Yamin XU

Based on Sun Yat-sen’s (1866–1925) idealistic model of the new republic that was introduced to replace the ancient Chinese imperial system, the five-yuan (five branch) system of government was adopted under the Guomindang (GMD) in 1928 for China and remains the basic polity for today’s Taiwan.

As the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) in the late nineteenth century became increasingly impotent to handle both international and domestic crises China faced, some Chinese elite began to take radical actions against the Qing government and also search for an alternative polity to replace the Chinese traditional imperial system.

Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) was the most prominent leader of this group of new elite. Born into a modest peasant family in Xiangshan of Guangdong Province, Sun obtained his Western-style secondary education in both Hawaii and Hong Kong from 1879 to 1892. In 1894, Sun founded in Hawaii the Revive China Society among overseas Chinese and in 1895 organized his first revolutionary uprising in Guangzhou. Thereafter Sun traveled to Landon, the United States, and Japan to spread his revolutionary ideas and mobilize more overseas Chinese to support his anti-Qing revolution.

In 1905, Sun founded in Tokyo the Revolutionary Alliance (which later developed to the Nationalist Party [Guomindang]) among overseas Chinese students and merchants and soon established more branches with their networks spreading over China, Europe, the Americas, Japan, and Southeast Asia. While continually mobilizing, organizing and coordinating secret society members, peasants, workers and army soldiers to launch anti-Qing uprisings in China, Sun also started to think about his “model republic” as the alternative polity to replace the Qing system.

Sun’s Five-Power Model Republic

In November 1905, Sun founded the People’s Journal monthly as the Revolutionary Alliance’s party organ. In his initial statement for the journal’s publication, Sun briefly outlined his famous Three Principles of the People—the principles of nationalism, the people’s rights, and the people’s livelihood—as an ideological pillar for his model republic. A year later, in a speech delivered to the Revolutionary Alliance’s overseas members who gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the People’s Journal in Tokyo (where the Alliance’s main headquarters was located), Sun first made public his ideas about the so-called five-power constitution (wuquan xianfa), which he considered another major pillar for his model republic.

In 1919 in Sun Wen xueshuo (The Doctrines of Sun Wen—Sun Wen is Sun Yat-sen’s formal name while Yat-sen is his literary name) and then in a 1921 speech entitled “The Five-Power Constitution,” Sun further explained how this model would work. The five-power polity, in Sun’s view, was crucial to the realization of one of the Three Principles of the People —the principle of the people’s rights (minquan).

Originally inspired by British and American constitutional practices of the separation of power, as acknowledged by Sun himself in the 1906 speech, his model republican polity was designed to overhaul the serious flaws he saw in the Anglo-American political system. Strongly believing that a capable government was indispensable for the success of the Chinese republic, Sun realized that neither public elections nor the appointments made by a democratically-elected president could guarantee a government of capable officials; he saw in the West that elections could be manipulated and the president could appoint the people he wanted. Drawing from a long Chinese tradition of selecting officials through civil service examinations, Sun proposed to establish the Examination Yuan, the fourth independent government branch—the executive, legislative, and judicial were the other three—to handle modern civil service examinations to determine the qualifications of officials and carry out periodical evaluations of their performance, regardless of whether they were elected or appointed.

Also, having observed how the American Congress could use supervisory power to block actions of the president for pure political calculations, Sun turned to the Chinese traditional censorial system to look for a solution, proposing that the independent fifth government branch—the Supervisory Yuan—be established to supervise all government offices and officials.

The Five-Yuan System and the GMD Party-State

On 8 October 1928, the GMD Standing Committee selected Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) to be the chairman of the central government, and Tan Yankai (1880–1930), Hu Hanmin (1879–1936), Wang Chonghui (1881–1958), Dai Jitao (1891–1949), and Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940) to be the presidents of, respectively, the Executive, Legislative, Judicial, Examination, and Supervisory Yuans.

Key GMD leaders, such as Chiang Kai-shek, Wang Jingwei (1883–1944), T. V. Soong (1894–1971), and H. H. Kung (1880–1967) also served as the president of the Executive Yuan in different times. Sun Ke (1891–1973) was the president of the Legislative Yuan from 1932 to 1948, while Ju Zheng (1876–1951) served as the president of the Judicial Yuan from 1932 to 1948, and Yu Youren (1879–1964) was the president of the Supervisory Yuan from 1930 until his death.

