Assassination and uprisings

On April 8th, 1911  five days before the scheduled Canton revolt an independent radical from Singapore assassinated the Manchu governor of Canton, Fu Qi. This threw the not-very organized revolutionaries into disarray, and headed the Canton revolt towards yet another failure.

By 1911 the revolutionary forces in China had been trying and failing to overthrow the Qing since at least 1895.  In later histories this string of failed revolts can sometimes seem like they are rising to a crescendo, but at the time things did not seem so clear cut. This led to any number of debates on method, one of which was over the value of assassinations in fomenting revolution. Influenced by Anarchists and Russian Narodniks and assorted Japanese radicals, various Chinese began a fascination with direct action. Part of this was based on the idea the a person like the knight-errant of old could rectify the world with a single stab, or, as one radical newspaper put it. (taking advantage of the ease in putting ‘ism’ on words in Chinese)

“Republicanism, Revolution-ism, Blood-Sacrifice-ism, Assassination-ism, none of these can be undertaken without knight-errant-ism ” ”共和主义,革命主义,流血主义,暗杀主义,非有游侠主义 不能担负之“ 1

While some revolutionaries like Huang Xing and Sun Yat-sen were trying to broaden the revolution, bringing in more people, more groups and more money, the assassins seemed attracted to the fact that a single person was all that was needed. Probably the best example was Wu Yue, who was killed in 1905 when a bomb he was going to throw at the five commissioners the Qing were sending overseas to examine Western methods exploded prematurely.  Wu Yue felt that the Chinese people had become so weakened by Manchu rule that only the shock of assassinations could arouse their spirit 伸民气, and the sacrifice of revolutionary lives would be needed to establish a new nation.2

Wu is perhaps best classified as an assassin, rather than an Anarchist. Although clearly influenced by Russian ideas other Anarchists dismissed him for his anti-Manchu racism, which they saw as counter to their internationalist ideas.3 He was certainly no reformer, nor does he seem to have had very clear ideas about -how- assassinations were going to lead to his ultimate goal of a constitutional government. He claimed that a stage of assassination had to proceed a stage of revolution, which would in turn lead to constitutional government, but it was not clear how this was supposed to happen.

Wu’s attempt did get a lot of attention, however, as it was the biggest thing anyone had tried yet, and right in the heart of Beijing. Traditionally those convicted of particularly heinous crimes were dismembered through lingchi 凌遲 and their bodies displayed. This penalty had officially been abolished earlier in 1905 as part of the modernization of Chinese judicial practice, and had last been imposed in 1904 on a mass murderer. Public execution in this extreme form was the ultimate expression of the state’s (and heaven’s) disapproval.  Wu Yue’s body was photographed and the photographs pretty widely distributed, perhaps as a final, modernized version of this punishment. (I have put the picture beneath the fold.) Perhaps Wu Yue would even have been pleased by this. His assassination attempt had failed, but the state had anointed him the most dangerous of revolutionaries. If nothing else he could not be lumped in with the milquetoast reformers he was so contemptuous of.

Needless to say, it was hard to build a revolutionary movement out of bomb-throwers like Wu Yue and fundraisers like Sun Yat-sen.


























Wu Yue after his failed bombing attempt, 1905







  1. 朱育和, 辛亥革命史 人民出版社, 2001 p.247 

  2. 朱育和, 辛亥革命史,  人民出版社, 2001 p.251, Rankin Early Chinese Revolutionaries p. 107 

  3. Dirlik Anarchism and the Chinese Revolution p.94 

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