The name ‘Republic of China’ has been in use for a hundred years and in the last 65 years has been used as a name associated with the island of Taiwan rather than mainland China, how this came about is a long and complex tale.
For Han Chinese the Qing dynasty was another episode of control by foreigners - the Manchu people of north-eastern China. With the humiliation at the hands of other foreigners during the Opium Wars a general malaise ensued. The Boxer Rebellion with its anti-Westerner message caught hold of public sentiment and for a time was used by Qing Dowager Empress Cixi as a bargaining ploy against the foreigners. By 1900 China was run by a collection of local warlords rather than the Imperial court at Beijing.
Born in 1866, Sun Yatsen was the father of the Republican movement in China. The organization became known as the Guomindang GMD (aka. Kuomintang WG KMT) 国民党 also referred to as 'Nationalists'. With the help of family connections Sun traveled to America and Europe and there he picked up western ideas including revolutionary theory. Always strong in southern China, an abortive revolt there in 1895 did not dampen his zeal to bring change to China. For a full story of Sun Yatsen see later section. Between 1900 and 1910 it was other revolutionaries like Kang Youwei ➚; Zou Rong ➚ and Liang Qichao ➚ who led the movement. The Qing regime started to make limited reforms including the abolition of the age old examination system in 1905. After further failed attempts at rebellion, it was not until 1911 that revolution finally took hold across the nation. The revolution was supported by many disparate groups centered in different regions. Each group had slightly different aims, some would tolerate a reformed Qing dynasty to continue; others a switch to a constitutional monarchy while others, including Sun Yatsen wanted a true Republic. It was the power-play between these contending views that created messy, badly led attempts at revolution. The only man who could have unified the rebels, Sun Yatsen was often out of the country seeking money and support from overseas Chinese.
The initial spark was the rapacious demands of foreign companies to push through their new railways ignoring the wishes of local people. When local Chinese banded together and started building their own railways - the Railway Protection Movement, the Qing regime reacted by nationalizing all the railways in 1911, further alienating local people and merchants. Revolt quickly spread and the Manchu dynasty capitulated. So on 1/1/1912 Sun Yatsen was proclaimed President of the Republic of China; his brief tenure lasted all of six weeks, Yuan Shikai replaced him as a more acceptable leader to appease the Manchus and the Western powers. This was a fairly novel move as across the whole of Europe and Asia only three other countries had deposed their hereditary rulers at this time (France, Switzerland and Portugal). Yuan Shikai was the most powerful leader in the north, Sun Yatsen's was in the south - this north-south division was pivotal to the history of the Republic. Song Jiaren, the first president of the Guomindang, received a mandate for reform in the first democratic elections in 1912. However Song's attempt to limit Yuan's power led to his assassination by Yuan's agents on March 20th 1913. Yuan moved to eject the Guomindang from the assembly and then dissolved the parliament altogether.
Yuan Shikai did not oppose the Japanese occupation of Shandong, when they ejected the Germans from their concession in 1914 at the start of the First World War. Foreign interest in China evaporated as the war in Europe raged on. When he revealed his plan to ascend the Imperial throne in December 1915 provinces in the far south west Yunnan; Guangxi; Guangdong and Guizhou rebelled. His move was partly a realization that Kang Youwei's view - that China was not ready for a democratic republic was correct - and partly to be able to unite China against further Japanese demands. However, staunch support for a Republic remained among the Guomindang leaders and they refused to take positions in Yuan's government.
The tale of the Republic of China up to the Second World War after Sun Yatsen's abdication as President is not a happy one. In truth the republican revolution had taken hold only among some intellectuals and some officials, the majority of ordinary people, particularly those working the land, took no part, indeed many still thought the Emperor still ruled; in fact during the period 1912-24 the Emperor was still officially enthroned but powerless. Few understood what was meant by a ‘republic’. Instability and chaos continued to weaken China and she was prey to any foreign power who sought to capitalize on her weak position. Japan's invasion of Korea in 1910 (backed by Britain) was the starting point of aggressive incursion prior to full scale war in 1937.
