Sun Yat-sen: If only a Revolution -were- like a dinner party

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:54 pm

Livebloging 1911

Someone once said “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

That is a pretty radical statement. Also a somewhat analytical one. Very few have ever accused Sun Yat-sen, father of the 1911 Revolution of being either a radical or overly analytical. He was however, great at dinner parties. On March 19th he was not in Canton, where the April uprising would be happening, nor in Hong Kong, where it was mostly being planned. He was in Vancouver, 1 talking to audiences of Overseas Chinese. He raised $7,000 HK, which was the largest total raised for the April uprising anywhere in the world. If Huang Xing was the organizer of the revolution Sun was the publicist and fund-raiser. Having been abducted in London in 1896 and briefly imprisoned in the Chinese legation made him by far the best-known Chinese revolutionary overseas, and his tireless fund-raising and organizing in Southeast Asia, North America, Japan and elsewhere made him the best known spokesman for the overthrow of the Qing and establishment of a Republic. So although he played a pretty limited role in the actual 1911 revolution it is worth thinking about him for a bit. They also serve who only wrangle invitations to banquets and give speeches.

Although the bulk of his uprisings were failures, a revolution costs a lot of money, and while giving speeches all over the world on the Overseas Chinese rubber chicken circuit must have been a drag he kept at it, and had a rare ability to convince everyone from wealthy Cantonese merchants to railroad laborers to part with their cash.  Sun’s personal ability to persuade people to support the cause was a major asset, even if it was not clear what all these resources, both money and recruits, were best used for. So today is a fine day to remember Sun Yat-sen, who among his many other achievements, was the after-dinner speaker who financed the 1911 Revolution.

  1. Or somewhere in Canada. The nianpu I have is not very detailed, but in was in Vancouver about the 19th. []


Revolt in Canton

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:13 am

Live-blogging 1911

Live-blogging is (for historians) the process of blogging about something in the past as if it was happening in the present. Since this is the 100th anniversary of the 1911 revolution, I thought it might be nice do something on that. The Wuhan revolt is still a ways off, but the Canton uprising is (although nobody knew it) right around the corner. Textbooks tend to dismiss the various revolts that Sun Yat-sen encouraged in the years before 1911 as pathetic failures, which is true enough, but by early 1911 some of them were becoming more substantial. There were a couple of disturbances in the New Army in Canton early in 1911, the first of which happened on February 12, exactly one year before the Manchu emperor formally abdicated.

Revolutionaries vaguely connected to Sun Yat-sen had been organizing in the New Army in Canton for some time. . Ni Yingdian 倪映典 was the ringleader of the revolt. He was the son of a traditional Chinese doctor from Anhui and had risen to command an New Army artillery division before being dismissed for revolutionary activity. He promptly moved to Guangdong and joined the new army there and was again dismissed for revolutionary activity, although he was not arrested. It may seem a bit odd that he was dismissed but not arrested twice, but the Qing government was less in control of things than they might have hoped and also desperate for modern-trained men. More to the point, during the New Policies period many revolutionaries were turning into reformers, and they may have hoped that the same would happen with Ni.

Unfortunately a mutiny occurred among the troops of the Second Regiment on February 10th ,, well before the planned date for the revolt. Sun Yat-sen had raised over HK 8,000 to support the revolt, and preparations were being made for supporting revolts in the countryside, but Ni decided he could not wait and encouraged his old comrades to rise up. When the commander of the Artillery Division refused to join the revolt Ni shot him, which pretty much committed them to the revolt, which was put down the next day. Ni Yingdian was one of the first rebels killed. Several others were executed later and the rebellious units disbanded.

Although the revolt itself had minimal support it was a revolt of active military units in a major city, which was an upgrade from some previous revolutionary actions. The punishment of the rebels actually won them a good deal of support.  Sun and his followers began mobilizing for a new revolt in Canton.  “Intellectuals, tradesmen, workers and peasants” began to assemble in the city. Female members of the Revolutionary Alliance posed as brides and began smuggling arms into the city.  They also took over a newspaper which had been created to oppose a planned provincial gambling monopoly and used it to spread revolutionary ideas. So that is pretty much where things stood in March of 1911


Most of the above is from Rhodes, China’s Republican Revolution


P.S. If anyone has suggestions for posts, feel free to sent them to me.


