China’s turbulent twentieth century was marked by a series of violent revolutions from 1911 to 1949 and then the “revolution within the revolution” that occurred during Mao’s last years. They changed every aspect of Chinese life and society, but perhaps not so completely as it seemed at the time. It is unwise to completely ignore the potential legacy of past revolutions for inspiring future social movements.

Revolution is a twentieth-century phenomenon in China, although the three-thousand-year-old empire had a long history of peasant rebellions and dynastic overthrow. During much of the second half of the twentieth century, the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 was seen as the decisive revolution, or perhaps the completion of earlier incomplete or “failed” revolutions. With the cooling-off of the Communist revolution in recent decades, that metanarrative is open to question, and the earlier revolutions of 1911–1912 and 1927 acquire more prominence in the long process of transforming an ancient agrarian-bureaucratic empire into a modern nation-state and industrialized society.

Even the word revolution was new in China in the late nineteenth century. Along with many Western ideas about modernity, it came to China from Japan as a neologism formed by taking the ancient Confucian term for a heavenly mandate to rule and putting the word remove before it. Thus, geming literally means “to remove the mandate” (political legitimacy), but by the early twentieth century Chinese radicals already understood the word in the sense of the French or American revolutions—the establishment of a new political order. Closely associated with ideas of popular sovereignty and progress, the word was manifestly foreign and new, in fact, a response to the military and political humiliations that China had suffered at the hands of industrialized Western powers since the middle of the nineteenth century.

1911–1912: Republican Revolution

The first revolution came rather unexpectedly, although for more than a decade there had been revolutionary agitation and small-scale uprisings, especially in the south. Most of these were led by Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) and drew support from overseas Chinese business communities and the new generation of young intellectuals studying what was known as “Western learning.” Sun’s call to overthrow the “alien” Qing dynasty (1644–1912; the imperial family during the Qing dynasty was ethnically Manchu, not Han Chinese) strongly appealed to the ethnic nationalism that the young intellectuals had learned largely from the West.

The revolution broke out, almost accidentally from a botched military coup in the city of Wuhan in eastern central China on the Yangzi (Chang) River. Lack of effectiveleadership in Beijing (the emperor was only a child) combined with widespread frustration over the Qing court’s inability to strengthen and modernize China, caused imperial authority to collapse rapidly throughout southern and central China. Sun Yat-sen became president of a short-lived provisional government, but the revolution was soon hijacked by China’s most powerful military man, Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), a different kind of modernizer. Yuan used his military muscle to squeeze out Sun Yat-sen and his party’s elected representatives in the new National Assembly.

The revolution thus ended in apparent failure, with no democracy, no progressive political program, and China torn apart by civil wars after Yuan Shikai’s demise. Nevertheless, the rather premature revolution of 1911–1912 officially ended—with the Qing emperor’s abdication in February 1912—2,100 years of imperial bureaucratic government, replacing the hereditary emperor with a (supposedly) elected president, the Mandate of Heaven with the doctrine of popular sovereignty, and the old type of Confucian scholar-official with “modern men,” whether they were trained in modern military academies or Western-style universities.

1927: Nationalist Revolution

Such modern men—and, with the growth of coeducation in the new schools, some women, too—carried the revolution to its next stage. The revolution of the 1920s was nominally led by Sun Yat-sen and his revived Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang), but it mobilized much broader and more radical social forces than the revolution begun in 1911.

The radicalism grew from several sources. First, there was the disappointment with the results of Sun’s revolution as the country fell into political chaos and remained under the domination of the foreign imperialist powers. Second, there was more rapid growth of the modern sector of the economy, with factories and new social classes—Chinese capitalists and a nascent industrial working class—appearing in the coastal cities. Finally, of most direct import, there was the cultural iconoclasm of the New Culture movement, which blamed traditional culture and social habits (Confucianism was a prime target) for China’s backwardness. The new universities, notably those in Beijing, were at the center of this intellectual revolution, which emphasized “enlightenment” and a broader concept of revolution.

However, two external events were crucial in politicizing this cultural radicalism. One was the deep disappointment with the decision of the Western democracies to allow Japan to retain control over China’s Shandong Province, which the Japanese had taken from Germany during World War I. To Chinese nationalists, this decision was a gross violation of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination. The second was the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which offered an alternative, anti-imperialist vision of national salvation to the pro-democratic capitalist path that had originally attracted Sun Yat-sen. When recruiters from the Comintern, Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin’s association of national Communist parties, came to China in the early 1920s, they found eager converts to Marxism and social revolution. They also used financial, military, and political aid to persuade Sun Yat-sen to reorganize his Nationalist Party and launch a renewed revolution against imperialism and warlordism. The newly formed Chinese Communist Party also followed Moscow’s guidance by accepting a subordinate position in a revolutionary united front with the Nationalists.

