China 1914-1948

The history of China in the 20th Century is often overlooked; indeed, few people would name China as a combatant in the Second World War; despite the fact that they officially joined the Allies in 1941 and had been in practice fighting the Japanese Empire since 1937 (after the incident at Marco Polo bridge), taking over 20 million casualties in the process. Even fewer know about the final collapse of the Qing dynasty, and the short lived period of relative stability before all out civil war. It had been overshadowed by the Bolshevik revolution. In this article I’m going to look chronologically at the history of China: its endless civil wars, its attempts at modernisation, and its struggle against corrupt government, which ended with a Communist dictatorship.

The Qing Dynasty that had come to symbolise the bureaucratic inefficiency and refusal to modernise of Victorian China finally came to an end in 1911, with a revolution led against the Emperor by Dr. Sun Yat Sen (also known as Sun Zongshan). A former viceroy called Yuan Shikai was brought out of retirement in order to negotiate with the revolutionaries, who demanded a constitutional republic. Once the new (provisional) constitution was agreed in March 1912 Dr. Sun was to step down and Yuan Shikai was to take his place. This went as planned, and it seemed as though China was on a path to modernisation and reform.

However, Yuan did not respect the authority of the parliament, and began to take actions which were outside his authority, such as funding the Beiyang Army (which was under his personal control) with a large loan from several European powers, as well as Japan. Since one of the aims of the revolution had been to end foreign hegemony over China, this move caused a great deal of anger in China. Eventually, the resentment at Yuan’s dictatorial nature produced the Second Revolution, which Yuan easily crushed. Dr. Sun and his followers (who had helped lead the revolution) fled from China. As a mark of his authority, Yuan promoted several Beiyang Army generals to be members of his cabinet. On the 12th December 1915 Yuan proclaimed himself Emperor of a newly revived Chinese Empire. Outraged by this, a series of regional governors led by republican revolutionary Cai E declared their independence, and began the National Protection War. Yuan’s authority had collapsed following his appointment as emperor, and he was forced to abdicate on the 22nd March 1916 .However, this did not mark the beginning of stability for China, and 1916-1928 is known as the warlord era.

In the twelve years following the short lived reign of Yuan Shikai, China tried to modernise its industry and prevent the spread of corruption; however its efforts were undermined by constant war and the almost non-existent authority of the central government. The deaths of both Dr. Sun (1925) and Cai E (1916, aged only 33) fundamentally weakened the republican cause, and meant that there was no central figure-head for democratic values in China. As early as 1919, the May the 4th movement argued for a rejection of Western domination of China, and for China to embrace “modern” ideals to become strong again. These demands for new ideas lead to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

In direct opposition to the Communists was the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, which advocated traditional Chinese values and for the influence of the military in public affairs. The Kuomintang had been present, in one form or another, since the collapse of the Qing dynasty. It had originally been a liberal republican party, but now was under the control of General Chiang Kai-Sek. By 1927, Chiang had led a campaign against the warlords, called the Northern Expedition, and was intent on re-uniting China. However, in the anarchy of 1920s China, a small Communist state had been set up in the South. Chiang, as a traditionalist, hated Communism, and attempted to destroy this small Soviet Republic. The Communists then endured an ordeal known as the Long March, where most of the Party members and Chinese guerrillas in all of China marched approximately 8000 miles over the course of a year, beginning in 1934.

The Communist party remained holed up in a mountain fortress in Yan’an for another three years. At this point, the newly militarist Japanese government began a full-scale war with China, after a Japanese soldier was shot at Marco Polo Bridge. By the end of the war, the Kuomintang had exhausted their resources and was on the verge of collapse. The Communists at that point began the Chinese civil war. By 1949, the Nationalists had been forced to evacuate to the island of Taiwan, and the modern Communist Chinese State was born.

Contributed by Julian Hewitt

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