Revolution & Transition in China

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  • 0:00 Late Qing Dynasty
  • 1:00 Who Was Sun Yat-Sen?
  • 2:15 Attempts at Reform
  • 2:55 A Chinese Republic
  • 4:00 People in Flux
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

China's growth has been one of the most impressive economic feats of the past 100 years, but did you know that it really all got started with the end of the Qing dynasty? This lesson explains how, as well as the role of Sun Yat-sen.

Late Qing Dynasty

By the time that Europe and America were building their great empires during the final years of the 19th century, the oldest culture in the world was teetering on the edge of collapse. The Qing Dynasty (Pronounced Chin) had provided emperors for China since the 17th century, but they were not Chinese. Instead, the Qing were Manchu, an ethnic group once considered barbaric. Initially welcomed by the Chinese, by the 1890s the Qing had worn out their welcome. Most obviously, they had allowed foreign traders to have significant powers in China, weakening both the practical power and the prestige of the Middle Kingdom. However, by 1911, the ethnic Chinese had put up with enough and were on the verge of revolution. The resulting Revolution of 1911 would be the first of numerous Chinese revolutions, including the Revolution of 1949 and the Cultural Revolution. However, it was this event that transformed China from an ancient empire into a modern republic.

Who Was Sun Yat-sen?

For many Chinese, the option was pretty clear - if you were able to leave China, it was wise to do so. Foreign soil offered the ambitious Chinese person an opportunity for professional and social growth that just was impossible in China. One of the men to take advantage of this was named Sun Yat-sen, and he was destined to be remembered as the founder of the modern Chinese nation. Originally from Southeastern China, Sun moved around between Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan, Europe and North America, gaining personal and political contacts along the way. All the while, he refused to lose touch with his connections back home in China.

Meanwhile, much of Sun's early life reads like an adventure book. He made himself very unpopular with the Qing authorities, resulting in his capture on occasion. It came down to an old teacher sneaking him out of a Chinese office abroad to prevent his execution by the Qing for treason. However, one contact that would prove very valuable to Sun was his future wife, Song Qingling, who was able to rally significant numbers of overseas Chinese to Sun's cause. Overseas Chinese were those people who had left China, but as a community still had a considerable amount of wealth and power.

Attempts at Reform

The overseas Chinese may have left China to obtain a better life, but soon it was whole provinces of China that were leaving Qing rule. During the 1900s, large chunks of China had declared their independence away from the Qing, with relatively few consequences. Weakened by years of bad trade deals with Europeans, the Qing were simply too weak to oppose the secessions. Meanwhile, the Europeans didn't care about which Chinese leaders they were trading with, as long as they were still trading with the Chinese! Sensing that the moment was right, anti-Qing groups took advantage of this by launching a revolution in October of 1911. By December, his allies were working to create a new Chinese government.

A Chinese Republic

I say his allies because Sun Yat-sen had left China to do what he did best - garner the support of the West. At the time, he was working in the United States. The next year, Sun was back in China, working as its president. There was a problem though. Sun Yat-sen was educated in a very Western mindset, and while his talk of democracy and fraternity did well in raising money, it all sounded kind of strange to almost 400 million Chinese peasants. Meanwhile, pretty words were not going to solve the issues at hand, especially since chunks of the country had again broken off under the rule of various warlords. Sun would allow a former Qing official named Yuan Shikai to take over as president, but Yuan ruled the country like it was his own private land. This proved to be unsettling to many Chinese, so Sun Yat-sen returned to power in 1917. However, despite his flowery speeches, he still failed to gain much of a following.

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