Foreign influence on China’s revolution

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:25 am

I found this picture on Southeast Asia Visions1

Troops in Peking

It is from Siam and China by Besso, Salvatore (1914) I was a bit confused about what it was showing. Surely March 5 is too late for a response to the declaration of the Republic? This turned out to be an interesting bit of political theater. By February of 1912 Yuan Shikai had accepted the idea of becoming the President of the new Republic, but he was still bickering with the revolutionaries in Nanjing over where the new capital would be. The revolutionaries of course wanted Yuan to come to Nanjing where their Provisional Senate was meeting. Yuan naturally wanted to stay in Beijing and the issue was a symbolic one over which of these two groups was going to be dominant in the new government. A group of southern representatives came to Beijing to negotiate with Yuan, but on Feb 29 a mutiny broke out among Cao Kun’s troops in Beijing and the Southerners were forced to flee their hotel. Mutinies broke out in Tianjin, Baoding and Shijiazhuang the next day, all among troops loyal to Yuan. According to Jerome Chen Cao Kun’s troops were yelling slogans against Yuan moving to the South as they rioted2


  1. following a link from BibliOdyssey []
  2. Ch’en, Jerome. Yuan Shih-K’ai. Stanford University Press, 1972. p.107 []


1911 in pictures

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:09 pm

Via BibliOdyssey an exhibition of the prints of the 1911 revolution from Princeton.


The prints are great, if a little small. One thing that struck me was the disclaimer at the bottom of the first page. “The Princeton East Asian Library in no way supports the rhetoric or depictions that are presented on the prints.”

What is that supposed to mean? I can think of two possibilites.

1. As a notoriously conservative institution1 Princeton is opposed to the overthrow  of the Qing dynasty and is still hoping for the return of the Manchus.

2. Something other reason. But what could it be?

  1. How many Princeton alums does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Four. One to change the bulb and three to point out how much better the old bulb was. []


Taiwanese modernity

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:26 pm

One of my colleagues asked me a question about Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times. For those of you who have not seen it, it is a set of three love stories all set on Taiwan with the same two actors, one in 1966, one in 1911 and one in 2005. She had a question about the middle story. In this segment the female lead (Shu Qi 舒淇) works in a fairly high class brothel, and the story revolves around the possibility that Chang Chen (張震) will buy out her contract. He is portrayed as an idealistic young man who is opposed to concubinage and is tied up with the idealistic Mr. Liang (I assume Liang Qichao).My colleague asked me how accurate the movie’s portrayal of Taiwanese politics was. I was a bit stumped by that.

Visually at least it was hard for me to see the middle segment as being Taiwan in 1911. It was all interior shots in the brothel, so I suppose you would not expect to see some of the signs of colonial rule. On the other hand.

-The male lead wears a queue. Would a follower of Liang Qichao outside China in 1911 have done that? I know that in some contexts on Taiwan keeping the queue was a sign of anti-japanese feeling, but obviously cutting it off was a sign of being a radical modernizer, which is what he seems to be. Is this a mistake or was Taiwan different?

-When one courtesan is sold the contract is in Chinese. Would a legal contract have been in Japanese by that point? (I did not see the date on it )

-The only signs of Japanese rule or of any change at all is that the money used to buy the one girl is Japanese-issued money.

I was just bothered by that fact that the whole segment (physically at least) could have been set in 1860 or 1720 for that matter. Both of the other segments had a strong sense of place and time, but not this one. It seemed to me like a timeless “traditional China” with the date of 1911 stuck on it. Did anyone else get this impression, or am I ignorant of the material culture of Colonial Taiwan? Or was there some point Hou was trying to make that I am missing?


When is a Farmer not a Farmer? When He’s Chinese: Then He’s A Peasant

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 1:03 am

After Mao Zedong died in 1976, they put his body on display in one of those see-through coffins which Lenin made popular. Shortly after, the NBC evening news commentator, David Brinkley, termed this “peasant under glass” – a racist flippancy which would not have been accepted (or probably even thought of) for the dead leader of a Western state.

Now the thing is that Mao wasn’t even a peasant: He never made his living with a hoe (if anything he was a landlord); he earned the highest educational degree available in his home province at the time; he was successively a librarian, teacher, and school principal; and for most of his career he was a salaried government official. He saw himself in the tradition of rulers and state builders like Qin Shi Huangdi and George Washington. Mao is a peasant only if all Chinese are peasants in essence, simply by virtue of being Chinese. (Curiously, for some of the same Orientalist reasons, Mao and his successor Deng Xiaoping were also held to be “emperors.” That is, all rulers in Beijing were “emperors” by virtue of being Chinese.)

So when I looked into it, I was surprised to find that the use of the word “peasant” rather than “farmer” was relatively new. I spent a pleasant afternoon in the library pulling books off the shelf and found that until the 1920s, Americans religiously used “farmer” for China, “peasant” for Europe, Russia, and even the Mediterranean. F.H. King’s classic 1911 study is Farmers of Forty Centuries.

After about 1930, the words switched positions. Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), for instance, uses the word “farmer,” never “peasant,” but after that, Americans overwhelmingly prefered “peasant.” When Oprah Winfrey chose The Good Earth for her book club in 2005, the New York Times bestseller list said it was about “peasant” life.

