CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 27, September 2011


Xinhai: Views from the Edge | China Heritage Quarterly

Xinhai: Views from the Edge

A catalyst for the final collapse of the Qing dynasty, the Xinhai Revolution defies any simple descriptions, and it barely rates as a single event. It represents rather a landmark in multiple political narratives that attach to it widely differing value judgements. Instead of speaking of the 'success' or 'failure' of this revolution in the singular, we are faced with a set of different projects that intersected in the unfolding collapse of a vast multinational empire.[Fig.1]

Fig.1 Map of the Qing Northwest c1911. Click image for a more detailed version.

As the Han Chinese revolutionaries saw it, the task that they confronted was two-fold: not only were they undoing the Qing jigsaw, they were facing the urgent task of reassembling the constituent pieces in a way that ensured all were part of the broader picture. While succeeding in the former, they enjoyed only partial success in the achieving the latter. The Mongolian decision to secede from the Qing Empire on the eve of its fall was a major blow. It was not until the 1940s that the de facto independence of Mongolia was grudgingly recognised by Chinese authorities. Nor were the conditions that prompted the Mongols' pre-emptive blow against Chinese nationalism by any means unique: had the British in India followed Russia's example and lent similar support to Lhasa's bid for autonomy at this time, in 2011 or 2012 we might well be celebrating the centenary of Tibet's independence. In contrast with these two regions, the more mixed populations of Gansu and Xinjiang saw events follow a course that was more in accord with recognisable versions of the revolutionary script, even though they were still inflected by the decisive role played by non-Han elites who derived authority from their religious or aristocratic status.

Revolutionary conspirators in the military in many parts of the Muslim northwest were kept at bay in the first half of 1912 by a Qing officialdom that drew support from non-Han elites. They did so as they were wary of what a post-Qing, nationalist China might look like. The abdication of the Xuantong emperor Puyi 溥儀 threw such loyalist holdouts into confusion, and officials who had revealed themselves to be restorationists were mostly sent packing. Not so the local figures of authority, though, who in many cases now played a key role in consolidating provincial regimes that were nominally loyal to the republic. These reluctant republicans developed a modus vivendi with like-minded Chinese politicians in the capital led by Yuan Shikai, the President of the nascent Republic who made significant concessions to secure the loyalty of the former Qing's remaining Mongolian, Tibetan and Muslim aristocracies. As a result, many of the institutions created to manage the new Republic's relations with its periphery (initially the Mengzang shiwuju 蒙藏事务局) were headed by men who had fought tooth-and-nail against the revolutionaries in 1911-12.

Having consolidated his position in Beijing, Yuan Shikai pursued a vision of a China that eschewed the anti-Manchu 'race-war' strategy favoured by some of his revolutionary rivals. He preferred instead to promote a 'union of five races/lineages' (wuzu gonghe 五族共和), a conceptualization of the nation that was inscribed in the five colours of its new flag. Yet, such a formulation was too vague to be able to reconcile fully the contradictions inherent in the transformation of the Qing Empire into a Chinese republic. (It is an ambiguity that is as true today as it was at the time: there is still no standard English translation of wuzu gonghe.) Was Yuan's simply a pragmatic recognition of a need to preserve Qing colonial holdings by preserving dynastic privileges towards non-Han elites? Perhaps, but such an assumption overlooks the significant works by Chinese thinkers at the time that sought to elucidate the nature of the zu 族, suggesting that the idea of a China made up of five zu, each situated on a plane of theoretical equality, was more than a revived version of the Qing, and marks a qualitatively new way of thinking about ethnic or national identity in China. This being the case, did the political implications of this thinking extend beyond what the conservative clique around Yuan Shikai 袁世凱 was proposing and point to new ways of sharing power between the Han and non-Han? Even if Chinese politicians were disinclined to draw out such implications, their cynicism was not necessarily shared by the peoples on the edges of the defunct empire.[Fig.2]

Fig.2 An invitation to Yuan Shikai's inauguration ceremony, bearing the five-colour flag of the Republic (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW [a992002])

Given the difficulties of interpretation that surround the Xinhai period, today in the People's Republic of China the study of 1911 is generally (although not entirely) bypassed in favour of less equivocal Communist Party-related revolutionary triumphs. This year 2011, the founding of the Communist Party in 1921 has been celebrated with greater fanfare than the fall of the Qing. For many years a similar disparity between revolutions prevailed to China's north: until the emergence of Mongolia from Communist rule two decades ago, the events of the 1911 were neglected in favour of the 1921 'liberation' by the People's Revolutionary Party. There, with the political winds now blowing in a different direction, the achievement of independence from Beijing in 1911, notwithstanding its compromised legal status, now stands out as the main event in a tumultuous century. (Needless to say, such volte-faces are not always conducive to reasoned historical judgement.) With this Mongolian precedent in mind, we can be confident that the events of 1911 will continue to allow for new and conflicting interpretations in years to come.

Three scholars working on non-Han perspectives on China's post-imperial political transitions who are interested in some of the issues touched on here met at the recent Chinese Studies Association of Australia conference at The Australian National University (13-15 July 2011). Under the title of 'The post-Xinhai Frontier: non-Han former imperial peoples in early Republican China' they presented a series of papers which are reviewed in précis form here.

Anthony Garnaut introduced the session by reflecting on the calculations made and strategies pursued by three forces in Gansu politics: the Manchu provincial governor, the revolutionaries and the leading Jahriyya shaykh of the age, Ma Yuanzhang 馬元章. His talk was followed by Justin Tighe and his study of the North-West Magazine (Xibei zazhi 西北雜誌), the leading forum in the early years of the Republic to pose, if not solve, the perennial 'northwest question' (xibei wenti). Finally, David Brophy spoke on the constitution of the new Chinese national assemblies as being the imperfect embodiment of wuzu gonghe, and the campaign for Muslim representation in the capital led by the quixotic figure Li Qian 李謙.

We would like to thank the editor of China Heritage Quarterly for his invitation to contribute to this Xinhai issue of the journal, and for his detailed editorial comments on and revision of the texts.

—David Brophy, Post-doctoral Fellow
Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU

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