There followed the break-up of China into local fiefdoms - another period of warlord rule 1915-28. This process was fueled by the ending of the centuries old tradition of appointing senior officials from remote provinces; instead the local elite took control and fierce local allegiances sprang up. Tibet and Outer Mongolia became independent and Manchuria began to fall under Russian and Japanese control. The vestiges of centralized Republican power supported Britain and France against Germany in the First World War hoping that this might gain some benefit if the Allies won. Many young Chinese served in the European trenches ➚ in Europe as auxiliaries. When the Allies won, China gained nothing, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 cemented Japan's hold on their seized Chinese territory. In protest the May 4th Movement was formed; Mao Zedong was an early supporter and it proved a truly national, grass-roots movement with great influence.
During the 1920s the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) started to grow in strength within the big cities. After the Russian revolution (1917) Russian support was thrown behind the nationalists Guomindang GMD (aka. Kuomintang WG KMT) rather than the communists who were encouraged to join the GMD. Sun Yatsen visited Moscow as well as his military chief Chiang Kaishek. In 1924, at the crucial time of negotiations with the warlords in Beijing to re-unify China, Sun Yatsen fell ill and died, leaving his vision of a Republic for China half formed.
The relations between the GMD and CCP were poor from the start. The CCP had been ordered by their Moscow masters at Comintern to infiltrate the GMD. Some within the GMD quite rightly suspected the CCP as a potential fifth column ➚ within their ranks and sought to expel them. The First United Front (1923-27) sought to wrest control of northern China from warlords in the Northern Campaign ➚. A military expedition led by Chiang Kaishek succeeded in conquering northern China in March 1927. (See a later section for a biography of Chiang Kaishek). Seizure by rebels of the British treaty ports at Hankou and Jiujiang raised international tension. Mutual distrust turned to hatred and the GMD unleashed the ‘White Terror’ to exterminate their former Communist allies, nopw considered 'terrorists'. Chiang at this time was receiving guidance from advisers from Hitler's Germany, he believed the only way to build a strong and united China was to remove all opponents to his leadership. Over 5,000 Communists were killed in Shanghai alone, Zhou Enlai was one who made a lucky escape. The communists lost control of the cities and fled to the countryside, becoming dependent on the support of the peasant farmers. Believing the Communists were beaten Chiang proclaimed Nanjing as the capital of China in 1928 and set off north capturing Beijing and renaming it ‘Peiping’ (meaning literally and ironically ‘northern peace’; it had also carried this name in the early years of the Ming dynasty).
A Communist attempt to capture Nanchang in July 1930 failed miserably and led to a hardening of GMD attitude towards them. In 1931 the Japanese took advantage of the internal strife, invading Manchuria, an area where they had infiltrated and were busy industrializing. Protests made to the League of Nations ➚ failed to settle this clear annexation of Chinese territory. World, and particularly British, interest became more focused when Japan assaulted Shanghai in 1932. Japan's response to worldwide censure was to leave the League of Nations ➚ and set up a puppet government under ‘the Last Emperor’ Puyi in Manchuguo. Chiang Kaishek signed a truce with the Japanese, effectively accepting the loss of Manchuria.
The 'New Life Movement ➚' 新生活运动 was introduced by Chiang in 1934 to modernize China with western health care and small industrial co-operatives. Although the aims were creditable, they really only benefited the better off in the cities. A real problem that the Republicans faced was that the Civil Service was inefficient and corrupt. They blocked and delayed reform that might threaten the livelihood of officials. Some reforms aimed at bringing more law and order ended up hurting the poor and excusing the rich: ‘swatting the flies and sparing the tigers’. The mass of the population (500 million in total) continued to be subject to famine and high inflation. However reformed work and marriage laws brought some equality to women within the urban centers. Chiang received large scale aid from Germany and the U.S.A. to develop the country's infrastructure. His moves to exterminate the Communist insurgents continued and he alienated the peasant farmers who were subjected to famine and flood in 1931. In the famous 'Xian Incident' of 1936 Chiang was held hostage by his own people who were determined he should unite with the Communists against the Japanese. Chiang made a reluctant agreement with Zhou Enlai to form a United Front.
