People often ask me what my topic of research is in graduate school, which presents me of the problem of how to explain the historical context of my research, and to what depth… In other words, do I explain the 1911-12 Xinhai Revolution carried out by Huang Xing, Sun Yat-sen and other revolutionaries that launched the Republican period of China (1912-49)? How do I even explain that Sun, who is the only person that the average American might remember besides Henry Puyi, the last emperor, wasn’t even in China during the beginning of the revolution?
The Second Revolution presents more problems, because if people aren’t very familiar with the issues behind the first republican revolution, they don’t know anything about Chinese politics afterwards except the warlords, Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Revolution. So I think I will explain what I know about the Second Revolution here, and especially, why I think it’s important to the course of Chinese history. It may take a few blog posts to summarize this complicated story, though.
The Second Revolution grew out of political contradictions that had remained unresolved after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. At its most basic level, the revolution was a civil war between north and south. As with the United States, north China was better organized and had more resources for carrying on a military campaign. The northern faction was also able to secure many important southern military installations, such as the Jiangxi Arsenal in Shanghai (which is as if to say the Union had never surrendered Fort Sumter and Hampton Roads at the beginning of the Civil War), to defeat regional uprisings in detail, and to secure the loyalty of the Republican Navy and dominate the sea.
However, perhaps the most important reason why the north won was because it had money to pay troops, silver bullets to bribe regional governors and the navy, and the support of most foreign powers in the treaty port enclaves. This, thanks to the Five Power Consortium Reorganization Loan, in which five foreign powers loaned money to the northern government. I will discuss the importance of the Loan, and the connection of United States and Japanese policy towards it, below.
So much for the decisive factors of the war itself. Who fought the Second Revolution? As I mentioned above, the revolution grew out of a contradiction, or struggle for power, between two factions. The northern, or Beiyang faction, was led by Yuan Shikai (1859-1916). Yuan is perhaps best known as the the first of the modern dictators of China. He was the quintessential military man’s man: had risen through the ranks of the Qing army until finding himself under Li Hongzhang’s wing. Li was the viceroy of North China, and the single most powerful man in China, controlling Manchuria and Korea with a modern army and navy. Yuan learned politics and intrigue at the Qing court, as well as being Li Hongzhang’s man in Seoul.
After the 1895 war between China and Japan, which China lost decisively, Li Hongzhang fell out of favor in court, and Yuan Shikai rose to replace him. Like Li, Yuan established a modern army (the Beiyang, or Northern Seas, Army) loyal to him, based at Tianjin. Over the years it grew from 10,000 men to hundreds of thousands. He in turn was loyal to the conservative Dowager Empress Cixi, who ruled the Empire until 1908. In 1898, when a group of reformers rallied around the Guangxu Emperor and tried to modernize the Chinese Empire, Yuan Shikai was a key figure in the suppression of the 100 Days of Reform. Later, he fell out of favor and retired, but still had paternalistic connections to the division commanders of the Beiyang Army.
In 1911, when a mutiny by the modernized New Army troops in Wuhan led to a general revolution of southern and central China, the beleaguered regency of the young Emperor turned to Yuan, who agreed to help suppress the revolution. He orchestrated the movements of Beiyang Army divisions, which retook Nanjing, and two of the Wuhan tri-cities. However, at the same time when Yuan Shikai appeared ready to restore the Qing Dynasty, in reality he was parleying with the rebels, negotiating his place in the new order. Thus, in late 1911 he presented the Qing government with a fait accompli: he had negotiated peace with the revolutionaries and the Emperor would abdicate.
In the new China, there were two national powers: the powerful Beiyang army that supported Yuan Shikai, and the southern revolutionaries who were less unified, a collection of autonomous anti-Manchu groups and New Army units, led by Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance. Sun was named as the first Provisional President of the new Republic, but in order to secure Yuan’s loyalty to the new government, Sun agreed to relinquish the office to him. This was the core of the dispute: the revolutionaries had fought for a new government, only to give power away to a conservative Manchu official.
Various revolutionary leaders tried to restore a balance of power and unity between north and south, chief among these being Song Jiaoren (1882-1913). The ensuing controversy would lead to open violence, which I shall detail in the next part…