Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, beginning with an uprising in October 1911 and officially bringing down the Qing dynasty when its emperor abdicated in February 1912, ended more than two thousand years of imperial rule and established Asia’s first republic. But many historians question Sun’s leadership abilities and the conclusiveness of his revolution.

By the end of the nineteenth century nearly every political and intellectual leader in China saw the need for change. Some leaders, such as Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), felt that revolution rather than mere reform was needed. Consequently Sun called for the formation of a new republic based on his “Three Principles of the People”: nationalism, democracy, and socialism (often translated as “people’s livelihood”).

Sun and his fellow revolutionaries (organized as the Tongmeng Hui or Revolutionary Alliance) traveled throughout the country during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to promote their republican form of government. Sun’s actions led to his political exile, but his followers infiltrated the military and spread Sun’s revolutionary ideals. On 9 October 1911 an accidental explosion rocked the revolutionaries’ secret headquarters in Hankou. Police raided the building, discovering a stash of weapons and membership rolls. Knowing that the rolls had revealed their identity, those soldiers who were loyal to Sun quickly mutinied. By the afternoon of 10 October they had captured the entire city. Over the next several weeks province after province declared its independence from the national government in Beijing. Sun, who had been in the United States at the time of the explosion, returned to China and on 29 December 1911 was elected provisional president of Republican China. The Qing court was helpless as events spiraled out of its control. As a result, the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) emperor unceremoniously abdicated the throne in February 1912, ending more than two millennia of imperial rule.

Nevertheless, the early years of the republic were fraught with confusion and civil war, leading many historians to question the leadership abilities of Sun and the conclusiveness of his revolution. Although the leaders of 1911 failed immediately to create a stable and lasting government system, they did topple the imperial system and establish Asia’s first republic. For this reason 10 October—the tenth day of the tenth month—was celebrated as National Day (Double Tenth) in China until 1949 and continues to be celebrated on Taiwan today. With the perspective of a century the events of 1911 still appear quite revolutionary.

Further Reading

Eto, S., & Schiffrin, H. (Eds.). (1994). China’s republican revolution. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.

Wei, J. L., Myers, R., & Gillin, D. (Eds.). (1994). Prescriptions for saving China: Selected writings of Sun Yat-sen. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Wright, M. (Ed.). (1968). China in revolution: The first phase, 1900–1913. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Source: Kenley, David L.. (2009). Republican Revolution of 1911–1912. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1891–1891. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Republican Revolution of 1911–1912 (Xīnhài Gémìng 辛亥革命)|Xīnhài Gémìng 辛亥革命 (Republican Revolution of 1911–1912)

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