The abuse of the poorest people, the peasant farmers continued. The landlord would take 70% of the harvest giving the farmers barely enough to live on. Land reform became one of the first and boldest of the Communist reforms .they introduced in the areas they controlled. For centuries the landlord class controlled the peasants, the land and the law courts. People had no redress if they were beaten into submission by them.
Japan was interested in the urbanized, heavily populated eastern seaboard of China. The 'Marco Polo Bridge Incident ➚' was used as an excuse by Japan to launch a full-scale assault on 7th July 1937; a date that to many marks the real start of the Second World War. With Soviet Russian backing, the Chinese Second United Front believed it had the modern weaponry necessary to defeat the Japanese, it did not, it was soon beaten back to Chongqing, the Nationalist war time capital of 'Free' China. Still not officially at war with China, Japan moved to cut off supplies to the Nationalists from Russia and the ports on the South China Sea. The 'Rape of Nanjing' in November 1937 when many Chinese were raped and slaughtered is still a sore point in Sino-Japanese relations ➚. By 1939 Japan controlled all the main coastal urban centers and installed a puppet regime under Wang Jingwei at Nanjing. The 'United Front' took to fighting a guerrilla campaign against the occupiers. By 1940 the truce between Nationalists and Communists had broken down, Mao Zedong consolidated his power base at Yan'an while Chiang consolidated his at Chongqing. Full scale battles with the Japanese were avoided, partly to build-up strength for a Civil War that both sides foresaw as inevitable.
The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941 brought the USA on to China's side of the conflict. The Burma Road was used as a supply line into 'Free China' until Japan cut that off in 1942. Thereafter airlift of supplies by Western allies was the only alternative. Chiang attended the Cairo Conference ➚ with Churchill and Roosevelt where he was promised in return for his support, should the Allies win, the control of Manchuria and Taiwan as well as the return of all foreign concessions. Russian assistance had dried up due to the opening of the Eastern front with Germany. Further advances by the Japanese in 1944 - Operation Ichi-go ➚ - took further territory in Guangxi and Guizhou. Eventually, in 1945 a new road (the 'Ledo Road' ➚) out of reach of Japanese assault was re-opened allowing transport by road to Chiang's capital Chongqing.
Ordinary Chinese people suffered greatly under the Japanese occupation. In 'Free China' hyper-inflation and the black market led to the destruction of many people's livelihoods. There was a high level of corruption in the areas controlled by the Nationalist (GMD) government. The Japanese controlled areas were nominally ruled by the puppet government of Wang Jingwei which claimed to be the legitimate Nationalist regime. There was far less corruption and inflation in the small Communist controlled areas and this ultimately contributed to Communist victory. Some foreign aid, particularly through the Quaker Friends Ambulance Unit ➚ reached China supplying much needed medical supplies. Japan's eventual defeat came swiftly with continuous bombing raids launched from China and the Mariana islands. The Russians invaded Manchuria in August 1945 just as the atom bombs were falling on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even after Japanese defeat, the general public continued to live precariously with hyper-inflation, shortages and corruption. A huge amount of American money was given to Chiang Kaishek to back the Nationalist cause. Thousands of American troops were stationed in China in a supporting role. The off duty behavior of these soldiers and the fact that Chinese people saw America as another foreign power seeking to control China fueled resentment. Ordinary Chinese saw Americans as Imperialists seeking to build a South-East Asian Empire by displacing the Europeans rather than offering self-government. The Nationalist forces continued to delude themselves about the outcome of battles and illtreated citizens. However, it was generally felt in 1945 that Chiang Kaishek would inevitably become the new leader of a liberated China because the Communist threat was perceived as pretty insignificant and American support so powerful.
