The Birth of China’s Tragedy

Jonathan Fenby

As China celebrates the centenary of the 1911 revolution this October Jonathan Fenby reappraises the uprising and argues that its failings heralded decades of civil conflict, occupation and suffering for the Chinese people.

Chinese rebel leaders Liu Fuji (left) and Peng Chufan were arrested and beheaded early on October 10th. The Chinese displayed their heads as a warning, ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys’, but the Republican government honoured them as martyrs. Photograph by Francis Stafford.Chinese rebel leaders Liu Fuji (left) and Peng Chufan were arrested and beheaded early on October 10th. The Chinese displayed their heads as a warning, ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys’, but the Republican government honoured them as martyrs. Photograph by Francis Stafford.The revolt that toppled the world’s longest-lasting empire had been brewing for decades but, when it finally came 100 years ago this October, it was triggered by accident when a bomb exploded in the office of a group of revolutionary soldiers in the Russian concession of the city of Hankou on the river Yangtze in central China. Russian police arrived to investigate and uncovered a list of the members of the underground cell that was dedicated to overthrowing the ruling Qing dynasty. Since the Russians were likely to hand this over to the Chinese authorities, the revolutionary group was forced to consider taking action rather than continuing to plot in secret.

Tension had been building in the region between Qing loyalists and those bent on bringing about its fall. This was heightened when, the same day, Chinese police swooped on a meeting place for radicals in Hankou, one of three cities that made up the metropolis of Wuhan together with Wuchang and Hanyang. They arrested 32 people, three of whom were executed in public, in wind and rain, at dawn the next day, October 10th, 1911. In a third incident two soldiers shot dead an officer who questioned them about weapons they were carrying without authorisation. Their colleagues in an army battalion stationed in Wuchang mutinied. China’s revolution had begun. Four months later on February 12th, 1912 the last emperor, Puyi, abdicated; since he had only passed his sixth birthday a week earlier, his adoptive mother, the Empress Dowager Longyu, agreed to the regime change on his behalf.

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