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.
Failings of the Qing
This October the revolution will be celebrated in both the People’s Republic, which rules mainland China, and in the Republic of China on Taiwan across the 90-mile strait separating the two. A giant portrait of the country’s first republican president, Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), is on display in Tiananmen Square, the heart of Communist China. The regime in Taiwan stresses that it can establish a direct line back to the rebels who ended an empire that dated back to 221 ad and the reign of the first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi.
But that revolution was a far from straightforward process, creating issues that persisted through much of China’s 20th-century history and beyond. One thing is clear, however. By the later part of the 19th century the Qing, whose ancestors had swept down from their homeland of Manchuria in north-east China to unseat the Ming dynasty in 1644, had run out of time and will power.
Their great emperors, notably Kangxi (1661-1722) and Qianlong (1736-95), had presided over one of the most flourishing periods of the 2,000-year empire. They had expanded the country’s frontiers to the borders that encompass today’s China. As well as his military exploits, Kangxi was a cultured and humane ruler, who created an agricultural base to feed the nation’s growing population. Qianlong, who was also a scholar and patron of the arts, undertook massive expeditions to conquer Tibet and to forge into Central Asia. At the time of his reign it has been estimated that China accounted for one third of the world’s wealth. When George III sent a mission to Beijing in 1792 under Lord Macartney the emperor waved aside the products of the Industrial Revolution presented to him as gifts with the contemptuous remark: ‘I set no value on strange or ingenious objects and have no use of your country’s manufactures.’
However the imperial treasury was severely stretched by the cost of Qianlong’s military campaigns, which were increasingly unsuccessful as he aged, by the extravagant expenditure at court including the construction of the Summer Palace outside the capital and the depredations of the emperor’s corrupt favourite Heshan, who was estimated to have accumulated a private fortune equivalent of a billion of today’s pounds. At the same time a huge population boom strained the economy.
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