Despite attempts by the Americans to bring Mao and Chiang together, both sides started grabbing the land freed from Japanese control. The Communist success in Manchuria under Lin Biao was a major blow to the Republic. During 1947-48 the Nationalists were pushed back to their remaining urban strongholds in the South with both troops and civilians suffering under the chaos of Civil War. The battle at Xuzhou [October 1948- January 1949], part of the Huaihai Campaign ➚, was the decisive moment; 350,000 GMD troops surrendered to the Communist victors. It was only a matter of time before Chiang Kaishek cut his losses and fled to Taiwan in April 1949. Although the People's Republic of China was founded on 1st October 1949, Chiang's hopes for a return to China never faded while he was alive. The 'Republic of China' has only recently faded as a government in exile.
There are two people that are inseparable from the history of modern China, one is Mao Zedong and the other, just as importantly is Sun Yatsen.
Sun Yatsen was born in furthermost southern China: Cuiheng, Guangdong in 1866. His family were poor and two uncles died in California in the Gold Rush ➚. He had a brother living in Hawaii, and at the age of 12 joined him there to escape poverty and was educated at a Hawaiian school and converted to Christianity. He returned to China for an arranged marriage and studied medicine at Hong Kong, graduating as a doctor in Western medicine in 1892. He then worked tirelessly as a revolutionary to overthrow the Qing dynasty and found a modern Republic. His power-base was always southern China which had always reluctantly lived under Manchu rule.
A catalyst to the growth of the Republican movement was the continuing erosion of Chinese prestige by foreign powers. He is quoted as saying ‘From 1885, that is from the time of our defeat in the war with France, I set before myself the object of the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a Chinese Republic on its ruins’. His first attempt at revolution in 1895 in Guangzhou failed with many of his friends arrested and killed. The conflicting pulls towards republicanism on the one hand and anti-foreigner nationalism on the other proved difficult to harmonize. The Boxer rebellion (1898-1901) epitomized this toxic mixture of motives of either ejecting the foreigners or over-throwing the 'foreign' ruling dynasty.
Sun made contacts and raised funds among the overseas Chinese and it was not long before the Qing government marked him out as a wanted man with a price on his head. He was kidnapped by Qing agents while in London ➚ in 1896, to be released only by the demands of British sympathizers. He founded the Tongmenghui ➚ ‘Revolutionary Alliance’ while in exile in Japan which went on to become the Nationalist movement (Guomindang GMD); it received support from those who wished to be ruled by Han Chinese rather than 'foreign' Manchu people. He married Kaoru Otsuki ➚ a 16 year old Japanese in 1903, he then also married Song Qingling ➚ of the influential Song family in 1915 while in Japan.
“The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit... They are just a heap of loose sand... Other men are the carving knife and serving dish; we are the fish and the meat.” 
He continued to promote revolution, based on three core principles: Nationalism (freedom); People's rights (democracy) and People's livelihood (land reform). He envisaged a President kept in check by an elected Parliament and a separate Judiciary.
After repeated failures to start a popular revolution during the period 1905-10, the success came after a revolt in Sichuan against the expansion of a European backed railway network. In Wuhan on 10 Oct 1911 the revolution took hold and soon all the provinces in southern and central China supported Sun Yatsen and the nationalists. However Sun was in the United States at the time and it was not until 24th December 1911 that he arrived at Shanghai to take part in the revolution. On 1st January 1912 Sun Yatsen proclaimed the creation of the Republic of China. He was President for only six weeks as political compromises forced him to abdicate in favor of Yuan Shikai, master of northern China. He made this ill-fated move in order to prevent much bloodshed. Yuan Shikai was the preferred leader of the Western powers.
When Yuan Shikai attempted to form a new dynasty rather than continue the republic, the Republican government effectively ended. Yuan died in 1916 and the country then broke up into areas controlled by local war lords, only interested in maintaining local power. Sun Yatsen tried to re-unify the country and re-found the republic. The increasingly military nature of the situation brought his military chief Chiang Kaishek to the fore. Sun proved an inspirational speaker and negotiator but poor at leadership and administration. His vision of a new modern China were kept vague to widen their appeal, he accepted help from anyone willing to support him including the Communists. With Russian support it seemed the Guomindang would become the dominant national force; but unfortunately in 1925 Sun was too ill to carry out the crucial negotiations with the northern warlords and he died of cancer on 12 March 1925.
