Xinhai Revolution

Celebrating the birth of modern China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am

This year marks the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution, an event that led to the birth of modern China. The revolution, named after the sexagenary cycle of the Chinese calendar, brought to an end thousands of years of imperial rule and led to the establishment of the Chinese republic.

To look back on a century of change, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and Hubei Provincial Museum jointly present 'Centenary of China's 1911 Revolution' at the Hong Kong Museum of History from now until May 16.

The exhibition features more than 150 items, and historical images, videos and maps chronicling the events that culminated in the revolution and the profound effects it had on the country.

In the final decade of the Qing dynasty, Chinese politics was divided into two camps: on one side were the revolutionaries who sought drastic change 'from the bottom up', and on the other were the reformists, who believed change could be introduced 'from the top down'.

After the conflict with the Eight-Nation Alliance that brought an end to the Boxer Movement in 1900, the Qing leaders, headed by the Empress Dowager Cixi, embarked on political, economic, military and educational reforms.

In May 1911, the Qing court announced two policies that supposedly incorporated reforms. The first was the formation of a new cabinet that included members of the imperial family and the second was the nationalisation of the railways, which caused immense public resentment. The policies only intensified the animosity that already existed between the Han people and the Manchu rulers, and drove many to the revolutionary camp.

Whether aiming for reform or revolution, calls for change in China's modern history have generally originated in the coastal areas before spreading inland, and Hong Kong played a historical role.

The advantages the city enjoyed as a British colony provided fertile soil for revolutionary ideas and activities. Sun Yat-sen pursued his studies in Hong Kong for several years in the late 19th century and it was during this time that he developed his revolutionary thinking, and made his pledge to overthrow the Qing court and establish a Chinese republic.

Spearheading the 1911 Revolution, Sun founded a number of organisations to promote his thoughts and attract funding, including the Xing Zhong Hui (Revive China Society) and, from the time he established its headquarters in Hong Kong in 1895, the city became the command centre for China's democratic revolution.

A large number of merchants from the Siyi area (Xinhui, Taishan, Kaiping and Enping) and Xiangshan went abroad to make money and brought back entrepreneurial experience and technical know-how along with their wealth.

Many settled in Hong Kong, where they played a huge role in the development of commerce and industry. Companies such as Sincere, Wing On Department Store, Kwong Sang Hong and Guangdong Nanyang Brothers Tobacco were 'nationalist enterprises' that maintained a patriotic outlook.

A number of Hong Kong merchants were concerned about political developments on the mainland and some even provided financial support for the revolution.

As native banks in Hong Kong specialised in currency exchange and remittances, and had affiliations with banks in Guangzhou and other mainland cities, the city became a transit point for channelling funds raised overseas.

At the same time, Hubei province, especially the capital Wuchang, was another strategic location for the revolutionaries. Between 1895 and 1911, a number of uprisings were launched in the coastal cities, but all failed due to a lack of planning and widespread support from the public.

Meanwhile, the military reforms implemented in the Qing dynasty reorganised and modernised the empire's forces, and units trained and equipped according to Western standards were known as the New Army.

When the revolutionaries finally understood that uprisings by untrained members of secret societies would result only in failure, they began to seek the support of New Army soldiers, and the success of the Wuchang uprising in Hubei can largely be attributed to the effective military practices of the New Army there.

At the same time, young men who joined the New Army, after returning from studies in Japan and their Japanese army instructors, were influenced by the promotional work of revolutionaries in the province.

The sustained success of the Wuchang Uprising on October 10, 1911 started a chain reaction in other provinces. Within two months, 14 of the 18 provinces in China proper had declared independence. Some provinces saw short skirmishes, while in others the transfer of power involved no bloodshed.

Only another two months passed before Qing Emperor Puyi abdicated on February 12, 1912, ending not only the Qing dynasty, but more than 2,000 years of imperial rule.

Despite all these achievements, Sun remained guarded about the outcome, as he expressed in one of his best remembered quotes: 'The revolution is yet to succeed, comrades should persist.'

The 1911 Revolution may have overthrown the dynastic system in China, but a new political order was yet to be firmly established and the country fell prey to feuding warlords during the early years of the republic.

Nevertheless, the 1911 Revolution not only triggered political reform, but also intellectual and cultural changes in the modernisation of China.