CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 27, September 2011


Rethinking the 1911 Revolution | China Heritage Quarterly

Rethinking the 1911 Revolution
On a Panel at the Association of Asian Studies, 1 April 2011

Peter Zarrow
Academia Sinica

The panel on 'Rethinking the 1911 Revolution: Interrogating the Chinese Republic' presented three new case studies of the revolution and the kind of republic it created. The papers focused on the revolution's effects on gender, shaping the political culture, and its narrativization in contemporary accounts. Collectively, the papers suggest that in spite of decades of intensive research on Xinhai, new perspectives and research topics can illuminate aspects of the 1911 revolution—a political event or series of events the historical significance of which remains extremely controversial.

Louise Edward's paper on 'Gender and the "Virtue of Violence": Creating a new vision of public engagement' highlighted women's participation in violent actions of the revolutionary armies, going beyond the famous case of Qiu Jin 秋瑾 to make several new arguments. The female soldiers of 1911 were able to take advantage of the 'woman warrior' role already accepted in Chinese culture in order to demand fundamental change: that is, full equality as citizens. Edwards argues that in previous episodes of violence, a discourse of 'crisis femininity' allowed women to emerge to dramatize the specific crisis and shame men into fighting, with the expectation that soon enough the status quo ante could be restored. However, the 1911 Revolution was prosecuted in the name of fundamental political change, and women regarded themselves as fighting, at least in part, for their own rights. In the event, male leaders of post-1911 China, including revolutionary male leaders, expected women to return to the 'inner chambers', which led some women to commit further violence. At the same time, Edwards points out, the militarization of femininity occurred in tandem with the militarization of Chinese masculinity. The 1911 Revolution thus led to a new esteem for violence as a cultural value: it reshaped the self-image of elites. Republican male elites were still able to exclude women from their numbers, but a longer struggle for women's liberation had begun.

Wang Chaohua's paper 'In the Name of the Republic: Cai Yuanpei in 1912' examined the effects of the revolution on one man. Cai (蔡元培 1868-1940), most famous as the progressive-minded president of Peking University in the late 1910s, had supported the anti-Manchu republican cause from the turn of the century but had actually spent most of the early 1900s in Europe. It was the revolution that brought him back to China, where he worked closely with Sun Yat-sen. Cai was not only named Minister of Education, but was Sun's envoy in negotiations with Yuan Shikai over Yuan's assumption of the presidency in late February and early March 1911. According to Wang Chaohua, the question was not whether the revolutionaries would welcome Yuan as president—however reluctantly in some cases, there was near unanimity on this—but a debate on how the office would be turned over to Yuan and what kind of powers would be ascribed to the presidency divided and weakened the revolutionaries. Cai supported turning the presidency over to Yuan but emphasized the importance of following republican procedures, and even used the occasion to explore questions of republican theory such as institutional stability, government accountability, and sources of legitimacy. Wang argues that the revolution changed Cai, bringing him back into what would become a lifetime of political activism that reflected his optimism even in the face of Yuan's grab for power. Taking the long view, Cai insisted the revolution had achieved success by overthrowing the Manchu-Qing government and by laying the foundation for future republican institutions; the old bureaucrats could not all be replaced overnight but, as they died off, more enlightened men would take their place.

My own paper, 'Living the Revolution: Narratives of 1911 in the Early Republic' tried to pinpoint the moment when the Wuchang Uprising became the 'revolution' (geming 革命). That is, when general opinion began to regard it as a movement that could overthrow the Qing and establish a new form of government. I used newspaper coverage of the events stemming from the October uprising to trace the transition from a narrative of 'uprising' and 'chaos' (luan 亂) to a triumphal story of the overthrow of oppression and the creation of unity. In other words, Wuchang was not comparable to events in Sichuan or earlier uprisings in the southeast. Elements of this revolutionary narrative began to appear by late October, though it was not put together for another few weeks. By early November, with the revolutionary conquest of Shanghai, the Shanghai newspaper Shenbao 申報 became virtually a mouthpiece of the revolution. The Tianjin newspaper Dagongbao 大公報 remained skeptical of the aims and probable results of revolution, but it too had to tell a story of the spread of a coherent movement across city after city, province after province, and of political transformation.

When the history of contemporary China was written in the first years of the Republic, as in textbooks for example, the revolution was told as a logical culmination of history. By the 1920s, its glory was dulled by monarchical restorationism and warlords, but the optimism of 1911-1912 was palpable. Indeed, the narrativization of the revolution not only shaped later memory, but was a factor in its success. This is not to say the fall of the Qing was inevitable but that to contemporaries, both pro- and anti-Qing, it was literally understandable in terms of the rise of entirely new political forces and forms. Notwithstanding the importance of socialism (which also had its roots in the 1911 revolutionary movement), the idea of a national republic continued to dominate political discourse throughout the twentieth century.