Thus the ideology of the second revolution was much more anti-imperialist in its nationalism and, at least potentially, much more anticapitalist in its social and economic policy, although Sun attempted not to alienate his more conservative supporters in the Chinese Nationalist Party, and the Comintern insisted that China was ripe only for a bourgeois-nationalist, not a socialist, revolution.

In an ironic way the events of 1927 confirmed the Comintern’s thesis. After Sun Yat-sen’s premature death from cancer in 1925, tensions grew between the radicals and moderates in the revolutionary movement. In 1926 Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), commander of the new Nationalist Party army based in Guangzhou (Canton), launched the Northern Expedition (1926–1927) against the warlord armies. After successfully liberating the Yangzi River valley, including the modern metropolis of Shanghai, he broke with his radical allies, massacred the Communists, and brought the Nationalist Party underhis control and formed a new government with its capital in Nanjing.

This marked an abrupt turn away from the radical agenda of the 1920s. Chiang abandoned most of the revolutionary social and economic policies, including Sun Yat-sen’s plans for redistribution of land, in favor of militarily imposed political unification and nation building. Chiang and the Nationalist government achieved some success with this course during the Nanjing decade (1927–1937), before a Japanese invasion brought the government and the nation new challenges.

1949: Communist Revolution

The Chinese Communist Party had been urban based in the 1920s, organizing industrial workers along conventional Marxist lines. After its defeat in 1927, it moved into the countryside, where Mao Zedong (1893–1976) emerged as the most successful leader of peasant-based revolution. After relocating from south central to northwestern China in the famous Long March of 1935–1936, a reorganized party under Mao’s leadership was positioned to take advantage of the withdrawal of Nationalist government authority from northern China to organize the peasantry in broad areas there to resist the invading Japanese.

During the eight years of war, while the Nationalists’ morale and power waned, the Communists grew in military power and popular support in the countryside of northern China. Combining anti-Japanese nationalism with social and economic improvements for the peasant majority, the Chinese Communist Party, now free of Russian influence, was much more ready for renewed conflict with the Nationalist government after Japan’s surrender in 1945. The party’s experience during these years—the “Yan’an spirit” of self reliance, political will power overcoming material difficulties, and faith in the rural masses’ innate revolutionary consciousness—was instrumental in gaining popular support and overcoming Nationalist military superiority in the seizure of national power by 1949. It also left a legacy of populist activism and guerrilla war mentality that was not always well suited to solving problems of economic development on a national scale.

The victory of the Communists in 1949 was in part the result of the Nationalist government’s collapse from rampant corruption, administrative inefficiency, poor military strategy, and unsolved economic problems such as runaway inflation. But it was also due to the Communists’ success in tapping into the main currents of modern nationalist aspirations for a strong, prosperous, and united country as well as the older socioeconomic grievances of the peasantry. That mixture was a potent revolutionary formula that seemed to have potential application throughout much of the Third World.

1966–1976: Cultural Revolution

In the first two decades of the People’s Republic, the Communist Party oscillated between following the Soviet model of a centralized, bureaucratic planned economy and more populist, rural-based strategies for building a modern, industrialized economy and an egalitarian, socialist society. The Great Leap Forward of 1958, with its rural communes, backyard steel furnaces, and frantic mobilization of the masses, was the most dramatic experiment in the Yan’an-inspired unorthodox developmental strategy that Mao favored. A disastrous economic failure, it was followed in 1966 by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao, appalled by the loss of revolutionary fervor in the Soviet Union and its new society of entrenched bureaucratic privilege, thought to prevent the same from happening in China by mobilizing frustrated students, low- and mid-level party members, and some elements of the military in a “revolution within the revolution.” This would not only remove those high-ranking leaders who were “taking the capitalist road,” but also revitalize the entire revolution.

With the help of the politically ambitious commander of the People’s Liberation Army, Lin Biao (1908–1971), Mao purged almost all the top party and government leaders, inspired vast numbers of fanatically loyal revolutionary youth (the various bands of Red Guards), and put the country in turmoil for two years. He drew back, however, from completely dismantling the party apparatus that held China together, and the last eight years ofhis life were characterized by a complicated and somewhat paralyzing covert struggle between the acolytes of the Cultural Revolution’s radical socialism and more cautious, economically oriented party bureaucrats.

1978 to the Present: Postrevolutionary China

With Mao’s death in 1976 everything changed, but not right away. After a brief interlude under Mao’s chosen heir, Hua Guofeng (b. 1936), Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) emerged by 1978 as Mao’s real successor. Also a veteran revolutionary from the Long March and Yan’an era, Deng abandoned Mao’s revolutionary rhetoric, above all the idea of class struggle and continuing revolution, and proceeded to systematically dismantle all of Mao’s social and economic policies. Technological expertise replaced mass mobilization as the key to rapid economic modernization, and this meant both educational reform (no more politics before knowledge) and opening the country to advanced scientific technology from the West. Furthermore, economic incentives replaced socialist ideology as the motivator for economic growth. The communes were broken up into family farms. Private enterprise, at first on a small scale, but then on a large scale, was revived, foreign capitalist investment encouraged, and China embarked on the kind of export-driven industrialization that Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea had pioneered so successfully. As market economics gradually eroded the position of state-owned economic enterprises and consumerism spread throughout society, China became an integral part of the new globalized capitalist economic system. As market economics gradually eroded the position of state-owned economic enterprises and consumerism spread throughout society, China became an integral part of the new globalized capitalist economic system.