Sun's influence lives on in China. The Guomindang/Republic of China continues in Taiwan. A large mausoleum ➚ honoring his memory was built near Nanjing. His widow Song Qingling became honorary President of Communist China for a while. He is credited with marrying modern values with Confucianism and so is regarded as the father of Modern China. On National Day (October 1st) each year his portrait is proudly displayed in Tiananmen Square.
Lin Sen was the widely respected President of the Republic of China in the difficult years 1931-43.
Lin Sen was born at Shangan, Fujian into a middle class family and received education from American missionaries. He lived for a while in Taiwan and America before becoming actively involved with the Republican movement in 1905. After the 1911 revolution he was made governor of Fujian. On Sun Yatsen's death in 1925 he joined the anti-communist faction led by Chiang Kaishek.
In 1931 Chiang Kaishek was forced to step down over a dispute with Hu Hanmin ➚ over the attitude to take against Japanese expansionist occupation. Lin Sen replaced him as President, although actual power remained with Chiang.
He shunned the glamor of high office, reflecting traditional values against corruption and personal ambition. He helped convince Chiang that there was a need for a united Front with the Communists. As a respected elder statesman he negotiated a plan for China to take back Taiwan when Japan was defeated. He died in the temporary capital of Free China at Chongqing in 1943.
Chiang Kaishek was born on October 31st 1887 in Xikou, Zhejiang into a family of wealthy salt merchants. Following the pinyin system his name should be ‘Jiang Jieshi’, but he is known as Chiang Kaishek following the Wade-Giles romanization of his Cantonese name which was the system used at the time. His original name (a person used to be known by several names during their lifetime) was Jiang Zhoutai.
Following the 1911 revolution, Chiang was appointed by President Sun Yatsen to build up the Nationalist Army of the new Republic of China. The connection with Sun Yatsen was strengthened when Chiang married Sun's sister-in-law Song Meiling ➚ in 1927. Chiang's position was boosted by another Song sister-in-law Song Ailing ➚ who married the richest man in Republican China at the time: H. H. Kung ➚. The famous Song sisters also had a brother who was a prominent businessman and banker Song Ziwen ➚. These powerful connections formed a group which may have formed the basis of a new Chiang 'dynasty' contrary to his avowed republicanism.
Sun sent Chiang to Moscow in 1923 to learn from the Communist Red Army and his contacts with Russia continued for many years. With General Vasily Blyukher ➚'s help he put his new knowledge into action by creating the Military Academy ➚ at Huangpu (Whampoa) near Guangzhou.
After Sun Yatsen's death it was his military chief Chiang Kaishek who took over leadership of the Guomindang (GMD) in 1925. His main success was the ending of warlord rule in northern China in 1927. He led a number of extermination campaigns against the Communists which were only halted by the Japanese invasion. In 1936 Chiang was kidnapped at Xi'an ➚ by his own soldiers and forced to form a 'United Front' with the Communists against the Japanese rather than continuing the fight with the Communists. He reluctantly agreed to this just before war with Japan began in 1937. Despite large scale American support he did not launch many attacks against the Japanese.
In ‘Free China’ ruled by Chiang, inflation was rampant and 30% of foreign aid found its way into the black market. There were several attempts to unite the Communists and Nationalists, including one led by the American General Stilwell ➚ in 1944. See our guide to the Civil War with the communists for more on this. Stilwell was put forward by America to command the Chinese Army, but Chiang resisted the demand and Stilwell left China. Although the Nationalists were well equipped compared to the Communists, the Nationalist army was poorly motivated and organized. The Communists sought the backing of local people in the areas they controlled, while the nationalists plundered and raped. It was grassroots support for the Communists that proved decisive in the end.
When Mao founded the People's Republic of China, Chiang led the defeated Nationalists to exile on the island of Taiwan with $300 million in gold; silver and foreign currency together with the best army divisions.
