chinese minister in St. Petersburg.”

26. For accounts of these boycotts see C. F. Remer, A Study of Chinese Boycotts, Baltimore, 1933, Chaps. IV and V.

27. For a picture of these societies at work, see the early chapters of S. Tretiakov, A Chinese Testament, New York, 1934.

28. 119,549 persons out of a population of about 38,000,000. In Hupeh, 113,233 out of 34,000,000 voted.—See North China Herald, February 18, 1910.

29. Fong, China’s Industrialization, Tables 1a and 1b.

30. C. H. Lowe, Facing Labour Issues in China, Shanghai, 1933, Tables 6, 7, 8, 10.

31. Fong, China’s Industrialization, Tables 1 a and 1 b.