Collapse of the Manchus and Rise of Sun Yat-sen

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

As the influence of Sun Yat-sen and his anti-Manchu organization grew within China and abroad, the collapse of the dynastic system in the country began. Beset by rising revolutionary violence, the Manchus introduced a series of reforms to save themselves.

Image of Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in China.
The ‘Revive China Society’ was a radical anti-Manchu organization, founded by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. (Image: cozyta/Shutterstock)

Formation of Revive China Society’

Sun Yat-sen had tried to convince Li Hongzhang, former commander of the anti-Taiping military forces and leader of the Self-Strengthening Movement of the 1860s and ’70s, that free universal education and the study of Western law were necessary to reform the Chinese people and perfect their customs. However, Li Hongzhang had refused to grant Sun Yat-sen an audience.

Stung by this rebuff, in 1894, Sun founded a radical anti-Manchu organization, called the ‘Revive China Society’; in Chinese, Xingzhong Hui.

Meeting secretly in Canton, the 112 original members of this society took an oath to expel the Manchus, restore Chinese rule, and establish a federal republic, Western in nature.

By 1895, overseas branches of the ‘Revive China Society’ had been established in Hong Kong and Honolulu.

Learn more about the birth of Chinese communism.

Sun Yat-sen Hounded by Police

At this point, in 1895, Sun, finally and irrevocably, burned his bridges to the reformers’ camp. With the aid of 3,000 sympathizers recruited from among the students coming back to Canton from abroad and a group of newly converted Christians, as well as support from local secret societies, Sun plotted to seize control of Canton itself.

In the event, however, his plan was leaked to local officials by an informant, a betrayal that resulted in the death of 48 of his followers.

From then on, Sun Yat-sen was a man on the run, literally hounded by the imperial police and ultimately forced to leave the country. Evading several attempts to arrest him (including an 1896 kidnap attempt by imperial Chinese agents in London), Sun traveled widely throughout Europe, refining his revolutionary political ideas, and seeking financial support for his cause.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Sun Yat-sen Devises ‘Three Principles of the People’

A picture of Dr Sun Yat-sen.
Sun Yat-sen formulated the ‘Three Principles of the People’. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

While traveling in Europe, Sun formulated the first known version of what would later become his signature political credo, the Sanmin Zhuyi, or ‘Three Principles of the People’.

The three principles were, respectively, Minzu (meaning ‘Nationalism’), Minquan (meaning ‘People’s Rights’), and Minsheng (meaning ‘People’s Livelihood’).

Initially formulated in 1897, Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People were later incorporated as the official political philosophy of the Provisional Republic of China. Though that government survived only briefly from 1912 to 1913, the people’s Three Principles today remain the governing credo of the Chinese Nationalist Party in Taiwan, the Guomindang.

Learn more about the birth of modern Chinese nationalism.

Principles of Nationalism and People’s Rights

Under the first of these principles, Nationalism, Sun called both for the overthrow of the alien Manchu Dynasty and for the final removal of all foreign imperialist enclaves and footholds in China. He wanted China for the Chinese.

Under the second principle, People’s Rights, Sun called for the adoption of four basic democratic political devices: popular election, referendum, recall, and people’s legislative initiative.

He further advocated the separation of five distinct branches of government: the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judicial branch, the police (also known as the control branch), and the civil service (or the examination branch).

The Principle of People’s Livelihood

Finally, under Sun’s third principle, People’s Livelihood, he called for equalizing rural land ownership and for regulating the accumulation of private capital.

Later, this third principle would be given a more populist spin and would be relabeled, morphing into ‘land to the tiller’, which is perhaps the best known of Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People.

Rise in Sun Yat-sen’s Prestige

Dowager Empress Cixi.
Dowager Empress Cixi had engineered the collapse of the ‘Hundred Days of Reform’. (Image: Hubert Vos/Public domain)

While in his European exile around the turn of the 20th century, Sun Yat-sen’s reputation as a revolutionary benefited from a series of reform setbacks in China.

The first of these was the collapse of the ‘Hundred Days of Reform’, engineered by the ultra-conservative Empress Cixi. The failure of the ‘Hundred Days’ served mainly to underline the futility of trying to reform the hapless Manchu Dynasty peacefully from within.

If a further display of Manchu decrepitude were needed, it was provided by the abject humiliation inflicted on China by the foreign powers in the Boxer Protocol of 1901.

As a result of these internal developments, Sun’s prestige grew both inside China and among the burgeoning communities of anti-Manchu Chinese living abroad. In Paris, in Berlin, in Brussels, and in Tokyo, Sun Yat-sen began to gain new and willing recruits to his revolutionary cause.

Learn more about China’s faltering empire.

Birth of ‘China Alliance Society’

In 1904, Sun changed the name of his organization from ‘Revive China Society’, which suggested a peaceful reform agenda, to the more revolutionary term Zhongguo Tongmeng hui, or the ‘China Alliance Society’.

Between 1906 and 1911, the Tongmeng Hui attracted several thousand members and affiliates. It was also in this period that Sun began to put his revolutionary ideas into practice, as he organized 10 separate popular uprisings in south China. There was to be no going back. Sun Yat-sen was now a revolutionary.

Sun’s Insurrections and Manchus

Unfortunately for Sun and his followers, all of these insurrections ultimately failed, though the final uprising, which took place in Sun’s native city of Canton in April of 1911, did generate widespread public sympathy.

Meanwhile, beset by rising revolutionary violence and in an attempt to stave off the ultimate, inevitable disaster, the beleaguered Manchus belatedly introduced a series of domestic reforms, halfway measures as well as more radical ones.

Between 1905 and 1908, the iron-willed Dowager Cixi, now in her seventies, grudgingly agreed to implement a series of constitutional reforms, which included such things as the final abolition of the much-despised eight-legged essay, the establishment of provincial political assemblies, the reorganization of the imperial bureaucracy, and the introduction of public participation in local administrative affairs and financial planning. However, the reforms were a classic example of too little and too late.

Common Questions about the Collapse of the Manchus and Rise of Sun Yat-sen

Q: What oath did the original members of the ‘Revive China Society’ take?

The 112 original members of the ‘Revive China Society’ took an oath to expel the Manchus, restore Chinese rule, and establish a federal republic, Western in nature.

Q: What were the ‘Three Principles of the People’?

Sun Yat-sen had formulated his signature political credo, the Sanmin Zhuyi, or ‘Three Principles of the People’. The three principles were: Minzu (meaning ‘Nationalism’), Minquan (meaning ‘People’s Rights’), and Minsheng (meaning ‘People’s Livelihood’).

Q: What did Sun Yat-sen’s third principle, People’s Livelihood, cover?

Under Sun Yat-sen’s third principle, People’s Livelihood, he called for equalizing rural land ownership and for regulating the accumulation of private capital.

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