Boatmen on the Yangtze


Introduction, Contents, a Note on Spelling, and Sources.

At the start of the twentieth century, China was being wrecked by the effects of generations of incompetent Manchu rule. The aftermath of the disastrous Boxer Rebellion of 1900 had finally frightened the reactionary Empress Dowager into undertaking reforms, but it was too little too late. Modern ideas were entering the country and the public was starting to become politically conscious; for the first time, millions of Chinese engaged in boycotts and signed petitions… and millions were loosing faith in the Manchus. A few determined radical activists, including the redoubtable Sun Yat-sen, organized secret revolutionary groups, infiltrated the army, and set off periodic revolts. The country was becoming ungovernable, and by the time the Empress Dowager died in 1908, the old system was beyond repair.

In 1911 it all came tumbling down. An impromptu army mutiny in central China suddenly ignited local revolts all over the nation, with city after city and province after province revoking Imperial rule. On January 1, 1912, the revolutionaries proclaimed a liberal republic and named Sun Yat-sen the provisional president. The desperate Court had recalled YŁan Shih-k'ai, its foremost general, but the cagey YŁan demanded terms that gave him power over the Manchu regime - and he then sold out the Manchus to the revolutionaries. On February 12, the last Emperor was forced to abdicate, ending the ancient Chinese Empire, and Sun immediately paid the revolutionaries’ debt to YŁan by handing him the presidency.

But the fall of the old order only intensified China’s troubles. The radicals had assumed that YŁan would honor his pledge to serve the republic, but they soon found that his only allegiance was to his own ambitions. He deviously gained control of key parts of the government, murdered opposition leaders, and moved to quash the radical Kuomintang party. When the Kuomintang tried to fight back in the 'Second Revolution' of 1913, YŁan's command of the regular army enabled him to crush their resistance with ease, and he quickly suppressed the remnants of Chinese democracy.

YŁan did not remain in power for long, but in undermining the institutions of the new republic, he brought on a cycle of internal turmoil that would last for decades.



(1) Attempts at Imperial Reform and the Rise of Chinese Radicalism, 1904-1907

(2) The Final Years of Imperial China, 1908-1910

(3) The First Chinese Revolution, 1911

(4) The Birth of the Chinese Republic, 1912

(5) The Collapse of Parliamentary Government, 1913-1914

Biographies and Glossary - Place Names


A Note on Spelling

Pinyin is the modern standard system of rendering Chinese in Latin letters. It's been in common use in the West since about the 1970s, and current news articles, books about recent events, and contemporary atlases are all in pinyin.

The earlier standard system was Wade-Giles, and nearly everything published up to the 1960’s used it. Even now, for the sake of consistency, many books on earlier Chinese history use Wade-Giles - though not all. So historical figures active in early 20th century China are usually known by their Wade-Giles names (Chiang Kai-shek, not Jiang Jieshi), while people who rose to prominence in the last thirty years are known by their pinyin names (Deng Xiaoping, not Teng Hsiao-p’ing) - though not all. 

With very few exceptions, I use Wade-Giles. In the Biography section, I’ve included the pinyin versions of names in italics.  And below that - also in the Biography section - I’ve made a table translating place names from the old Wade-Giles to the modern pinyin.


Sources include:
Bai Shouyi, ed.  An Outline History of China.  1982
Daniel H. Bays.  China Enters the Twentieth Century.  1978  (Chang Chih-tung)
Jean Chesneaux, et al.  China from the Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution.  1972/1976
Jean Chesneaux, et al.  China from the 1911 Revolution to Liberation.  1977
Ch’ien Tuan-sheng.  The Government and Politics of China.  1961
O. Edmund Clubb.  Twentieth Century China.  1964
Edward L. Dreyer.  China at War  1901-1949.  1995
John K. Fairbank, et al.  A History of East Asian Civilization, 2 vols.  1965
Keiji Furuya.  Chiang Kai-Shek: His Life and Times.  1981
Jack Gray.  Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s.  1990
Immanuel C. Y. HsŁ.  The Rise of Modern China. 1970
Marius B. Jansen.  Japan and China: From War to Peace, 1894-1972.  1975
Li Chien-nung.  The Political History of China  1840-1928.  1956
Edward A. McCord.  The Power of the Gun: The Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism.  1993
Colin MacKerras.  Modern China: A Chronology from 1842 to the Present.  1982
Mark Mancall.  China at the Center: 300 Years of Foreign Policy.  1984
Michael Montgomery.  Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate.  1987
Hugh B. O’Neill.  Companion To Chinese History.  1987
Mary Backus Rankin.  Early Chinese Revolutionaries…1902-1911.  1971
Lyon Sharmon.  Sun Yat-sen: His Life and Its Meaning - A Critical Bioigraphy.  1934
James E. Sheridan.  China in Disintegration: The Republican Era in Chinese History, 1912-1949.  1975
Philip Short.  Mao: A Life.  1999
Jonathan D. Spence.  The Search for Modern China.  1990
Jonathan D. Spence.  The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution  1895-1980.  1981
Mary Clabaugh Wright, ed.  China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913.  1968