Did all this mean that the revolution was over, or in Deng Xiaoping’s formulation, was China just entering a new phase in building “socialism with Chinese characteristics”? The official ideology remained socialist, and Communism remained the ultimate goal. However, for the present capitalism was being allowed to develop its full productive potential, and successful capitalists were being recruited into the Chinese Communist Party. But the party retained its absolute monopoly on political power, Deng himself sanctioning the ruthless suppression of the most serious challenge in the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989. Whether that makes the government still a revolutionary regime or just another one-party dictatorship is a moot point.

Communist Revolution in World Perspective

All great revolutions reverberate far beyond national borders, and the Communist revolution was no exception. For a time, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, China appeared to have inherited the mantle of Marxist world revolutionary leadership from an increasingly ossified Soviet Union. This was especially evident in Third World peasant societies, where the Chinese Communists vigorously promoted their experience with peasant-based revolution as a way to break free from capitalist imperialism and achieve rapid modernization. Lin Biao’s short essay “Long Live the Victory of People’s War!” (1965), succinctly expressed this ambition.

But Maoism and the Chinese model have had little real impact on political evolution in the Third World. The Naxallites in Bengal failed in attempts to import Maoist- style revolution into India. The most successful practitioners of “people’s war,” the Vietnamese Communists, depended on the Soviet Union for most of their military hardware, and in any event harbored a deep historic distrust of Chinese. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia came the closest to being followers, but their ruthlessness exceeded anything in the Chinese experience, and their failure was more absolute. In Africa, Marxist movements leaned towards the Soviet Union. To be sure, there were some echoes of Maoism in Peru’s Shining Path in the 1980s, and more recently rural insurrectionists in Nepal have proclaimed themselves Maoists, at least until they abandoned guerrilla warfare for a share of political power. But on a global scale, it now seems that the Chinese model was much more specific to China’s particular historical experience than relevant to peasant societies elsewhere.

There is also the overriding reality that since 1949 the percentage of peasants in the world’s total population has continued to drop, until it is now well under 50 percent. With the poor and downtrodden of the twenty-first century more likely to live in urban shanty towns than on the land, how relevant is a rural-based revolutionary strategy? Similarly, the model of radical egalitarianism that appealed to young Western radicals during the 1960s and 1970s has been almost completely discredited by the revelations of Cultural Revolution atrocities and post-Mao China’s cozy relations with the international capitalist order.

Mao Zedong on Policy

This inner-Party directive was written by Mao Zedong in December 1940 on behalf of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.


Our policy towards prisoners captured from the Japanese, puppet or anti-Communist troops is to set them all free, except for those who have incurred the bitter hatred of the masses and must receive capital punishment and whose death sentence has been approved by the higher authorities. Among the prisoners, those who were coerced into joining the reactionary forces but who are more or less inclined towards the revolution should be won over in large numbers to work for our army. The rest should be released and, if they fight us and are captured again, should again be set free. We should not insult them, take away their personal effects or try to exact recant taxation from them, but without exception should treat them sincerely and kindly. This should be our policy, however reactionary they may be. It is a very effective way of isolating the camp of reaction.

Source: Mao Zedong.. (1940, December 25). On Policy. In Selected Works, Vol. II. Retrieved March 17, 2009, from http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/index.htm

Has the Communist revolution then left any global legacy? Perhaps, in the post-2008 crisis of global capitalism, the Maoist slogan, “Where there is oppression there will be resistance” may acquire a new relevancy. Ironically, it is in China itself where the government leaders most fear an economic slowdown will trigger social unrest, especially in the underprivileged rural population. The revolutionary twentieth century is well past but it is not so clear whether its legacy is completely dead.

Further Reading

Bergere, M. (1998). Sun Yat-sen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cheek, T. (Ed.). (2002). Mao Zedong and China’s revolutions. New York: Palgrave.

Dirlik, A. (1989). The origins of Chinese Communism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fairbank, J., & Twitchett, D. (Eds.). (1983). The Cambridge history of China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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

Joseph, W. (Ed.). (1991). New perspectives on the Cultural Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

MacFarquhar, R., & Schoenhals, M. (2006). Mao’s last revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Croizier, Ralph C. (2009). Revolutions. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1892–1896. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Revolutions (Gémìng 革命)|Gémìng 革命 (Revolutions)

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