Back To CourseHistory 113: World History II
25 chapters | 230 lessons
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Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This was partly because the Chinese did not think of themselves as a unified nation yet. China had long been an empire and was held together by the strength of the emperor. However, the Mandate of Heaven, or justification that let the emperor rule, had passed into obscurity alongside the last Qing rulers. For China to be strong, China would have to believe in itself for the sake of China, not for the sake of an emperor.
Unfortunately for the Chinese, they would soon have a universal symbol to rally against. Japan had long treated parts of China as exclusive economic areas. With the end of World War I, some parts were really just Japanese colonies. Meanwhile, the Japanese were not alone in treating the Chinese poorly. The Chinese had been embarrassed earlier in the Opium Wars with England, as well as the Boxer Rebellion, in which several Western powers and Japan sent military units to force China to bend to external pressures.
While the first Chinese nationalists couldn't yet define China by itself, they could define it as opposed to the Japanese, the Qing and the Europeans. Therefore, Chinese nationality was built in opposition to outside forces, a theme that would serve the country well during its later Communist years.
In this lesson, we look at the transformation of China from a Qing empire to a state struggling with modernization and nationalism. Central to this transformation is Sun Yat-sen, whose life epitomized the experience of many overseas Chinese and other wealthy Chinese during the first years of the 20th century. Held as a traitor by the Qing, Sun was eventually able to lead his country to becoming a republic. However, the fragmentation of China still presented its problems, as did the fact that many poor peasants could not relate to the intellectual positions of Sun Yat-sen. Ultimately, China began to define itself as a nation based on its opposition to European colonial forces, Japan and the return of a Qing administration.
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Back To CourseHistory 113: World History II
25 chapters | 230 lessons