Chiang never gave up his dream of overthrowing the Communist regime in mainland China; he continued to receive vast American funding to build an impressive Taiwan defense system. Support was not exclusively American, his son Chiang Ching-kuo was educated at Moscow; the Taiwan military was as much influenced by Soviet planning as American; the Nationalists were friends with anyone who was opposed to Mao's regime.
Chiang Kaishek died in Taiwan in 1975, just one year before his old adversary Chairman Mao. He had four wives, two of whom were concubines as that was the tradition at the time. He had only one son maybe because he became infected by gonorrhea. Chiang Chingkuo ➚ eventually succeeded him as ‘President of the Republic of China’. Chiang Kaishek wished for his remains to be buried in China but in 2004 they were interred on Taiwan, perhaps at last signaling the end of the GMD dream of re-taking the mainland. There is debate about Chiang's long term legacy; it has been argued that the present day, market led capitalism in China is more aligned to Chiang's vision for China than Mao's.
Lu Xun was a pioneering modern Chinese writer. He led an important modernization movement that opened up reading to ordinary Chinese people. For all of China's long history literature had been the preserve of the ruling élite.
He was born as ‘Zhou Shuren’ (周树人) into an educated family. When his father failed the Imperial examinations his grandfather (a jinshi scholar) bribed an official to get him a pass on the next exam. Lu Xun's grandfather narrowly escaped the death penalty when the corruption was uncovered. The taint of this crime led to a decline in the fortunes of the family. His father started taking opium and soon developed tuberculosis leading to an early death when Lu Xun was about 17. Lu Xun sought wider education but the family had no money to pay for it.
He first started to learn about Western science and medicine at a mining school in Nanjing. He read avidly Walter Scott ➚'s ‘Ivanhoe’ and Harriet Beecher Stowe ➚'s ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’; it maybe significant that both these books are concerned with the resistance of people under an oppressive regime. In 1901 he was awarded a scholarship to study medicine in Japan, and began to learn Japanese. In 1903-6 he studied at Sendai but, after seeing the execution of a Chinese man in Japan charged with spying for the Russians, he abandoned his course and turned to writing. He read the radical German philosopher Nietzsche ➚ who had a strong influence on his early work. He planned to study in Germany but lack of money forced him to return to China. In 1912-26 he was in Beijing and saw the failings of the Republic at first hand, he was appointed to the Social Education Division of the Ministry for Education. There he started to write the short stories and essays which made him famous. His stance was to question the deep rooted traditions of Chinese culture and open them up to critical scrutiny. Mao Zedong was one of the revolutionaries he met at this time. Following a protest against Japanese occupation on March 18th 1926 and the ensuing massacre, Lu fled from Beijing.
Taking up a post at Xiamen as a university lecturer he soon became embittered about petty rivalries at the University. On the political front he was one of the most famous supporters of the National Salvation Movement ➚ which resisted the Japanese occupation of China. The last ten years of his life (1927-36) saw Lu Xun take a more left wing view. In 1927, he took up a post at Zhongshan University, Guangzhou under Guo Moruo. He made connections with the Nationalist (GMD) and Communist movements in the city. Following the Nationalists massacre of Communists he resigned his position and made his final move to Shanghai. His Marxist sympathies made him a wanted man and he went into hiding. He continued to support Mao's cause up to his death from tuberculosis in 1936.
His most famous work is ‘The true story of Ah Q’ (1921) which tells the tale of a working class man trapped in old and cruel ways of corruption; superstition and class snobbery. The satire echoed the republican movement for large scale modernization of Chinese society. It broke the mold by being written in vernacular, everyday Chinese rather than the traditional, florid literary style. His attack of out-dated customs and traditions of writing were taken up by the leaders of the Communist revolution even though he did not live to see the foundation of the PRC. Lu Xun was in favor of simplifying the Chinese script to make it easier for everyone to read and write. In the 1960s language reforms on these lines were brought in.
Hongkou Park ➚ in Shanghai contains the tomb of the writer, built 20 years after his death. Nearby is a memorial Hall containing some of his work and correspondence; his old house on Shanyin Road is open to visitors.
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