In recent years, “peasant” has come under fire. A writer in China Daily wrote in 1985 that “from now on, the word peasant no longer suits China‘s rural population.” Randy Stross called “peasant” a “quaint taxonomic term that Americans usually used and that served to keep the Chinese apart – and ranked vaguely below – the ‘farmers’ at home.” The British anthropologist Polly Hill attacked the term first because it confused all residents within a village, whether they farmed, peddled, wove, cooked, or lent money (or did each in succession), and second because it lumped together villagers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia who are actually in quite different situations.

What did Americans down to Pearl Buck mean when they insisted France and Russia had peasants but the United States and China had farmers? The distinction was central to Jeffersonian democracy. Thomas Jefferson charged that “the mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body” and believed that the “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.” Old World despotism was based on landless peasants who did not have the independent means to stand up to the dukes, lords, barons, and kings. A “peasant” worked under “medieval” or “feudal” conditions, while a propertied “farmer” produced free or democratic rule.

Now we can re-conceive our problem of why there were farmers in China. As best I can make out, the implicit logic runs something like this:

  • European history was normal; the stages were ancient, medieval/ feudal, and modern.
  • China was not Europe, was outside normal history, was eternal, and therefor had no feudalism.
  • Peasants are a feudal phenomenon
  • Ergo, China had farmers, not peasants.

Then why the change from “farmer” to “peasant”?

Young Chinese of the New Culture Movement (1916-1923) came to see China as poor, backward, and shameful; they searched for a new political force powerful enough to destroy traditional culture and to repel imperialism. Revolution was this force and “feudal” the word made China’s weakness a curable structural malady.

Historians now resist the claim that China was feudal. Feudal Europe and Japan had decentralized political systems in which the economy was dominated by military force to the detriment of the market. But from at least the sixteenth century the Chinese rural economy had been basically commercialized, with markets in land and labor. Politics were civilian, centralized and national – anything but feudal. True, by the mid-1920s, the Chinese village economy had been shaken by political disarray, deflation, inflation, drought, flood, famine, warlords, taxes, pestilence, opium, and sociologists. But the solution proposed to these terrible realities depended on the terms in which they were construed as problems. The problem was not feudalism but political disorganization.

True, but not the point. “Feudalism,” in this new argument, was not a technical description but a metaphor, and a devastatingly effective one at that. After all, Marxists and American liberals both saw Progress in history; feudalism in Europe ended with the French Revolution of 1789. Therefore to say that China was “feudal” was to assert that China followed the patterns of universal history; that the Chinese people had to be liberated from feudalism through revolution; that revolution was possible; that the formation of a nation was liberating; and that a vanguard should lead it.

Therefore that the man with the hoe was a peasant.

Must we give up the word “peasant”? Heavens no. But too often we mistake “peasant” for a primary category of nature rather than a convenient term which must be used warily. After 1949, too many in China and in the West saw the countryside as filled with feudal minded peasants, making it easy to rationalize state power. Observing that the “peasant” was invented, not discovered, helps to keep us honest.

[This piece draws on my “The Storm over the Peasant: Orientalism, Rhetoric and Representation in Modern China,” in Shelton Stromquist and Jeffrey Cox, ed., Contesting the Master Narrative: Essays in Social History (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998): 150-172. reprinted as Lund East Asian Working Paper Series on Language and Politics in Modern China (Formerly Indiana East Asian Working Paper Series on Language and Politics in Modern China): Paper # 11, Summer 1998. Please see that piece for footnotes and references.]


Double Ten

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:07 pm

Coming soon is Double Ten, the anniversary of the Oct. 10, 1911 Wuhan revolt that led to the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the foundation of the Republic of China.

Journalism is supposedly the first draft of history, but in this case the first draft was surprisingly good.

Chinese Troops Revolt


Desert to Rebels at Wu Chang After

Two Conspirators Are Beheaded

HANKOW, China, Oct. 10.- Troops at Wu-Chang have gone over to the rebels and cut off communication with that place, following the arrest of twenty-eight revolutionaries at Wu-Chang, capital of the Province of Hu-Peh, and the beheadings of four of the number in front of the Viceroy’s Yamen to-day. The arrests and executions followed the discovery of a revolutionary plot in the Russian concession here. A bomb was exploded, whereupon a search revealed a factory for the manufacture of explosives and a plan for an attack on Wu-Chang.
Much firing can be heard this afternoon in the direction of Wu-Chang. Several large fires are seen.
The authorities had feared that the soldiers were disaffected. Chinese gunboats are patrolling the harbor. A message from Chung-King says that the leaders of the movement, in protest against the Government’s plan of building railways with foreign capital, are protecting the missions in the district where the rebels are operating.
New York Times, Oct. 11, 1911

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