Although the five yuan were created as separate government branches, they were far from being independent institutions but were closely tied with different factions of the GMD party. In 1906 Sun outlined a three-phase republic-building process: the phases of military rule, of rule under imposed laws (rephrased in 1914 as political tutelage under a revolutionary party), and of constitutional rule. The phase of political tutelage began as soon as the Nationalists took over Beijing in June 1928, which also ended the Northern Expedition. On 3 October 1928, the GMD Standing Committee passed the Guiding Principles of the Political Tutelage and the revised Organic Law of the Republic China. The Guiding Principles specified that the GMD Central Executive Committee, through its Political Council (Zhengzhi huiyi), would represent the nonexistent People’s National Congress (Guomin dahui) to exercise the governmental power.

Started as Sun Yat-sen’s personal advisory body for providing political consultations, the GMD Political Council, with Chiang Kai-shek becoming its chairman in July 1928, was reorganized as the most important formal conduit through which the political decisions of the Nationalist Party could be transformed into concrete administrative policies of the Republic. The resolution passed by the GMD Standing Committee on 25 October 1928 further specified that the Political Council was the highest party organization designated with the mission of directing the political tutelage. It was given a wide range of powers to make important state policies and laws, and appoint top government officials.

The third GMD congress held in March 1929 ratified the Guiding Principles and reconfirmed the resolution of the Standing Committee:

…the people of the Republic of China who experienced the national revolution are really babies because they only had naive political knowledge and experiences, while the GMD is the mother that reproduced these babies. Being the mother, the GMD has obligations to nourish and educate the babies… (Rong & Sun 1985, 658)

The Organic Law of the Republic China, which could only be definitively explained and revised by the GMD Political Council, also guaranteed the GMD’s leadership over the central government. It stipulated that a
State Affairs Council (Guomin zhengfu weiyuanhui), with a chairman and twelve to sixteen councilors, was to be established to run the central government and its five separate yuan.

In the first actual operation, Chiang Kai-shek, Tan Yankai, Hu Hanmin, Dai Jitao, Wang Chonghui, and Yu Youren (who replaced Cai Yuanpei) all were members of either the GMD Central Executive or Central Supervisory Committees; they were also members of the Political Council. It was because of their party positions that they were chosen to be State Councilors and appointed heads of the central government and the five yuan. Although the member qualifications for the Political Council and their specific ties with the GMD party and the central government changed from time to time, the basic framework of the GMD party-state had been established by the late 1920s, which encompassed the apparatus of the central government, including the five yuan.

Further Reading

Chang, S. H., & Gordon, L. H. (1991). All under heaven: Sun Yat-sen and his revolutionary thought. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Ch’ien Tuan-sheng. (1970). The Government and politics of China, 1912–1949. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Eastman, L. E., Ch’en, J., Pepper, S., & Van Slyke, L. P. (1991). The Nationalist era in China, 1927–1949. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Fitzgerald, J. (1996). Awakening China: Politics, culture, and class in the Nationalist revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

He Qinhua & Li Xiuqing. (Eds.). (2002). Minguo faxue lunwen jingcui: xianzheng falü pian [A collection of studies of the Republican period on constrictions and laws] (Vol. 2). Beijing: Falü chubanshe.

Rong Mengyuan & Sun Caixia. (Eds.). (1985). Zhongguo Guomindang lici daibiao dahui ji zhongyang quanhui ziliao [The documents of the past GMD party congresses and the plenums of the GMD Central Committee] (Vol. 1). Beijing: Guangming ribao chubanshe.

Strauss, J. C. (1998). Strong institutions in weak polities: State building in Republican China, 1927–1940. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sun Yat-sen. (1919). Sun Wen xueshuo [The Doctrines of Sun Wen]. Shanghai: Huaqiang shuju.

Wang Yongxiang. (1996). Zhongguo xiandai xianzheng yundongshi [A history of modern China’s constitutional movements]. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.

Xie Zhenmin. (2000 [1937]). Zhonghua minguo lifashi [A history of legislations of Republican China] (Vol. 1). Beijing: Zhongguo zhengfa daxue chubanshe.

Zhang Hao. (2006). Paixi douzheng yu Guomindang zhengfu yunzhuan guanxi yanjiu [A study of the relationship between factionalism and the operation of the Nationalist government]. Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan.

Zhang Xianwen, et al. (2006). Zhonghua minguo shi [A history of Republican China] (Vol. 2). Nanjing, China: Nanjing daxue chubanshe.

Source: Xu, Yamin. (2009). Five-Yuan System. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 839–841. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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