How Imperial China Gave Way to Modern China

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

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

Imperial China suffered numerous blows and started declining in its power and influence. During this time, the first truly modern Chinese revolutionary political party took shape under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Read on to know about this transition in China’s history.

Photo of the Great Wall of China.
The Manchu dynasty was systematically undermined, leading to its eventual decline. (Image: aphotostory/Shutterstock)

Decline of Imperial China

Over the years, there was a steady decline of imperial China, from the hubris of the Qianlong emperor to the futility of Commissioner Lin Zexu, from the Opium Wars to Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, from the sacking of the Summer Palace to the failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement, from the dowager empress’s calculated strangulation of the 1898 reforms to the bizarrely atavistic Boxer Uprising.

Through all of this, imperial China absorbed a staggering number of blows to its sovereignty, institutions, fiscal solvency and, finally, to the very core of its civilization.

However, such a beating could not go on forever. And indeed it did not.

Learn more about the Self-Strengthening Movement.

Modern Chinese Revolutionary Political Party

With the final death throes of a passing dynasty, there was the concurrent rise of the first truly modern Chinese revolutionary political party, the Guomindang of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

With the Boxer humiliation serving to deepen the sense of impending imperial doom, last-minute efforts to reform the Manchu dynasty from within gave way to conspiratorial attempts to overthrow it from without.

Rebellion was certainly not new in China: the Nians, the White Lotus Rebels, and the Taipings, among others, had all sought the dynasty’s demise. Even the Boxers had started out as anti-Manchu rebels. But none of these primitive rebellions were in any sense of the term ‘modern’. Their leaders were either peasant bandit chieftains or charismatic cultists—people like the delusional Hong Xiuquan.

And none of them, save perhaps for the bizarrely superstitious Boxers, had managed to join anti-Manchu anger with the country’s growing rage against foreigners.

What was missing in all of these late 18th– and 19th-century insurrections was any effective linkage between rebel demands for such things as tax relief and retribution against rapacious landlords, on the one hand, and a coherent program for ridding China of foreign domination and restoring national pride and dignity, on the other.

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

Dr. Sun Yat-sen: Modern Chinese Rebel

Photograph of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
The first truly modern Chinese revolutionary political party was the Guomindang of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. (Image: K.T. Thompson/Public domain)

The first distinctively modern Chinese rebel to propose a coherent political solution to the twin problems of unrestrained foreign predation and the deepening domestic disorder was Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

A physician by training, Sun was a native of Canton, which was one of the hotbeds of foreign penetration, and resentment against the foreigners was particularly strong there. Also strong in Canton was a sense of Manchu impotence, the inability to maintain order given the presence of the predatory foreigners.

In the 1880s, at a time when the dowager empress was tightening her grip on the Manchu court and strangling the reform efforts of the Self-Strengtheners, Sun, then just a teenager, went abroad to study.

Learn more about the 100 Days of Reform.

International Influence on Sun Yat-sen

Sun first attended an Anglican missionary high school in Hawaii, which, at the time, was still a princely state. He later pursued a medical degree in Hong Kong, where he converted to Christianity in the mid-1880s. This was very fateful both for Sun, himself, and for his party, the Guomindang.

While living abroad, Sun was deeply impressed with the cleanliness, orderliness, and administrative efficiency of his host societies. During his residency in Hawaii, for example, Sun first became acquainted with American political ideas, the ideas of the Revolution and legal institutions, and the American educational philosophy of John Dewey.

After graduating from medical school, Sun practiced medicine for two years in Hong Kong and Macao. Returning to his native Canton in 1893, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the corruption and decadence displayed by the Manchu bureaucracy.

Sun Yat-sen’s Ambivalence

In this early stage of Sun Yat-sen’s political career, he was torn between conflicting reformist and revolutionary impulses. He was highly ambivalent. He was unsure if there was a need to destroy Chinese civilization or save it.

To help resolve this ambivalence, he traveled north to Beijing to seek the advice and counsel of Li Hongzhang, former commander of the anti-Taiping military forces, and one who led the Self-Strengthening Movement of the 1860s and ’70s.

Learn more about the dissolution of China’s empire.

Li Hongzhang and Sun Yat-sen

Photo of Li Hongzhang.
Li Hongzhang had led the Self-Strengthening Movement of the 1860s and ’70s. (Image: Russell & Sons/Public domain)

In the 1890s, Li Hongzhang was China’s foremost advocate of military modernization. His oversight of the Self-Strengthening Movement and his efforts to introduce modern ships, guns, and industrial infrastructure were very impressive to Sun Yat-sen. But like his mentor Zeng Guofan, Li believed that the key to restoring China’s national wealth and power was to copy barbarian technology in order to prevent further barbarian incursions.

When Sun Yat-sen tried to convince Li Hongzhang that the secret to the wealth and power of Western countries lay not in their battleships or cannons, but in their commitment to the full development of human talent and capability, the free exchange of commercial products, and the full utilization of the earth’s natural resources, Li simply ignored him.

And when Sun tried to persuade Li Hongzhang that free universal education and the study of Western law were necessary to reform the Chinese people and perfect their customs, Li refused even to grant him an audience.

Stung by this rebuff, Sun returned to Canton, where a year later, in 1894, he founded a radical anti-Manchu organization, called the ‘Revive China Society’ or Xingzhong Hui.

Common Questions about Imperial China giving way to Modern China

Q: What was missing in all the late 18th– and 19th-century insurrections in China?

What was missing in all the late 18th– and 19th-century insurrections was any effective linkage between rebel demands for such things as tax relief and retribution against rapacious landlords, on the one hand, and a coherent program for ridding China of foreign domination and restoring national pride and dignity, on the other.

Q: Why did Sun Yat-sen want the counsel of Li Hongzhang?

In the early stage of his political career, Sun Yat-sen was torn between conflicting reformist and revolutionary impulses. To help resolve this ambivalence, he wanted the advice and counsel of Li Hongzhang.

Q: According to Sun Yat-sen, what was necessary to reform the Chinese people?

According to Sun Yat-sen, free universal education and the study of Western law were necessary to reform the Chinese people.

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